Archive for the '2.01 Shemot' Category

The Secret Life of Moshe II : Shemot and Purim

Can you keep a secret?

As I written about before, I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on this week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moshe and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moshe as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moshe grows up with his secret secure.

Moshe’s identity seems  safely hidden until one day when he sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moshe is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moshe intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moshe leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moshe’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moshe had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him. But if his secret identity as an Israelite male would have been known he also would have been killed.

This seems to be resonant with the story of Purim.  Like Moshe, Esther has a secret identity of being Jewish at a time when the Jewish people are going to be killed. Like Moshe’s connection to Yocheved, some how she and Mordecai  the court Jew carry on their relationship without anyone knowing her identity. Esther maintains this secret even after she reveals the secret plot to kill the king in the name of her uncle.  The main difference between the two stories seems to be the role of God. In Moshe’s story when his secret comes to light his role is to share the secret of God with the people.  In the story of Purim the climax comes when Esther reveals her secret identity to the King, but if God has a role in the story, that remains a secret. There is still more to be explored as to the role of secrets in the Torah.

– Reprieve of an older post on Moshe and His Life of Secrets

Repugnant Cycle

In VaEra, next week’s Torah portion, we read about the beginning of the Ten Plagues. I want to focus on the first two; the water turning into blood and the proliferation of the frogs. In both cases, the Torah informs us that there was an odor. In regard to the first plague we read, “The fish-life that was in the River died and the River became foul” (Exodus 7:21) and in regard to the frogs we read, “They piled them up in heaps and heaps, and the land stank” (Exodus 8:10). The emancipation of the Israelites could have happened in many different ways. It seems that Egypt suffered the plagues to teach them, if not us, the readers, something about the horrors of slavery. What can be learned from these smells?

The Midrash explains that Egypt was punished with this odor, measure for measure, for how repugnant they found the Israelites (Exodus Rabbah 10:10). Did the Israelites smell bad? At the end of Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, Moses came to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load they came to complain to Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. After the decree their perception of themselves became a reality.  It seems that the last straw was not the limited supply of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive.  They felt worthless and smelly.

But, maybe there is another way to see the Midrash that explains that the odor is measure for measure. Back in the stories in Genesis we read about when Rebecca helped Jacob steel the blessing from Esau. There we read:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.”So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esau, and he blessed him. And he said, “Are you [indeed] my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”And he said, “Serve [it] to me that I may eat of the game of my son, so that my soul will bless you.” And he served him, and he ate, and he brought him wine, and he drank.And his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! ( Genesis 27:21-27)

Isaac is blind, but not stupid. We get a sense from the text that he knows that something is off. This is not Esau. It is as if he is Little Red Ridding Hood trying to figure out where her grandmother is, Isaac is trying to figure out if this is Esau or Jacob.  Jacob is unable to imitate Esau’s voice, but between the costume, feel of his hands, food, and drink he passes for Esau.  In a simple reading it was his smell that convinced Isaac.

Jacob stole the blessing by deceiving with smell, before the Israelites are worthy of redemption from Egypt their odor is exposed. The Israelites are shamed measure for measure.  In turn the Egyptians are shamed measure for measure. When people speak negatively about us, we are embarrassed. What have they exposed about us? What has been exposed about themselves?  What starts with the desire for blessing and affirmation expands out to cycle of shame and violence. There are powerful lessons here about the cycle of bullying- it does not smell very good.

– This post is linked to others on synesthesia

Revolutionary Growth

It was a real pleasure attending the URJ Bienial last week. While I am not quite ready to make aliyah to Reform Judaism, I have to admit that I am taken by Rabbi Rick Jacob’s ideal of audacious hospitality.  The Reform community is strong and under Rabbi Jacob’s direction they are moving in a great direction. It was exciting seeing over five thousand people unapologetically  together taking on the Jewish future. Being there I got a sense that they all understand their collective mission to manifest the welcoming tent of Avraham and Sarah. One of the most impressive aspects of Rabbi Jacob’s leadership has been his marshaling of serious resources behind the Campaign for Jewish Youth. One of the main agenda items taken up by this campaign has been Rabbi Bradley Solmsen’s B’nai Mitzah Revolution. At the Biennial I got to learn more about the revolution. They shared some of the innovations they are taking nationally in terms of refitting this coming of age ceremony for the 21st Century family. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to check out this website.

I was thinking about this revolution when looking at Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. The Levite child is saved from the river by Batya, Pharoah’s Daughter. She gets his biological mother to nurse him. After this we read:

And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out to his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. ( Exodus 2:10-11)

On this, Rashi points out the redundancy of saying that he grew up twice. The simple meaning is that the first growth was Moses being weened and the second is his coming of age. Interesting enough that is not the answer that Rashi brings. Instead he quotes the midrash:

Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai said the first mention of growth is in terms of his physical stature and the second mention of growth is in terms of attainment of rank as Pharaoh appointed him over his household. ( Tanchuma Yashan Va’eira 17)

For Rashi, this growing up happens later in life. According to Rashi, Moses comes of age in growing physically and later comes of age with his responsibilities. It is clear to me that today, more than ever, our children are not grown up when they become a bar or bat mitzvah. While I truly appreciate the need to rethink what is B’nai Mitvah, might we just say that becoming 12 or 13 is not the right time? While we might claim that our children are physically grown in some ways, they are clearly not yet the age of being responsible or having achieved any rank. This ritual cannot carry the burden of a Jewish future. ( I encourage you to read another post on this topic.) Thinking about this imagination of Moses taking over Pharaoh’s household, might I suggest another revolution?

What would it look like for us to have a Wedding Revolution? A few months ago I responded to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, who was pushing the Conservative community to rethink their stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I wanted to share. Rabbi Cosgrove’s sentiment was echoed in Rabbi Jacob’s call for audacious hospitality. Why marginalize people who want join our community? Let’s get them in the door through the coming of age ceremony of getting married and then worry about converting or not converting.

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

So here is the revolutionary idea. Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts in order to get married? I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  But this new mandate would deal with the sexism and the experience that anyone is being excluded. It is just the part of the new wedding ceremony. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment? Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency and in turn its own revolution.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. The part I most enjoyed about Rabbi Jacob’s keynote address was his articulating that Reform is not less authentic then Chabad or any other form of Jewish life. I would assume that every branch of Jewish life will have their own assumptions about defining an authentic conversion, but why not recreate the new wedding/conversion to conform to these values regardless of gender or lineage. And do not claim that it is too hard. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and making a Jewish household is worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance. Blind to their gender or lineage they would go through this process. Surely getting married is a more logical time to claim that someone is ” grown up” and ready to attain the rank as co-head of a household.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative and Reform Judaism also presents Orthodox Jews a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy a  humra – religious stringency, that will benefit the the entire Jewish community. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs. Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Audacious hospitality deserves more audacious revolutions.

Super Moses

This week we start the book of Shmot. We are introduced to Moses, the hero of the rest of the Torah. Every year when reading this story I am taken in by the fact that the story of his origin is just so universal. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the hero has a thousand faces, in the end they are all the same people. Or are they the same? Do the vaious masks speak to the unique culture frame. Does the story of Moses in the Tanach frame for us a unique notion of heroism? This came home to me when I saw this amazing TED talk. Please watch:

What stories we are choosing to tell today? Who are our heroes? Will we ever go to get to the point where we can truly enjoy our similarities and celebrate our differences?   And most importantly can we have fun making it relevant to our children. Kol HaKavod, Naif Al-Mutawa. You are one of my heroes.

No Narrative No Nomos

Early in my own religious evolution I was swayed toward Orthodoxy by their a critique of Reform Judaism. It seemed artificial to separate ritual from moral law. In my experience keeping Shabbat itself made me a moral human being. How could one be judged separately? While I understood that people might not see any relevance in Jewish law in general, the line between these two areas of law seemed arbitrary. One would not need to make-believe that it was Judaism. There was no shame in being moral secular humanist. A Halachic mind  sees ritual life as an integrated context for moral living. This approach cultivated people to respond to the world systematically and habituated its adherents to behave justly. In retrospect I can see over time my own views grew in nuance. In general and now with all of the horrible religious coercion going on in Israel more than ever I would not make that claim for Orthodox Jews, but I  still would make the claim for those committed to living according to Halacha ( And yes for those following at home they are not the same).

As time went on and I spent more time in yeshivah, I was overcome by the what I found there. How many times did we skip through an aggadic section in the Gemara in pursuit of the Halachic section? The same people who lodged the above mentioned critique perpetrated the same division in their own lives.  Just like the Reformers, the Roshei Yeshiva (and most of Chazal) had trouble realizing that within learning these aggadot we are creating meaningful context for the law. Without these laws we lose boundaries; without the stories we lose direction.

At the start of Genesis Rashi asks why the story of the Bible starts with the creation of the world. Why not start with the first Law given to the Jewish people? So too, one might ask the question by the start of Exodus. Why not start the book of Exodus off with Parshat Bo, when we read “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim  – this month is to you the head (first) of the months.”(Exodus 12:1) It is clear that  in the case of the entire book of Genesis and the start of Exodus, we need a context for the law. Or in the terms set out by Robert Cover, we cannot have the nomos removed from the narrative.

Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. Rituals are themselves an enactment of stories over time. In this way stories are the pillars of our society. That being true, it is troubling to realize how difficult it is for us all regardless of religious affiliation to realize this truism. If we forget our law or our lore we will not endure in making our collective contribution to the world.

A Gooder Dream

In the Torah reading a couple of weeks ago we learned of the two dream of Joseph’s youth. One was a dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing to one. The other was of the stars and the moon bowing to one star. It was clearly experienced by all as the run away ego of spoiled child. How could they the elder brothers bow to this pisher?

Dreams continue to play a central role in Joseph’s life. By interpreting the dreams of the butcher and wine steward correctly he eventually gets the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams. Interpreting these correctly leads to saving the known world from 7 years of famine. It was at this time that Joseph reunites with his brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food. They clearly have no idea that the stand in front of their brother Joseph. It seems that we are forced to sit through a long drama of Joseph wanting to live out his two dreams and have them all bow to him.

In Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Moses. When is born and before he is named we learn “Ki Tov hu- because he was good” (Exodus 2:2) On this Rashi comments that the goodness referred to when he was born the entire house becoming filled with light. Rashi was referencing  Sotah12a which assumes that Moses Hebrew name was something like Tuv or Tuvia. There the Talmud plays with the reference of Moses being tov– good – with the idea expressed in creation “And God saw the light that was tov- good” (Genesis 1:4).  Moses potential was depicted as  unlimited so he was depicted as a primordial supernova, our rising star.

It seems that Moses and Joseph are very similar. Both saved their people from physical peril.  Joseph from the famine and Moses from slavery. But unlike Joseph, Moses went on to give the people the Torah at Sinai and bring them to ( if not into) the Land of Israel. It is clear that Joseph and his brothers did act out the dream of the wheat, they came to him to get food and be saved from the famine. But is it not possible that Joseph misinterpreted his second dream? This second dream might have been referring to all of the tribes bowing to Moses, the light of both a physical and metaphysical redemption.

The New Testament depicts Jesus saying “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4) It seems that  Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah is in conversation with this idea when he said, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21).  Neither just the physical or just the spiritual redemption are sufficient, both are critical and necessary. While Joseph provided the flour ( dream of the wheat), Moses provided the flour( matzoh) and the Torah ( revelation). And in this sense Moses was truly tov- good. Or maybe we are all just still struggling to live out the dream of living with the physical and spiritual redemption in the Land. That is a wonderful dream. As my four-year-old son Yishama says, “Wouldn’t that be gooder?”

The Secret Life of Moses

Can you keep a secret?

I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on last week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other then Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moses and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moses as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moses grows up with his secret secure.

His identity seems  safely hidden until one day when Moses sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moses is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moses intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moses leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moses’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moses had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him.

Moses was born and raised in a secret. He leaves his birth place for fear of his secrets being revealed. Soon after God reveals God’s self to Moses God charges Moses to get the people out of slavery, bring them to receive the Torah, and bring them into the land of Israel. Moses responds, “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) While on the simple level he wants to know on what authority he will get Pharaoh to release the slaves, on another level Moses really just wants to know who he is. Moses’s whole life is a secret.  And how will Moses share the secret to the people? God responds, “I AM THAT I AM” (Exodus 3:14)  As if God is Russian behavior as described by Winston Churchill, ” a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Moses is similarly a Matrushka doll of secrets.  He has lived with secrets and really needs to share. It is appropriate that this man of mystery is the one who is uniquely equipped to reveal the secret of the Torah with the Israelite people.

– I hope to develop this theme in the next few weeks. I would love your ideas on the topic. Please do share them.


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