Thursday, December 19, 2013

Are You Humble?

18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013

With this week’s portion, Shemot, we begin the Book of Exodus.  We learn that a new Pharaoh comes to power who chooses to ignore Joseph’s legacy, and who in turn decides to oppress the Israelites (ultimately decreeing that all newborn Israelite boys should be killed).

Moses is born, is hidden for three months, is sent down the Nile and is shortly thereafter discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter.  Moses’s sister Miriam approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a midwife for her (Moses’s mother!).  Thus, Moses actually spends the next couple of years at home being nursed, and only once weaned was brought to his new palatial home.

The Torah says next to nothing about the subsequent portion of Moses’s life – the next thing we learn is that once grown, he strikes and kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite. Despite being part of the family, Moses learns that Pharaoh wants to kill him due to his actions, so Moses flees to Midian.

In his time in Midian, Moses becomes a shepherd, marries Tzipporah, and has a couple of sons.  After a period of time, Moses encounters the Burning Bush and is charged by God to go to Egypt in order to free the Israelites from bondage. 

Moses is incredibly resistant to the task:

“Who am I that I should do this?”

“What if they ask your name?”

“What if they don’t believe me?”

“But I’m slow of speech and tongue…”

“Please make someone else your agent…”

Moses is so resistant that God actually gets angry with him, and ultimately tells him that he’ll have Aaron join him in order to serve as his mouthpiece.

On that note, Moses takes his wife and sons and begins the journey back to Egypt.

After a brief middle-of-the-night interlude where God tries to kill “him” (the text is unclear whether it’s referring to Moses or to one of his sons), with the attack subsiding post Tzipporah circumcising one of their sons, Moses and Aaron reunite after decades apart, and together approach the Israelite elders and then the broader population, who are convinced that they are indeed messengers of God (God had prepped Moses with a few miracles / magic tricks to show off in order to help persuade them).

Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh for the first time (this is a new Pharaoh – NOT the one who Moses grew up knowing) and ask for permission for the Israelites to go on a 3-day journey to worship God in the wilderness (note that they don’t say “Let My People Go”!).  Pharaoh declines their request, and increases the workloads of the Israelites as a result.  Needless to say, the Israelites are upset. 

The portion ends with Moses calling out to God, asking why God had sent him to make the lives of the Israelites harder.  God responds: don’t worry -- I got this.  You’ll soon see what will happen to Pharaoh.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this week’s portion in my mind is how reluctant Moses was to be God’s messenger. You’d think that upon having a Divine revelatory experience, one might feel quite stoked about following through on some specific assignments.  Did Moses’s hesitation indicate a lack of faith?  Why was Moses chosen in the first place?  Maybe it was due to a preexisting relationship with the Pharaoh (while it was a new Pharaoh in power, given that Moses spent roughly 40 years in Egypt growing up as the adopted son of royalty, there’s a decent chance he would have met the new guy at some point…), which would provide the opportunity to appear before him?  The Midrash suggests that it’s because as a shepherd, Moses cared for each individual sheep, and not just the flock as a whole, signifying his ability to shepherd the entire Israelite nation, person by person, out of Egypt.

The Bible itself (later, in Numbers 12:3) states: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. 

Some might argue that valuing such intense humility means that we are doomed to produce reluctant leaders.  After all, it’s quite evident that without God’s backing, Moses would not have led.  I would however counter that the major lesson we should be taking from this week’s portion is that by highlighting Moses’s reluctance, the Torah is emphasizing that the mission is more important than the man (or woman). 

This Shabbat, reflect on your own leadership experiences, and their intersection with humility.  Are you jumping at opportunities to lead because it’ll look good on a resume, or because you believe in the mission at hand?  Are you humble? (hint: if you answer “yes,” you might not be as humble as you think…).  Do you have a right-hand-person and confidant, the way Moses did with Aaron?

Let’s resolve to be humble enough to at times remove our selves and our needs from the equation, in order to make sure it’s the needs of others and impact we’re having on them that remains our focus.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stuck Like Glue

11 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 13-14, 2013

This week’s portion, Vayechi, marks the end of the book of Genesis.  We first find Jacob about to pass away, and note that he still hasn’t learned his lesson about the issues that come with playing favorites, as he adopts Joseph’s sons as his own, ensuring that each gets an equal share of his inheritance with his trueborn sons.  He then gathers all of his sons together in order to share with them some insights he has about their futures.  Needless to say, some of his words are pretty harsh.  After delivering them, he passes away, is mourned throughout Egypt (due to his relationship to Joseph), and his sons collectively travel back to Canaan in order to bury him in the family burial place.

With Jacob having passed away, Joseph’s brothers were worried that Joseph would finally punish them for having sold him into slavery so many years before, and bow down to him begging for his mercy (again – 17 years after having settled in Egypt together).  Joseph assures them, again, that their actions were part of a broader Divine plan, and that they have no reason to fear him.

At the end of the portion, Joseph makes his family promise that when the time comes, they will bring his bones back to Canaan, as they did his father’s.  He then passes away at the age of 110.

There are so many real, raw emotions that we find in this portion, and we continue to see modeled challenging Biblical relationship situations often present in our own lives.  It is not at all uncommon for families today to have a patriarch (or matriarch), in this case Jacob, serving as the “glue” that holds a family together.  Just as Joseph’s brothers were afraid of a potential changed relationship when their father passed away, so too do many contemporary families crumble when siblings no longer have a shared love of their parent(s) to keep them from fighting with one another.  Putting aside fights over who benefits from a parent’s estate (which unfortunately are all too common), sometimes siblings are so different from and have so little love for one another, that once their parents are gone, they perceive no further reason to interact and simply go their separate ways.

I can’t help but wonder what the interactions between Joseph and his brothers must have been like during their 17 years of living in Egypt together.  Perhaps their relationship was so lukewarm – a farce being put on for the sake of Jacob -- that the brothers had every right to be afraid that Joseph was ultimately going to be vengeful.  Needless to say, Joseph, as Egypt’s #2 head honcho, could very easily have belatedly punished his brothers for their past actions, knowing that his father was no longer around. 

And yet, despite their long and complicated history, and despite his position of power, Joseph assures his brothers that they have nothing to fear.  Even if we read between the lines to suggest that perhaps 17 years prior, Joseph forgave his brothers but still harbored some resentment towards them, we can know for certain now, 17 years later, that he has forgiven them for the way they treated him. 

What’s the lesson we can learn from this interaction between Joseph and his brothers?

Forgiveness takes time.  Even when we forgive someone (or say “I forgive you”) shortly after an incident takes place, we haven’t necessarily gotten to a place where we’re ready or willing to truly put what we perceive as the other’s shortcomings behind us.  Even after forgiving another, it’s possible that the way we interact with and treat them may not be ideal, and will create lingering doubts in their minds (as it did in Joseph’s brothers).  Some wounds will forever leave scars – although with time, they usually become less and less visible, slowly fading away.  So too, forgiveness takes time.

This Shabbat, reflect on your family.  Who is your family’s glue?  How can you enhance your relationship with other members of your family?

Also, meditate on the theme of forgiveness, and don’t beat yourself up if there are folks in your life who you have forgiven in word, but whose prior actions still trouble you.  Examine the ways in which you interact with such folks, to make sure you aren’t putting off a negative vibe, despite having “forgiven” them.  Be comforted by the fact that true forgiveness takes time.