Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Bo

The Handoff

The first mitzvah that the Children of Israel are given is that of sanctifying the new moon. HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, "this month, the month of Nissan, shall be for you the first of the months." Why of all mitzvot was this one given first? What is it about this mitzvah that embodies the message of redemption and signifies what it means to be a free people?

First, identifying Nissan as the first of months makes a profound theological statement. From the perspective of the natural agricultural cycle, the year begins in Tishrei, the month that marks the beginning of fall and the onset of tilling and planting. It is for this reason that Rosh HaShana occurs on Tishrei and that the Torah constantly refers to Tishrei as the end and beginning of the yearly cycle. To live a life defined by the agricultural calendar, however, is to live a life dictated by the laws of nature and nothing more. It is to live a cyclical existence - people are born, reproduce, and die, the world keeps spinning, and the cycle goes round and round. "One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever." Any change is non-disruptive and predictable. Such a world, then, is ultimately unchanging and static. Such a world does not progress and such a life serves no higher purpose.

In such a world, slaves are never freed. In such a world, miracles never occur.

To declare that Nissan - the month of redemption - shall be the first month is to assert that we do not live in a world governed only by nature. With the exodus comes a reordering of our time and a reorienting of our outlook on our existence and the world. Yes, this is a natural world with seasonal cycles. But it is also a world of history. It is a world in which radical, disruptive change can occur. It is world where God plays a role, where God breaks through the natural order, wreaking plagues and creating miracles, freeing an enslaved people and bringing them to Mount Sinai and the Promised Land.

To live in such a world is to live a life of messianic promise; it is to live a life of purpose and meaning.

This first mitzvah, however, does not end here. For the mitzvah not only calls for Nissan to be identified as the first of the months but also, as Hazal understood it, for us to be partners in the process. It tasks us with establishing when the month begins on the basis of observing the new moon. "This month is for you," says the verse.  Kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh, explains the Talmud, "you must see the new moon, and you must sanctify it."

This mitzvah, then, represents a world in which we as a people are masters of our own fate and destiny.

While we cannot violate the laws of nature, we do not have to live under their tyranny. The moon waxes and wanes every month, but we decide how to relate to it. The beginning of the month is not defined by cosmological reality of the position of the moon but by our observation and recognition of it, by the significance we give it. And if we declare the month to begin on a day other than when the new moon appears, that day will nevertheless be recognized as the first of the month.

We create the sanctity of the month and the holidays that occur in it. We see; we sanctify. It is through this that we reject determinism. We declare that we are free agents. We declare that we shape our existence and define our world.

This is what freedom is all about. We leave a world where others define our existence, dictating what we do, where we eat, and where we sleep. And we enter a world in which we are the masters of our time, where we have the opportunity - but also the weighty responsibility - to dream and plan, to decide what we will do today, and to determine the future direction of our lives.

The exodus from Egypt came from God and through miracles. But to live a free life our ongoing exodus must come from within. With this mitzvah God is handing over the responsibility to us. God is saying, from here on in, kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh, when you see the natural world, you must sanctify it; it is upon you to give it significance.  It is up to you to break through the repetitious sameness of existence.  It is up to you to give your life direction and purpose. It is up to you to make it holy.

According to Sefat Emet:

For at the time of redemption it was made evident that God was the life-force of all, and... that this is the source of the ongoing renewal of the natural order, as it is written: "God renews every day, constantly, the acts of creation." However, one who forgets this is defined by the natural order, as it is written: "There is nothing new under the sun." But one who cleaves to the inner reality, to the life-force of God, constantly experiences renewal. This is what is meant, "This month," this renewal (chodesh/chadash), is yours. For each person of Israel can stir up this power of renewal through faith, by it being clear in his heart that all is from God (Sefat Emet, Bo, 5631).

Do we live in a world of nature, where nothing is new and God is nowhere to be found? Or do we live in a world suffused with God's presence, filled with dynamism, life-force, and possibility? The choice, says Sefat Emet, is ours. If we choose to see God in the world we will find it filled with opportunity and possibility, and this vision will be nurtured and reinforced, becoming our reality.

To truly achieve this, however, it is not just a question of how we see but also how we speak. This week's parasha begins and ends by stressing the importance of the stories that we tell and their role in shaping our reality. "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart... so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord" (10:1-2). The miracles, at least according to these verses, serve no other purpose than for us to relate them in stories that will shape the way we look at the world and the way we see God's presence therein.

And so it is at the end of the parasha: "On that day tell your son, 'I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (13:8). And similarly, "In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (13:14). Returning to Sefat Emet:

For behold, this is the power of speech that was given to the Children of Israel, and it is through this that they sanctify the months and the holidays, when the court says: mekudash haChodesh, the new month is sanctified. It was at the time of the exodus that the Children of Israel merited the covenant of speech. And this is the mitzvah of pesach - peh (a mouth) sach (that speaks). And "In order that you may tell" (10:1)... For the power of the mouth is to bring renewal... and this is what is meant by haChodesh hazeh lachem, this month - this making new - is yours (Sefat Emet, Bo, 5656).

After all the miracles are done we will return to living in a world in which miracles are not evident, where what we see most obviously before our eyes is nature, not God. It will be our responsibility to look at this world, to look at our present and our past and to see possibility, to see purpose, to see God. Kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh. Through our words we sanctify the month, and through our words and the stories we tell we can and we must shape and sanctify our world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Vaera

Becoming a People of Faith

Moshe tells the children of Israel that he is coming as God's messenger to take them out of the bondage of Egypt and to bring them to the land of Canaan. To Pharaoh, however, a different message is given: Send out the people for three days so that they can celebrate to God in the wilderness. It seems impossible that Pharaoh will ever willingly agree to permanently free the people, so a more reasonable request has to be made, allowing him to choose to do the right thing of his own free will. Hence, the stated purpose to Pharaoh is not freedom and possession of a land but merely a festival to God.

But there is more to it than that. For while it is clear why Pharaoh was not told of the goal to return to Canaan, it is unclear why the people were not told of the more religious goals of the Exodus. Our parasha is the first time that these goals are stated clearly:

And I appeared unto Avraham, unto Yitzchak, and unto Yaakov... And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan... and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians... And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God... And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I did swear to give it to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord. (Shemot, 6:3-8)

Consider all the points made in this passage: there is a covenant with the forefathers that continues now and that defines the relationship between God and the people; the people will know that there God exists and is their God; the people will be freed so that they will be able to be God's people in the land that is their inheritance from their forefathers and from God.

These are the lofty national-religious goals of the Exodus. But this is not what the people were originally told. If we look back to the original vision at the burning bush, the primary message is one of freedom from oppression and material well-being: "And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and spacious land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:8). It is true that God tells Moshe that the people will worship at this mountain, and it is true that Moshe asks God how to respond to the people who will ask for God's name, and that God identifies Godself as the God of their fathers (3:12-16). But the purpose of all this is to persuade the people that Moshe has indeed been sent by God; it is not to define a religious purpose for the Exodus. Thus, even the statement, "the God of your forefathers has appeared to me," ends with, "I will bring you out of the oppression of Egypt... to a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:16,17).

The emphasis on the freedom from slavery rather than some spiritual goal is understandable. Oppression and slavery are inherent evils, and the highest priority of freeing them is to relieve their suffering and eradicate these evils. This in itself is a spiritual mandate. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, "Yenems gashmius iz dein ruchnius" - another person's physical needs are for you a religious mandate. So this must be the first stated goal of the exodus. But why is the next message not the religious one for the people - that this will be a fulfillment of the covenant and that they will come to live as God's people?

It seems that the people are not ready to hear this. As famously described by Abraham Maslow, we have a hierarchy of needs. When our most basic needs - food, shelter, and safety - are not being met, we cannot attend to any higher-level needs, such as those for love, belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence, or the desire for a higher, spiritual purpose. The people were only prepared to hear the message about their material needs and desires. It is thus not surprising that, at this early stage, God is already telling Moshe that the people will despoil Egypt and leave laden with gold and silver (3:22-23). This is a message that will resonate. The religious message could come later.

But this won't last. The focus on some future material success does not give the people the inner-strength to withstand their current hardships, especially when things begin to get worse. As long as the promise is not realized, the immediacy of the current harsh reality will overshadow any promised future. And this is exactly what happens. Pharaoh increases the demands, the beatings increase, and the people attack Moshe. You have only made things worse, they say to him, so who needs you?

The solution to this problem lies in realizing that Maslow was not totally right. Even people in privation can focus on something beyond their physical needs, and it is often exactly this that gives them the resilience to withstand great hardships. This is the primary teaching of Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning: the key to persevering amidst even the most horrific of circumstances is not to focus on what one most immediately needs but to identify and immerse oneself in a higher purpose.

This is why Pharaoh increased the workload on the people - to ensure that they would not busy themselves with "vain words" (5:9). If they are laboring ceaselessly, he reasoned, they won't have time to cultivate a vision that will feed and strengthen their spirit. He believed that the people were saying, "Let us go sacrifice to our God" (5:8), that they desired not milk and honey, but God. It was this that was so threatening, for such a goal would fill the people with a sense of purpose, with ideas that could foment a rebellion and give them the fortitude to withstand any opposition. Popular rebellions only succeed when people are willing to lay their lives on the line, believing that they are fighting for something greater than themselves. Barring any Divine intervention, this was Pharaoh's greatest worry.

Pharaoh succeeded in keeping the people down. The people were now toiling endlessly. They had no time to think about any religious purpose, and in fact they had never been supplied with one in the first place. It is now, in our parasha, that there comes the attempt to do just that.  Moshe is told to reveal to the people what this is all about. It is about covenant; it is about God; it is about being God's people in the Promised Land. But this spiritual vision also falls on deaf ears: "And they did not listen to Moshe, for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage" (6:9).

After all the years of enslavement and the resultant deadening of the human imagination and spirit, a religious vision was not something that the people were capable of. It is one thing to be free and then be enslaved. Such a person can hold onto or cultivate a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. But to create this almost ex nihilo for those who were never in control of their time, their destiny, or any degree of self-directed purpose, is almost an impossible task.

The redemption from Egypt could not be a popular rebellion; it could not be a redemption from below. It could only be a redemption from above, from God, and also through Moshe, a person who did not grow up as a slave and who could truly possess and sustain this religious vision.

Moshe, for now, will have to turn his attention away from the people. From this point on his interactions will be solely with Pharaoh. It is only at the end of all the plagues, when the moment of redemption is almost upon them and they can begin to dream, that the people can be reengaged and begin to become an active part in their own redemption. It is then that they will take the paschal lamb and begin to imagine a future in the land of Israel, passing on their traditions and religious history to their children.

This will be a long process. There will still be much backsliding; the people will need to work constantly to sustain this higher purpose to withstand the privations of the desert. They will have to learn to focus on the promised land of Canaan and not on the fleshpots of the land of Egypt. They are about to begin a long and arduous journey, a journey to becoming a people of faith.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Thought on Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Shemot

Moshe and His Brothers

The beginning of the book of Shemot serves as a mirror image to the end of the book of Breishit. Breishit ends with Yosef's promise to his brothers: "Behold, I will die; and God will surely remember - pakod yifkod - you, and bring you out of this land" (Breishit, 50:24). So it is when God gives Moshe his charge that it is these words that Moshe is told to bring to the people: "Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them, the Lord, God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, of Yitzchak, and of Yaakov, appeared unto me, saying, I have surely remembered - pakod pakaditi - you and seen that which is done to you in Egypt" (Shemot, 3:16). The redemption that Moshe ushered in, then, is the fulfillment of the promise made centuries earlier by Yosef to his brothers. The story of the descent and entrenchment will find its reversal in the story of the exodus and return.

This mirror imaging plays out not only in terms of the story of the nation, but also in terms of Yosef and Moshe themselves. These two characters are not often compared, but when one looks closely, one sees many interesting parallels. Yosef, remember, leads the entire people - if only for a short period of time - out of Egypt to bury Yaakov in Canaan. And what is Moshe doing at the climax of the exodus, when the people begin their march toward the land of Canaan? "And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him; for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones away from here with you" (13:19). Moshe is doing on the national level what Yosef did on a smaller scale when he led his immediate family out to bury Yaakov.

This act of Moshe momentarily turns our gaze away from the national narrative and restores it to the story of a person and a family; it brings us out of the book of Shemot and back into the book of Breishit. It reminds us that the story of the exodus is also the end of the story of Yosef.  It is restoring Yosef to the land from which he had been estranged and to the family with which he had never regained a true sense of peace and wholeness.

This focus on the personal allows us to see more parallels between the lives of Moshe and Yosef. Yosef's life story began with being the favored son of his father, with his reporting the evil deeds of his brothers to his father, with special clothing that marked his privileged status, and with dreams of future greatness. All of this resulted in the jealousy and enmity of his brothers and to his being sold to Midianites and brought down to Egypt. Moshe's life story began in parallel, but also in opposing, ways. Moshe grew up outside his birth family, without a true father or mother at all. He undoubtedly had special clothing, royal Egyptian garments that marked his privileged status and his status as an outsider at the same time (consider how he was identified by Reuel's daughters: "An Egyptian man saved us from the shepherds"). Whereas Yosef's actions estrange him to his brothers, Moshe's first act is to create and strengthen the bond with his brothers: "And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens" (2:11). Yosef was the insider moving out; Moshe was the outsider moving in.

When Yosef saw his brothers' misdeeds, he reported them to his father with the possible consequence of their being punished or made to suffer. Moshe, however, did not initially see his brothers' misdeeds but the misdeeds of an Egyptian overlord, and his reaction was to stand up and defend his brothers, to save them from their suffering. Even on the following day, when one Hebrew was unjustly beating another, he did not report the guilty party to Pharaoh but acted to resolve it on his own. Rather than exacerbating sibling rivalry as Yosef had, Moshe was attempting to end this rivalry and infighting. His attempt was met not only with resistance but hostility, and far from succeeding in fostering greater family unity, Moshe was forced to flee his family and the land. The goal of restoring true bonds of brotherhood was not to be easily accomplished.

Moshe thus runs to Midyan to escape Egypt, much as a similar enmity caused Yosef to be sold to the Midianites and brought down to Egypt. There Moshe marries the daughter of the kohen Midyan, the priest of this foreign country, just as Yosef had married the daughter of kohen On, the priest of his foreign country. Moshe has two sons just as Yosef had two sons. Here, however, the parallels diverge. For while Yosef called his first son Menashe, "for God has made me forget all my travails and all my father's house" (Breishit, 41:51), Moshe calls his first son Gershon, saying, "I was a stranger in a foreign land" (Shemot, 2:22). Yosef had been pushed out of his family and was trying to forget his travails, set down roots, and make a home for himself in his adopted country. Moshe, in contrast, is not rebuffed. He feels estranged not from his family but from the land where he is currently forced to live away from his family. And so it is with the names of the second sons. The name of Yosef's second son reflects a certain degree of success, perhaps presaging further entrenchment in the land. The name of Moshe's second son, however, reflects God's saving power: "And the second son he called Eliezer, for the God of my father was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh," (18:4), presaging the redemption that was soon to come.

The reversal of the descent to Egypt - the redemption of the Exodus - would come through the reversal of the estrangement from family and one's ancestral land. It would come from Moshe's refusal to settle down, from forcing his his way back to be with his people to protect and defend them. Thus, when the time comes to return to Egypt, Moshe says to Yitro, "let me go now and return to my brothers who are in Egypt and see ha'odam chayim, if they are still alive." It is this, his connection to his brothers, his people - in addition, of course, to the divine charge - which compels him to return. Moshe's request to Yitro echoes a verse from the Yosef story: "Is it well with your elderly father of whom you spoke," he asks them, "ha'odenu chai, is he still alive?" (Breishit, 43:27). Yosef's concern is primarily with his father and this concern, for whatever reason, never led to any proactive action on his part. Moshe's concern is different - it is a concern for his brothers, for his entire family, and it is his acting on this and returning to them that ultimately brings about the redemption.

There is one final point that bears noting. Moshe started his adult life with a drive to connect to and protect his brothers. What he resisted was becoming God's representative, the person through whom the divine redemption would come. Yosef never had a problem with this role. He readily saw God as working through him as the conveyor of the divine interpretation of dreams, or as the vehicle for bringing the people down to Egypt so that they would survive the famine. Yosef's life started with the dreams, with the divine vision. It was a vision was built just on his relationship to God, not to his family, and it brought in its wake much grief. Moshe's vision of God came only later in life. But when it came, and when he finally accepted it, it emerged from the bonds of family and of brotherhood, from a willingness to risk one's own safety and security for the welfare of the people. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Vayechi

You Call This a Blessing?

As Yaakov's life draws to a close, he calls his children to his bedside and blesses them. In twenty-six verses of beautiful poetry he addresses each son in turn, tailoring his words to what is most appropriate for that particular son. These poetic utterances are not initially described as blessings but as a form of prophecy: "Gather and I will tell you what will occur to you in the End of Days" (Breishit, 49:1). Nevertheless, their content makes it clear that they are indeed blessings, and the Torah describes them as such at the conclusion of this section: "and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them, each person according to his blessing did he bless them" (Breishit, 49:28).

So each son was blessed. But is this really true? It seems that at least two sons - Shimon and Levi - were not blessed but cursed:  

"Cursed be their wrath, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel" (Breishit, 49:7).

What type of blessing is this? Can it be, somehow, that this curse is actually a blessing?

Yes, it can. When someone points out our faults or even calls us to task for our sins and misdeeds, this can indeed feel like a curse. But if this is done by someone who loves us, if that someone is doing it for us and not for them, then it can truly be a blessing. This is indeed what true parenting is about. Loving our children means caring about their moral development, about what type of people they will grow up to be. If we yell at them because they have made a mess before a big dinner party, we are venting our own anger; we are not - in this yelling - parenting them. But if our response is tailored to their concerns and not ours, and if we call them to task so that they can learn moral and social responsibility, then we have done true parenting, and they will be all the better for it.

The first step is to make sure that this is coming from a place of love and out of concern for the one who has to hear this criticism. Let us remember that Yaakov's initial response to Shimon and Levi's destruction of Shechem was an angry outburst, an outburst which focused not on their moral education or on even the immorality of their acts but on how their actions would endanger him:  "And Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, 'You have accursed me, to make me odious among those who dwell in the land... and they will gather against me and smite me, and I and my household will be annihilated'" (34:30). Notice the recurrence of the personal pronoun: me, me, I, my. It is all about him, so his yelling falls on deaf ears: "And they said, will our sister be treated like a prostitute?!" (34:31). Now, however, it is the end of his life. It is no longer about him; his life is over. It is about them, what they need to hear so that they can improve, so that they can be better.

But coming from a place of love and caring is not enough. Criticism can be devastating regardless. So what needs to be paired with caring is faith: faith in the other person, in his or her innate goodness, in their ability to divorce themselves from these actions: "Even at the moment of rebuke, he did not curse them, but only their wrath" (Rashi, 49:7, quoting Breishit Rabbah). "You are better than that," is the message. "This isn't you. You can rise above this." When our children misbehave, we know not to say, "Bad boy!" or "Bad girl!" We know, rather, to say, "That was a bad thing that you did." (Whether we always remember this at a moment of anger is a different question.)

A true friend can tell you things you need to hear, things that no one else will tell you, and he can tell you in a way that you can hear it. When the person on the receiving end knows that the words are coming from a place of love, and when she feels that others believe in her, she will be able to believe in herself and hear what is being said.

But it is not just how the message is delivered; it is also how it is heard. And we are not in control of how someone will hear what we have said. Some people have the ability to hear the one negative, slightly critical comment in an effusion of praise and to zero in on that, to find the one thing they can feel bad about and to beat themselves up over it. Indeed, some studies have shown that it takes ten positive comments to counter the effect of one negative one. But a person does himself no service by just focusing on the negative. The result will be feeling bad, feeling guilty, with no productive outcome. And it can lead to reinforcing the negative, to defining oneself by past behavior: "I'm no good. I'm always doing the wrong thing. I'm a bad person." This type of thinking can even serve as an excuse for future misconduct: "What else could be expected of me? This is who I am."

A person who instead believes that he or she was created in God's image, in our ultimate freedom as human beings, a person who believes in bechira chafshit, will know that his or her past behavior need not define who he or she is and can be.

Now, this is not to deny that people are made differently. People have different character traits and different personalities. But biology is not destiny, and character, even if it cannot easily be changed, can surely be redirected. As the Gemara in Niddah (16b) states, it may be determined at the moment of conception - genetically, we would say - whether a person will be smart or stupid, strong or weak, but what is not determined is whether the person will be good or bad. Even destructive character traits can be directed towards a constructive purpose. A person with bloodlust, says Rav Ashi in Shabbat (157a), may turn out to be a murderer, but he may also turn out to be a shochet or a surgeon.

How we hear loving critique, and what we do with it, is in our hands. The same character trait that was the source of a curse can now become the source of a blessing. It is all about what message we choose to hear. So it was with Shimon and Levi. One of them heard only the curse and defined himself by it. And one extrapolated the blessing and lived up to it and its promise.

Shimon heard the curse. His destructive anger never changed, was never redirected, and so the words of Yaakov became a curse. The tribe of Shimon was scattered in Israel, and they had no inheritance of their own when Joshua divided the land.

And Levi heard the blessing. Levi - his descendants, the tribe of Levi - took their anger, their passion, and directed it to the service of God, to defending God's honor, to zealously protecting the Sanctuary. They brought their zeal to the service of God. They were scattered in Israel, but this was so that they could serve the people, teach Torah, and give religious guidance to one and all. And the cities in which they dwelt were cities of refuge, one of which was Shechem itself. These cities provided safety and protection to those who had unintentionally killed someone so that they would not be murdered in the violent bloodlust of others seeking to avenge the death of a brother or sister, protecting them so that the sin of Shechem would not be repeated. Truly, their curse became their blessing, a blessing that they shared with the entire Jewish people.

Did Yaakov bless Shimon and Levi, or did he curse them? His words, delivered with love, with concern for their betterment, with belief in their potential to change and rise above, had the potential to truly be words of blessing. Yaakov did his part; the rest was up to his sons. If his words were heard as a curse, then they would be a curse. But if they were heard as they were delivered, if they were heard as a blessing, then they became a blessing indeed. Let us always have the ability to deliver our words as blessings and to hear the words of others - even the critical words - as blessings as well.

Shabbat Shalom!
                                                                  Reprinted from 2012