Posts Tagged 'BeShalach'

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

 

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. “

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

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.


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