Friday, January 19, 2018

Parashat Bo and Panicked Haste

A few years ago I committed to reading all of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s available commentary for each week. I paced myself as best I could to get through a chapter a week from The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, and Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. She has two other books which I have perused but I don’t think I have read them in their entirety. One is a “biography of Moses” that was published within the last couple of years, after the year I had undertaken to reading her commentaries for each week’s parasha. The other is a book on Biblical Unconscious and draws out different stories from throughout the Tanakh and doesn’t follow a particular chronology, so I simply haven’t gotten around to reading some of those chapters yet. I’m still waiting anxiously for her to write books on Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Her writing is dense, full of references that range from psychoanalytic to ancient Midrash to classic works of arts and literature. It’s hard to read and brain-breaking and completely amazing.
There have been two chapters of hers that have sat with me and thoroughly changed the way I read Torah. One is a chapter on Genesis 2. Ironically, this is not from her book on Genesis but a stand-alone chapter about the Expulsion from Eden that appears in her book on Biblical Unconscious. The other is her chapter from The Particulars of Rapture written for this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo. I was struck by her observation of the “ungainly haste” of the Exodus, and this term has been completely stuck in my head since. For some reason, this year in particular, I cannot seem to think of anything else as I look through the Torah portion. In this chapter, Zornberg argues, with the help of traditional midrash, of course, that the Israelite slaves of Egypt were free at night. After the 10th plage, the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh commands them to get out of his country. But their first act of freedom is to ignore the plea of Pharaoh to hurry up and leave. They leave in the morning.
This parasha tells of the last three plagues and the tension is thick in the text as the Israelites prepare for the moment of their escape. As the tenth plague draws near, God tells the people Israel to sacrifice the paschal lamb, to put the blood on their doorposts so that God knows to pass over those homes as the Angel of Death goes through the land slaughtering the first born. Then, God tells the people to eat the roasted meat, along with the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, and to do so in haste. Before night has even fallen, let alone before day has broken and the moment for hasty leave has arrived, God is commanding that these actions be done in haste. Matzah is not an accidental symbol of haste, a mistaken food created because the people left so quickly they did not have time to make leavened snacks for the road. Matzah is intentional, the haste is intentional. Rashi adds connotations of panic to his translation of the word “בחפזון” (haste).
In explaning to her readers the drawn out night of waiting and testing that precedes the Exodus, Zornberg establishes for us the “tableau of leaving, exodus,” a “tableau of release,” and a “tableau of readiness-to-leave.” In short, she paints a picture of the Israelite people biding their panicked time through the night, poised to leave at first light, quivering in darkness and their own silence as they hear the cries of anguish from the Egyptian households. They are ready to go all along, but wait in anticipation of this pre-planned panicked haste.
According to Zornberg, there are three moments in the narrative “when panic haste was central: one was at night – referred to as chipazon deMitzrayim [the haste of Egypt] – and was informed by the terrified pressure of the Egyptians on the Israelites to leave the country; while [another] was the following day – referred to as chipazon deYisrael [the haste of Israel] – the urgent flight of the Israelites by day.” The third is the “chipazon of God’s Presence.” In the narrative itself, it is visualized in the “leaping” (“bechipazon/ufasachti”- “in panic haste/I shall leap”) of the Passover story. Zornberg translates the verb pesicha (notice the connection to the noun pesach) to leap, adding a frenetic energy, a panic haste already to the movement of God, as distinct from our usual interpretation of “to pass over”. Combined with God’s own admission of “bechipazon”, we have a very strong illustration of God’s own wait and hurry narrative.
            Zornberg says the effect of all these strands of the intentional panic haste narrative is to “postpone, till after the Splitting of the Sea, any sense of complete freedom.” I would argue a slightly more nuanced rephrasing. Although it does delay the sense of complete freedom until after the deaths of the Egyptians, I don’t see it as the holding back of freedom, as I read her commentary as suggesting. I read more of a sense of stages of freedom. A people oppressed for generations, they find themselves freed from one master, paradoxically, as Zornberg points out, only at the commandment of a new master. This new master has told them to remain until morning, so that even as the old master urges them out of his land, they timidly test the waters of their new affiliation to God rather than Pharaoh by staying put. One act of liberation against their old, cruel enslaver. As morning breaks, they burst forth, gather the spoils of Egypt and march out of the land of their oppression. A second act of liberation from their wretched lives as slaves. After the Israelites have safely made it across the sea, the waters rush in on the Egyptians, washing away any concern that the Israelites might face repercussions for their acts of defiance to Pharaoh or for their “borrowing” of the jewels and precious metals of Egypt. A final act of liberation. At which point, of course, the people are fully free to start whining about wanting to go back to Egypt and fear that God will be an even more hateful master than Pharaoh was.
“And when your children ask, What do you mean by this rite? You shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to God, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:26). The commemoration of the Passover is to remember the paschal lamb that offered protection from the Angel of Death. But the Passover as a whole is also a reminder about the stages of freedom and our responsibility to uphold them. When the African slaves were freed in the United States, it took another hundred years to desegregate. Fifty years after that, we are still fighting for equality for all everyone. It is an unacceptably slow process that comes in stages. When the time comes that the nation, government, society as a whole is ready for change, those who are interested in fighting for it charge forward, with a panic haste, despite having been ready for this change all along. When the strong hand of forces unseen come down, they are forced to pause, hold back, tip toe slowly toward the next step, until another flash point flares up so that they can charge forward again. It’s really a bad system, but apparently one that humanity has been working with for thousands of years. The purpose of retelling our own people’s liberation stories year after year is to remind ourselves of the importance of our freedom. What the cost is for liberation. And how we must help others achieve theirs.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Parashat Va'Era & MLK Weekend

In just a few months, we will read from our Passover Haggadah four promises to go with each of the four cups of wine throughout the seder: “God spoke to Moses and said to him …‘Say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and (1) I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, (2) I will rid you from the from their slavery, and (3) I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and (4) I will take you to me for a people and I will be to you a God’” (Exodus 6:5-7).
This passage comes from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va’Eira, in which there is one more promise: “And I will bring you into the land, concerning which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Exodus 6:8). The Haggadah doesn’t include this line, and the Seder doesn’t talk much about the destination of this Exodus. The passage in the parasha is being related to Moses to tell to the people of Israel enslaved in Egypt, but God will not bring Moses nor the generation of bondage into the land. The Torah ends with a new generation on the precipice and Moses dying overlooking a land he may never enter. Why does the Torah and the Haggadah leave us hanging like this?
Perhaps that is because, spiritually speaking, we are still in the wilderness. There is still bondage in this world. God still hears the groaning of the oppressed, and waits for a generation that is truly ready to be free. But, as the poem in our prayer book says, there is no way to get from slavery to liberation except by joining hands and marching together.
On this today’s episode of Judaism Unbound, Yitz Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a leader in pluralistic Judaism points out that there are three inherent truths in understanding that “all people are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God,” which is a bedrock of Jewish worldview. Another important foundation is that God is infinite. If God is infinite and humans are each made in the image of God, than every image of God is unique, and every unique human is an equal representation of the Divine, not in spite of their individuality but precisely because of it. The full diversity of humanity is what makes us all a reflection of the Divine. Each of us alone reflects only one aspect, but it takes all of us together on equal footing to paint the full picture of God’s image. And lastly, that because it takes each of us in our individuality to make up the full array of God’s representations here on Earth, each human has infinite worth. From Moses the fearless leader to every lowly Hebrew slave, every life is sacred to God and worth saving from the bondage of slavery. Every life made hard by years of oppression is worth taking on innumerable further risks to liberate in the hopes that one day, all people might be free, might truly be treated equally, might truly be honored as an image of Divinity.
This weekend, as we mark the birthdate of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember his legacy and honor it by continuing to fight for the equality and inherent worth of every human life. The Reverend Doctor was a man who knew how to stand up against Pharaohs, face down plagues, and march toward freedom. He knew how to speak to a people with an anguished spirit due to their cruel treatment. 

And just as Moses had Aaron and Miriam and Nachshon, Martin had Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and countless other leaders who helped drive the movement forward in different ways. With many efforts and voices, civil rights movement brought long overdue change and brought this country much closer to equality than it had ever been before, just as the Israelites transformed from an enslaved collection of tribes to a free people. But, just as the people who will leave Egypt in next week’s parasha will be unable to complete their journey into the Promised Land, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s could not fix all of the racial and economic injustices in this country. These are changes too great, too difficult for one generation to endeavor entirely alone. It will take a new generation to carry on the work and continue to strive for liberation and equality for every person created b’tzelem Elohim.
That is why our prayer book says we are eternally in Egypt, that there is always more work to be done to bring us into a Holy Land. That is why our Torah ends with Deuteronomy and not with Joshua. That is why our Haggadah leaves out the fifth promise of this week’s parasha. We must not get complacent or too reliant on God alone to fix the affairs of humans. We must not turn away from injustices or threats just because they seem to not impact us. We must be ready to work together, to defend each other, to hold hands and march forward toward justice and liberation for everyone. And may we find freedom and dignity for all.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Parashat Shemot - Leadership

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemot, the first of the book of Exodus. It chronicles a lot of the beginning of the Exodus story, from the rise of a Pharoah who remembers not what Joseph did for Egypt, to the birth of Moses, to his escape into Midian after killing an Egyptian slavemaster, to the burning bush and his triumphant return to Egypt to “Let [his] people go”, and many other details and strange sidestories in between.
For the last few weeks, I have been a part of a team of teachers at the Jewish day school in which I teach to structure an interdisciplinary theme to weave throughout the middle school curricula, started next year and building for at least the next three years. After mapping out the curricula we currently have, at least from the teachers and subjects participating on this team, we settled on reinforcing themes of Leadership across disciplines and throughout the school year. At our most recent meeting this week, we were brainstorming on what exactly we mean by leadership or which leadership qualities we want the students to learn and emulate. During this brainstorming session, someone threw out the name of Moses as an example.
And of course, he is; I am not disparaging that contribution to the brainstorming. But why? What about Moses is what we want to have our younger generations learn from? Each of the Patriarchs, as well as Joseph and some of his brothers, also surely showed leadership qualities. The matriarchs have lessons to teach us to be strong and empowered leaders too. What is it about Moses’s leadership in his role that allows us still to this day to uphold him as the paragon of good leadership?
No really, I’m asking you. Take a moment to talk amongst yourselves. Comment below your thoughts on the matter.
    You good? Have some ideas of your own on the matter? You shared them with me yet? Good. Now, try this on for size. A Midrash from Exodus Rabbah shares precisely why and how God chose Moses for his special role for the Jewish people. It suggests that it was Moses’s abilities as a shepherd that drew God’s attention, and it draws this parallel also with King David, who was also a good shepherd and devoted farm-boy before being anointed king. The Torah tells us that after Moses ran away from Egypt, he found refuge in the Midianite camps, tending to his father-in-law, Jethro’s, sheep. The Midrash Rabbah invents a story that one day while tending these sheep, one lamb ran off. Moses chased it until he found it resting in a shady area drinking some water. From this, Moses caringly murmurs to the lamb the way one might talk to their beloved pet that he sees now that the lamb ran off because it was so tired and thirsty, and after the lamb drinks up, Moses carries the lamb on his shoulders back to the rest of the flock.
    The Torah is unclear about whether Moses knew he was an Israelite before the revelation at the Burning Bush. It tells us the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her son figured out immediately upon drawing him out of the river that he was a Hebrew. It tells us one day he went out from his place of privilege and comfort to look upon the burdens of his brothers. But whether “his brothers” is his own understanding or the Torah narrator’s communication to us the reader is unclear. It throws some shadow onto his reaction to the oppression and violence he sees or his interference into the infighting between two slaves if his empathy for their plight is only because of how close to it he personally feels, as a fellow Hebrew.
    But when he gets to Midian and saves Midianite women he does not know from some cruel caravan travellers, we begin to see the depth of his caring for others, with whom he has no connection. He is not a woman or a Midianite, and he has never laid eyes on these women before. But he sees their suffering and moves to relieve it. So too with the sheep, not even human or subject to the same kind of abuse or cruelty, he recognizes the lamb’s struggles and rises to meet its needs. When God tells him through the burning bush that he must return to Egypt to confront Pharoah and free the Israelites, he first asks, “Who am I?” After relenting against his humilty and agreeing to be God’s sacred vessel on Earth, he still refuses to go immediately without first talking with his father-in-law, the owen of the sheep he is herding, and ensure that all loose ends of his current responsibilities are tied up before he leaves them behind to pursue new ones. These are signs of a strong leader.
    In later parashiyot, we will see more of Moses’s commanding side, his lessons in delegation, and other signs of greater depth and nuance to his leadership style, which will all be useful in teaching future generations how to be a good, moral, effective, and well-rounded leader. But what better place to start than with compassion and empathy, gratitude and responsibility, and humility and accountability?
    As we start our new Sefer of Torah, a new year in the Gregorian calendar, and embark forward in our own life journeys, let us all learn from and teach to our children the leadership qualities of Moses in this week’s Torah portion. This world could use a little more of use all caring for others, whether we feel related to their plight or not, and a shared sense of responsibility for one another. If we all reached out a little further and extended help to someone new, like Moses does, think how far reaching each small action could quickly become. Before you know it, we could liberate a whole new people out of their narrow places.
    May this be our blessing for 2018. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Happy Almost New Year! Parashat Vayechi

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayechi, in which we read that “The days drew near for Israel to die” (Genesis 47:29). Jacob gives his sons and two of his grandsons (he just never learns to stop with that overt favoritism) blessings and requests that he be buried in the Cave of Machpelah with his parents and grandparents and with Leah.
The great gladiator-turned-esteemed-rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said of the beginning of this parasha, “The days of the righteous die, but they do not die. It does not say, ‘Israel drew near to die’ but that ‘the days of Israel drew near to die’” (Midrash Rabbah). We learn from the that the spirit of the righteous and their good deeds linger, even after their earthly days have passed by.
As we approach the new year, and the days of 2017 draw near to closing, what will linger and come into 2018 with us, and what will pass by? What deeds of righteousness have we accomplished in this year, and what earthly mistakes have we made? Of course, as Jews, our new year and our season of repentance and renewal happened already just a few months ago. But as modern Westerners, we live so much of our lives by the Gregorian calendar, and it’s worth taking stock of our lives and actions at any opportune moment. I’m not big on “New Years Resolutions” per se, but as we cross the threshold of one year to the next, let us take the time to reflect on our choices and deeds.
If 2017 were our last year on Earth, would Reish Lakish’s commentary apply to us? If not, what can we commit to for 2018 that it may be true in a year’s time? What can we accomplish as ordinary people to earn the title of “righteous”, to know that our legacy will outlive us and that our name and deeds will live on forever? Of course, there is no one right answer. Each of us must make our own choices. Each of us must decide what is possible for our personal circumstances, what is right for our personal morals, what makes the most sense for our personal lives. For example, I personally would not choose to show the overt favoritism that righteous Jacob shows for Rachel, Joseph, and Joseph’s sons right up until the day he dies, leaving his other children to still fear Joseph’s potential narcissism and wrath once their father is gone. But Jacob made that choice and was still considered righteous, and Joseph did let go of his narcissism and wrath, and all the children of Jacob managed to live out their days in Goshen in relative peace and family harmony.
So it worked out alright for that family. You need to decide for yourself what will work out best for yours. Transitions in life, in year cycles, moments of reflection, are key opportunities to reassess and make these decisions anew. As the days of 2017 draw near to their end, may you be blessed with righteousness and family harmony. Amen and Happy New Year.