Archive for the '2.04 Beshalach' Category

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. “

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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.

In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

Making Shabbat

In BeShalach,this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ preparation for the first Shabbat in the desert. There we read:

22 And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. 23 And he said to them: ‘This is that which the Lord has spoken: Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy Shabbat to the Lord. Bake that which you will bake, and see that which you will see; and all that remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.’ 24 And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses asked; and it did not rot, neither was there any worm therein. 25 And Moses said: ‘Eat that today; for today is a Shabbat to the Lord; today you shall not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the Shabbat, in it there shall be none.’ 27 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that there went out some of the people to gather, and they found none. ( Exodus 16: 22-27)

Usually the Manna from one day would be rotten the next, but here on Shabbat it kept from Friday to Saturday. What do we learn from this miracle inside a miracle? God made the manna, why is it a big deal that God made special Manna on Friday with preservatives?

Recently I got a e-mail from a dear college friend who shared with me the recent conversation she had with her child who is about to turn four years old.

Child: Is Israel the most beautiful part of the country?
Parent: Which country?
Child: This country.
Parent: Israel is its own country. It’s a different country in the world.
Child: Is it the most beautiful country in the world?
Parent: It is a beautiful country but there is no one most beautiful country. Lots of countries are beautiful and Israel is one of them.
Child: Does the sun shine on the holy temple and make it shine?
Parent: Where did you learn about the Holy Temple?
Child: I don’t know. I just know about it in my mind. Does the sun shine on it?
Parent: Yes.  The stones are white so when it is sunny, it looks like it is shining.
Child: Is the Holy Temple where Israel makes Shabbat?
Parent: What do you mean, “make Shabbat”?
Child: Is the holy temple where people in Israel make their Shabbat?
Parent: Well, everyone can make Shabbat wherever they live, just like we make it at our house with the Shabbat family you invite each week.
Child: Well, where is Shabbat made in our country?
Parent: Well, Shabbat doesn’t come from a factory. It’s something each family can make on their own each week.
Child: Well, where does it come from?
Parent: (growing desperate) Well, it’s like a present from God.
Child: I know!  God lives really high up.  On top of space.  He sends the astronauts to earth with Shabbat and its a gift from God.  He gives Shabbat to us and Christmas to Christians, but they don’t get Shabbat and we don’t get Christmas.
Parent: That’s right. Each religion has its own special presents and fun times.
Child: The Shabbat family are angels from God. They bring Shabbat to us each week and they live with us and I bring them into the house.  They love coming to our house.
Parent: That’s a nice way of thinking about it.
Child: Where is the guitar for Rock star Elmo?  My sister wants to know for Elmo’s band.
 Scene.
I love this story for many reasons. I often think about how much harder things can get for us as we grow older. When we are young it might have been easier to maintain a simple,but not simplistic notion of holiness. Diversity is just a given.  God is just sharing different gifts with different people. And we see how this can be a model for a child who himself wants to make sure his sibling gets her toy. And of course there is a part of this story that is relevant to our question. Shabbat is beautifully a tangible thing.  Like God made Manna, the people make Shabbat. What does it take to make Shabbat today? Does it mean having to work harder during the week to be able to take off 25 hours? But if we do, we have a Shabbat Family.  So maybe Shabbat is just a story we tell our children. And that would make a Shabbat Family a story in a story that our children tell us. Or maybe that is a miracle in a miracle.  Shabbat  is a lot of work. But, who knows? Maybe making Shabbat preserves us all week.
Shabbat Shalom

Miriam’s Song

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we read of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and the subsequent miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. In response, Moses and the Israelites sang Az Yashir, a poem in praise of their salvation. And if it was not for Miriam’s Song by Debbie Friedman z”l, most of us would not be familiar with the short poem and dance that was sung by Miriam and the women that followed her. There, we read:

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15: 20)

How did they know to pack their timbrels? To all present, Miriam and the women pulling out their timbrels must have been as much a miracle as the splitting the Red Sea itself. On this, Rashi, the premier medieval Jewish commentator, said:

“The righteous women of the generation were certain that G-d would perform miracles for them so they took timbrels with them from Egypt.”

According to Rashi, they planned for this moment.

How do we plan for this moment? This question was on my mind last week when I had the pleasure of spending time at Capital Camps with an amazing group of Jewish educators, advisors, event staff, and an advisory committee working on the 2011 FJC Cornerstone Seminar (pictures below).

In May, with the support of the AVI CHAI Foundation, FJC will bring together a team of third-year bunk staff from each of the 49 participating Cornerstone camps across North America (we estimate over 275 staff will attend!). Together, these Fellows will learn how to infuse Jewish education into all aspects of their camp program.

Every camp moves to the beat of its own drum, and the Fellows we bring together are representatives of these unique and varied communities. There is an amazing amount of work and preparation that goes into making the May seminar experience a model for the quality experiences these staff members are creating for their campers this summer.

After a week of careful planning, I am very excited to have the Fellows join us this spring. It takes a lot of planning for it to feel spontaneous, but that is ultimately the miracle of camp itself.

– as appeared on Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog


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