Shabbat Shemot: A World Full of Suffering

We begin reading the Book of Exodus (Shemot, “Names”, in Hebrew) in the Torah this week; in the opening scenes, our ancestors find ourselves in a developing nightmare – and, unlike the dreams of Genesis, we can’t just wake up from it. 

At first, all seemed well in our new homes in Egypt. But within the bloom of our success were found the seeds of trouble.

  וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם.

The children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.

  וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף.

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.

  וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ:  הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ.

And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us;

  הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה, לוֹ:  פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי-תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם-הוּא עַל-שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם-בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן-הָאָרֶץ.

come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ (Exodus 1.7-10)

For generations, Jewish commentaries have focused upon verse 8: “a king who knew not Joseph” to explain what happened; the lack of memory not only of those in authority, but of our neighbors as well, obliterated the good will we used to know, and allowed evil to begin to grow. Thus we understood the ensuing enslavement of our people to be a result of narrow perspectives, short memories, and the age-old fear of “not enough to go around”. But we are still left with a troubling question: why is it that the new king assumes that there will be trouble? and why does he respond to his fear with oppression? 

“Why?” is not always a question so easily answered. But unless we ask it, and search for truth in the answers we find, the evil we face will not be faced down.

Why are French satirists murdered? why Jewish hostages? why Syrian refugees? 

What makes a man or woman capable of killing an innocent stranger? 

What madness is this, in this world of ours?

The Jewish people unfortunately developed a real expertise in the mystery of cruelty and evil. During the terrible years of Exile we faced mystifying murder again and again, and easy, facile, untrue answers such as “we must have done something to deserve it” satisfied only those who need any answer rather than face a terrifying mystery. 

The Jewish mystics developed a much more troubling answer. Who knows if it is true? but it has a ring of truth to it. It is taught in kabbalah that our world is made up of ten sefirot, ten characteristics or attributes, that echo through all we are and do; among them is that of hesed, loving kindness, and gevurah, strict judgment. 

Gevurah, the attribute of strict judgment, is the source of our courage and our ability to find strength to fight evil. But it is also taught that evil itself comes into the world through this attribute, when it is mistakenly – unjustly, cruelly – applied. Judgment without mercy, judgment without thought for the individual situation – this kind of judgment opens the door to evil in the world.

This teaching offers us a way to inquire after the evil in our world. What opened the door to it? what unjust judgment was passed, and when? For Jews, to inquire is to look into Torah and consider the challenges its teachings offer us. One of those is the doctrine that sin will reverberate for three, and even four, generations, before the pain of the evil created by that sin abates.

Then there is evil that seems to defy even this doctrine; inexplicable suffering, cutting innocent lives short, leaving us who are left to witness such evil wondering if the universe is, perhaps, after all, a cold, meaningless void.

To this the mystics offer a teaching that is a mix of despair and hope. We balance our lives and our relationships between different attributes, sometimes more kindness, sometimes more judgment, sometimes more wisdom, sometimes more endurance. Some of us tend more toward one characteristic or another, and that is our own private struggle for a lifetime; in the next lifetime, that of our offspring and students, that tendency will become part of their lives, and they will balance it in their own way. 

There is no answer to the why of such a personal tendency. There is another teaching without a why, a teaching that our universe is also a lifetime, that also tends toward one attribute or another. The universe before ours expressed one or another of the attributes above all the rest, and ours does as well.

Unfortunately, it is taught, our universe was born into Gevurah, and the doorway that lets evil in cannot be barred. We see evidence of inexplicable callousness, cruelty, and other forms of evil every day.

It will take all the kindness of which we are capable to meet this evil, and hope to balance it, sometimes, and to do what we can to push our world toward the next universe – whose name is Tiferet, Compassion. So on a day when you don’t understand why there is such evil in the world, know that your answer can only be this: to be even more kind, randomly, hopefully, stubbornly faithful to the truth that even if the universe is a void, it doesn’t matter. We have to help each other create meaning for our lives anyway. 

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Shabbat Mishpatim: Equality Before the Law – For All of Us

Last week in parashat Yitro we stood together at Sinai, and entered into the covenant with our G-d as a community, all equally necessary, equally precious. The text itself expresses this in unspecific language:

And Moses brought forth the people [et ha’am] out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. (Ex.19.17)

Et ha’am, “the people”, can as easily refer to the men, representing each household, as to all the adults, or even all the Israelites, of all ages and genders. It may also be fair to simply note that the Sinai experience was so overwhelming that it could not be communicated in detail. This is hinted at by the text itself, since we are only told of nine (or ten, depending upon your interpretation) laws incumbent upon Israelites through the Covenant relationship

The details of the laws are the subject of our parashah this week – the “fine print”, if you will, of the Covenant relationship. While you will not find in this parashah all 613 of the mitzvot as they are traditionally counted, there are fifty three, covering both moral and ritual obligations. The question we are left with from the Sinai account of the Covenant moment is this: if only the men stood at Sinai, then, as Judith Plaskow once famously observed, are only men Jews?

Not only is G-d in the details, as it has been said, but so, apparently, is our own identity. To whom do the laws apply? How? When?

When we compare what scholars call “a second Covenant ceremony” on the steppes of Moab in parashat Nitzavim, we find more explicit language to help us answer the question of who stands before G-d in Covenant relationship:

You are standing this day, all of you, before YHVH your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers – all the men of Israel; the little ones, women, strangers that are among you, even the wood choppers and the water drawers, to enter into the Covenant of YHVH your G-d, and into G-d’s oath, which YHVH your G-d makes with you today. (Deuteronomy 29.9)

Here, it is explicitly stated that all of us are counted; all of us count. Social class? an aside, gender and age? unimportant, elites and masses? all alike. This Covenant moment takes place, by the way, forty years after the Sinai moment.

It’s a growing, developing revelation. So is our own modern sense of community. It takes a while to realize that all social classes and all forms of humanity are equally created in G-d’s image. It takes a while, perhaps, for the men to realize that they can’t do it alone; it takes forty years of wandering to come to understand that we are all more alike than different, no matter what seems to separate us.

It is appropriate that we celebrate Equality Shabbat this week, along with all the Community of Welcoming Congregations in Oregon, because this week is all about the details of our Covenant with G-d and each other, details of mitzvot that demand the best we have from all of us, not just some of us acting on behalf of others of us.

We are neither at Sinai, in the first shock of the moment, nor at Nitzavim toward the end of the Torah’s narrative; we are in the middle, in the fine print, in the ongoing, confusing, foggy midst of a revelation that has not entirely unfolded. We are still learning what is true and right and righteous, from learning and from experience. From knowledge to understanding, and then, perhaps, to wisdom, as the mystical sefirot show us, is a long and uncertain road.

Equality Shabbat is our moment to recognize that, no matter what our tradition believed about women in the past, they do stand equally with men before G-d; no matter what we thought we knew, when we look at the Torah it does not say “all of you who are straight men” stand before G-d, nor even “all of you who are Israelites”, but all Jews, no matter gender, sexual orientation, age, or origin, stand together, nitzavim, as the text says, “firmly rooted” in our standing. It does not say that at the Sinai moment; there, we trembled and fell down. Only when we stand respectful of the image of G-d in each and all of us equally can we stand firmly.

For more of Rabbi Ariel’s teachings on the relevance of ancient sacred text to your life, get her book – available in paperback and on Kindle: Because All Is One