Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

Almond Prequel: On the Collapse of Empire

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read about the plagues. Aaron’s encounter with Pharoah’s magicians is an interesting prequel to the plagues. There we read:

Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staves.(Exodus 7:10-12)

What is the significance of it being Aaron’s staff and not Moshe’s? What is the meaning of this prequel to the plagues?

Later in the book of Numbers we read that Aaron’s staff blooms into an almond branch (Numbers 17: 23). The almond tree is thought to grow very quickly. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, we learn that the rabbis thought that it took 21 days from the first bloom of the almond tree until it bore fruit (TJ Taanit 4:7). This period of 21 days corresponds to the time between the breaching of the wall in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Thus, there is a connection between the collapse of the Second Commonwealth and the almond tree.

With all of this in mind, what was the significance of Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh? Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaron was also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires.

As I have quoted a couple of times before, in a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion the new King of Egypt did not remember Yosef and enslaved the people out of fear. There we read:
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.( Exodus 1:10)
Is it possible to understand this in light of Justice Souter’s insight? Was there really a reason for Egypt to fear their enemies, let alone that the Israelites would join them? Maybe this tyrant only became king because he enslaved the Israelites.  Like Augustus and Trump, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, this new King came forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve their problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. As we see with the plagues, the destruction of Egypt is not because the Israelites joined a foreign invasion, rather the process of the plagues Egypt was destroyed from the inside out. Aaron presents his almond staff to express how Egypt will collapse. It is a cautionary tale. 

Of Herders, Gardeners, and Builders: The Gift of Shabbat

A few weeks ago in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams in which he dreams about how his family’s stars and bundles of wheat bow to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother, is that enough to make them want to enslave or even kill their brother? Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  Yosef’s  prediction of the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was not that their bundle of wheat needed to bow to his, it was that their lives of sheep herding needed to bow to his call for an agricultural wheat based society. In his dream Yosef was calling for a radical technological innovation. Yosef was saying that his brothers needed to put their childish things away and evolve.  They went after Yosef because he was calling for an end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. Shift happens.

I was thinking about it this week as we start the book of Shmot. Here we read:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef. And he said to his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Yisrael are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when a war befalls us, they also join themselves with our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pitom and Raamses. ( Exodus 1:8-11)

When they were literally the children of Yisrael they were shepherds. Despite the difficulties surrounding it Yosef forces them to settle down and become wheat farmers. This is the very thing that saves them and the world from the 7 year famine. A new king takes over Egypt who does not recall the great deeds of Yosef. In his fear of the nation of Yisrael the new king enslaves them. I cannot even imagine the transition from being free to becoming a slave. It is also noteworthy they also needed to transition from being an extended family to becoming a nation. They also needed to transition from being farmers to builders. This is a lot of transition from being shepherds, to farmers, to builders.

In our Torah portion as we see the emergence of Yisrael as a nation, it is easy to wax poetic about the days of our being simple farmers in the land of Canaan. This reminds me a of a stirring quote from Paulo Coelho. He wrote:

In life, a person can take one of two attitudes: to build or to plant. The builders might take years over their tasks, but one day, they finish what they’re doing. Then they find that they’re hemmed in by their own walls. Life loses its meaning when the building stops. Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the vicissitudes of the seasons, and they rarely rest. But unlike a building, a garden never stops growing. And while it requires the gardener’s constant attention, it also allows life for the gardener to be a great adventure. Gardeners always recognize each other, because they know that in the history of each plant lies the growth of the whole World. (Brida)

In the context of this quote it is easy to imagine the people of Yisrael in a double slavery. Not only were they slaves to the king of Egypt, they were slaves to being forced to give up gardening for building.

This narrative is the very context for the gift of Shabbat to a group of slaves. And today more than ever we need the gift of Shabbat. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. (The Sabbath)

Even if we have to become builders, we cannot only be builders. We must reinvest in our lives as gardeners. Shabbat is the time during which we as the Nation of Yisrael invest in the family of Yisrael with our families. With the gift of Shabbat we ensure that we continue to grow. Shabbat Shalom.


The Sound of Color

Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind, but these days a device attached to his head turns color into audible frequencies. Instead of seeing a world in grayscale, Harbisson can hear a symphony of color — and yes, even listen to faces and paintings. Check out this TED talk.

I was thinking about Neil Harbisson this week when reading VaYakelPikkudei, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And Moshe said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. God has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft—and to give directions. He and Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work—of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs. ( Exodus 35: 30-35)

Neil really helps us understand Bezalel’s and Oholiab’s “divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge” in the context of all of the colors. You can only imagine what the Tabernacle sounded like.

Golden Calf and Trump

In parshat Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion,  starts with God giving Moshe a few last commandments about how to lead the Israelites. Then it continues;

When the people saw that Moshe was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him. (Exodus 32:1)

Waiting to get the complexity of the Torah was too challenging for them. Masses of people never have the patience for nuance.

This is reminiscent of a talk given by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire he made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

I was was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from them. Like the Israelites in the Golden Calf Incident, as was the case with Rome for Augustus, I am worried about our republic. The people who voted for Trump invested in a demagogue who claimed he alone could solve their problems. There is a never a quick fix to a truly complex problem. And yes everyone knew that health care was this complex. What will we need to do to clean up from this mess? Trump has been up on the Hill for over 40 days. If he wants to clean up this mess he has to do it quickly. He alone can determine if he is going to be Moshe, Augustus, or a Golden Calf. Like the Golden Calf- Trump is a product of an ignorant and impatient group yearning to be heard. It only it was as easy as breaking a couple of Tablets to get them to shut up and listen for a moment.

Son of Splendor : Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the cloths of the priests in the Temple. What was the significance of these clothing? There we see it says he is dressed this way,, “ ​lkavod uLetiferet- for his honor and his splendor” ​ (Exodus 28:2). Living so long after the destruction of the Temple it is hard to make meaning out of all of these fancy clothes.

This week we are celebrating Yadid’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah. In preparation for this we had many conversations about this idea of honor. But to hear more on that you will need to listen to his Dvar Torah on Shabbat. Now I wanted to explore the idea of tiferet.

In preparation for Yadid’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah we brought him to a sofer to get his Tfillin. On the first visit he picked out the hand writing/penmanship he liked in the scrolls that will be in his Tfillin.  It was great to see Yadid make a choice about his own aesthetic of beauty- one translation of Tiferet. And then we went back a second time to the sofer for a fitting. And on this visit we got to talking about why the right strap on the head tfillin is longer then the left. Traditionally the right side represents  rachamim-compassion, where the left  side represents din-  judgement. The right is longer as a reminder to always be more compassionate.

Seeing Yadid put on this tfillin for the first time as a Bar Mitzvah at school I could imagine the fancy clothing of the priests in the Temple. Tiferet is the force that integrates the Sefira of Chesed (rachamim) and Gevurah (din).

Related image
As you see here Tiferet  is the balance between these two spheres. Yadid is very holy person with a deep sense of faith. Yadid is filled with a profound sense of compassion and a deep sense of what is right and wrong. Yadid gracefully finds the balance. Seeing him in his Tfillen I was filled with an overwhelming sense of  his ​splendor. I  am honored to be his abba and excited to see him emerge as a young adult. Mazel Tov Yadid.

Insecurity President : Insides, Outsides, and Terumah

As we see in Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, when our ancestors first built the ark that held the Tablets they were instructed to cover it with gold on the outside, and on the inside. (Exodus 25:11) Surely, a vessel that is meant to house the Ten Commandments should be adorned with gold on the outside, but why cover it with gold on the inside as well? This seems like a waste of gold.
On this topic  learn in the Talmud:
The verse states concerning the Ark: “From within and from without you shall cover it” (Exodus 25:11). Rava said: This alludes to the idea that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside, i.e., whose outward expression of righteousness is insincere, is not to be considered a Torah scholar. Abaye said, and some say it was Rabba bar Ulla who said: Not only is such a person not to be considered a Torah scholar, but he is called loathsome, as it is stated: “What then of one loathsome and foul, man who drinks iniquity like water” (Job 15:16). Although he drinks the Torah like water, since he sins, his Torah is considered iniquitous and this makes him loathsome and foul. (Yoma 72b)

I was thinking about this when reading a recent article indicating that President Trump has suggested that anti-Semitic threats across U.S. are coming from within Jewish community. He claimed that these treats and acts of terror are being done by Jews against Jews to make certain people ( his alt right base) look bad. This “false flag” claim is crazy, destructive, and deeply disturbing.
Obviously this claim like many other  things that Trump has claimed is simply a lie, but imagine for a second that were true. Even imaging this reminds me of situation that plays out with my children regularly.  Emunah, who is 7, cries to me that her brother called her stupid. I reply, ” Well, that is not nice, but are you stupid?” Emunah say, ” No”. I reply, ” Than who cares what he called you? Ignore him.” If her insides are not what he claims to be her outsides, who cares? If she knows who she is in a deep way she can deal with any  insecurity.
The forces of hatred in this country are stupid. If they look bad, it is not our fault. Their insides are just evil.  Despite all of his efforts to cover them and himself with gold, sadly Trump’s presidency is all about the emptiness of that inner box. Trump got his base behind him under promise of him being the security president. Trump alone was going to protect us from the international forces of evil. Trump alone was going to build a wall to secure our boarders from evil immigrants. Trump alone was going to round-up the “bad hombres” to secure us from within. And all of this is lie. What has he done to deal with these domestic security issues accept blame the victim?  Trump’s security issue is actually just his own personal security issue. Not everything is personal attack that needs him to take to twitter or worse the nuclear codes to strike back. Trump alone needs to deal with his insecurity issue.

Strangers Look Out for Strangers: Mishpatim and Trans Rights

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to empathize and care for other strangers.

I was thinking about this on Wednesday night when reading about the Trump administration’s withdrew of Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity. In a recent study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. The study suggested an association between the drop in teen suicide attempts and the implementation of same-sex marriage policies. Suicide is the ultimate expression of the feeling of being a stranger. While the study did not prove the drop in teen suicide attempts was caused by the implementation of same-sex marriage policies, it would seem that even the possibility that more open policies would drive down the number of people committing suicide would create a moral mandate to extend these policies.

As descendant of strangers I feel that it is our mandate to look out for people who are foreigners, be they not born to this country or to their birth sex.  Social conservatives love to talk about the primacy of life, it is strange in that they clearly do not mean it.

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