Archive for the '2.03 Bo' Category



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.

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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.

Tefilin Pride

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. On many occasion I have found myself having to get my Jew on in public. There is really nothing quite like have to suit up with my tallis and tefilin in flagrante in the terminal or even on a plane. While I might attract extra attention to my underpants with my Kippah, 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 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. And it often take leaving our own little world to realize the meaning of our inner truths.

This past week marked the celebration of the memory of  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He taught the world the importance of seeing beyond the superficiality of skin color. 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 for most of us, we 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 when we think that tefilin mean Orthodox Judaism and social justice means Reform Judaism. We have a responsibility in having been freed from slavery. The daily ritual of tefilin reminds us of our opportunities and responsibilities to help those who are less fortunate. I do not feel shame in wearing tefilin in public. I  wear my tfilin with pride, it creates accountability.

– For a snarkier take on this  see “Straps on a Plane” check out Jewschool


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