Friday, January 29, 2010
According to midrash (rabbinic lore) the seas split not merely because Moses raised his staff over the water, but because one man dare to enter the waters on his own without waiting for Moses or anyone else to take action. This man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, understood that in order to achieve freedom and salvation we must not merely wait around or pray for it, but we must act as partners with God in order to make it happen! It was Nachshon’s bravery and his faith in the divine-human partnership that enabled him to enter the raging waters even as Moses prayed to God asking for help. Or was it?
In a modern midrash written by my colleague Rabbi Michael M. Cohen, the crowd around him pushed Nachshon into the sea. In this telling of the story, he becomes more an accidental, rather than an intentional, catalyst of redemption. Either way, the midrashim teach that human action must work in partnership with the Divine to bring about redemption, both individually and communally, whether actions are intentional or accidental.
So, the question remains were Nachshon’s actions – are our redemptive actions – intentional or accidental? Voluntary or coerced? The answer is...yes.
I stand here
from sand to sky
pillar of protection
pillar of obliteration
fire and water
life and death
freedom and slavery
unknown and known
where is he
the chosen one
slow of speech
drawn out of the waters
tell us how
I shall rescue you
beneath my waves
by my calm
you shall find
am your god
out of Egypt
I am drawn
in the brine
depths surround me
fills my nostrils
stings my eyes
calms my soul
I have returned
to the womb
I do not know
I do not remember
I was pushed
I do not recall
only the reality
I am here
on dry land
I look up
the sun is high
to the side
reaching towards heaven
I stand between
feet firmly planted
on dry mud
are picked up
the first time
what did I do
was it I
it could not be
I do not know
all i know is the
the spray of water
in a daze
I am now
not the first
then i hear
they are approaching
in their eyes
towards the screams
of my people
calling to me
rush of water
screams of death
cries of shock
shouts of joy
I do not
stop to look
I am swept up
by the sea
in mouth and eyes
I am free
I am alive
I look behind
as it always
the horses are gone
they have now
discovered the depths
they will not
be lifted up
they will be
then the sound
I look again
to the sea
for a moment
that gives life and
in my mind
exhaling the life
inhaling the brine
emotions engulf me
for destruction wrought
when the dead
lie before us
how can we not
when the living
are in our midst
I look up
he is there
the chosen one
drawn from the water
through the water
he looks at me
he reaches down
I hold his hand
he draws me up
from the ground
are they from me
in his arms
in his embrace
beauty beyond speech
I turn around
he is gone
by the ocean
of frenzied souls
celebrating the moment
filled with joy
it is all we have
I will do
Saturday, January 23, 2010
This week’s parashah, Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16), begins “Then God said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am God.’” (10:1-2). This is then followed by the onset of the eighth plague of locusts. The parashah continues with the continued hardening of Pharaoh’s heart after the eighth and ninth plagues and then the last plague, the death of the firstborn. The parashah concludes with the commandments to dedicate the first-born of the Israelites to God and to observe Pesakh/Passover.
At the end of last week’s parashah, Va’era, the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim was almost completely decimated by the plague of hail. Mitzrayim, which is connected with the Hebrew for “narrow, constricted,” has been laid waste. The place that was known for its glory and grandeur has been brought low. Yet, in spite of this, Pharaoh retains his hubris. Living in his palace, separated from his people, he is able to maintain his sense of superiority and his belief that nothing could ever destroy him or his power.
After the conclusion of the seventh plague, it must have seemed to the people that they and their land could suffer no more. Yet, with the coming of the locusts we are told that what little vegetation had been left after the previous plague was now totally consumed. If the people thought the land was bare after the hail, they now knew what barrenness really looked like. However, even that could not prepare them for what was to come. For we read that in the ninth plague, they experienced a darkness that they could actually feel. This darkness touched the core of their being. They were totally and utterly engulfed by it. This palpable darkness can represent not simply depression, uncertainty or fear, but the people’s realization that everything upon which they had built their hopes and dreams had ceased to exist. All that they believed to be real was an illusion. They could no longer experience anything but nothingness.
We get little sense of how the common Egyptians felt after each plague ended, but one can only imagine that they were relieved to see again when this plague ended. Yet, what were they able to see? If they had truly come to the realization that everything they knew before was an illusion then what did their eyes perceive in the light?
What they saw was a land that was totally barren. The palaces and cities of Pharaoh meant nothing to them, for they realized that they were simply empty monuments. They were able to see the reality that they had moments ago felt with their entire being. The only thing that did exist for them at that moment was the realization that nothing existed. One could imagine that they even doubted their own existence after all they had experienced. For how could anyone be certain of anything after experiencing the deepest darkness? As they tried to comprehend this while continuing their lives, darkness came again. However, this time it was the “normal” darkness accompanied by the light of the full moon. Perhaps they could trust this darkness. Perhaps they again began to feel more secure, like life was going to once again be what it was before. Then, the final plague struck and they felt as if they were plunged back into the deep darkness once again. For within hours, the entire first born of Egypt lay dead. The first born, the ones upon whom the hopes and dreams of the people’s future rested, were no more. If there was any doubt that nothing would ever be the same, it had now been eradicated. The rug had been pulled out from underneath the entire nation. The future no longer existed. Rather, the future seemed at that moment to be as uncertain as anything could be. That is how the parashah ends for the Egyptians.
Though we usually identify with the Israelites, I believe, just as when interpreting dreams, we can find ourselves in all of the characters in the Torah. Therefore, we are also the Egyptians … the Mitzrim … the constricted ones. We are the ones who have been oppressed by a power that we believed to be greater than us. We may not have been slaves to Pharaoh, but we were under his control nevertheless. We have worshipped him as a man/god who controlled our lives. We have looked at his grand edifices and identified with the power and glory that they represented. Surely, any person – any nation – that could create such splendor would last forever. Surely, anyone who was a subject of this person was also guaranteed the benefits that come along with the package. Yet, with each plague things became less and less certain. With each plague the ground beneath us began to shift and tremble. With each plague, our certainty began to diminish. Now, after the last two plagues we realize that it is all an illusion and that our future is gone. Though our eyes can see, it is as if we have been plunged back into that deepest darkness of the ninth plague yet again. However, this time we don’t know if we will ever emerge again into the light.
Then, we suddenly come to a realization that awakens us. It even makes us laugh a bit. This grand revelation is , simply put, ‘this is life.’ This is what it’s about. Existence is not about certainty, glory, or any of the things represented by palaces and the external trappings of Pharaoh and his court. Life is about not knowing what the next moment will bring. Life is about simply acknowledging and living in the present. Some of us come to this realization easily and early. However, for most of us it takes being plunged into darkness and ends with the death of the dreams and fantasies of the future upon which we have obsessed and built our lives. Only then do we come to the realization (if we do at all). Yet, once we realize this truth, we are actually relieved. Once we realize the truth, we can stop being Mitzrim – constricted ones – and instead become Israelites … B’nai Yisrael, those content to struggle with forces Divine and human.
And what are the Israelites doing while all of this is happening to the Egyptians? We are not certain from the text what they are doing during most of the plagues, but we can imagine that they might have just been sitting, waiting, and watching, while realizing that all of this was out of their control. However, we know that during the tenth plague they were sitting in their homes observing the first Pesakh seder. They were enacting a ritual commanded to them by Moses, on God’s behalf, by which their descendants would commemorate this night in perpetuity. They may have had their sandals on and their staffs at their side so that they could leave when the time came, but they also realized that the coming of that time was out of their control. Therefore, they sat, they ate, and they waited. Though we tend to emphasize the fact that the people left in haste, and so had no time to let the dough rise, the Torah tells us even before the meal takes place that they are to eat unleavened bread. The people were commanded to eat no leaven – which according to many represents “puffed up” human pride and hubris – even before they leave in haste.
One can imagine that Israelites simply sat where they were, ate what was before them and praised God from a place of humility. While all around them death and destruction engulfed the Egyptians. Then Pharaoh lets out a cry that the Torah tells us “reached all of Egypt” when his first-born dies. The future that he had built and planned for is no more. Even then, the Israelites remain seated in their homes celebrating the Passover. They remain where they are acknowledging and celebrating the present, knowing that the future is simply an unknown. All they have is the present. If there is to be a future, it is in God’s hands and they will know it only when it becomes the present.
When the final plague ends, the moment arrives when the future becomes the present. God makes them aware that it is time to move from their place. Yet, before that, God commands them that from now on their first-born will always be consecrated to the Divine. This is an instruction to them to remember that the future, represented by the first-born, is in God’s hands – however one chooses to understand that term.
We cannot control the future. We cannot control anything, any more than could the Egyptians. All we can do is experience the present. We can attend to and feel within our souls what is happening in the moment, no matter how painful or difficult it may be, just as the Egyptians did during the plagues of locust and darkness. We can sit wherever we are and recognize the chaos that is ensuing all around us, as well as the uncertainty within us, as the Israelites did during the final plague.
Our other choice is to take the path of Pharaoh, always believing that we are in control, that we know what the future brings and that our world is in our command. If we choose this path then, when everything comes crumbling down around us, as it inevitably will, we will be unable to feel the darkness of that moment or sit there in the midst of the chaos. Rather, we will only be able to do as Pharaoh did and let out a scream that could reach all the corners of Egypt, and all the corners within ourselves, as everything that we thought we had created and controlled dies around us, and we die along with it.
Still, once again, this provides us with an opportunity. At that moment when we feel all that we can do is scream and sink to our knees, we can also choose. We can either accept the impermanence and uncertainty of life or we can once again begin to build our illusions of permanence and control of the future. Each moment provides us with choice. Each moment provides us with an opportunity. Each moment is all we have. Now we simply need to decide.
Friday, January 15, 2010
This reaction is something to which many of us can relate. So many times in our lives, we may feel unequal to the task that lies before us. We fear that the task is too great. Yet, one might imagine that even if Moses felt unworthy he would have trusted God's judgment and God’s ability make the correct choice. Nevertheless, Moses does not respond that way.
Moses tries to convince God that God has the wrong man. It is for this reason that some commentators believe that Moses is one of three characters in the narrative that block God's message of redemption. As discussed in Aviva Zornberg's The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus Pharaoh, the Israelites, and Moses all try to block God's communication.
Pharaoh and the Israelites are both described in the Torah as "not listening" to God. Pharaoh has no excuse, except that he's Pharaoh and, as he says in last week's parashah, "Who is God that I should listen to God's voice?" (Ex. 5:2). The people's only excuse is that they have "shortness of spirit and hard labor." And so they are deaf to God's redemptive call.
Moses, on the other hand, tries to block God's message by stating that he is an unfit messenger. Moses tried once already to be God's voice and Pharaoh laughed in his, and, by extension, God's face (see Ex. 5:2). Why should Pharaoh listen the next time and why should the people listen after seeing their labor increase after Moses' first request of Pharaoh?
However, Zornberg points out, Moses does not base his reluctance to speak on the actions of Pharaoh, but rather on his in ability to make people listen. He is of “uncircumcised lips” and neither Pharaoh nor the people will listen to him. The great Hassidic master of the 19th century, the Sefat Emet, interprets Moses' cry to God as saying: "They (Pharaoh and the people) would not listen, THEREFORE, I am of uncircumcised lips." This interpretation turns the usual on its head. Rather than speech creating, or failing to create, listeners, it is listening, or the lack thereof, that creates the inability to speak!
If Pharaoh and the people are unwilling to listen, then it is as if Moses is unable to speak. In other words, if a prophet speaks in a desert and there is no one there to hear him (or willing to hear him) does he really say anything? Moses's answer to this seems to be an unqualified No!
The Zohar (mystical commentary on the Torah) calls this phenomenon "the exile of the word." "The dynamic of language, of communication, has failed [and] this failure is the profound meaning of exile; it encompasses the inability to hear and the inability to speak…The ears of this generation [of slaves] do not, cannot respond to living language. For this reason, Moses will not, cannot speak." (Zornberg, p. 84)
Moses is therefore faced in this parashah with the dilemma that faces so many leaders of social change throughout history. If the people are unwilling or unable to hear the message does one continue to attempt to deliver it? In our narrative the answer is yes. But that answer comes from God. If it were up to Moses redemption may never have come, or certainly it would have come at a much later date. God is the power that makes for redemption in this narrative, but God is also the power that ultimately gives Moses the power of speech even in the face of the deafness of Pharaoh and the people.
However, I believe that God also gives the people the ability to hear. Pharaoh's unwillingness to even consider that there could be any power greater than he is what prevents Pharaoh from being able to hear up until the moment when the sea is closing in around him. But the people do eventually listen and hear. At least temporarily.
It is said that when we truly communicate with one anther we can see the face and hear the voice of God. But the corollary to that is that when we communicate it is God that gives us the power to truly hear and to truly speak. God is the power that makes for speech and for understanding. Without that connection to the divine flow that links us one to the other we may speak, but our words have less meaning; we may hear, but our hearing is less attuned. That is an important message of the parashah and this particular commentary.
Though this certainly has a mystical ring to it, I also believe that it is in keeping with my understanding as a Reconstructionist (albeit one with strong mystical leanings!) of the role of God in the world. For God is the power that connects us to each other and the power that works through us to create the ability to speak and to hear clearly, both metaphorically and literally. If we stop and pay attention to all that is going on within and around us Divinity is the source or our ability to connect with the universe.
Pharaoh was unable to understand this, and it ultimately brought about his destruction. The Israelites were unable to comprehend this until they were no longer enslaved, though even then they had difficulties and needed constant reminders. Moses finally understood this after his encounters with God in this week's parashah and especially after the exodus and the revelation at Sinai.
We each have the ability – and responsibility – to bring Divinity into the world through our paying attention, speaking carefully and interacting honestly with others. The choice is ours. We can ignore this responsibility, as did Pharaoh, or we can eventually understand and accept. This can happen through using speech and actions as catalysts for change, as in the case of Moses, or via our ability to listen and to follow, as happened with the Israelites.
As the kabbalists might say, speech has been exiled too often in our history. It is up to us to make certain that it remains firmly put and that it continues to be redeemed and to bring about redemption now and in the future.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Happy New Year! May it be a year filled with joy, gratitude and learning!
Stop Moving! A Commentary on Parshat Vayekhi
This week’s parashah, Vayekhi (Bereshit/Genesis 47:28 – 49:33), brings to a
close the book of Bereshit/Genesis. Jacob is finally able to settle down and rest in
Egypt with his sons and their families. Until now he has not been able to stop moving either physically or emotional.
This began when he traded Esau a bowl of lentils for his birthright and then manipulated his father (with the help of his mother) into giving him Esau’s
blessing. And so he ran from his brother’s anger and vengeance and went to the land from which his parents came. There he worked for 14 years in order to finally marry Rachel and Leah (the latter due to at trick played on him by her father).
Then, somewhat covertly, he moved his family away from his father-in-law Laban’s home in order to set out on his own. But still he never found rest. For next he had to respond to his daughter Dinah’s rape (which he did not really respond to effectively – but that is for another time), the fall out of his sons’ murderous vengeance on the people of Shechem (whose prince had raped Dinah) and beyond. He was always moving. Even once settled he was never truly able to rest. Once he seemed to settle down Esau returned on the scene and once again, he feared for his life. In short, he was constantly moving or needing to respond to crisis after crisis – whether real or perceived.
Once he believed Joseph to be dead, one might think that he would have
settled down simply out of grief. Yet, the Torah makes it clear that he never stopped mourning for Joseph or for his beloved wife Rachel, mother of Joseph and Benjamin. This kind of constant, unrelenting grief itself takes a great deal of energy, and so even if he were sedentary in a physical sense, emotionally he was still unable to settle down and simple enjoy life.
With the discovery that Joseph was alive, he was again on the move, as he
went down to Egypt in order to see his son. Perhaps it was the ability to
rest after being reunited with Joseph that finally allowed him to let go and
find some respite – and that prepared him to die.
Even though the days of peace and tranquility in Jacob’s life were few and
fleeting, it is significant that the name of this parashah – Vayechi – means
“and he lived.” As always, the name is simply taken from the first verse of
the parashah, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years…” Not
coincidentally, Jacob lived the same number of years in Egypt as Joseph had
lived with him before being sold by his brothers into slavery. As stated by
the medieval commentator, R. David Kimchi “Just as Joseph was in the lap of
Jacob for 17 years, Jacob was in the lap of Joseph 17 years.”
It is true that Joseph was able to care for his father the same number of
years that his father had cared for him. However, I believe the
significance goes beyond this. For it is possible to (interpretively)
translate the opening verse to read “And Jacob was finally able to live during the 17 years that he spent in Egypt.” Finally, Jacob was able to let go of his need to control others, or run from them. He was able to live without his mind being constantly torn apart with grief over Joseph and Rachel. For even though Rachel was dead, knowing that her two sons were alive and with him allowed him to let go of the crippling grief that prevents one from being able to truly live.
After 17 years of living, watching, and enjoying life, it was as if the scales had been rebalanced. The 17 years that he spent doting on Joseph – which helped to create his brothers’ hatred for him – had now been balanced with 17 years of peace and tranquility living together with the sons of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. Jacob can finally die, now that he has finally allowed himself just to live.
Then, as he prepares to die something happens. It is as if he realizes, after 17 years of simply living, that this is his last opportunity to act. And so he sets about to bless Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh. In reading the passage that describes the blessing of Ephraim and Menasseh, the use of Jacob’s two names caught my attention.
The verses read, “And someone told Jacob and said, ‘Look, your son Joseph [with his two sons] is coming to you.’ And Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed.” Then Jacob recounts to Joseph when God first appeared to him and blessed him, and then tells him that he is about to bless the two boys. We then read, “And Israel saw Joseph’s sons … and Israel’s eyes had grown heavy with age … and he kissed them (Ephraim and Menasseh) … and Israel said to Joseph ‘I had not thought to see your face, and, look God has also let me see your seed.’ ” It is then that Israel blesses the two boys.
Though the Torah often uses the two names of Jacob/Israel interchangeably without any obvious reason, I became aware of a clear message in these particular verses. For though it is Jacob, whom Joseph first encounters and who recounts his first meeting with God (when he was only known as Jacob) it is Israel who summons his strength, sits up and then takes over. It is Israel, meaning the one who struggled with beings both Divine and human and that prepares to bless his grandchildren. Jacob may be the one who is willing and able to let go of his history of running, hiding, and manipulating, but somewhere inside him there is still a part that not only wants to act one last time, but who realizes that it is necessary. Therefore, even though Israel’s “eyes had grown heavy with age,” and perhaps with disuse, they were still able to see what needed to be done at that moment. It is Israel who acknowledges the miracle of being reunited with Joseph and then blesses the boys.
Of course, it is also Israel who intentionally gives the younger, Ephraim, the blessing that belongs to his elder brother, Menasseh, by crossing his hands when blessing them. When Joseph points this out to his father, he makes it clear that he knows what he is doing. The younger will continue to serve the elder, just as has happened all along. Israel, who struggled with God, has the strength and the clarity to see that this is God’s will and to insure that it happens. It is not birth order that determines who is blessed, nor has it ever been. It is God’s will, and God’s will alone, which determines this. At this moment, it becomes clear that the trickery that assured Jacob the blessing that was thought to have belonged to Esau, was as much a part of God’s plan as is this exchange of Menasseh and Ephraim ’s blessings. Joseph was not the only one who realized that he was simply an instrument of God’s will, as he told his brothers in last week’s parashah and which he will reiterate this week.
In analyzing the use of the names Yisrael/Israel and Yaakov/Jacob in this parashah, the message is simple. First, we learn that it is those who struggle in this world that are able to eventually discern most clearly God’s will. Those who wrestle and struggle are able to become aware of what God wants of us. However, it is important to remember that the struggle is not in order to achieve control or mastery of the world, but merely to understand what it is that is expected of us. This is what it means to be Israel/Yisrael.
As the people of Israel, we must continue this struggle as we attempt to become conscious of what it means to be created in the image of God and to be partners with God in the ongoing work of creation. However, we must also remember that Israel was not able to reemerge until after Jacob was able to live. So too, we must take the time to simply experience and pay attention to life. This is what provides us with the strength and conviction to then become God wrestlers so that we can change the world not in order to meet our own needs or desires, but to bring the world closer to the imagined Divine ideal.
This does not mean that we are simply pawns in a Divine chess game. However, it does mean that there is a Divine plan of which we are all a part. Yet, we need to let go of our desire to control life and the world around us in order to discern where we fit in to the plan and how we are to act. This requires effort and struggle, but also it requires letting go of our need to understand every detail and be in control of every occurrence.
As human beings, this is not always easy to do. As descendants and recipients of the blessing of Israel, it is what we must do. That is the struggle. That is the challenge. That is life.
Shabbat Shalom. (or, in this case, Happy New Year and Shavuah Tov - a Good Week!)
- ► 2014 (15)
- ► 2013 (17)
- ► 2012 (28)
- ► 2011 (48)
- ▼ 2010 (85)
- ► 2009 (23)