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Friday, January 18, 2013

Parshat Bo: Letting Go in the Face of Inevitable Change

This week’s parashah/portion is Bo (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-13:16). It begins “Then God said to Moses, ‘Come 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, that of locusts. Following the eighth plague, God again hardens Pharaoh's heart and the plague of darkness descends upon Egypt. Finally, the Egyptians experience the last plague, the death of Egypt's firstborn. It is this plague that will set the Israelites free. The parashah then 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, it seemed that the land of Egypt/Mitzrayim had been completely decimated by the plague of hail accompanied by fire from heaven. Mitzrayim, which comes from the same Hebrew root as the words narrow or constricted, had been laid waste. The place that formerly known for its glory and grandeur had been brought low. Yet, in spite of this, Pharaoh retained his hubris. Living in his palace, separated from the real life of his people, he was able to maintain his sense of superiority and his belief that nothing could ever destroy him or his power. 

But what about “his” people? How must they have felt after the conclusion of the seventh plague? One can imagine it must have seemed to them as if they could suffer no more. Yet, they did suffer more. For with the coming of the locusts we read that what little vegetation had been left after the hail was now totally consumed. The entire land was truly barren. However, even that could not prepare them for what was to come. 

We are taught 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 be interpreted as representing the people's depression, uncertainty or fear.  However, it could also represent their realization that everything upon which they had built their hopes and dreams had ceased to exist. 

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 the darkness lifte. Yet, when that happened, 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 new light that appeared after the plague? 

What they saw was the barrenness and emptiness of the land. All that they believed to be real was an illusion. They could no longer experience anything but nothingness. The people understood this. Pharaoh did not, for all he could see was the glory of his palace and its surrounding.

But the palaces and cities of Pharaoh meant nothing to the people. Following the destruction and the darkness, they realized that these were simply empty monuments. They were able to see the reality that they had felt with their entire being in the darkness. The only thing that did exist for them at that moment the light returned was the realization that, in fact, nothing existed. Perhaps they even doubted their own existence ? For how could anyone be certain of anything after experiencing the deepest darkness? 

As they tried to continue their lives in the face of what had occurred, darkness came once again. However, this time it was the “normal” darkness accompanied by the light of the full moon. This was a darkness they knew and felt they could trust; a darkness which still contained some light within. And so, perhaps they began to feel more secure, as if life was going to once again be what it was before. But this false security quickly disappeared as the final plague struck and they were plunged back into a deep despair 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 future rested, were no more. No longer could there be even a shadow of a doubt that nothing would ever be the same. In that moment, they realized that the future they had imagined 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 identify ourselves with our Israelite ancestors in this story, I believe, just as when interpreting dreams, we can also find ourselves in the other characters in the story. Therefore, we are also the Egyptians … the Mitzrim … the constricted ones. We are the ones who have been allow ourselves to be oppressed, limited or held back by a false power we believed to be greater than us. We become slaves to our our passions, desires and expectations, just as the Israelites were enslaved to Pharaoh. We worship them as gods, just as the Egyptians worshiped Pharaoh. Finally, we look at the grand edifices built by our ego and our desires, believing that we are glorious and certain of who we are and what will be.  We bask in the glory created by the ego, just as Pharaoh basked in his glory.  We are certain, as was Pharoah, that all we have created will survive and thrive forever.

Yet, for Pharaoh and the Egyptians, each plague caused them to feel less and less certain of what was real and permanent. With each plague the ground beneath them began to shift and tremble. With each plague, their certainty began to diminish. So too with us, as we see things fall apart around us thanks to whatever we might interpret as our own personal plagues; the things which cause our world to fall apart around us.

After the last two plagues Pharaoh and the Egyptians realized without a doubt that everything was an illusion and that their imagined future was no more.  The same eventually happens to us when we experience the difficulties, and sometimes tragedy, of life.  Though our eyes can see, it is as if we have been plunged into the 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. Perhaps, it even makes us laugh with its simplicity and absurdity. 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 on. However, for many of us it takes being plunged into darkness and experiencing to some degree 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) that this was indeed all a dream and not a reality. Yet, once we realize this truth, we can actually be relieved. For then we can stop being Mitzrim – constricted, narrow, limited people– and instead become Israelites … B’nai Yisrael, those who struggle with forces Divine and human (for this is what we are told is the meaning of the name yisrael in the book of Genesis).

And what were the Israelites doing while all the Egyptians were struggling through the plagues? We can imagine that they might have just been sitting, waiting, and watching, while realizing that this was out of their control and that the outcome was still unknown. The only thing we do know is that during the tenth plague they were sitting in their homes observing the first Pesakh/Passover meal. They were enacting a ritual commanded them by God through Moses. A ritual which we still commemorate to this day with the Passover seder. 

They may have had their sandals on and their staffs at their side, so they could leave when the time came, but they still 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 took place that they were commanded to eat unleavened bread. 

One classical interpretation is that leaven represents the “puffed up” nature of human pride and hubris. And so the lack of leavened bread reminded the people that they must simply sit where they were at that moment, eat what was before them and praise God from a place of humility. As they enacted this ritual meal they were aware that death and destruction was engulfing the Egyptians. 

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh let out a cry that “reached all of Egypt” when his first-born died, and his imagined future along with it. Even then, the Israelites were not allowed to feel a sense of pride or triumph over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Rather, they were to remain where they were, acknowledging and celebrating the present. For if there were to be a future, it was in God’s hands and they will know it only when it becomes the present. Yes, they would rejoice in their freedom, but only when it was a reality. In that moment it was still only a potential.

When the final plague ends, the moment will then arrive when the future can become the present. At that moment God will make them aware that it is time to move from their place. Yet, before that happens, God commands them that from now on their first-born, symbolizing the potential of the future, will always be consecrated to the Divine. For the future is in God’s hands – however one chooses to understand that term.

For me this symbolizes the reality that we cannot control the future. In fact, we cannot control anything, any more than could Pharaoh or the Egyptians. We can only pay attention and feel within our souls what is happening in the moment, whether we experience it as joyous, pleasant, painful, or difficult. We must simply sit wherever we are, being present in the moment, 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. Or we can feel the joy and rapture of freedom as they did when they finally leave Egypt (at least until fear sets in again at the shores of the Sea of Reeds).

If we do not do this, then we instead choose to follow the path of Pharaoh, always believing that we are in control, that we control what the future brings and that our world is in our command. Then, when everything changes, as it inevitably will, we will be unable to feel the darkness of that moment or to sit there in the midst of the chaos. Rather, we will only be able to let out a scream that will reach all the corners within ourselves, as everything that we thought we had created and controlled dies around us, and we die along with it.

Yet even this has can provide us with an opportunity for change. For in the moment when we feel all that we can do is scream and sink to our knees, we are once again provided with an opportunity. We can accept the impermanence and uncertainty of life or we can once again begin to build our illusions of permanence and a false sense of control over the future. Each moment provides us with this choice. Each moment provides us with an opportunity. For each moment is all we have. Now we simply need to decide what we are to do.

Shabbat Shalom


Friday, January 4, 2013

Parshat Shemot: The Journey Into Slavery Begins

I first wrote this commentary/d'var torah three years ago.   However, given the current political situation in our country (and elsewhere) where so many seem enslaved to their own ego or ideology, I felt it was still quite appropriate.  Hopefully, the day will come when it will not.
Shabbat Shalom,
Steve Nathan
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Parshat Shemot: The Journey Into Slavery Begins

This week's parashah is Shemot (Exodus/Shemot 1:1 – 6:1). The saga of slavery and redemption that we remember each year at the time of Passover, as well as now during the Torah reading cycle, begins with this parashah.

The narrative opens by reminding us of the names (shemot) of the sons of Jacob/Israel. Then we read that the Israelites multiplied greatly in Egypt. In fact, the Torah tells us that they "swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them (1:7)." This increase in population is the reason given by Pharaoh for his decision to enslave the people.

Many commentators have wondered why it was necessary to give any reason for the enslavement. After all, Abraham was told in Bereshit/Genesis 15:13 "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years." If the enslavement was portrayed as part of "God's plan" then Pharaoh needed no reason for his persecution of the Israelites. And yet, the Torah text provides us with precisely that.

In her excellent and compelling book on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture (which I HIGHLY recommend), Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes that the concept of the Israelites 'swarming' over the land is viewed in two different ways. The majority of midrashim (rabbinic exegetical tales) comment that the increase in the Israelite population represents a victory of life over death and serves as a reminder of the eternality of God and God's promise that the people shall be numerous. Jacob and his sons, including Joseph, may be dead, as the opening lines remind us, but the people itself lives and flourishes. This is all due to God's promise and serves as a reminder of the Divine presence. Life and God are eternal and the proliferation of the Israelite people is proof of this.

However, Seforno (16th century, Italy) holds a minority opinion that views this description of Israelite growth as a condemnation. The phrase "and they swarmed and multiplied and increased very greatly" is likened by him to the swarming and increase of insects. Actually, the root of the Hebrew verb "to swarm" (sh-r-tz) is also the root of the word for insect. Seforno condemns the Israelites by claiming that the people, which once consisted of individuated and highly evolved persons such as Jacob and Joseph, has now deteriorated to the point where they were simply a mass of "unindividuated 'insect-like' conformists, whose whole effort is to assimilate to their surrounds..."(Zornberg, p. 19).

Initially, I rejected this interpretation. It felt a little too much like blaming the victims for their plight. In doing so, it would appear that Seforno is relieving Pharaoh of responsibility for his actions. And yet, if the Torah tells us that this was part of God's plan, why does anyone need to be blamed? Why can't we simply take slavery as a “fact” and move on?

The answer is simple. If we were to do this, we would miss the opportunity to learn anything from this central religious myth of the Jewish people. In her analysis of Seforno, Zornberg points out that his interpretation "has constructed a narrative of failure, guilt, punishment, where the biblical text seemed to give us only the facts of suffering..." However, Zornberg continues, Seforno "invites us to reflect on the ways in which slavery, persecution and alienation ... are generated by human beings...and - in the same vein - on the meaning of redemption, exodus, freedom. In doing this, he stands in a tradition of commentators who read the Exodus narrative psycho-spiritually, from the point of view of the victim who seeks redemption, in the intimate as well as the political sense." (Zornberg, p.21).

Zornberg's analysis changed my feelings about Seforno's original commentary. For, rather than viewing his comments as blaming the victim, I was able to view them as putting the onus for their growth and redemption on the Israelites themselves. In order to say that we play a role in bringing about our own redemption, we must first admit that on a deep level we play a role in our own enslavement. 

Interpreting the name mitzrayim (Egypt) as meitzarim (the narrow/constricted places), being caught in the snares of slavery there represents the ways in which our spirits can become caught in the snares of  self-enslavement. Slavery then comes to represent how we constrict ourselves in narrow places by becoming part of the assimilated masses rather than standing up for who we are and what we believe. I am speaking here not simply of the concept of religious and cultural assimilation, but of the assimilation of the individual into the swarm of humanity. This is what causes us to turn our backs on what it means to be a unique individual created in the image of God, yet also part of the greater community and all of humanity.

Therefore, if as Seforno posits, we become part of the swarm by simply merging our individual selves with society then it is up to us to bring about our redemption. We achieve this by separating ourselves from the communal swarm and instead becoming individuals dedicated to caring for our world, our people and ourselves in our own unique ways, rather than simply being like 'everyone else.'

This is a message of the story of slavery and redemption that I had never considered in the past. However, I think it speaks to us in a time when assimilation, acculturation and being 'part of the swarm' is a force that is constantly gaining strength. 

This commentary calls on us to strive for the sense of individuality combined with communal responsibility that was at the heart of the civil rights movement, anti-war movements and the various movements for social change and justice today. These efforts stand in opposition to the idea of merging with the masses and swarming that was at the root of so many dark times in American history from the Salem witch hunts to McCarthyism and up until today. And it is a call that I believe it is important for us to heed at this, and every, time in our history.

However, what can prevent us from becoming part of this swarm? How do we maintain our sense of unique godliness and individuality in the face of the numerous forces urging us to join the masses and be like everyone else - which in the end means being like nothing?

The answer would seem to be that we must have a clear sense of self. We need to be sure of who we are. Yet, perhaps that in itself a dangerous misconception. For in the end it is merely a trick of the ego, for the ego wants nothing more than for us to believe that we are who we are and that we will never change. For this keeps us ensnared and reliant upon the ego to tell us who we are. It also separates us from others and from Divine flow in the universe.

This may be the opposite of swarming, but it's effects are just as damaging. For in feeling so secure in our identity, we forget that we are ever-changing beings, and that in certain ways our identity is dependent upon how we connect with the universe. By convincing us that we are independent rather than interdependent, and individual selves rather than part of the greater One, the ego keeps us separated from God and humanity.  For it convinces us that the self - the ego - is a kind of god in itself. All the overemphasis on the power and importance of the self ultimately leads to enslavement, as much as does the mob mentality and lack of individuation of "swarming."

Whether by swarming as part of the mob or separating ourselves with the help of the ego, either extreme leads to enslavement and despair. The only way to prevent us from going to either extreme is by remembering that the ultimate ground of our existence is connection with the Divine flow of the universe.   This sense of connection and oneness leads us to compassion for all of existence.  It also releases those who are enslaved, whether the master is the self or the undifferentiated mass of the "swarm." If we remember this then we will remain on the path towards righteousness, justice and kindness. This path leads to the redemption of our world and enables us to split the seas of oppression and injustice that hold us back so that we may all cross to the other side where freedom awaits.

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