Friday, January 27, 2012

To Compromise or Not To Compromise?


4 Shevat 5772 / Jan. 27 - 28, 2012

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, deals with plagues 8, 9 and 10: locusts, darkness, and death of the first-born. Between each plague, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh and use those famous words, “Let my people go!”

These words, which have so defined the Exodus in our collective mentalities, seem a simple, striking point, proclaiming God’s demand to a resistant Pharaoh.

But are these really the words that were said? Are they being placed in the appropriate context? Are the images of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner ingrained in our minds destined to be our only understanding of the encounter?

God tells Moses at their first meeting, at the burning bush: “Go and I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will take out my nation, the children of Israel, from Egypt.”

God then expounds and tells Moses that he should tell the Children of Israel he is going to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

It seems pretty clear that God’s intention was the end of Israelite slavery, and that Moses’s fundamental task would be to take the Children of Israel out Egypt for good.

And yet, in the following verse, God tells Moses that once he has gained the support of the people, he is to go before the king of Egypt and say to him: “Hashem, the God of the Hebrews happened upon us. And now, please let us go on a three day journey in the Wilderness, and we shall bring offerings to Hashem, our God.”

This is a very different story than that being told to the Israelite people!

When Moses and Aaron first come to Pharaoh it is the request of a three day journey into the wilderness they share with Pharaoh – and it is certainly not a demand! They use the world please! “Let us please now go on a three day journey…” Does this sound like “Let my people go!” to you?

Fast forward to this week’s portion, where we are already encountering the 8th plague.

Believe it or not, Pharaoh’s tune has already changed significantly! There wasn’t just a blind “No I will not let your people go” as the movie would have us think. After the 8th plague, Pharaoh actually says: “Let the men go now; serve Hashem, for that is what you request.” What a change! The men of the Children of Israel had been given a chance to leave! But not without Pharaoh maintaining certain collateral – being their wives, children, and property.

After the 9th plague, Pharaoh makes a further concession, saying: “Go – serve

Hashem, only your flock and your cattle shall stay put; even your children may go with you.”

How is it that such an offer could be refused? Pharaoh had essentially given in to allow every single Israelite to leave Egypt, unsupervised, on a three day journey, accompanying celebration and service to God (the time period of which we do not know), and a return three day journey. If you were an Israelite, would you have felt confident in your leadership telling you that even though your collective freedom had effectively been granted after hundreds of years of slavery, the plan was to stick around awhile longer and work just to make sure that your flocks and cattle could come with you? Not to mention the sticky point of how exactly it was possible that people supposedly enslaved for hundreds of years still owned flocks and cattle…

Pharaoh had offered the chance to escape, and it was turned down.

Does this imply an extreme faith in God and Moses by the Israelites?

Did Moses and Aaron share with the people the offers made by Pharaoh?

Did they have any obligation to?

Constantly in life, when striving towards a certain goal, we’re presented with outs or easier alternatives. Compromise is often presented as a means for both sides to come away ahead of the game, and thus is viewed favorably, and often pushed – apparently both in contemporary and ancient societies. But are there ideals that we as the Jewish people hold that we are not, and cannot be, willing to compromise on?

Moses, the ultimate Jewish prophet, was not willing to leave “a single hoof behind” in Egypt, ultimately expressing that the right to freedom and self-determination (which includes possessions) are not open for discussion.

What are those values, Jewish and otherwise, that you are unwilling to compromise on?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Illusions, Michael!


26 Tevet 5772 / January 20-21, 2012

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, we find a stubborn Pharaoh unwilling to allow the Israelites to go into the desert in order to worship God.

Note the common misconception: “Let my people go!” is actually short for “Let my people go out on a 3 day journey into the desert to worship God, and then we’ll be back.” Moses, when initially approaching Pharaoh, does not ask for the slaves to be freed!

What follows Pharaoh’s refusal are the first 7 of the 10 plagues:

1. Blood

2. Frogs

3. Lice

4. Wild beasts / swarms of flies (different interpretations)

5. Pestilence

6. Boils

7. Hail

Interestingly, the first two plagues – blood and frogs – are copied by Pharaoh’s “magicians,” leaving Pharaoh unimpressed and unwilling to compromise. It is only after the third plague that the magicians admit to Pharaoh that the plagues are “the finger of God.”

What are we to make of this?

How did Pharaoh’s magicians turn water into blood and create frogs from nothing?

Earlier in the narrative, when Moses and Aaron first approach Pharaoh, Aaron’s staff turns into a serpent when thrown onto the ground. Pharaoh’s magicians turn their staffs into serpents as well, but Aaron’s serpent then eats their serpents.

What do we learn from this?

At first glance, it appears that Pharaoh’s magicians were pretty impressive. They could turn wood into snakes! Water to blood! They could create frogs from nothing!

But when we look a little bit deeper, what we can learn from the magicians replicating the first two plagues is that we as human beings are capable of Divine acts!

While in this particular situation the Divine acts being copied were not acts we would necessarily consider positive (Plagues!), if we as humans are capable of replicating the Divine in our negative actions, imagine how much more so we are capable of replicating the Divine in our positive actions!

For example, the Torah states that the Divine cares for the sick and watches over the orphan and the widow. These are things that every person has the ability to do! In doing so we are mimicking the Divine, and performing Divine acts.

As we head into Shabbat, think about what being “Godly” means to you.

What actions would you classify as Divine?

What’s stopping you from performing Divine acts?

Unlike Pharaoh's magicians, let us focus our efforts on performing acts that will improve the world around us. Rather than waiting for or relying on Divine intervention, let us strive to perform Divine acts in our daily lives. In doing so, we can fulfill our charge of serving as a light unto the nations, and can cultivate a society overflowing with care, love and warmth.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holy spaces holy places


19 Tevet 5772 / January 13-14, 2012

This week’s portion marks the beginning of the Book of Exodus. A number of generations after the death of Joseph, we find the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, a Pharaoh intent on keeping them in servitude, the birth of Moses, Moses striking down an Egyptian and fleeing, the episode of the burning bush, and Moses’s return to Egypt and first encounter with Pharaoh.

When Moses approaches the burning bush, he is issued the following instruction:

“Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5

The concept of holy ground or holy space is something that we as Jews (and as Westerners) often don’t do well.

In other cultures, many still remove their footwear before entering their place of worship.

Is one’s home a holy space?

How about one’s bedroom?

What should we be striving for?

Treating something as “holy” is really a mechanism for distinguishing.

For example, in the final blessing we make at the conclusion of Shabbat every week in havdallah, we express thanks for distinguishing between the “holy” (Shabbat) and the “mundane” (the rest of the week).

It is important that we have holy places (and times) in our lives.

Growing up, we asked guests coming to our house to remove their shoes before entering. This admittedly was partially to keep the carpets clean, yet at the same time, had the effect of making our home more “holy,” and distinguishable from the outside.

These days, many couples have televisions in their bedrooms, and bringing one’s laptop to bed seems to be the norm. However, should the bedroom be a space for entertainment and interacting online, or should it be a space distinguishable from the other rooms of the home – one where the couple has the opportunity to converse meaningfully, express their love for one another, and be intimate with one another?

As we head into Shabbat this week, take stock of the spaces and times you consider to be holy. Consider what it might look like to further distinguish between the holy and mundane in your life, and the steps you can take to get there.

Just as Moses stood on holy ground and reacted accordingly, so too may we strive to stand on holy ground in our own lives.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Remembering the Past, Being the Future


12 Tevet 5772 / January 6-7, 2012

“Israel said to Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here the Divine has let me see your children as well.” – Genesis 48:11

This week’s portion, Vayechi, is the last portion in Genesis, and contains the death of both Jacob (aka “Israel”) and Joseph.

On his deathbed, Jacob calls Joseph and Joseph’s sons to his bedside so that he can bless his grandchildren. Filled with emotion, Jacob makes the statement shared in the verse above, grateful to have had the chance to participate in the lives of his descendants.

This verse strikes particularly close to home for me, given that my grandmothers are Holocaust survivors. In their own experiences, which consisted of being forcefully separated from their families and having to grow up far too soon, I can only assume that they had doubts as to whether they would live to see children of their own, let alone grandchildren.

The generation that survived the Holocaust has reached its dénouement. Survivors who are still alive and are old enough to recall the tragedies of WWII are well into their 80s, with some in their 90s. While some were able to create new life in the aftermath of the war, many survivors never had children of their own, and as a result, have none to share their stories or love with.

In your community, wherever you are, I assure you there is a Holocaust survivor who would welcome the opportunity to spend time with you. Those seeking to rewrite history are not shy about denying the well-documented atrocities committed against the Jews and others marked as “different” or “inferior.” It is essential that our generation internalize the stories of those who survived the war (and the stories we know of those who did not), both to develop perspective on our own perceived “problems,” as well as to combat those intent on propagating hate.

As we enter the year 2012, make the time to befriend a local Holocaust survivor. Whether listening to their stories, talking about sports or playing games, make sure that every survivor is given the honor that s/he deserves. Do everything in your power to help those survivors who we are still blessed enough to have here feel as if they, too, have had the opportunity to see their children and grandchildren and leave a lasting imprint, defying whatever doubts they may have had during the dark period in their lives.