Archive for the '2.01 Shemot' Category



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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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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