Archive for the '2.04 Beshalach' Category



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.

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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

Those in Glass Houses

Crazy people will do crazy things, but they still have to work within the parameters of the sane. Whether with the recent shooting of Gabrielle Giffords or Rabin, people did bad things in the name of what they thought were just causes. The words we use to talk about our enemies frames the limits of how we should treat them.

In BeShalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Song of the Sea. It is a poem said by Moses after the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. There was one line from the poem that I have not been able to get out of my mind during this week of national grieving. There we read, “The deeps cover them–they went down into the depths like a stone” ( Exodus 15:5) The simple meaning is that the approaching Egyptians fell into the water of the Red Sea as fast as a descending rock in water. But on another level it speaks of the trivial nature of their value. In this sense this rhetoric speaks of a certain lack of compassion.

Later in their journey toward the Promised Land, Moses is told that he must speak to get water from a rock for the complaining Israelites. And sure enough Moses hits the rock instead of talking to it. We attribute Moses not being allowed to enter the land to his hitting the rock.

When we were young we used to say, ” Sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In the wake of recent events, I have come to realize how wrong that idea was. Sticks and stones will break our bones, but words can really hurt too.  The words we use create the context for all of the other actions we take.  When Moses speaks of the Egyptians as just rocks, they are expendable. Later as in the case of getting water from the rock, it seems as if he is being asked to read the metaphor the other way around. Can Moses model confronting their oppressors with civil discourse and overcoming the urge to just use force?

The temptation to use force or hyperbolic rhetoric is natural, but it does not mean it will help us create a sustainable future. Understanding that every human being has inalienable rights is the bedrock of a just society. We must hold ourselves to the highest standard when we seek to bring about justice. We must follow the model of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in fighting injustice with eloquence that strives to evoke the  divine potential in all of us, the oppressed and the oppressor. Only at that point will we all be free to sing a song of freedom.

Out of the Basket Thinking

In parshat BeShalach as the people are leaving Egypt, the Torah reports,

But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.  And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had emphatically sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely take notice of you; and you shall carry up my bones away hence with you.’ (Exodus 13: 18-19)

It is not clear if Moses is keeping the promise for its own sake or as a means to ensure their exodus from Egypt.  While Moses has led the people out of their life (or death) of slavery in Egypt, we know that he still needs to get them out of the crisis. They are about to be caught between the bank of the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots. It is interesting to note that their being “noticed” by God seems to be connected to their salvation.

This seems to resonate with the salvation of Noah in the ark.  There in parshat Noah we read,

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; (Genesis 8:1)

Noah was saved because God warned him to build an ark, but ultimately his salvation only happened when God “remembered” him and decided to end the flood.  The same is true for the Israelites. While safely averting the life of slavery in Egypt they would have died at the Red Sea if Moses had not “remembered” Joseph. When there was no water Joseph was the one who got them out of the bind by saving the sons of Jacob, similarly Moses is using the bones of Joseph to help them out at the Red Sea.

This “remembering” Joseph gives more depth to the Israelites’ statement in response to seeing Pharaoh’s chariots approaching.  There we read,

And they said to Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (Exodus 14: 11)

Yes, at a certain level the Israelites are doing what they do best, Kvetching. And yes, on a rhetorical level they are communicating to Moses that they do not want to die for “naught”. They have lost faith in the plan of escape and they are telling the leader that they are not happy. But on another level they are telling Moses their doubt that “remembering Joseph” is the best plan. That is to say, it is not just that there are graves in Egypt in which they could have been happily buried, but that Joseph himself was happily buried there.

In his address at the General Assembly, Jerry Silverman, the  CEO of Jewish Federations of North America quoted Leslie Wexner in saying, “What got us here will not get us there”. It is interesting to reflect on this idea in light of the people’s kvetching. Jerry made his mark in camping ( and will make his mark in the Federation world) by driving us to be the best at customer service. So, even if the people are being short sighted, it is important to take their complaining seriously. While the Israelites are able to cross the Red Sea, the model of leadership that gets them to that point, represented by the person of Joseph, is not what will get them over the next crisis. This Moses will have to figure out.

 

So in response to their outcry Moses tries to allay their fears. The Torah says,

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which God will work for you today; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more forever.  The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.’  Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. (Exodus 14: 13- 16)

While Moses is trying to motivate the people to stick with the plan, God interrupts to motivate Moses to enact a plan.  Although the people have doubt in the plan, it seems that God is responding to Moses himself that the old plan is just not going to work. As if to say, ‘You used to look to me to make it happen, but this time it is all you. Stop the Kvetching’. So, what was Moses getting stuck on?

 

To look at this question I want to return to the story of Noah. Noah brought about salvation by making an ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) and getting his nuclear family and the animals on board.  For Moses, his personal salvation was very similar to Noah and his family.  Moses was going to die at the hands of the Egyptians. The Torah says,

And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. (Exodus 2:3)

Just like Noah in the ark, Moses is saved from sure death by a basket. It is important to set up a system for solving problems, and making sure that you get the right people on the bus ( or ark) to execute the plan. But Moses is just like one of the animals on Noah’s ark; he is but an object in the story of his own salvation.  When it comes time for the salvation at the foot of the Red Sea, it is not just about calling the right play and putting the right squad on the floor ( I am sorry basketball is my default metephor).  The Israelites needed to grow up and stop the kvetching. It is also clear that Moses needed to lead the people so that they would move themselves forward (add Nachshon and stir).  They could no longer be objects in the story of their own salvation. What worked for Noah, Joseph, and Moses individually was not going to work for the Israelites as a collective. The Israelites needed some out-of-the-basket thinking.  Moses needed to think past the limits of himself and the assumptions of his people. Or in the words of Michael Jordan, “If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome.”

As we look forward to the next period of our history, I am confident that the challenge that stands before us is truly an opportunity for us to re-imagine our role in global salvation. However, we are going to hell in a hand basket if we limit ourselves to doing business as usual. Leslie Wexner was right, what got us here is not going to get us there. We too need some out-of-the-basket thinking.

What is Driving Us?

This week we will celebrate Tu B’shvat the New Year for the Trees. While Rosh HaShanah is our yearly check in on how we have been as people in the previous year, Tu B’Shvat has come to be our yearly check in on how we have been to the environment. I have to be honest in saying that I have not been that good this past year.

When I reflect on the course that we are on, I am fearful that we are imitating this week’s Torah portion. Like Pharaoh, we have hardened our hearts. We are unwilling to imagine a different way of living. Will we drive ourselves to the bottom of our seas looking for fossil fuels?

In Pharaoh’s manic search for the escaping Israelite slaves he drives his chariots in to the dried up bed of the Red Sea. But, even before God brings down the walls of water, the wheels come off. Even if they wanted to turn around and get out, it is too late. Rashi comments that it was the heat from God’s Pillar of fire that melted the wheels off. What is the point of no return for our society? Are we doomed to collapse? What is driving us?

This year for Tu B’Shvat, let us all think about ways in which we can change our lives and help the world around us. This is the only world we have, there is no spare. It is not a good time to get  stuck with a flat tire.


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