Posts Tagged 'Moses'

The Secret Life of Moshe II : Shemot and Purim

Can you keep a secret?

As I written about before, I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on this week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moshe and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moshe as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moshe grows up with his secret secure.

Moshe’s identity seems  safely hidden until one day when he sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moshe is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moshe intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moshe leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moshe’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moshe had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him. But if his secret identity as an Israelite male would have been known he also would have been killed.

This seems to be resonant with the story of Purim.  Like Moshe, Esther has a secret identity of being Jewish at a time when the Jewish people are going to be killed. Like Moshe’s connection to Yocheved, some how she and Mordecai  the court Jew carry on their relationship without anyone knowing her identity. Esther maintains this secret even after she reveals the secret plot to kill the king in the name of her uncle.  The main difference between the two stories seems to be the role of God. In Moshe’s story when his secret comes to light his role is to share the secret of God with the people.  In the story of Purim the climax comes when Esther reveals her secret identity to the King, but if God has a role in the story, that remains a secret. There is still more to be explored as to the role of secrets in the Torah.

– Reprieve of an older post on Moshe and His Life of Secrets

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Revisiting Stammering Justice

As I have explored in the paststuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Here I want to forward two theories as to the cause of stuttering. There is evidence that stuttering is more common in children who also have concomitant speech, language, learning or motor difficulties. Auditory processing deficits have also been proposed as a cause of stuttering. The evidence for this is that stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

Last year when dealing with this idea I left this line of  questioning with asking why is this the one time the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

Perhaps there is another reason that Moshe had difficulty with his speech. In a well-known Midrash Moshe is depicted as a toddler growing up in Pharaoh’s house ( Shmot Rabbah 1:31). Playing on King Pharaoh’s lap little Moshe saw the shining crown, studded with jewels, and reached for it and took it off. Being superstitious Pharaoh asked his advisers the meaning of this action of the infant. They said Moshe was a threat and he should be put to death. One of the king’s counselors, however, suggested that they should first test the boy and see whether his action was prompted by intelligence, or he was merely grasping for sparkling things as any other child would.  Pharaoh agreed to this, and two bowls were set before young Moshe, one contained gold and jewels and the other held glowing fire coals. Moshe reached out for the gold, but an angel redirected his hand to the coals. Moshe snatched a glowing coal and put it to his lips. Moshe burned his tongue, but his life was saved.

 

If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will go to the last question. If all this is true, why is the one time in the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it is something about the pursuit of justice itself.  We can pretend that wanting justice in this world is about children being attracted to shiny things because it allows us to keep the status quo. Alternately we can recognize that justice is always about power. The pursuit of justice is actually Moshe reaching for the crown of power. The pursuit of justice is inherently revolutionary and means that people in power need to share it. We can either ask the next generation to burn their mouths or actually share power in bring about a more just society.

 

-Last year’s piece on Stammering Justice

 

Full of It

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s back and forth arguing for the Israelites’  freedom with Pharaoh. There we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning; so, when he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and, behold, you have not heeded until now; thus said the Lord: In this you shall know that I am the Lord–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ (Exodus 7:14-18)

The simple meaning is that God is directing Moshe to have a power meeting with Pharaoh in the morning to negotiate their release from slavery.  That would make sense if they were meeting at Starbuck’s, but why is this meeting scheduled to happen at the water? Quoting the Midrash in reference to this Rashi  writes:

When he goes out to the water– to relive himself for Pharaoh would pretend to be a god and would say that he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and secretly tend to his  needs.  ( Shemot Rabbah 9:8)

In Rashi’s understanding Moshe is challenging Pharaoh’s very claim to power. Pharoah is not a god, rather  just an ordinary man. Moshe knows this because he grew up in Pharoah’s house. Moshe knows that Pharoah’s poop stinks just like everybody else. This is interesting in reference to how the Israelites understood their own standing in reference to smell earlier in the book. There we read:

HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants.(Exodus 5:21)

But more on this in another post. So for now, back to Pharoah doing his business in the water in the early morning. In light of Pharoah’s hardened heart and his resolve not to let the Israelites go, this image depicts Pharaoh as being constipated and not being able to let us go. It is as if Moshe is coming with prunes and Metamucil to encourage Pharaoh’s movement on the issue.

But joking aside, maybe there is even more going on here. Why is this the location that God wants Pharaoh to “know that I am the Lord”? Water is the site of extermination of all of the boys of Moshe’s generation at the hands of the Egyptians. Its seems fitting that the Egyptians will suffer through the plague of the water turning to blood. But water is not such a simple symbol in Moshe’s life. This water is also the site of Moshe’s salvation and the source of his name i.e. drawn from water. Why is this the site of engagement between Moshe and Pharaoh?

This reminds me of one of my favorite Aggadot. In Berachot we learn:

Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Yehoshua to a bathroom, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Said Ben Azzai to him (Rabbi Akiba), ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Rabbi Yehudah said to him, ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ‘ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.  ( Berachot 62a)

The most striking thing about this Gemarah is not that Rabbi Akiba learned Torah from Rabbi Yehoshua in the bathroom or even that Ben Azzai learns the same three things from Rabbi Akiba in the bathroom. It seems crazy that Ben Azzai admonished Rabbi Akiba for learning those lessons in that way only to follow Rabbi Akiba into the bathroom to learn the same lessons the same way. Some lessons can be taught in words and others need to be modeled. Needing to see Torah in action with our own eyes presents us with a great model for the best in experiential Jewish education, but that is also a topic for another time. Back to Moshe and Pharoah meeting in the bathroom.

We learn in the Gemara, “It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn”. What did  Moshe need to learn from Pharaoh that necessitated following him into the bathroom? I think there could be a number of answers to this question, but one might be that Moshe needed to come to peace the fact that he had nothing to learn from Pharaoh. Moshe is a complex character caught between the house of Pharaoh in which he was raised and his birth nation who are Pharaoh’s slaves. Moshe did just have contempt for the Egyptians, he loved them and they shared a culture. Pharaoh’s heart was already hardened , maybe having Moshe return to the place of his salvation and naming was to help Moshe develop his resolve and commitment to the Israelite nation. Pharaoh might have a great man, but truly great people have nothing to hide. Moshe needed to realize that the Torah was going to be given to his birth nation at Sinai and it was not coming out of Pharaoh no matter how much he pushed. There is a lot of Torah to be learned. We need our teachers to be the right role models. The wrong teachers are just full of it.

Permission to Shine

In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Moses ascending Sinai and getting the Ten Commandments. It is hard to imagine anything more inspiring than being on hand for Moses receiving the Torah. But, alas we see that this did not work for the Israelites. While Moses was up getting the Tablets, they grew impatient and made a Golden Calf for themselves. If the Israelites lost their passion and commitment so soon after experiencing the miracles of the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the victorious war with Amalek, how could we today have any hope of staying on mission?

After the resolution of the Golden Calf incident Moses returned to the people with a new set of Tablets. While the first set were made by God, this time Moses made them himself. In addition at the end of Torah portion we read:

33 And when Moses had done speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before the Lord that God might speak with him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and he came out; and spoke unto the children of Israel that which he was commanded. 35 And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face sent forth beams; and Moses put the veil back upon his face, until he went in to speak with God.

This is the origin of the Michelangelo‘s depiction of Moses with horns of light. It is clearly also the source of why some people believed that Jews had horns. This is all secondary to the notion that this outpouring of light from Moses helped the Israelites see that their leader was inspired. We need our leaders to be inspired to be inspiring. There is something to the DIY ethos. We all need to have a sense of ownership in a project to be invested in its outcome. Where as in the first set of Tablets it was all about God, in the second set God had Moses and therefore the people’s buy-in.

Recently I was talking with Michael Wax an Assistant Director of Beber Camp about how he might inspire his staff to move the needle on what is an already a very good program at his camp. In my mind we need to find more ways to share our vision so that others share a sense of ownership. When we allow people to own their work they radiate their passion and joy. This attitude itself is infectious. This reminds me of one of my favorite poems, Our Deepest Fear by Marianne Williamson. We read:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Moses’s beaming face gave permission for the Israelites to let themselves shine too. It seems that if we really want to move the needle we need to figure out how to let ourselves and those around us shine.

– Also posted at FJC’s Campfire

Super Moses

This week we start the book of Shmot. We are introduced to Moses, the hero of the rest of the Torah. Every year when reading this story I am taken in by the fact that the story of his origin is just so universal. As Joseph Campbell has pointed out, the hero has a thousand faces, in the end they are all the same people. Or are they the same? Do the vaious masks speak to the unique culture frame. Does the story of Moses in the Tanach frame for us a unique notion of heroism? This came home to me when I saw this amazing TED talk. Please watch:

What stories we are choosing to tell today? Who are our heroes? Will we ever go to get to the point where we can truly enjoy our similarities and celebrate our differences?   And most importantly can we have fun making it relevant to our children. Kol HaKavod, Naif Al-Mutawa. You are one of my heroes.

Always End It

A few days before Passover I was talking with Yadid and Yishama at dinner about school.  I am not sure how it came up or even what it means for a 5-year-0ld, but it became apparent that Yishama had been fighting on the bus.  I immediately launch into one of  my Opa‘s maxims. As my grandfather Alfred Katz was reported to say, ” You never start a fight, but you always end it.” This was a conversation I have had a number of times with Yadid, but I realized that I had not yet shared this pearl of wisdom with Yishama. So I went on to explain who my mother’s father was. I tread carefully in that I have not wanted to tell my children too much about the Holocaust. I tell Yishama, that as the story goes, during WWII my Opa bought a farm in Venlo just across the German boarder in the Netherlands. He would drive a wagon back and forth over the boarder smuggling Jewish children under the hay out of German to  safety. As I am telling the story Yadid and I trade knowing glances teeming with pride of our lineage.

I want my children to understand that we never start fights. It is just something we do not do. But that does not mean that we are to be treated as a shmata– rag.  We cannot let ourselves get pushed around. Jews are not destined to be the doormat of history. When the situation calls for it we need to be ready to risk our own safety and security to stand up for those who need our help. We must be brave enough to end fights. But even in those situations we need to know when to call it quits and move on.

I have very few memories of my Opa. I think I was about Yadid’s age when he passed away. From every thing I have ever learned about him Alfred  Katz was a noble, wise,  and loved man. I would have loved to learn about the children he saved. I would have loved to hear from him what compelled him to be so brave. I also would have loved to learn when he knew that it was time to move on.  I feel that much of my life I have spent striving to live up to his example.  I also know that I would not be alive if he had not made that choice to leave when he did.

So a few days later we were at the Seder.  With a little help from me and his cousins Yishama got up and asked the Four Questions. And then with a little push from me he asked his Oma a fifth question. What did his great-grandfather do during the War? On Passover we commemorate the redemption of our people from Slavery. We were led to freedom by a man (Moses) who had escaped being killed as a child because his sister (Miriam) hid  him away in an ark of hay. There we were, descendents of Alfred Katz, realizing our own redemption by paying tribute to a man who quietly saved children’s lives.

Tonight we  commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For most of us this is a commemoration of the horror of the Nazi effort to exterminate 12 million people. Or worse it is day in which we are reminded how our people were led like lambs to slaughter. But that is not the real story of the day. This day is the 69th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today’s story is the story of our standing up for ourselves. Freedom will never be given, it needs to be taken. In the spirit of Mordechai Anielewicz and in words of my Opa today we can say, “You never start a fight, but you always end it.” Over the course of my children’s lives I look forward to see where they take today’s and my Opa’s  lesson.

Missing the Silence

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

Why would God take his two children? I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. It seems even more peculiar when you continue reading the Torah and Rashi’s commentary which are clearly seeking a rational for the death of Aaron’s sons. Than we read:

The Lord spoke to Aaron saying. Do not drink intoxicating win, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die – this is an eternal decree for your generations.( Leviticus 10:8-9)

Don’t you think this “eternal decree” would have been nice to hear about before his sons got killed at the hands of God? This just seems unjust. I do not understand how Aaron could possibly hold his silence upon hearing this. While I do not ever think I can understand Aaron’s deafening silence, what do I make of Moses attempt at theodicy? How is it that the greatest teacher of Israel has no pastoral skills?

At the end of the very same chapter we read:

And Aaron spoke to Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before the Lord, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering today, would it have been well-pleasing in the sight of the Lord? And when Moses heard that, it was well-pleasing in his sight. (Leviticus 10:1-20)

On this, Rashi reads in an entire back story in which Aaron and Moses are discussing the finer points of mourning and sacrificial laws. What does it mean that Moses approved of what Aaron said? Rashi interprets it to me mean that Moses admitted that Aaron was right in his interpretation of the law.  Moses was not ashamed to admit” Lo Shamati“- that he had not heard the Law. Aaron was right and Moses was wrong in terms of interpreting these laws.

On another level this comment by Aaron is his first words after the death of his son’s. This is what ended the silence. Above and beyond Aaron’s ability to hold his tongue, his ability to stick to his job and serve in the Temple after such a perceived injustice is truly remarkable. In light of this, I want to offer a drasha on Rashi’s  understanding of Moses saying ” Lo Shamati“.  While Moses saw Aaron doing his job and was happy to see that.  By saying Lo Shamati – Moses admitted that he did not hear Aaron. What did Aaron say? Nothing and that is the point. Moses missed the profundity of Aaron’s silence.

All to often, as a Rabbi and for that matter as an educator,  father, and husband I am reactive and not proactive. I am less of an actor and more of a re-actor in my own life. I know of myself that I do not always know what to do with silence. Often the best response is to recognize it and to just sit with it. It seems that Moses was obtuse to Aaron’s silence, but in admitting his fault  Moses shows us all how we might all strive to deal better with others’ tragedies. Often there is nothing to say. You just have to be present and do a lot of listening.



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