Let My People… Wait, What?

Of all of the thousands of things Moshe says in the Torah, his most line famous by far is, “Let my people go.” But when we look at the actual text of Exodus and read what Moshe says to Pharaoh, it surprising and complex:
Afterward Moshe and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:

‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness’… The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God…” (Exodus 5:1-3 )

Three days?! Why would Moshe ask for a three day holiday instead of liberation from slavery? Besides being an easier pill for Pharaoh to swallow, what could he have been thinking?

Have you ever tried something new, only to discover that you didn’t realize the full potential of what you were missing? Though I doubt the Israelites were enjoying their lives as slaves, it’s the only life they had ever known. No one but Moshe knew anything about a life of freedom. Before the Israelites had their first taste of actual freedom, Moshe understood the importance of helping them imagine what their new life would be like. Experiencing the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom would make it perfectly clear – their new life would be a utopia.

Anyone who has ever spent time at Jewish camp knows this to be true. Camp is truly a utopia – a place of ideal perfection. Camp is where many of us experience freedom on our own for the first time. After each summer, we return back to reality and wonder what life would be if we could spend every day of the year at camp with our friends laughing, singing, and dancing. But in reality, camp would not feel like the utopia it is if it were not for the ten other regular months of the year.

Jewish camp gave me that first taste of the way my life could be. This Passover, when I ask myself how am I doing at being the Moshe in my life, I think of how I can grant the gifts of camp – of freedom and discovery. This Passover, let’s all be grateful for the utopias we have in our lives.

-rereposted in FJC blog 

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The Plague of Dark Money

One of the most memorable elements of the Seder is the recounting of the Ten Plagues. While all of them represent a level of pain or discomfort for the Egyptians, clearly the Death of the First Born seems categorically different. I cannot imagine the horror of the death of a child.  While slavery is horrible, the death of an innocent child seems not only harsh, but also unjust. We respond to the severity of this through the ritual observance of the Fast of the First Born the day before the first Seder commemorating when God passed over our homes untouched by death. This plague overshadows ( pun intended) the penultimate Plague of Darkness. While it is an annoyance, it does not seem like the rest of the Ten Plagues. There in Exodus we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10: 21-23)

Egypt was paralyzed by terrifying fear and enveloped in thick darkness. In retrospect we can imagine their horror awaiting the death of their first-born children, but that was not the case. If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go after the 9th Plague there would not have been a 10th Plague. Rashi interpreted “darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) through following the midrash: “It was doubled and redoubled, and so thick that it was palpable.” This makes senses in that for darkness to be a plague like the rest it has to be tangible and impact the bodies of the Egyptians oppressors.

Thinking about the idea of darkness as tangible gets me thinking about Quantum mechanics. If it is possible that light can behave simultaneously as a particle and as a wave, is the same possible for the absence of light? What does it mean that the darkness was behaving as a thick, doubled, redoubled particle, or the absence of that? This is already way beyond my understanding of physics.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary Torah Temimah, offers us another way of understanding what was meant by this tangible darkness. There we read:

A darkness that can be touched—this indicates that those Egyptians who were standing could not sit down, and those who were sitting could not stand, because they were groping in the dark, as it is written: darkness that can be touched. The midrashim explain that the darkness was as thick as a dinar [a coin], and this is very strange, for what sense is there in giving a tangible dimension to darkness? This requires investigation also because, according to Rashi, throughout the duration of the plague there was only night and no day at all; therefore the order of the created world changed, but this is highly problematic insofar as the Holy One, blessed be God, promised Noah that “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). (Mekhilta Be-Shalah 4)

While it is interesting to explore the subversion of the natural order of things, that is true for all of the Ten Plagues. They are all miracles meant to demonstrates God’s power over Pharaoh. This is not unique to the Plague of Darkness. It is also interesting to ponder the implications of God’s uprooting of God’s promise to Noah, but that I will have to address in a future post. For now I am more interested in this language of the darkness being “thick as a dinar.” Instead of understanding it as a plague of literal darkness, what might it mean that their vision was obscured by money?

When I look around the world I see so many interesting cases where people get blinded by money. In this context, the most obvious parallel to the Plague of Darkness comes from Dark Money in American politics. Dark Money first entered politics with Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when the United States Supreme Court laid out Eight Magic Words that defined the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy. This ruling lifted the requirement for nonprofit organizations (e.g. social welfare, unions, and trade association groups) to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing from where the money came. The New York Times editorial board has opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”(Editorial, Dark Money Helped Win the SenateNew York Times. November 8, 2014). Dark Money’s influence in politics has only grown in the last 5 years. It is painful to see how people are convinced to vote against their self-interest. They are in the dark as to the very process of democracy. This is pernicious in that the electorate has no idea who is pulling the strings.

Money is not only a plague in politics, it is also an issue in philanthropy. For years there has been so much “groping in the dark” with the misbehavior of investors. The heavy demands to raise money for good causes has silenced victims of predatory behavior. The #metoo movement has done a great deal to shed some light here, but we are still not out of the dark.

So what was the Plague of Darkness for the Egyptians? They were slave masters who were blinded by their desire to keep the status quo of having slaves. The release of the Israelite slaves would have meant an upheaval of the Egyptian economy and way of life. As they were getting closer to inevitable emancipation, their blindness to the suffering of the Israelite slaves was itself the Plague of Darkness. As my dear friend Shalom Orzach pointed out, look at the end of the description: “no one could see anyone else”( Exodus 10:23). The cause was not darkness. The darkness was a result of their avarice that blinded them from seeing the mistreatment of others.

We learn a similar lesson from Proverbs. There we read:

Whoever loves money shall not be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Proverbs 5:9)

Avarice is a basic human problem. The love of money makes people blind to the wealth they already have. This blindness to the abundance in our lives can easily spread to how we look at people, power, sex, philanthropy, and politics. If we really could see the infinite potential of every human being in front of us, we could move beyond a culture of scarcity. But if we do not see our responsibility to work for the inalienable rights and basic human dignity of everyone, we are still living amidst a Plague of Darkness.

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Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We pause on Passover to reflect on how we might shine a light on the people, families, companies, organizations, communities, and nations we want to be. We should all be liberated from a plague of scarcity. Freedom is realizing that the blessing of love is free, it does not cost a thing.

Liberation from Lockdown

From Friday night Kiddush to the daily donning of Tfillin , we have rituals throughout the course of our a week and the entire year to remember our Exodus from Egypt.  The Seder goes a step beyond insisting that we remember the experience of slavery, the Hagaddah demands that “in each generation, each person is obligated lirot et atzmo, to see himself or herself, as though s/he  personally came forth from Egypt.” It is not enough simply to remember or even to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must imagine ourselves in the story in order personally to experience the move from slavery to liberation.  It seems nearly impossible to fulfill this commandment. It is hard to imagine what slavery looked like thousands of years ago, so what are we to do?

It seem that the best thing we can do is to connect with a contemporary experience of slavery in order to empathize with those who are being oppressed, and from there we can imagine our working toward our collective liberation. It seems like a noble idea, but how might I do that in a way that includes anyone from 8 to 80 years old at my Seder?

For me the gold standard for this is something my brother’s friend Jonny Garlick did at Seder a couple of years ago. Jonny is a Professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts, absolutely fascinating, and an amazing educator.  Jonny brought to our table two beakers of water. One was clear and filled with purified water. In the other he had yellow sticky water that was his students best approximation of the contaminated water coming out of the pipes in Flint Michigan.  With those two simple props he enjoined many generations to discuss the water crisis in Flint encrusted in the ritual of the day.

So as Shabbat HaGadol arrives I pause to think what will try to bring to life through ritual this year. I was thinking about this Jonny Garlick challenge when I got to thinking about the debate that my brother and I have every year regarding Sh’foch HaMatcha, opening the door for Elijah. We disagree if we should keep saying this at our Seder.  That debate always concludes that we should keep the ritual so we can have the debate the following year. For this and other reasons I am not interested in changing that, but I got to thinking about the moment right after this ritual when we close the door.

This year is our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacist went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. All of us, including our children, have had to become familiar with emergency lockdown protocols. The Parkland Shooting is still pretty fresh on our minds. Sadly we all need to know what to do in the case of an active shooter. In the case of a partial lockdown the doors leading outside are locked such that no person may enter or exit. In the case of a  full lockdown people must stay where they are and may not enter or exit a building or rooms within said building. If people are in a hallway, they should go to the nearest safe, enclosed room. When we lock the door after we open it for Elijah I want to let that moment linger for a minute.  After this I want to invite everyone to share their experience and how this makes us feel.

 

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Are we slaves to guns in this country? I appreciate that for a small group of people in this country understand that their freedom means an absence of subjection to despotic government, which is directly connected to their inalienable right to have guns. For a vast majority of us freedom means the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. We cannot allow the freedom of this fringe group, based on a the misreading of the Second Amendment, to impinge on the freedom of the majority of us. One person’s right to have a gun cannot outweigh the demand for public safety. None of us should be slaves in lockdown. What would it take to liberate us the from the grips of the NRA?

-Check out Full of It: Rethinking the Second Amendment

-Check out The Beaker of Privilege: A New Seder Ritual

Lavan the Aramean: Our Seder and the Origins of White Supremacy

Every year in the traditional Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative if not normal?

I have thought about this question for years, but it takes on a whole new level of meaning on this our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Long before Robert Gregory Bowers, Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan.

The spike in acts of hate speech and even hate crime against Jews over the last two years has made me ask the question about origin of Antisemitism. Why is there such a long history of people hating us? Where did that all start? That search brought me back to the Torah portion of Chaye Sara. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ran: Why did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is an obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance in the text Lavan is simply Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface based on his assumptions this does not seem so horrible. This is actually endearing and would not remotely make him an Antisemite, let alone the paradigm of it in our history.

And then I got to thinking about the meaning of his name. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

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Months ago my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are genetically related to White Europeasn just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi interpretation of Lavan, these Whites Supremacists are also in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and these rabbis’ reading of Lavan’s introduction might argue that hatred and violence could be painted as legitimate or even virtuous even if founded on bad information and a lack of desire to engage the “other”. And worse we see that White Supremacy origins might just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

As we get ready for Seder we should prepare to confront the Lavan of the Seder. What rituals and conversations will we have at our Seder to inspire us to confront White Supremacy today? Passover is not just celebration of our “freedom from” (e.g. reclining), but also our “freedom to” (e.g. opening our homes to guests). We desperately need now more than ever the Seder, itself as a ritual, that models the primacy of questions in engaging with different worldviews. We should be liberated to experience empathy of the “other”. We need to remember that even if we do not agree or get along, from its origins, like Rivka and Lavan, we are still family and we should strive to understand each other.

Between Tzara’at and Acne

In Tazria, this week’s Torah portion, we read about various forms of biblical ritual impurity. For much of this portion and next week’s portion of Metzora we read about what happens when a person had swelling, rash, discoloration, scaly affection, inflammation, or burn. It was to be reported to the priest, who was to examine it to determine whether the person was clean or unclean. This skin disease (צָּרַעַתtzara’at) is incorrectly translated as “leprosy”.

This disease appears other places in the Torah. First we see it as a tool to help Moshe to convince others that God had sent him to get them out of Egypt. God instructed Moshe to put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, his hand was m’tzora’at- as white as snow. (Exodus 4:6). Later on we learn that after Miriam spoke against Moshe, God’s cloud removed from the Tent of Meeting and “Miriam was m’tzora’at as white as snow” (Numbers 12:10). While it seems that tzara’at lacks context in Tazria and Metzora, what meaning can we make of it in the the context of the cases of Exodus and Numbers?

For Moshe tzara’at represented a symbol of God’s unique control of the natural world. If God could change flesh white, surely God could force Pharoah’s hand to let the Israelites to leave Egypt. For Miriam tzara’at seemed to be a supernatural punishment for her speaking bad of her brother.  At first blush there does not seem to be any connection. On further exploration it seems that there is a connection between their outcomes. For Moshe tzara’at was a means of communicating and bringing about their Exodus. For Miriam tzara’at was the consequence that symbolized her temporary exile. On a fundamental level tzara’at is connected to notions of exodus, exclusion, and shame.  When do we want to leave, when we do not want to be sent out, and what is the shame associated with not being where you want to be.

I was thinking about all of this this week when Yadid went to his first dermatologist appointment. He is 15 years old,  in the thick of teen hormone storm. and dealing with the acne that comes with it.  While neither of us have never experienced tzara’at, my son and I have had plenty of skin blemishes between us. With each zit, cyst, or scab I have had discomfort on one level and social stigma on another. With Tazria and Metzora I am brought back to my 15 year old self with a big zit in the middle of my face. At the same time I wanted to be included in ( Miriam) and liberated from ( Mosche) any and every social environment.  We should all be freed from shame.

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When Falling Becomes Failing: On Mindset and Shemini

I am always in middle of about a half a dozen writing project. One of the persisting projects has been looking at  Dr. Carol Dweck‘s Mindset through a Torah lens. While her research has come under attack, I still think it is a wonderful book in which she uses her research in psychology to outlines two typological mindsets. Mindsets are beliefs  about yourself and your most basic qualities. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a Fixed Mindset believe that their traits are just given. People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Below you can see a great graphic explanation of these two mindsets:

It is increasingly unclear whether attempts to change students’ mindsets about their abilities have any positive effect on their learning at all. In a recent blog, Dweck defended her work and noted that growth mindset theory ‘is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house’. In fact, Dweck argues that her work has been misunderstood and misapplied in a range of ways. She has also expressed concerns that her theories are being misappropriated in schools by being conflated with the self-esteem movement: ‘The thing that keeps me up at night is that some educators are turning mindset into the new self-esteem, which is to make kids feel good about any effort they put in, whether they learn or not. But for me the growth mindset is a tool for learning and improvement. It’s not just a vehicle for making children feel good.’

In her defense, just because parents and educators might adopt her language of mindsets, it does not mean that they are doing the work needed to actually create environments the support Growth Mindsets. Dweck said in an interview in 2015, “We’re finding that many parents endorse a growth mindset, but they still respond to their children’s errors, setbacks or failures as though they’re damaging and harmful… If they show anxiety or over-concern, those kids are going toward a more fixed mindset.” Like many other things, a compelling description lost its efficacy when it was turned into a prescription. And even as a description, I do find her typologies helpful.

As anyone who has been around a child learning to walk knows, we all start off knowing that falling is not failing. We are all born with a Growth Mindset and then we learn to have a Fixed Mindset. I was thinking about this when reading Shemini, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire-pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord. ( Leviticus 10:1-2)

Whether their offering of “strange fire” was idolatrous or just their being creative or playful, their immediate death made it clear that in this situation falling was failing. For all of us success and failure need to be clearly defined if we hope to achieve it.  The new research it saying that it is not clear that we can transform someone from a Fixed Mindset to a Growth Mindset. It is also not clear if that effort will itself lead to success. That said, I do think that such a harsh response to falling would not encourage anyone to seek challenge in order to grow.  While a critical reading would claim that God was acting as a horrible parent, a more charitable reading would claim that God is setting out the exception which is demonstrating the rule. Falling is not allowed in the Tabernacle or Temple, but it has to tolerated if not celebrated everywhere else in that we are still learning to walk.

Also read:

 

Woven into the Fabric: Tzav and the Jewish Calendar

I look back on almost 10 years of writing this blog and I realize that have basically ignored Tzav, this week’s Torah portion, every year. It is probably because it gets lost in the Purim shuffle. One thing that caught my eye this year reading Tzav was the a description of the priestly garments. There we read:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: ‘Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments, and the anointing oil, and the bullock of the sin-offering, and the two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and you should assemble all the congregation at the door of the tent of meeting.’ ( Leviticus 8:1-3)

On this Rashi comments that it was seven days before the erection of the Mishkan which itself happened on the first of Nissan. That would put it at the 23rd of Adar in the period between Purim and Passover. What is the significance of this happening during this period of time?

It seems that we wear costumes on Purim to imitate Esther. She got her position of power by masking her identity. Ultimately she revealed her hidden identity and saved herself and her people. A month after Purim is Passover. It is interesting to note the Midrash as to why we were worthy of being redeemed from Egypt. There we read:

Another interpretation: “And there they became a nation” – this teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’. They were identified and known as a separate nation, apart from the Egyptians. (Minor Pesikta, Devarim (Ki Tavo) 41a )

Where in the Megilah Esther saved her people by hiding and then revealed her identity, in Egypt we were redeemed specifically because we kept our public identity including our clothes. Our redemption starts with Esther’s revelation of unmasked self, goes to redemption of our ancestors who were advertising their identity with their clothing in Egypt, and then 50 days later on Shavuot we commemorate God as it were taking off God’s mask and reveal God’s self to us at Sinai.

Amidst this cycle we have the priests getting dressed. Like Esther they get their position of power by masking their personal identity. In many ways their garments made them who they were to the people. Like the Israelites in Egypt the priests in their garments were an iconic representation of Jewish identity. It is also through the cult of the Temple that the people would experience the unmasked presence of God as we did on Shavuot.

It turns out the Tzav is not lost behind Purim, it is just woven into the fabric of this longer cycle involving clothing, redemption ,and revelation.

 


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