Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stopping To Smell The Roses

22 Shevat 5773 / Feb. 1-2, 2013

In this week’s portion, Yitro, we find Moses (and the Israelites) being greeted by Moses’s father-in-law Yitro (aka Jethro) after the Israelites managed to fight off the armies of the nation of Amalek.  Yitro greets Moses, bringing along Moses’s wife and two sons.  After telling his father-in-law all that God had done for the Israelites in Egypt, Yitro rejoices, praises God, and offers up a sacrifice.

Shortly thereafter, Yitro observes that the Israelites are approaching Moses to settle every little dispute.  He advises Moses to empower a number of individuals to serve as judges (effectively, establishing the tiered court system that we still use today), thus allowing Moses to only adjudicate the major disputes, while relying on others to adjudicate minor ones.  Once this new system of resolving disputes has been put in place, Yitro takes his leave.

The Israelites then enter the wilderness of Sinai, and approach the mountain contained within it.  On the third day, amidst thunder, lightning, horn blasts, and what appears to mimic a volcano that is about to erupt, the 10 Commandments are given. 

The traditional understanding of the text suggests that God actually spoke to the entire Israelite nation assembled at the foot of the mountain, as at the end of the portion we find God instructing Moses to say to the Israelites: “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the heavens.”

“Revelation at Sinai,” as this event is commonly known, is in many ways the central event of the entire Torah (it’s where tradition says that we received the Torah itself, after all). 

One of the more intriguing pieces of this episode that the ancient rabbis picked up on is that the Israelites supposedly “saw” the thunder and “saw” that God spoke to them – as opposed to hearing these things.  Revelation at Sinai was so significant and powerful in our narrative that it actually altered peoples’ senses.

For us today, I can’t help but think that before we could ever be in a position to have our senses altered again, that we’d need to be better at embracing our senses as they currently exist.

Do we savor our food, take pleasure in its odor and taste, and express our gratitude after consuming it?

When we hold the hand of or hug another, do we recognize the intense power and energy that physical connections create?

When we hear thunder and see lightning today, do we take a moment to reflect and be in awe of the power nature holds?

This Shabbat, let’s resolve to take a break from our mile-a-minute lives, and to make the time to both figuratively and literally stop and smell the roses.  Because in addition to adding depth and quality to our lives, perhaps once we come to a fuller appreciation of the senses we’re blessed to have, we’ll be meritorious enough to have our senses altered in ways currently unimaginable, as tradition shares our ancestors before us did.  

Friday, January 25, 2013

I'm in a store and I'm singing!

15 Shevat 5773 / January 25-26, 2013

In this week’s portion, Beshallach, we find the Israelites trapped against the sea with the Egyptians closing in on them.  Due to some Divine intervention, the Israelites are able to cross the sea on dry land while their Egyptian pursuers drown.  After seeing the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea, the Israelites’ faith in God and Moses is renewed, and they respond by bursting into spontaneous song (somehow they all knew the words).  After the song, Miriam leads all of the women in dance, chanting and playing tambourine along the way.

The concept of spontaneous song is one that strikes me as being very powerful. We’ve all experienced such song before, whether in the car or in the shower.  Sometimes you just have to let it out and sing.  And as we all know, singing is something that we all do and that’s pretty easy to do, regardless of your surroundings.  

Unlike spontaneous song, many of us struggle with the notion of spontaneous prayer, despite what should be apparent similarities.  The reality seems to be that by virtue of being used to having a prayer book placed in front of us that provides us with the words we “should” say, the opportunity to spontaneously sing out our innermost expressions of gratitude and praise feels stifled.

This Shabbat, let’s strive to be like our ancestors after coming out of Egypt.  Let’s remember that the words on a page are so much less important than the words in our hearts.  Let’s sing out when given the opportunity, and let's allow ourselves to spontaneously be so caught up in life’s moments, that all we can do is sing out how grateful we are to experience them as they take place.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Patience, Child!

8 Shevat 5773 / Jan 18-19, 2013

In this week’s portion, Bo, we find plagues 8-10 (Locusts, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn), and the Israelites being thrown out of Egypt, as the Egyptians couldn’t get rid of them fast enough after plague #10 (which killed every Egyptian first born man and beast – including Pharaoh’s eldest son).  We find a number of the requirements surrounding the holiday of Passover as well (such as eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs when commemorating the Exodus)

One of the most interesting pieces of the interactions we find between Pharaoh and Moses this week is that Moses actually warned Pharaoh that the 10th plague was coming – and specified what it was going to be!  Thus, before the plague struck, Pharaoh knew that the next plague supposedly was the death of the firstborn.  And after having seen 9 other plagues come to fruition, you’d think he might have been a bit more concerned (Granted we learn that his heart was being “hardened” by God, implying that his decisions were not necessarily his own…).

We also learn that after plague #8, Pharaoh actually said that all the Israelite men could leave Egypt; and after plague #9, that all of the Israelites could leave, but their flocks and herds must stay behind. 

I’m shocked that Moses wouldn’t have approached God to ask whether or not the Israelites should take one of the deals – especially the latter one.  Who cares about flocks and herds when freedom is on the line after hundreds of years of bondage?

The result, however, was that not only did the Israelites eventually leave with all of their flocks and herds, but with most of the gold and silver of Egypt as well, as they had been instructed to “borrow” gold and silver items from the Egyptians the night before leaving, and God supposedly created an environment in which the Egyptians were willing to lend them.

Evidently, for our ancestors, being patient clearly paid off. 

Patience is something many of us struggle with.  There is always something making us feel the need to fill silences with speech or to act and jump into something. Those who truly excel at being patient are those who consciously practice, and who are intentional about how they act – both horizontally (between people), and vertically (with the Divine).

Our tradition makes clear that patience is a Jewish virtue.  For example, in the Book of Proverbs (which is in the “Writings” section of the Hebrew Bible), we learn:

"The patient man shows much good sense, but the quick-tempered man displays folly at its height" (Proverbs 14:29), and

"A patient man is better than a warrior, and he who rules his temper is better than he who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32).

This Shabbat, take a breath before responding to questions or comments made by others.  Recognize that first is not always best.  Acknowledge that just as our ancestors were patient enough to wait a bit longer after hundreds of years of bondage, the patience we’re capable of is immense.

Have patience with yourself.  Have patience with others.  And have patience with the Divine.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Don't be a Lemming...

1 Shvat 5773 / January 11-12, 2013

In this week’s portion, Va’era, we find Moses and Aaron approaching Pharaoh, still asking him to allow the Israelites to go on a three-day journey into the wilderness in order to worship their God.

To help convince him to say yes, plagues #1-7 are brought upon Egypt.  As a result of a couple of them, Pharaoh is so concerned that he agrees to let the Israelites leave.  But, once Moses has the plague removed, Pharaoh’s heart hardens (sometimes on his own, sometimes as a result of God interfering and making it so), and he refuses to let the Israelites leave Egypt.

One of the most intriguing verses in this week’s portion comes at the very end, after Moses beseeches God at Pharaoh’s request to end the plague of hail (that had fireballs inside of it!). 

We read there: “And Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin, and his heart and the heart of his servants became hardened. (Ex. 9:34)

Knowing the story, we expect Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened.  After all, God told Moses ahead of time (in last week’s portion) that such would be the case.  However, what are we to make of the fact that Pharaoh’s servants also seem to be impacted in some fashion?

Some might argue that God, being all-powerful, also manipulated the free will of Pharaoh’s servants.  Others might argue that the servants were powerless to act any differently than their leader, as doing so might have put their own lives at risk.  I think that this verse provides a particularly valuable lesson as it relates to the perils that come with blindly following leaders.  

Pharaoh was a self-righteous jerk who didn’t have the best interests of the Egyptian people at heart.  He wouldn’t let the Israelites have a bit of a respite from their slave labor, and ultimately, the Egyptian people paid for his closed-mindedness.  By failing to disagree with (and organize against) their leader, Pharaohs servants were complicit in Egypt’s downfall, and arguably, were just as responsible.

Whether you’re a leader or contemporary “servant”:

When you see a wrong, speak out.

Don’t blindly follow anyone – always ask questions.

Stand up for what you know to be right.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Power of Introverts

23 Tevet 5773 / Jan. 4-5, 2013

This week, we enter the Book of Exodus (book #2 of 5 in the Torah), and we find that a new Pharaoh has come to power in Egypt.  This new Pharaoh seems to have some issues with short term memory, as he has forgotten (ignored?) the good that Joseph did for Egypt, and in turn, enslaves the Israelites (he’s afraid that due to their birthrates, they’ll take over Egypt!).  He even goes so far as to decree that newborn Israelite males should be killed!

With this as our backdrop, we’re introduced to Judaism’s most cherished prophet, Moses.  As a newborn, Moses’s mother hid him for three months to keep him alive, and then proceeds to put him in a basket and floats him down the Nile.  Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, decides the keep the baby, and Moses’s sister, Miriam, who was watching from afar, offers to go find a Hebrew wetnurse for the baby.  Pharaoh’s daughter accepts, and Miriam brings Moses’s mother – so, it’s Moses’s mother who actually nurses Moses as an infant!  Once weaned, Moses is brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he is raised as a prince of Egypt.

One day, Moses finds an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew, and comes to the Hebrew’s defense, killing the Egyptian and hiding his body in the sand.  The next day, Moses learns that Pharaoh has found out and wants Moses dead; so Moses runs away.

Moses camps beside a well in the town of Midian, and rises to the defense of  7 women (sisters!) who were being harassed and driven away from the well, and then waters their flocks for them.  What a gentleman!  It turns out that these young women are the daughters of the priest of Midian, named Jethro.  Since no good deed goes unrewarded, Moses is given the eldest of Jethro’s eldest daughter Tzipporah, as a wife, and shortly thereafter they have a son named Gershom.

At this point, we learn that the new Pharaoh (who didn’t “know” Joseph) died (he’d be replaced by another Pharaoh), and this is when the Torah tells us that God took notice of the cries of the Israelites.

God appears to Moses via the burning bush and says to him:  “I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free my people.”

Moses replies: “Who am I that I should be your messenger?  What if they don’t believe me?”

God provides Moses with a few different miracles he can show off to the Israelites so that they’ll believe him. 

Moses still protests: “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God angrily replies: “Your brother Aaron can be your mouthpiece.”

Aaron meets Moses and they perform the signs for the Israelites, who believe them.  They then approach Pharaoh for the first time and ask for the Israelites to be allowed to go on a 3 day journey into the wilderness to worship God (implying that they’d then return to Egypt – not quite “let my people go!”).

In response, Pharaoh punishes the Israelites by making them go get the straw they need to make bricks (it had been provided until this point) and demanding the same quota.  The Israelites are far from thrilled about this.

Moses questions why God would do this.

God responds: Just wait and see… He’ll let them go…


Moses, our greatest prophet, was an introvert.  And yet, despite lacking the desire to speak publicly, Moses constantly showed his willingness to stand up for others.  From striking down the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew to standing up for Jethro’s daughters at the well, Moses revealed that there are times when even those who are self-proclaimed introverts can, must, and do act to help others.

I’ve always found it fascinating that our most heralded prophet was actually an introvert, given the Jewish tradition of talking (and having excessive opinions!).  Moses is beloved not for what he says, but rather for what he does.  My guess is that this does not surprise Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant, as her Ted Talk from February of 2012 focuses specifically on The Power of Introverts (watch it – it’s awesome!).  Cain points to examples of leaders who reluctantly took the spotlight (e.g. Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt), even though “every bone in their bodies was telling them not to.”

Too often as a society, we ascribe value to those who are outspoken.  The reality, however, is that those who speak the loudest are not necessarily the ones who speak the best (or possess the most wisdom).  Moses often didn't even speak publicly at all -- rather, he used his brother Aaron as his mouthpiece.

This Shabbat, consciously wait a few seconds longer than you normally would before responding to questions or interjecting thoughts into a conversation.  Make the space to reflect and contemplate.  Recognize that just because someone is quiet, this doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t have valuable insights to add to the conversation.  Make an effort to provide the space and comfort for individuals who are more introverted to share their thoughts as well (if they’d like to), as we’ll all be better off as a result.