Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

Making Shabbat: Some Thoughts on Ki Tisa, Shabbat, and Relationships

Arguably Shabbat is one of the most significant gifts of the Jews. In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about additional aspects of the significance of this day of rest. There we read:

Speak to the Israelite people and say: nevertheless , you must keep My sabbath, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, La’asot et Hashabbatmaking the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed. ( Exodus 31:13-17)

Shabbat is a sign between God and the Jewish people and a means of our becoming holy. While one might want to focus on the death penalty for breaking the Shabbat, after a conversation with my deal friend Shalom Orzach I am more interested in the idea “La’asot et Hashabbatmaking the sabbath” ( Exodus 31:16). As I have discussed in the past in making the world God was making a place for us to exist. God rested on Shabbat from that work, so we could be together. Similarly by instructing us  to rest from our kind of work on Shabbat, we are invited to be the host for God in our lives. At  the core of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and Shabbat is a profound notion of hospitality. The logic seems to follow that the 39 categories of work that went into building the Tabernacle are the same varieties of Asiyahmaking things that are prohibited on Shabbat. While making things is what is prohibited on Shabbat ( evening meriting the death penalty) it is also what we are instructed to do -” le’asot- making Sbabbat. What does Asiyah mean?

I was thinking about this question when I got to thinking about  the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia in Perkei Avot . There we learn:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Aseh– Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.” (Avot 1:6)

What does it mean to make a  rabbi? Is that not the work of rabbinical schools? What is the nature of this Asiyah?  What is the connection between what God did to create the world, the creative activity we do six days a week that is prohibited to do make on Shabbat, what we do in making Shabbat itself, and do in making a Rabbi?

I think that an answer to all of this might be suggested in our Torah portion. Might it all be about making the sign between God and the people of Israel? Essential to all of these asiyot– makings is the forging of relationships.  According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia, how does this relationship we make with a rabbi compare to the relationship we acquire with a friend? It might be that in all of these relationships there is a respect, deference, and creation of limits. While this might be off-putting in that this variety of relationship comes with hierarchy, these moments of yielding to another  make a certain kind of kedusha– holiness in the world. The commandment to make Shabbat invites us to limit ourselves and make room in our lives for others and maybe even the Other. By seeing ourselves as a smaller part of something much larger we make a “covenant for all time.”

Shabbat Shalom

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The Practice in Hospitality : Terumah and Making Space for Others

As Torah portions go, this is a big week. In Terumah we start getting the blue print for the Tabernacle. If that was not significant enough, the Tabernacle is itself the blueprint for our experience of Shabbat. The 39 categories of work that went into building the Tabernacle are the same varieties of labor that are prohibited on Shabbat. So while I don’t assume that we will return to the cult of the tabernacle or ritual slaughter in the third Temple any time soon, Shabbat with all of its assorted rituals is a fixture of my life. Here in Terumah there is a clear plan for what will be built and made, but that is not where they start off this large-scale project. Rather, they start off with themselves. As we read:

‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.( Exodus 25:2)

While their gifts are going to fit into a very clear and focused plan, their gifts were from the heart. At the center of our national narrative is a collaborative non-profit project that celebrates the diverse offerings of every individual while working toward a common goal. And about this project God says:

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The text does not say “make this building so that I can dwell in it“- the Tabernacle, but rather in “them”. When building the Tabernacle we were building a place for God to be with us.  When we made space for God to be our guest we were transformed into the host and in so doing God was in us.

In making the world God, the Lord of Hosts, was making a place for us to be. God rested on Shabbat from that work, so we could be together with us God’s guests. Similarly by instructing us  to rest from our kind of work on Shabbat, we are invited to be the Host for God in our lives. At  the core of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and Shabbat is a profound notion of hospitality.

This fundamental notion of making space for guests brings us back to the advent of Judaism. There we see Avraham in his post-op discomfort standing in his tent vigilantly looking out for would-be guests. From the beginning being Jewish is less a disposition toward God and more about behaviors that make us open to others in our lives. Maybe if we made enough room for all of the people we would have enough room for God in our lives. In this sense Judaism is less of a faith and more of a practice in hospitality.

 

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Empathy

As anyone who ever reads my blog knows, I am a bit of hasid of Dr.Brené Brown. There is something she shared that I have been thinking about lately. She said, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”  I always assumed that empathy was a trait. What does it mean that empathy is a choice? Does that mean that it is more nurture than nature?

I was thinking about this question this week while reading Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). If the Torah wanted to it could just have instructed us not to wrong or oppress the stranger and left it at that. Instead it goes on to give us a rationale. We should not do wrong by the stranger because we  “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment seems to be a profound lesson in empathy.  The reason that we should not marginalize anyone else is because we ourselves endured a national experience of being strangers in a strange land.  In this way our collective  slavery is the foundation of our morality.

This mandate to look out for the stranger is not limited to this one commandment. We learn in the Ein Yaakov:

We are taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why does the Scripture in thirty-six, according to others in forty-six places, warn regarding strangers? Because his original character is bad [into which ill treatment might cause him to relapse].” Why is there added “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:20)? We are taught: Rabbi Nathan says: “Do not reproach your neighbor with a blemish which is also your own” (Ein Yaakov, Bava Metzia 4:12)

Be it 36 or 46 times it a rather pervasive and systemic message in the Torah to look out for those who might be marginalized. But what does it mean regarding our assumptions around human nature? I do not agree that we are bad from the start. That being said it seems that Rabbi Nathan thought that the best way to deal with this limitation is the commandment from this week’s Torah portion. By empathizing with the stranger we can uproot this flaw. Essentially Rabbi Nathan was saying that “those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Like Brené Brown’s lesson from above, we are commanded to be vulnerable and look inward if we hope to evoke empathy for others.

This reminds me of something that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson taught. He wrote:

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’

Be it a commandment or a choice the importance of looking out for the stranger seems pretty straight forward. The lesson plans or effort needed for becoming an empathetic person seem truly complex. This is hard work, but something we need now more than ever.

-See related post on the 36: The Laws of the Stranger

Which Story to Tell? : Yitro’s Help

As the line goes, ” It is not that I think the glass is half-empty, I see the glass half full, but of poison.” Often how we frame the situation actually becomes the situation. I was thinking about that again when looking at Yitro, this week’s Torah portion.

When Yitro shows up to reconnect with Moshe after the heroic exodus from Egypt he brings his wife and two sons. There we read:

Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel God’s people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe to the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God. (Exodus 18:1- 5 )

Why does the Torah take this moment to share with us the details of the meaning of the names of his two sons? As I have discussed in the past, Yitro is the consummate consultant. It is clear to me that Yitro did not just bring his family, but he put before Moshe a choice. Did Moshe want to tell the Gershom story or the Eliezer story? Gershom is a story of  being alienated, victimized, and marginalized. This is juxtaposed telling the story of Eliezer which is the story of being relationship with a God that helped them. While the Gershom story is one of scarcity the Eliezer story is one of abundance. Does this new nation want to live in fear or rejoice in the splendor of a special relationship with God? You might think that would make the choice easy to make, but it is not. The Eliezer story depends on a belief in things that cannot be seen and often feels out of reach. This is compared to the Gershom story which is sadly easy to access. Which story did Moshe want to tell?

Image result for fork in the road

More than ever we need to revisit Yitro’s guidance and advice. What story do we want to tell? Is being Jewish an articulation of being an “Anti- Anti-Antisemite” are or are we on a divine mission to help the world? Has any things changed after the shooting at the Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh? Has everything changed? Are we Gershom Jews or Eliezer Jews? Or do we need to make a new name for ourselves? All I know is that a good consultant would help us reflect on the fact that if we want this nation to move from surviving to thriving we need to decide which story we want to tell.

– Also see Consummate Consultant : The Essence of Exodus and Being a Good Consultant , On Organizational Coaching: Yitro Helps Us Start with Why. and  Work Life Balance: Lessons from Yitro

Thank You Brené Brown

Dear Brené Brown,

I have been meaning to write you a thank you note since my father James Joseph Orlow z”l passes away at the end of August. This past Shabbat when reading Beshalach, that week’s Torah portion, I realized that I really needed to write you. Yes I am an Orthodox Rabbi, so let me explain.

This Torah portion opens with Pharaoh finally relenting after the 10th plague and letting the Moshe and the Israelite slaves go free. After years in bondage in Egypt, that could have been the end of the drama between the nation of Israel and the Egyptians, but alas that was not the case. There we read:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them. The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon. (Exodus 14:5-9)

It is not the first time that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh”, but it surely was the last. This divine constraint compelled the leader of the world to drive his army to the ends of the world to return his slaves. His hardened heart lead him and his people to their deaths in the sea. While it is interesting to contemplate the nature of this compulsion I am more interested to imagine how Moshe interpreted Pharaoh’s actions.

While Moshe was the leader of this slave rebellion, he was also someone who grew up in Pharaoh’s home.  Moshe was someone who had conflicting loyalties. Was Moshe saddened to see his Egyptian friends suffer through the plagues because Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go? Did Moshe resent Pharaoh? How must it have felt  to see Pharaoh coming over the horizon with hundreds of chariots pursuing him and his people?  Did Moshe struggle with having to decide between the death of one or the other of his people? How did Moshe judge Pharaoh’s behavior?

Thinking about these questions I realized that you might have answered them with a simple question you asked in Rising Strong. There we read, “It got me thinking about the people I’ve been struggling with and judging. I asked myself – are they doing the best they can with the tools that they have?” God told Moshe and us the readers that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” so he and we could understand that Pharaoh was doing the best he could with the tools he had. I like to think that Moshe learned this lesson from you so that he would not judge Pharaoh. In this imagination I can also strive to have a positive attitude toward everyone.

So now I can get to the thank you note. The last time I saw my father I went to visit him to talk about getting better support in place for my ailing mother and help him think about shifting into semi-retirement. My mother has many health issues and at 82 it seemed as though it might be time for him to cut back at work. There were many times in that conversation that I found myself completely outraged by his obstinance. Over the day of talking with him there were many times that I almost lost it and wanted to scream at him. Instead of expressing my judgement of his pigheadedness I kept saying to myself, “He is doing the best can with the tools he has”. Repeating this mantra let me maintain an openness to the person he was instead of holding on to the futile imagination of the person I wanted him to be.

My father died three days later.  If it was not for your teaching I am certain that my last interaction with my father would not have been a good one.  I can only imagine the scars in my soul if my last interaction with my father would have been plagued by screaming and judgement. Your lesson softened my heart so I could come to grips with his stiffened heart. Your teaching helped me show up and allowed me to leave space for my father to be seen. I am forever indebted to you. I find your teachings profoundly liberating. Thank you. I wish you many blessings.

Sincerely,

Avi

 

Far From the Shallows: Nachshon and Our Love Affair with God

In BeShalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about splitting of the Red Sea. Caught between the sea and Pharaoh’s advancing chariots the Israelites cry to Moshe and to God.  In response Moshe tells the people not to worry; God will take care of everything. However, God does not seem to be happy with this, and essentially says to the people—and to Moshe—do not cry to me, do something. God’s position seems to be that God has been doing everything for the people up until this point, and now it is time for them to act ( Exodus 14:16-22). What does it take for the sea divide? What is the needed action?

According to the Gemara in Sotah the various tribes were arguing what to do and not doing anything. There we read:Then, in jumped the prince of Yehudah,Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first, accompanied by his entire tribe, as it is stated: “Ephraim surrounds Me with lies and the house of Israel with deceit, and Judah is yet wayward toward God [rad im El]” (Hosea 12:1), which is interpreted homiletically as: And Yehudah descended [rad] with God [im El]. (Sotah 37a)

Nahshon the prince of Yehudah took action and descended into to the Red Sea which caused it to split. The midrash elaborates on this image in a discssion of the line from Psalms regarding Yehudah making the people connect with the name of God ( Psalms 76:2). There we read:

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: When Israel was at the sea, the tribes were arguing with each other. One tribe said: ‘I will go down first [into the sea]’, and the other tribe said ‘I will go down first.’ Nachshon jumped first into the waves of the sea and went down, and on him David said, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck.” Said the Holy One of Blessing to Moshe: My beloved is sinking in the sea and you are praying?! ‘Tell the Israelites to get going!’(Ex. 14:15)”This is ‘E-lohim is known in Yehudah’ (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:5)

In this version it was not enough that Nachshon went into the water, he submerged himself in the water. God is known because of  this prince of Yehudah went “all-in”.

Yes, Nachshon is of the tribe of Yehudah, but what is the significance of Psalms proclaiming that Yehudah is the one who reconnects the Israelites to God?

The line of Yehudah goes from Nachshon to Boaz to David. Both Boaz and David lives are marked by deep romantic love. In the cases of Boaz with Ruth and David with Bathsheva we get a sense that it was love at first sight.

I was thinking about these themes while listening to the breakout single Shallows from a Star is Born. In this song the male protagonist invites the female on to the stage to share a song inspired by  their emerging love.

Lady Gaga’s character sings:

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Clearly she is talking about her falling in love. While she knows that there are risks involved in her going on stage she is throwing herself in to the relationship. And just like that a Star is born.

It is hard for me not to connect her words to Nachshon as he was submerged in the Red Sea. Similarly you can hear in her song Boaz’s love for Ruth and David’s falling for Batsheva. All three men of Yehudah help reconnect Israel to God. All four are modeling being vulnerable and open to love. We as a nation are saved when Nachshon goes past the shallows and reconnects us to God by being “all-in”. And just like that our star was born. Knowing the risks, I still wonder what would it take for any of us to enter into a passionate or even divine relationship?

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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