Archive for the '2.04 Beshalach' Category

Thank You Brené Brown

Dear Brené Brown,

I have been meaning to write you a thank you note since my father James Joseph Orlow z”l passes away at the end of August. This past Shabbat when reading Beshalach, that week’s Torah portion, I realized that I really needed to write you. Yes I am an Orthodox Rabbi, so let me explain.

This Torah portion opens with Pharaoh finally relenting after the 10th plague and letting the Moshe and the Israelite slaves go free. After years in bondage in Egypt, that could have been the end of the drama between the nation of Israel and the Egyptians, but alas that was not the case. There we read:

When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart about the people and said, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; he took six hundred of his picked chariots, and the rest of the chariots of Egypt, with officers in all of them. The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly, the Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his horsemen, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea, near Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-zephon. (Exodus 14:5-9)

It is not the first time that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh”, but it surely was the last. This divine constraint compelled the leader of the world to drive his army to the ends of the world to return his slaves. His hardened heart lead him and his people to their deaths in the sea. While it is interesting to contemplate the nature of this compulsion I am more interested to imagine how Moshe interpreted Pharaoh’s actions.

While Moshe was the leader of this slave rebellion, he was also someone who grew up in Pharaoh’s home.  Moshe was someone who had conflicting loyalties. Was Moshe saddened to see his Egyptian friends suffer through the plagues because Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go? Did Moshe resent Pharaoh? How must it have felt  to see Pharaoh coming over the horizon with hundreds of chariots pursuing him and his people?  Did Moshe struggle with having to decide between the death of one or the other of his people? How did Moshe judge Pharaoh’s behavior?

Thinking about these questions I realized that you might have answered them with a simple question you asked in Rising Strong. There we read, “It got me thinking about the people I’ve been struggling with and judging. I asked myself – are they doing the best they can with the tools that they have?” God told Moshe and us the readers that God “stiffened the heart of Pharaoh” so he and we could understand that Pharaoh was doing the best he could with the tools he had. I like to think that Moshe learned this lesson from you so that he would not judge Pharaoh. In this imagination I can also strive to have a positive attitude toward everyone.

So now I can get to the thank you note. The last time I saw my father I went to visit him to talk about getting better support in place for my ailing mother and help him think about shifting into semi-retirement. My mother has many health issues and at 82 it seemed as though it might be time for him to cut back at work. There were many times in that conversation that I found myself completely outraged by his obstinance. Over the day of talking with him there were many times that I almost lost it and wanted to scream at him. Instead of expressing my judgement of his pigheadedness I kept saying to myself, “He is doing the best can with the tools he has”. Repeating this mantra let me maintain an openness to the person he was instead of holding on to the futile imagination of the person I wanted him to be.

My father died three days later.  If it was not for your teaching I am certain that my last interaction with my father would not have been a good one.  I can only imagine the scars in my soul if my last interaction with my father would have been plagued by screaming and judgement. Your lesson softened my heart so I could come to grips with his stiffened heart. Your teaching helped me show up and allowed me to leave space for my father to be seen. I am forever indebted to you. I find your teachings profoundly liberating. Thank you. I wish you many blessings.

Sincerely,

Avi

 

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Far From the Shallows: Nachshon and Our Love Affair with God

In BeShalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about splitting of the Red Sea. Caught between the sea and Pharaoh’s advancing chariots the Israelites cry to Moshe and to God.  In response Moshe tells the people not to worry; God will take care of everything. However, God does not seem to be happy with this, and essentially says to the people—and to Moshe—do not cry to me, do something. God’s position seems to be that God has been doing everything for the people up until this point, and now it is time for them to act ( Exodus 14:16-22). What does it take for the sea divide? What is the needed action?

According to the Gemara in Sotah the various tribes were arguing what to do and not doing anything. There we read:Then, in jumped the prince of Yehudah,Nahshon ben Amminadab, and descended into the sea first, accompanied by his entire tribe, as it is stated: “Ephraim surrounds Me with lies and the house of Israel with deceit, and Judah is yet wayward toward God [rad im El]” (Hosea 12:1), which is interpreted homiletically as: And Yehudah descended [rad] with God [im El]. (Sotah 37a)

Nahshon the prince of Yehudah took action and descended into to the Red Sea which caused it to split. The midrash elaborates on this image in a discssion of the line from Psalms regarding Yehudah making the people connect with the name of God ( Psalms 76:2). There we read:

Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai said: When Israel was at the sea, the tribes were arguing with each other. One tribe said: ‘I will go down first [into the sea]’, and the other tribe said ‘I will go down first.’ Nachshon jumped first into the waves of the sea and went down, and on him David said, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck.” Said the Holy One of Blessing to Moshe: My beloved is sinking in the sea and you are praying?! ‘Tell the Israelites to get going!’(Ex. 14:15)”This is ‘E-lohim is known in Yehudah’ (Bemidbar Rabbah 13:5)

In this version it was not enough that Nachshon went into the water, he submerged himself in the water. God is known because of  this prince of Yehudah went “all-in”.

Yes, Nachshon is of the tribe of Yehudah, but what is the significance of Psalms proclaiming that Yehudah is the one who reconnects the Israelites to God?

The line of Yehudah goes from Nachshon to Boaz to David. Both Boaz and David lives are marked by deep romantic love. In the cases of Boaz with Ruth and David with Bathsheva we get a sense that it was love at first sight.

I was thinking about these themes while listening to the breakout single Shallows from a Star is Born. In this song the male protagonist invites the female on to the stage to share a song inspired by  their emerging love.

Lady Gaga’s character sings:

I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Clearly she is talking about her falling in love. While she knows that there are risks involved in her going on stage she is throwing herself in to the relationship. And just like that a Star is born.

It is hard for me not to connect her words to Nachshon as he was submerged in the Red Sea. Similarly you can hear in her song Boaz’s love for Ruth and David’s falling for Batsheva. All three men of Yehudah help reconnect Israel to God. All four are modeling being vulnerable and open to love. We as a nation are saved when Nachshon goes past the shallows and reconnects us to God by being “all-in”. And just like that our star was born. Knowing the risks, I still wonder what would it take for any of us to enter into a passionate or even divine relationship?

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.

Half Full: Let’s Stop Complaining

We read in the Psalms:

Our fathers in Egypt did not contemplate Your wonders, they were not mindful of Your abundant kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea at Red Sea. (Tehillim 106:7)

What does it mean that they “rebelled by the sea at the Red Sea”. The second sea seems redundant. The midrash suggests that there might have been two rebellions. The first rebellion was marked by the fact that no one wanted to descend into the Red Sea. The second rebellion involved complaining about the muddy ground which they had to walk through after the Red Sea split.

But was it muddy? In parshat B’Shalach, this week’s Torah portion, that the ground was yavash, dry. Was the ground wet or dry?

Obviously compared to the wall of water to their left and right of them it was dry,  but it seems reasonable to assume that it was muddy. It seems crazy but the midrash depicts the Israelites as though despite experiencing a miracle like no other they were complaining that they had to get their shoes muddy. If it were in fact dry you might even count it as a whole other miracle. When faced with the possibility of being killed by Pharaoh’s approaching chariots or drowning in the sea, a huge miracle happens and that is not enough. They are complaining about their shoes.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines by Woody Allen. As the old joke goes:

Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Even if it is hard to relate to the generation that experienced the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, we can all relate to the fact that if we were there we would have found something about which to complain.

Recently I read an article that said that according to science complaining Is terrible for you. Steven Parton the author of this article is a student of human nature and explains how complaining not only alters your brain for the worse but also has serious negative repercussions for your mental health. In fact, he goes so far as to say complaining can literally kill you. Here are three of the ways he claims that complaining harms your health:

  1. Complaining beget more complaining
  2. You are whom you hang out with
  3. Stress is terrible for your body, too.

There are two types of people in the world — those who see the glass as half empty and those who see the glass as half full. Some see a thorny rose-bush and admire the beautiful roses, and some see it and complain about the fact that the roses have thorns.

This week with the reading of the miracle of the Red Sea we are reminded to take stock of the wonders and abundant kindnesses we experience in our lives. What would it take to rebel against the urge to complain and just enjoy these miracles?  And yet still I have Woody Allen’s voice replying, “No, you’re wrong. I see the glass half full, but of poison. “

Shabbat Shira: On Divide Between Music and Law

Recently I was visiting a Reform Temple on a Sunday morning. This congregation had 500 children in its school. They had dozens of high school students who were there as teachers helpers. In itself it might be considered a miracle to hold on to these teenagers post Bar Mitzvah. While I was visiting they were having a service. At this service more than a dozen of these teen helpers were playing a musical instrument. It is clear from this and many other experiences I have had that music is central to the Reform Jewish experience. My experience of Orthodox Judaism is not devoid of music, but it is not on the same level as our commitment to Jewish Law.

It was there in that Temple that I got to thinking about Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion. There it describes the Israelites’ deliverance of from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea. The experience of this miracle as a nation sets the stage for the revelation of the Torah at Sinai to the entire Jewish people. It is here in our Torah portion that we read the Song of the Sea and Miriam’s Song. What is the connection between song and revealed law?

It was there in that guitar driven service in that Reform Temple that I realized how strained the connection has become. While I knew that these youth had a positive Jewish experience it had a limited connection to what one would call Halachic Jewish life. It is almost as if Reform Jews have opted for the Songs of the Sea and the Orthodox have opted for the Laws of the Land. What would it mean to strive for a connection to both?

Divine Tension: Thoughts on the Parsha

In Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After suffering the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally acquiesces to letting his slaves go free. It is strange that it does not say Pharaoh let them go. Instead we read:

Now when Pharaoh sent the people, God did not lead them by way of the land of Philistines, although it was closer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’(Exodus 13:17).

Was  does it mean that Pharoah sent the people? Was Pharaoh still in power? What are we to learn from this use of language Beshalach?

The text seems to suggest Pharaoh as the principle sending the Israelites on shlichut as his emissaries. This seems peculiar because the text clearly says that it was God alone who took them out of Egypt with a strong-arm. We see from the rest of the verse the psychological reality of the slaves. However bad it was being a slave, Egypt was familiar and would always be tempting to them when compared with the unknown. We see that even when the Israelites were free from Egypt, they were still slaves to Pharaoh. To receive the Torah they would need to understand that God alone was in power. Freedom would only be realized in their recognition of being a shaliach, an agent, of God.

In my life, it is hard to connect with the idea of being an agent of God. I hardly understand myself or my own motivations. How can I claim that a God, with whom I understand even less, is directing me? This claim of being an agent of God in the 21st century  is even harder to make against the backdrop of the horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated by people claiming to be enacting the will of God. So why do I keep my divine shackles on? Within the myth of divine direction, the circuitous path of my life has become more than just meaningless wandering. While few and far between from time to time I have experienced moments when it seems that water parts and my path is clear. This commitment has left me open to experience wonder. But in the end, I have found that I thrive in the tension between Judaism and the culture around me. This tension allows me to clarify my motives without being blinded by either.  Within this tension I have a sense of confidence, but hopeful a tempered arrogance. And some times even with this tension I can stop to sing along the way.

Mitzrayim Syndrome

From August 23 to August 28, 1973 several bank employees of a bank  in Stockholm, Sweden were held hostage in a bank vault during a robbery.  During this standoff, the victims became emotionally attached to their captors, rejected assistance from government officials at one point, and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal. The criminologist and psychiatrist Nils Bejerot coined the  term  “Norrmalmstorgssyndromet”  (Swedish) but abroad it became known as “Stockholm Syndrome“.

I was thinking about this when reading BeShalach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the Philistines, although it was nearer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see the war, and return to Egypt.’ (Exodus 13:17)

It was God through the agency of Moshe who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but here the Torah gives credit to Pharaoh.  They were enslaved for so long that they actually thought they were let go from Egypt due to the good graces of Pharaoh as opposed to the actions of God. They knew they did not like slavery, but emancipation would have been enough for them. What is the purpose of leaving Egypt? What would be their motivation for the arduous journey ahead?

Maybe this is reason for taking the route they did. Taking the shorter route might encourage them to return to their captor in whom they became emotionally attached. Instead they took a longer route during which they will come to realize, through even more miracles, that they were removed from Egypt solely by God. Its seems expedient to take the easier path, but it often does not lead to liberation. As Rabbi Levi Lauer says, “Comfort in not a Jewish Value”. For certain things it is worth taking the long route. Often these are the most important things. In doing the hard work we can rediscover what motivates us and we liberate ourselves from our captors.


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