Archive for the '2.01 Shemot' Category

Baby Moana Baby Mosche

Ever morning for the last few months our two -year-old daughter Libi has gotten up and asked to watch Moana. The movie is set on a Polynesian island. The inhabitants worship the goddess Te Fiti, who brought life to the ocean, using a special stone. Maui, the shape-shifting demigod and master of sailing, steals the stone to give humanity the power of creation. However, when he steals the stone Te Fiti disintegrates, and Maui is attacked by Te Kā, a volcanic demon, losing both his magical giant fishhook and the stone to the depths. A millennium later, Moana, daughter of the island’s chief, is chosen by the ocean to return the stone to Te Fiti.  Years later, after Moana has grown older, a blight strikes the island, rotting the coconuts and dwindling the number of fish caught. Most of the movie is her finding Maui and coaxing him into helping her. In the end Moana plays a critical role in manipulating the water helping Maui return the magical stone to Te Fiti.

This was an enjoyable if not formulaic Disney instant classic. What is interesting about Libi’s wanting to see it all the time is that she is only interested in watching the beginning of the movie- or as she says, “Baby Moana, Baby Moana”.

The part that she likes most is when Moana is a curious little girl and goes to see the “scary” beach. There she follows a baby turtle and protects it so the turtle can return unharmed to the ocean. Once there the ocean magically coaxes her to go in by dividing drawing her further and further out until she actually sees the lost stone of Te Fiti. It is clear that baby Moana has an insatiable curiosity and a special connection with the ocean.

Seeing this scene made me think about the connections between baby Moana and baby Mosche. When we first meet Mosche  he saved from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter Batya. She “draws him out of the water” giving him the name Mosche. Like Moana his identity is connected to water. Like Moana, Mosche grows up as royalty and feels a deep need to save his people. Like Moana, the small act of protecting a defenseless animal ( substitute sheep for turtle here) is the sign that this child will grow up to be the savior. Like Moana, in order to save his people Mosche must get them to leave the comforts of the world they know in order to thrive. The most iconic parallel is the images from this scene which we see in reading B’Shalach , this week’s Torah portion. What a powerful image of the water splitting for Mosche and Moana? One could say it is just derivative, or we could enjoy the similarities of these stories pointing to the holiness in the commonality of our humanity.

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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 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.


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