Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

From Entitlement to Enlightenment: The Plague of Living Beyond Our Means

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we build toward the climax of the exodus from Egypt with the last of the ten plagues. There we read:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his friend and every woman of her friend, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.”(Exodus 11: 2).

Why would God have the Israelite slaves take resources from the Egyptians? From one side we see this as completion of what was foreshadowed by and promised to Avraham in his sojourning in Egypt. From another side we see this as giving them the resources that they would need to build the tabernacle in the desert. On an even simpler level we can see this as some form of restitution for their lives of servitude. But why does have them “asking” for it?

The ninth of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt was the plague of Darkness. There we read:

No person could see his brother, nor could any person rise from his place, for three days; but for the children of Israel, there was light in all their dwellings.”(Exodus 10:23)

What were the Children of Israel doing while the Egyptians languished in the darkness? Here the Midrash answers that the darkness provided an opportunity for the Israelites to circulate in Egyptian homes to determine the location of the valuables that they would later borrow. When Jews later asked to borrow these items, Egyptians could not deny owning them because the Jews would point to where they were hidden. (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:4)

Today it feels that we are all similarly in the dark when it comes to the rising cost of Jewish living. How might we move forward?It seems paralyzing thinking paying for our children to have excellent Jewish experiences. While we have no trouble talking about those in our community who wealthy or poor, for a vast majority of us that are in the middle class it seems there is nothing to say. In many respects it seems that the middle class of committed Jews are plagued by shame and silence.

I do not think we can assume that any of us deserve Jewish life being given to us. There is no doubt that we will be struggling for years because of the unintended consequences of major philanthropists giving away large ticket Jewish experiences for free. In some ways the future of Jewish life is being held ransom to “free” Jewish life.

How might we switch from this entitlement to enlightenment?

In many ways it seems that we are creating amazing experiences to attract people to Jewish life that people who are committed to Jewish life cannot afford. We are adding many bells an whistles that price the middle class out of being consumers. As a thought experiment I wanted to suggestion an approach inspired by the Midrash quoted above. What would it look like to do an accounting of what we can all afford ( our gold) and only build experiences based on that? We would not have it all ( the tabernacle) , but we would be liberated to live within our means.

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Guns, Germs, and Torah: Diamond and VaEra

One of my favorite writers is Jared Diamond. I find his unique vantage point of anthropology and history sheds such interesting understanding our human condition. I think I have read every book he has written.I was introduced to his writing through his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.Image result for guns germs and steel quote domesticated animals

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences. There he wrote:

Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and balanced biological package for intensive food production. That package comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, with 20—25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main protein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent’s first farmers came to meet humanity’s basic economic needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport. (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies)

I was thinking about the importance of domestic animals in human history when reading about the fifth plague in VaEra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

The Lord said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.
For if you refuse to let them go, and continue to hold them, then the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock in the fields—the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep—with a very severe pestilence. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites. The Lord has fixed the time: tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.’” And the Lord did so the next day: all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not a beast died. (Exodus 9:1–6)

Here we see the central role that domesticated animals play in the life of their society.

The story of Yosef is the story of the emergence of Egypt as a wheat super power in the Fertile Crescent. The fifth plague is the story of the reorganizing of the power of the Fertile Crescent around domestic animals. Ultimately this led to their Israelites liberation from slavery and Egypt’s collapse at Red Sea ( read transportation here).

For Diamond the critical components for advancing as a society are having carbohydrates, proteins, fats, clothing, traction, and transport. It seems that the Torah supports this hypothesis. The only difference seems to be that our society also demands a purpose in order to advance. The Israelites are not liberated to just be free from servitude, but our civilization it driven by our purpose of being free to get the Torah Sinai in order to serve God.  In this context it seems that Diamond gives us a whole new read to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching, ” If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. ” (Avot 3:17)

A Ploce to Call Home

In this week’s Torah portion Moshe meets God and God instructed him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. At this point Moshe asks God what seems to be a logical question.  What should I call you? And then God replies in an enigmatic way. There we read:

Moshe said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”( Exodus 3:13-14)

So what does “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” mean? We tend to translate it as “I am that I am”. So what does that mean? “I am that I am” is a ploce, the repetition of a word or phrase to gain special emphasis or to indicate an extension of meaning. 

In digging deeper into this question I found myself exploring the word ploce. The uncommon English rhetorical term ploce comes via Late Latin plocē from Greek plokḗ, a noun with many meanings: “twining, twisting, braid; complication (of a dramatic plot); construction (of a syllogism); web, web of deceit; (in biology) histological structure; (in rhetoric) repetition of the same word in close succession in a slightly different sense or for emphasis” (e.g., “A man should act like a man”). Greek plokḗ comes from the verb plékein “to weave, braid, twine,” from the Proto-Indo-European root plek-plok-, source of Latin plicāre “to fold, bend, roll, twine” and the combining form -plex, used in forming numerals (equivalent to English -fold). The Proto-Indo-European neuter nounploksom becomes flahsam in Germanic and flax in English. In Slavic (Polish),plek- forms the verb pleść “to plait, weave.”

The name of God that will redeem the Israelites from Egypt is manifold. This repetition seems to imply that the God of the Torah is a God of being, but limited to the land of Egypt. Where HaMakom – God’s name being the place might be limited, they will be redeemed by the God of the ploce of being. The Ploce will help them find a new place to call home.

Shabbat in Person: Present of Presence

In Vayekel Pikkudei, this week’s Torah portion,we read that Moshe  assembles the people of Israel and tells them the details of what is needed to build the Tabernacle. The rest of the portion discusses all of the giving and the artisans who set out to build the tabernacle. But before Moshe talks about the Tabernacle he reiterates the commandment to observe the Shabbat. There we read:

And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.’  ( Exodus 35:1-3)

In the Gemara in Shabbat this juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the Tabernacle is the root of 39 types of work used in making the tabernacle are categories of prohibited behavior on Shabbat. On another level , what is the connection between building the Tabernacle, Shabbat, and assembling people?

We also learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed…Who revives the dead. (Berakhot 58b)

In that the absence of a friend is tantamount to their death there is a clear value of connecting with people in person. In many ways Tabernacle was a place for us to connect “in person” with God. Likewise Shabbat is a chance for us to be in God’s presence.  That might be too hard to really connect with for most of us, so at least Shabbat should be a time for us to connect face to face with each other. In an era in which most of our relationships are filtered though electronic screens Shabbat is a real present of presence.

-Similar message in Technology Shabbat by Tiffany Shlain

 

Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Speech for Tetzaveh and Purim

This week marks the first anniversary of Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. It is hard to believe that he is about to be 14 years old and in a few short month he will be off to high school.  To mark this moment I wanted to share the Dvar Torah Yadid gave at the ceremony he had at our synagogue.

When I was in Toronto, for my cousin Eliyahu’s Bar Mitzvah, our friends the Horowitz’s suggested I go to a high quality, low cost tailor nearby. I went to the tailor and I tried on a couple of suits. While wearing the suits I felt like a king. I started thinking about how clothes affect how people are seen and see themselves. My sister, Emi, can be intensely focused on her clothes and has said, “ Clothes is life”.  While I was learning with Rabbi Marder I had a thought that clothing has a role in helping people connect with the the idea of majesty. But how? You might ask.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the Bigdei Kehuna. Part of the Bigdei Kehuna is a vest that is turquoise- Techelet, gold and purple (Exodus 28:6-8). Like the blue color of a hyperlink linking web pages the Techelet connects the Cohan’s clothing to the Techelet  in our ancestor’s tzitzit, eventually to G-d’s  Kisei Hakavod– saphire heavenly throne. Now we see that our ancestors looked at the Bigdei Kehuna and saw a representative of God in heaven.

What does it mean to represent God? In regard to this I wanted to share  an interesting piece by Kafka. He wrote, ” The emperor of the imperial sun sent a messenger out with an important message; a strong indefatigable man running through the crowd. Every time the messenger met resistance he would point at his breast which bore the sign of the sun- the king’s symbol and people would get out of his way ( Emperor of China).

Maybe this is why my Abba is always getting on my case about wearing tzitzit?

So when our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol they saw a representative of God. If that is how our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol, how did the Kohen Gadol see himself?

We read in Tetzaveh that the Kohanim were dressed like this because, “ l’kavod uLetriferet” (Exodus 28:2). Meaning they were dressed up for honor and splendor. But whose honor and whose splendor? Who? The Kohanim, God, or even B’nai’ Israel? The answer is, likely, that it was for all three. The Kohanim are singled out and special. How could they not see themselves as special sporting the tekhelet and the special robes?

The symbolism of clothing, and its connection to both honor and position, is very much present in this week’s Haftorah as well. King Saul has failed to carry out G-d’s instructions and the Prophet Samuel announces that HaShem has now rejected Saul as king. Samuel turns away to leave and Saul grabs Samuel’s tunic, ripping it. In response to that Samuel said just like this, “HaShem has ripped the kingship of Israel away from you today.”  Here we see that the  clothing carries the full symbolism of the role.

In the words of the Bard, “Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man” (Hamlet). Saul admits to his wrong doing, then begs Samuel to not embarrass him in front of the elders of the people. He pleads Kabdeni– for his honor.  We hear the root Kavod here, echoing the use in the description of the Kohen’s clothing, “l’kavod ultifaret” and G-d’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne.  Saul is not worried about how he represents God’s honor, only how his honor is perceived by B’nai Israel. Unlike in this week’s parasha,Torah portion, when the Kohanim are serving God to honor God, Saul, having lost God’s favor, is not focused on how he represents God as the king. Rather, Saul is more concerned with how being king represents him in front of the people.  Sad for Saul.

Interestingly we see a similar discussion in Megillat Esther which I will be reading tomorrow at my Bar Mitzvah ( Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah was celebrated the next day on Purim). Achashverosh wakes up in the middle of the night and he has the book of chronicles read to him. It is brought to his attention that Mordecai saved his life and was never recognized or rewarded for this. Achashverosh asks Haman: “מַה לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הַמֶּלֶךְ חָפֵץ בִּיקָרוֹ- What he should do  “to honor someone the king wants to honor” ( This was according to Onkelos’ translation of  yakar as kavod )?  Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s clothes, wear the king’s crown and be paraded around Shushan on the king’s horse. The king agrees – well, sort off.  He says that Mordechai should be led around with the king’s clothes and the king’s horse. Notably, he excludes the crown. By Haman’s asking for the crown and the king excluding the crown we can see that both Haman and Achashverosh see the crown not just as another accessory of his outfit, but wearing the crown has symbolic value which means that the person donning the crown is king.  The clothing themselves imply something royal, and that crown seals the deal.

So, what connects our three texts? And how do they help our understanding of the concept of honor? In the Megillah, on a superficial way honor can be worn, but it is much harder to actually  attain. In the haftorah, we learn that even if one is stripped of kingship, one should not be stripped of honor.  There is a baseline of honor due to everyone, even someone who has failed God. In Tetzaveh, the clothing is there for honor as well, but it less so to demand respect as to a king then to inspire a connection to the King.

The berachah, blessing, for seeing a king is Shechalak Mikvodo lebasar v’dam– that G-d has shared some of his honor with flesh and blood. When you see a king you should honor them- give them kavodI can imagine at the moment of my being faced with a real life King- l’kavod uLetriferet with all of their pomp and circumstance I would be overwhelmed. The very nature of taking this moment to make a beracha to God reframes the experience. Like our ancestors, we can double click on the Techelet from the Bigdei Kehunah and be taken to an image of God’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne. The honor due to do a King is but a helek, a part, of God’s infinite honor.

It is true that we are all created B’Tzelem Elochim, in the image of God, and when we see a King we get a chance to see a magnified version God’s majesty.  This blessing gives us a way to give a flesh and blood king the proper respect regardless of their imperfection. This is like what we learn from Samuel. It also reminds us never to be fooled like Haman and Achashverosh into thinking  that majesty is as simple as wearing a crown. But how do we make sense of this blessing in light of the Megillah and in our world in which God is often hidden from view? As we will read in the Megillah tonight this corrupt world view leads to thinking that people can be bought and sold with no respect of their divine nature. Perhaps this is why we dress up in costume on Purim. In the absence of perceived God we can project an ideal that clothes might inspire us to seek out God and dress ourselves in the moral fabric that ensures that we treat everyone with respect and honor.

And when I stand here today in my Bar Mitzvah suit, I feel a little majestic. My family and friends are here from all over the world to celebrate me. But I take this moment to realized that clothes should inspire us to emulate something greater not make us think we are greater.

Thank you Rabbi Marder for helping me with my speech, thank you everyone for joining me for this coronation of sorts. Thank you Abba and Mami for helping me with troupe, planning and more, and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down and helping me see myself for what I can be with or without a majestic suit. Shabbat Shalom and have a majestic Purim.

I am still so proud of my majestic son.

Gratitude for the Hungry Dogs: Mishpatim and the Eagles

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.( Exodus 22:30)

On this Rashi comments:

Why does the Torah say “to the dogs” ? Because the Holy One, blessed is God, does not withhold the reward of any creature, as it is said: “But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue” (Exod. 11:7). Said the Holy One, blessed is God, “Give it its reward.” [ Mechilta]

The Torah is telling us that we should show gratitude. Just as we hope that God will not let our good deeds go unrewarded, we show gratitude by giving forbidden meat to the dog.

I am moved to express gratitude for the Eagles and the people of Philadelphia. This past Sunday with their grit and determination they  taught us all that “hungry dogs run faster”. No one believed in them and yet they won. It is lovely seeing them get their just reward.

Image result for hungry dogs are faster eagles

And as I reflect back on the last few weeks watching my Facebook feed I realize I have been moved by a virtual sense of community. I was touched seeing all of my childhood friends from Philadelphia who now live all over the world having a real experience of galus from the town in which we were raised. We share much nachas from this “Philly Special” victory.

 

Image result for philly special t shirt

Blood on Our Hands

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moses) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of this blood?

An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Yosef and his brothers.

Originally, Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Yosef’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuven said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).

In the case of Yosef’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at times.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Yosef’s blood is on our hands for generations. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for looking out for people who are marginalized. Even today it is easy for us to hide behind a law, but without DACA innocent people’s lives will be destroyed. To fix this we might need to get my hands dirty.


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