Archive for the '2.03 Bo' Category

Black and White: Another Take on Wearing Tefilin in Public

Being over six feet tall it is no wonder that I hate traveling by plane, it seems that my legs are just too long. Being that tall and ritually observant does make traveling in the early part of the day interesting. Just this week I had to take six AM out of LGA to ORD. On these such occasions I find myself having to get my Jew on in public. For me that was next to the United help desk in Chicago. There is really nothing quite like having to suit up with my tallis and tefilin in flagrante in the terminal or even worse on a plane. While I might attract extra attention to my underpants with my head covering, my tefilin actually look like I am strapping a bomb to my arm and head.  What is my commitment to these rituals?

While I usually experience wearing tefilin with a deep sense of pride in our tradition, in the context of this week’s portion and recent events, it might actually be a little more complex. At the end of Bo,  this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And it happened when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, that God killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I offer to God all male first issue of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons. And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand God removed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:15-16)

While they might ground a plane for my putting on tefilin, it seems that God is the terrorist killing all of the firstborns. What is the cost of our rituals? Did others need to be harmed for our nationalistic expression or religious freedom? I realize that most observant Jews take putting on tefilin for granted. We pray and often live amongst our own. We have  forgotten the significance of this symbol. It takes leaving our own little world to realize the meaning of content and context of our inner ritual lives.

This past week marked the celebration of the memory of  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the occasion Adina and I went out this past Saturday night to watch Selma.  MLK taught the world the importance of seeing beyond the superficiality of race. In his unforgettable words, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is a sad truth that most observant Jews spend more time worrying that our tfilin are completely black then the racial inequality in this country. We have missed the forest for the trees. We have gone along with the narrative that the commitment to wear tefilin means you are an Orthodox Jew and the commitment to doing social justice means you are a Reform Jew. For all Jews the daily ritual of tefilin reminds us of our opportunities and responsibilities to help those who are less fortunate. We all have a responsibility in having been freed from slavery to work for liberation for all. I do not feel shame in wearing tefilin in public. I  wear my tefilin with pride, it creates accountability.

– See a similar piece on wearing a Kippah and a related one to this post on tefilin

Collapse of Egypt

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the penultimate plague of darkness. There we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. ( Exodus 10: 21-23)

What was the purpose of three days of darkness? One of Rashi’s explanations of  this darkness is:

The Israelites searched [the Egyptians’ dwellings during the darkness] and saw their [own] belongings. When they were leaving [Egypt] and asked [for some of their things], and they [the Egyptians] said, “We have nothing,” he [the Israelite] would say to him, “I saw it in your house, and it is in such and such a place.” (Rashi on Exodus 10:22)

So while darkness brings to light the economic retribution, there were other ways that God could have disclosed the location of the Israelite property. God could have just told them where. Is there another meaning of this darkness beyond jump starting the first Claims Conference?

Being in the depth of winter makes it easier to relate to the plague of darkness. This experience of  winter reminds me of a wonderful Gemara  in Avoda Zara. There we learn:

Our Rabbis taught: When Adam HaRishon– the  primordial man-saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps [this is happening] because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world’s course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. (Avoda Zara 8a)

The world was not ending because he had eaten from the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge.  His hypothesis made sense. Adam was told that, “you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shalt surely die.” ( Genesis 2: 17) Despite having eaten of its fruit he did not die right away. Maybe his life and life itself was slowly coming to an end. Instead he was experiencing the winter shortening of days for the first time. Adam had a fantastic hypothesis which was proven false after the winter equinox. It is impossible to read this Gemara outside of a primordial origin of the Chanukkah story, but might this have any relevance to understanding the plague of darkness in Egypt?

After the first exodus from Egypt Avraham (who was also leaving with a great amount of wealth) had a falling out with Lot. In pursuit of peace Avraham decided that they needed to split up and he gave Lot a choice of which property Lot would take. There we read:

And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you go to Zoar. (Genesis 13:10)

Besides the opulence and amount of water from the river, in what ways was Egypt like the “Garden of the Lord”? This I do not know. But if the land of Egypt was like the Garden of Eden how might we understand the meaning of this plague of darkness? Well it is interesting to reflect on the human beings after Adam ate of the עֵץ  הַדַּעַת – Tree of Knowledge. There is no going back. The crises in Egypt was brought about by “new king over Egypt, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע-who knew not  Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8)  For Adam the sin of eating caused knowing and for Pharaoh the sin was trying to “un-know” the gift of Yosef.

Adam finds out he will not die on that day. The impact of the sin is less of a punishment and more of a consequence. The darkness is not his death or the end of the world, but it does spell the end of his time in the “Garden of the the Lord”.  In light of this it seems that the plagues are Moshe’s attempt to remind Pharoah of what he “knows” to be true. The Egyptians have enslaved and decimated the descendents of Yosef, their savior. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond writes, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he is unable to listen to Moshe. The darkness of the 9th plague foreshadows the decline of Egyptian society. Diamond writes:

Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes [of the various societies’ histories] towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values. On reflection we can also recognize the crucial role of these same two choices for the outcomes of our individual lives.

The plague of darkness is one of Pharaoh’s last chances to succeed. Will he test his hypothesis and reconsider he approach like Adam? Instead of thinking of the long-term plans for his society and their place in the larger world, Pharaoh pursues his Israelite slaves and plunges his society into the sea. The darkness brings to light Pharaoh’s resolve to maintain his hypothesis despite any evidence. We all need to reflect on how we are often blinded by the things we “know” to be true.

Climate Proof

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, before the 10th plague and Israelite exodus from Egypt we read about the Korban Pesach. There we read:

3 Speak to the entire congregation of Israel, saying: In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; 4 and if the household be too little for a lamb, then he and his next-door-neighbor shall take one according to the number of the souls; according to every man’s eating you shall make your count for the lamb. ( Exodus 12: 3-4)

Why did they do this ritual at this moment? The sacrifice has come to be understood as the yearly commemoration of our emergency exodus from Egypt, but this clearly happened before we left.

On one level it can be interpreted as an act of defiance and commitment. There are those who understood that the Egyptians saw the lamb as a deity. Killing the image of the Egyptian God would be a point of no return. This action spoke of the Israelite commitment to leave. On another level this helps us understand the power of ritual itself. The Korban Pesach is not a memory of our leaving, but rather what we did before we left.  Where the Matzah speaks of our not being ready to leave, this sacrifice speaks of our preparation for leaving. It forced them to organize themselves in eating units.

In a recent article in the New Yorker Eric Klinenberg wrote about how after Hurricane Sandy governments are working on ‘climate proofing’ cities are upgrading ‘lifeline systems’.  Some of the effort are high-tech (power, transit) and some lower intensity, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them. In light of this article, it seems that this first Korban Pesach was low intensity means of organizing the community in preparation for their emergency exit from Egypt.

UJA Federation in partnership with many local synagogues has done amazing work in responding to Sandy, but this week I have to ask are we organized enough for the next emergency. Is our community ‘climate proof’?

Read more:

UJA Federation page about responses to Sandy @
http://www.ujafedny.org/connect-to-recovery/
Provide help for those in need by donating to UJA-Federation of NY’s Hurricane Relief Fund @ https://www.ujafedny.org/hurricane-sandy-relief-fund
Learn about volunteer opportunities to help people devastated by Hurricane Sandy @ http://www.ujafedny.org/hurricane-sandy-volunteer-opportunities

From the Heart

The other day Yishama our 5-year-old was laying in bed with my wife and Emunah out 2-year-old. Emunah reached over and caressed his cheek. Yishama remarked to Adina :

I love it when she does that. It makes my heart hurt. You know Mami, when you heart hurts because you love someone so much.

When Adina told me this story my heart just melted. As a parent I aspire to have empathetic children.

I was thinking about it this week in the context of the story of Exodus. There we read how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. As much as I marvel at my own children learning empathy at such a young age, I am stupefied to think of a grown adult not having empathy.

There are so many issues in this world that need to be fixed. I often feel if everyone only cared a little more we could solve some of these problems. But I also realize with the sheer volume of challenges, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. To get anything done at some level we need to have focus and harden our own hearts or else we would get engulfed in the huge number of issues. As parent I hope to cultivate this empathy in my children. For myself, I think I could use a little more toughening, but not too much. Out of the mouths of babes, Yishama reminded me a precious Torah. We all need to let go and be vulnerable. Life without that hurt in the heart would be slavery.

Unnatural Darkness – Rabbi Seltzer

***This was sent to me by Rabbi Joel Seltzer. He is the #2 Rabbi at Temple Emanu-el in Providence, RI. More relavant to why I am sharing this piece Rabbi Seltzer was one of my counselors when I was a Rosh Edah. Ah, how time flies?***

So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; trying to make sure that the forty Camp Ramah teenagers I was in charge of did not cause too much trouble, when suddenly my Rosh Edah, Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow says to the group, ‘Ok, everyone stand shoulder-to-shoulder up against the wall of the cave.’  Slowly, the kids began to move, and ultimately they stood in a tight line in relative silence.  ‘Face the wall,’ Avi shouted, and when they did he shined his heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall.  ‘Read,’ Avi said, as he handed me a small book.  So I read.

The book he handed me was Plato’s The Republic, and the particular section was the famous Allegory of the Cave.  In it Plato imagines a group of human beings who are made to sit in a dark cave, chained so that they may only look straight ahead of them, staring at the wall.  Behind them is a fire, and men are walking, speaking and carrying objects in front of this fire – casting their shadows upon the opposite wall.  In this situation, Plato explains, a person who was forced to watch these shadows on the wall, and therefore knew of no other reality, would surely come to the conclusion that these dark images were actual beings, with real voices, carrying real objects, and that this world of mere passing shadow was indeed the very epitome of reality.

But then, Plato (through the character of Aristotle) asks us to imagine that one such person was freed from their chains and forced to look around at his true situation; would he not be overwhelmed by such a revelation: the existence of the fire, the reality of the players and the actuality of the objects they were carrying?  Furthermore, if that person were then taken up a rugged ascent and brought out of the cave into the sunlight, would not their understanding of the world be irreparably shattered?  Surely the light of the sun would pain them and, until their eyes adjusted, they would certainly be unable to even look at another human being and see their bodily image as it truly is. Thus, Plato proves, perception truly is reality.

I’m not sure that group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story – but I remember it well.  Not only because it was the first time I had read the work of Plato, and not only because it typifies the unique approach to education that Camp Ramah offers its children, but ultimately I remember this incident because of its unfortunate truth.  That we human beings are sadly chained to our limited perceptions; we stare ahead at the wall, never daring to turn and see the world as it truly is.  We take both darkness and shadow as givens in this world of ours, and over time, we have allowed our eyes to adjust to this unnatural lack of light.

Which brings me to this morning’s Parasha, Parashat Bo, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In Parashat Bo, God delivers the final three plagues upon the hardened-heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and their gods; the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Killing of the First-Born.  While the final plague Makkat B’chorot, the Killing of the First-Born, is no doubt the most devastating, the penultimate plague, hoshekh, or darkness, must have been the most terrifying.

The Torah tells us that the Lord said to Moses

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה יָֽדְךָ עַל-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְ עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, וְיָמֵשׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ:

“Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” (Exodus 10:21)

This final phrase of this verse “v’yameish hoshekh”, “a darkness that can be touched,” has puzzled commentators for centuries.

The 16th century commentator Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya’akov S’forno remarks that this darkness was not like the darkness we experience at night.  That ‘natural’ darkness of night, S’forno explains, is simply air that is ready at any moment to take on the light; whereas the ninth plague of hoshekh is an ‘unnatural darkness’ – and even if you shined light upon it, all would remain in shadow. S’forno’s explanation is indeed terrifying.  Imagine a darkness so thick that it actually repelled light; reminiscent of modern physics’ understanding of a black hole, not simply darkness, but actually the very antithesis of light itself.

A much more modern rabbi, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, offers a more scientific explanation.  He understands the Torah’s words “v’yameish hoshekh”, as  suggesting that the plague was actually “a khamsin, a sandstorm of a kind not unfamiliar in Egypt, which can last for several days, producing sand- and dust-filled air that obliterates the light of the sun.”  This kind of hoshekh, Rabbi Sacks explains, is the kind that could indeed be touched.

But ultimately, I prefer the explanation of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe.  Basing his comment on the verse which reads:

לֹֽא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

“People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23)

The Gerrer Rebbe, explains that the inability to see one another was in fact both the cause as well the consequence of this plague.  He says that the greatest darkness of all is when a person cannot see the other, when they can not feel the pain of their fellow; and this leads to the terrible result that “no one could get up from where he was,” meaning no one arose to the alleviate the pain of their friend.

This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians, their inability to see the suffering of the other.  They failed to see the sorrows of their neighbors as the suffered through the first eight plagues; and worse still, they failed to see the humanity of the Israelites who cried out to them bitterly from the hardship of their enslavement.  Thus hoshekh, the darkness, became both the cause and the consequence of these failures.

The truth is that in our modern world, sometimes it feels as though we are sitting in the overwhelming darkness of Plato’s cave.  We stare ahead thinking that the animus, the pessimism and the mistrust that abounds is indeed the very epitome of our reality.  We gaze at these ‘mere shadows’ of our world and we perceive them as though they were truth.

Worse still is that we are in danger of falling into the apathetic trap of the Egyptians.  We teeter on the edge of constant complacency, not only do we not see the struggles of our neighbors, but even when we do see them, even when we recognize their pain, we too often shrug our shoulders and proclaim, ‘what can I do?’

What we can do is remember the end of that verse:

וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

“But the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”

Why did the Israelites in Egypt experience light, amidst the terrifying darkness?  Perhaps it is because they recognized that the hoshekh was only a trick of their limited perception; it was only a passing shadow on the wall of a cave. They were able to fight the darkness, withstand the temptation towards apathy, and despite their being chained, turn towards one another to see the light of God reflected in the face of their neighbor.  And thus, they were redeemed.

I believe strongly that we must deny the false reality of this world of shadows.  We must arise to the aid of our fellow human beings.  When there are people without homes, without food, without clothing, we must be there.  When there is terror, devastation and darkness, we must try to bring light into our world; this is the very nature of our commandedness.

Yes, the truth is that the light of God, and therefore our true reality, lies outside the cave of our cynicism.  It lies in our ability to look at and truly experience the divine spark which exists in the other; this is the truest example of how to shine light upon the hoshekh of our world. It is the task of the Jew, and of every human being, to seek out this light, to allow our eyes to adjust to the true, Godly reality of our world, and to let this light shine through – even in the most unnatural of darkness.

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.

Coming or Going

At the start of last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we hear God instructing Moses to go to visit Pharaoh to warn him of the plague of locusts. It is curious that God does not tell him to go, rather, to come to Pharaoh. We read, “God said to Moses, ’Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.’” (Exodus 10:1). It is even more confusing for Moses who grew up in the house of Pharaoh assuming the Pharaoh himself was a god. What does it mean that God might be with Pharaoh?

It is clear that God is everywhere, and that Pharaoh is not a god. But it is still challenging to think that God stands with evil. It would have been much easier for Moses to exact the plagues against Pharaoh, his court, and all of Egypt without having to be reminded that God is to be found in evil people. Moses loyally follows God’s directions, but that does not absolve him from having to navigate his own moral compass. Yes, we need to find a way to speak truth to power. In life’s journey, we can never forget our sense of direction. We are all created in the image of God. If we forget this, we will not know if we are coming or going.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,321 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: