Posts Tagged 'Shmot'

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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Revolutionary Growth

It was a real pleasure attending the URJ Bienial last week. While I am not quite ready to make aliyah to Reform Judaism, I have to admit that I am taken by Rabbi Rick Jacob’s ideal of audacious hospitality.  The Reform community is strong and under Rabbi Jacob’s direction they are moving in a great direction. It was exciting seeing over five thousand people unapologetically  together taking on the Jewish future. Being there I got a sense that they all understand their collective mission to manifest the welcoming tent of Avraham and Sarah. One of the most impressive aspects of Rabbi Jacob’s leadership has been his marshaling of serious resources behind the Campaign for Jewish Youth. One of the main agenda items taken up by this campaign has been Rabbi Bradley Solmsen’s B’nai Mitzah Revolution. At the Biennial I got to learn more about the revolution. They shared some of the innovations they are taking nationally in terms of refitting this coming of age ceremony for the 21st Century family. If you have not seen it, I would encourage you to check out this website.

I was thinking about this revolution when looking at Shmot, this week’s Torah portion. The Levite child is saved from the river by Batya, Pharoah’s Daughter. She gets his biological mother to nurse him. After this we read:

And the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out to his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. ( Exodus 2:10-11)

On this, Rashi points out the redundancy of saying that he grew up twice. The simple meaning is that the first growth was Moses being weened and the second is his coming of age. Interesting enough that is not the answer that Rashi brings. Instead he quotes the midrash:

Rabbi Yehudah the son of Rabbi Ilai said the first mention of growth is in terms of his physical stature and the second mention of growth is in terms of attainment of rank as Pharaoh appointed him over his household. ( Tanchuma Yashan Va’eira 17)

For Rashi, this growing up happens later in life. According to Rashi, Moses comes of age in growing physically and later comes of age with his responsibilities. It is clear to me that today, more than ever, our children are not grown up when they become a bar or bat mitzvah. While I truly appreciate the need to rethink what is B’nai Mitvah, might we just say that becoming 12 or 13 is not the right time? While we might claim that our children are physically grown in some ways, they are clearly not yet the age of being responsible or having achieved any rank. This ritual cannot carry the burden of a Jewish future. ( I encourage you to read another post on this topic.) Thinking about this imagination of Moses taking over Pharaoh’s household, might I suggest another revolution?

What would it look like for us to have a Wedding Revolution? A few months ago I responded to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, who was pushing the Conservative community to rethink their stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I wanted to share. Rabbi Cosgrove’s sentiment was echoed in Rabbi Jacob’s call for audacious hospitality. Why marginalize people who want join our community? Let’s get them in the door through the coming of age ceremony of getting married and then worry about converting or not converting.

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

So here is the revolutionary idea. Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts in order to get married? I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  But this new mandate would deal with the sexism and the experience that anyone is being excluded. It is just the part of the new wedding ceremony. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment? Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency and in turn its own revolution.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. The part I most enjoyed about Rabbi Jacob’s keynote address was his articulating that Reform is not less authentic then Chabad or any other form of Jewish life. I would assume that every branch of Jewish life will have their own assumptions about defining an authentic conversion, but why not recreate the new wedding/conversion to conform to these values regardless of gender or lineage. And do not claim that it is too hard. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and making a Jewish household is worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance. Blind to their gender or lineage they would go through this process. Surely getting married is a more logical time to claim that someone is ” grown up” and ready to attain the rank as co-head of a household.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative and Reform Judaism also presents Orthodox Jews a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy a  humra – religious stringency, that will benefit the the entire Jewish community. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs. Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Audacious hospitality deserves more audacious revolutions.


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