Monday, January 8, 2018

The Power of the Exodus

The word Exodus is a powerful one. 

When we hear it, some of us may think of the boat called the Exodus that sailed in July of 1947 with over 4,500 Jews from France toward the Holy Land.  The British detained the ship in Haifa and sent everyone back to Europe.

When we hear it, others of us might think of Exodus, the legendary Bob Marley album and song that were released 40 years ago.

When we hear it, it is likely most of us think of the Israelites in Egypt who leave with God’s help to start a new life first in the wilderness and then later in Canaan, the Holy Land.

This part of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, the part that describes these events, occupies less than half of the entire Book, 15 chapters, but these chapters are so central to who we are, to how we think of our history, our values, our mission, and our future.

Scholar Richard Eliot Friedman, in his new book on the subject, proposes that there was a historical Exodus – I haven’t finished reading it yet, so I cannot share the details, but he does argue that Jews left Egypt, perhaps not exactly the way described in the Torah but still, there was an Exodus.

He argues it is important and meaningful to know that there is historical validity to an Exodus story, but I would argue the opposite.  It is interesting and exciting to find information, archaeological and otherwise, that corroborates the Bible, its stories and characters. 

But such discoveries do not, and cannot, replace the faith we put in the way stories like the Exodus shape us regardless of whether there is no fact to them, a kernel of fact, or whether the Exodus events happened exactly as narrated.

Truth emet is the Hebrew word for it, truth is not descriptive, it’s prescriptive.  Encyclopedia Judaica explains truth is an ethical idea of what ‘ought to be’.

And so we ought to think of ourselves as going free from Egypt whether our ancestors actually did, or not. 

This is where Professor Neil Gillman, may his memory be a blessing, was so influential.  He re-taught us the meaning of the word ‘myth’.  A myth is not a fairy tale, but a way of organizing and telling a meaningful story about who we are, what we believe, what we do and why.

Now, a counter-argument here is worth bringing forward.  Clearly, there are many in our world whose myths lead to destructive decisions and behavior.  Hamas and ISIS terrorists have myths that inform their beliefs and actions.  Repressive governments, dictators, and corrupt political systems also benefit from narratives they create to legitimize their existence and behaviors.

The power of the Exodus story for us is that it pushes us, pushes humanity, in a direction of dignity and power, but not power over, rather power to, power and inspiration to liberate others, to be as humble as Moses, to recognize that life is a holy and precious gift, to value and cherish freedom as a blessing beyond any material good. 

We will find these lessons in our Torah reading today, as we see Moses approach the sneh, the shrub that is burning without being consumed. 

The humble desert shrub in front of Mount Sinai burns with God’s Presence because it’s important for us to know that God is present everywhere, not only in exalted, gold-trimmed palaces and Temples.

Mount Sinai itself is not the highest or grandest mountain in the range.  We don’t even know which one is the so-called ‘real’ Sinai.

The Zohar teaches us that we, the people of Israel, are similar to the shrub – the fires burn all around us, fires of oppression, prejudice, and conflict surround us but we ourselves are, as it were, come out somehow in the end as a people with new resolve.

It’s also important for us to remember, as it says in the Passover Haggadah, that we are still leaving Egypt.  The Exodus is not a one time phenomenon of history but an ongoing effort.  Egypt represents all the things that tie us down, hold us back, and burden us, and we recognize this year, as we’ve turned into the New Year, that Israel is still under threat, anti-Semitism has not disappeared, in fact, in some ways has grown stronger, and there are still many in our world waiting for their Exodus, from slavery, from human trafficking, from sexual harassment, from hunger and homelessness and more.

The historicity, the possible historical factual Exodus, is irrelevant to our responsibility to these people.  For them, slavery, or overwhelming life circumstances and their aftermath, is still very real and freedom still a dream.

May our reading from Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus, help us rededicate our thoughts energies toward empowering and freeing others so that they may experience the joy and renewal of going me’avdut le’cherut, from slavery to freedom, sadness to joyfulness, and restriction to forward movement and progress toward dignity.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Parshat Vayishlach - A Small-Enormous Miracle: Chanukah and Death of the Nursemaid

What is the miracle of Chanukah, our next holiday starting in less than 2 weeks?

The Rabbis in the Talmud speak of the miracle of the oil.  They explain that the Jewish people discovered the small amount of pure oil not in a random clay jar but in the chotamo shel Kohen ha’Gadol, in the signet ring of the High Priest. 

The ring of the High Priest, a reminder of the time before Antiochus and the Syran-Greek occupation of the Holy Land, a symbol of purity, a symbol of light and the loving interaction of human beings in God in a holy place at holy moments.  There is a wistful side to this description as the Jewish people walk through the Temple, after the Greeks had defiled it and turned it into a pagan sanctuary, we can imagine the people remembering back to holidays there before the war and hoping to clean up and begin the journey toward renewal.

This small supply of pure oil makes a huge impact on Jewish history.  In this small treasure, a treasure that would be insignificant next to the vast amounts of oil needed to keep the menorah burning daily, there is memory and there is hope, there is sadness and there is strength.

We find the same cauldron of feelings in our parsha for this week, Parshat Vayishlach, in a moment that breaks the flow of action, that according to the Ramban stands out and interrupts the story of Jacob at a place beloved by us here, at Beth El, Bet-El the House of God.

The Torah explains:
וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵֽית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת׃ (פ) 
Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-bacuth.
A woman named Devorah, a nursemaid whose name we only learn now at the end of her life, passes away and there is reason for tears, Allon-Bachut means the oak of weeping. 

Just as the small supply of oil was otherwise overlooked, so too was this special person in the life of our mother Rebekah, but now we realize in a moving and silent moment just how special she was.  More than just a servant, she was part of the family, like the oil, a reminder of the past, of growing up, and like the oil, the tree under which she’s buried points to the future, the Jewish people, offspring of Jacob, settling and building up the Land of Jacob, the Land of Israel.

Tonight, inspired by the loving tribute to Devorah, I would like us to lift up the memories of people in our lives who touched our lives in some small but meaningful way.  Like Devorah, they were not family, but we think of them as family, as part of our life, the large circle that surrounds us.  If those whom you’re thinking about now are gone, say a prayer for them as we remind ourselves of how they impacted our lives.  If they are still with us, consider the story of Devorah, nursemaid to Rebekah, an inspiration to reconnect, to tell them how meaningful was their influence and how it helped each of us to become the people who we are today. 

The Torah does not name Noah’s wife nor does it name the mother of King David (Nitzevet, Talmud) – but the Torah does tell us the name of Devorah, and that our ancestors mourned her like family. 

The Rabbis remember a small amount of oil in a ring that represented what was lost and what could be restored. 

The influence of both Devorah and the oil remind us of all those people who invested in us, loved us and cared about us even in a small way that now, through the reverse lens, made all the difference in the world.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Vayetze 2017: In Memory of Professor Neil Gillman z"l

I would like to dedicate this dvar Torah to Rabbi Neil Gillman z”l who passed away yesterday.  He was a much beloved teacher of Jewish theology at the Seminary, a teacher who helped so many of his students, including myself, to appreciate and explore the concepts of God, mitzvah, and more, to go beyond the halakhah, the practice of Judaism, to create a meaningful and soulful Judaism.  May his memory be a blessing. 

Professor Gillman taught that we cannot see God on our own, with our eyes, but we can sense God’s presence in the relationships between us, in the invisible, mystical network that connects us all.

To illustrate the point, he gives us the image of a basketball game.  He explains we can know the score.  The game score is concrete, 24 points to 22, but when it comes to a team’s passing game, we cannot see that in one concrete number.  The quality of the team’s passing game is something we discover over the course of the game, as we watch how the players work together and move the ball up and down court.

This past week I was critical of Jacob who takes advantage of both his brother and his blind father.  But I would not want to end our evaluation of Jacob there.  As with the passing game, we need to see what Jacob chooses to do in another situation rather than focus on only two points in time.  He uses his cleverness for dishonesty, and now he uses his cleverness to get himself out of a bind as we see with Lavan, his uncle, Jacob has met his match and received a solid comeuppance for his past choices.  Midah k’neged midah, measure for measure, Lavan tricks Jacob, giving him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel and then he exploits the moment to demand an additional 7 years of labor from him.

But Jacob concocts a scheme to remove himself from Lavan’s clutches, and we should appraise him also how he handles himself when he is in an adverse situation.

When Lavan hears Jacob’s proposal for building his own wealth by taking dark colored sheep as well as the spotted and speckled goats, the Me’am Lo’ez commentary suggests Lavan is thrilled with the idea.  Lavan knows that these will be the vast minority of his flocks.  He accepts the deal quickly because he does not want to take the chance Jacob may regret the deal and ask for the real wages he deserves for 14 years of labor.  (Me’am Lo’ez p. 587, Genesis Vol. 2)

It appears God helps Jacob here, according to Rashi God’s angels help him collect the animals he requests out of the flock.  Somehow, through creative breeding, he builds up the special flock from a mere pittance of wages into a huge flock far exceeding the original take.

Here, Jacob’s cleverness enables him to escape.  And like a great Black Friday shopper, he finds a great residual value for a very inexpensive price. 

We celebrate achievements of this kind all the time.  We thrill at the way Batman and James Bond escape from elaborate death traps.  We see investors on the stock market who in a moment, or over time, build wealth through times of uncertainty. 

But is this enough to redeem Jacob’s character?  As Professor Gillman would say, we must explore the darker places of theodicy, of God’s justice in the world, and so we cannot fully evaluate Jacob until we see how he behaves in the Joseph stories, when Joseph comes forward as a foil to Jacob, teaching his brothers accountability, and when Jacob, as far as he knows, experiences a loss he cannot repair with his wits, a loss that impacts what we come to know as his fragile heart.

Gillman reminded us always of the heart, of context, of the humanity, the human condition in Judaism.  He was famous for his lively debates with Rabbi Joel Roth who takes the position that Jewish law is pre-eminent over Midrash and theology.  But the lesson of those debates, one of which I had the privilege to witness years ago, was that, again, like the passing game, we cannot have a meaningful Judaism that is all in one category, but rather, our Judaism, our religious lives and perspectives, draw from the deep wells of both law, tradition, ritual, midrash and commentary, and theology, our contemplation of the most vast and perplexing questions of existence that together we seek to answer week in and week out.

May his memory be a blessing.  Amen.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Esau the Superhero

 One thing about superheroes, especially in the 21st century, is they’re not always as popular as we might expect within the stories we tell about them.

The last time Superman flew across the movie screen the world was calling for him to step down or go back home to Krypton.  The last time the Avengers fought against the forces of evil, the US government sought to rein them in as a result of unintended tragic consequences of their battle.  When Batman last faced the joker and faced criticism, district attorney Harvey Dent said, “Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Our ancestor Jacob appears this week in our Torah in a similar way, though it’s not the first time we see him in this light.  So many times Jacob accomplishes objectives by literally keeping others in the dark – which makes me think of the title of the Batman movie quoted above, ‘The Dark Knight’.  There are times that Bruce Wayne must act in a way that casts the guilt lens on himself in order to maintain the good image of another like Harvey Dent, but Jacob appears to pursue his goals primarily for his own good and at the expense of others.

He purchases the birthright from his brother Esau when his brother is exhausted and famished after the hunt.  For sure, he never says to Esau, are you sure you want to sell this to me?  Do you know what it means for you to sell the birthright?

And now, with Rebecca’s help he dresses up like his brother, and together they deceive and defraud both Esau and Isaac in one stroke.  We might say, Jacob already purchased the birthright in which case he’s entitled to the better blessing, but we can also say with assurance that the birthright wasn’t Esau’s to sell in the first place, kind of like the Brookly Bridge, although I hear it’s going for a great price this weekend in honor of TBEMC’s 100th anniversary.

The darkness continues here as we retell the story of Jacob lying to his aged father who is blind.  We recall the instruction in Leviticus, Lifnay ee’vair lo titen michshol. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.  Jacob, the one who as our tradition explains, stays in the camp studying Torah, clearly missed that key teaching.  Isaac is not as passive though as we might think.  The Mahari puts us inside Isaac’s mind as though Isaac says to himself, “Due to the fact that I’m doubtful about who is the person in front of me, I’m going to lengthen the conversation so that I can better know the voice and know who it is.”  But the Mahari also points out that Jacob is clever, and so he only answers in one word ‘Ani’ making Isaac’s job almost impossible.

The intention of portraying the superheroes as flawed makes them more like us, so we can better relate to them.  Jacob though he is our ancestor is out for his own interests, and we feel empathy for Esau as our Rabbis also did despite their criticisms of Esau and the way they connected him to Rome, the evil empire.

Just one example, a midrash tells us, “Esau shed 3 tears, one from the right eye, one from the left, and one down the middle of his forehead that was suspended between his eyes.  If that tear had fallen, the Jewish people would not ever have been redeemed from under Esau’s hands (Esau here as the embodiment of that later evil empire)…Due to those tears Esau inherited the fertile Mount Se’ir, and the Jewish people must, in their own tears that resulted from Jacob’s actions, request God to have mercy upon them.”(Yalkut)

How then do we read today’s Torah portion?  As an indictment of our ancestor, meant to encourage us today to hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we make?  Or do we read it simply as the mysterious unfolding of God’s plan that goes forward despite the pain of those who suffer in its wake? 

One other way we may read the story is by re-focusing our attention to redeem Esau in the hopes of restoring his image and integrity, the same way that the superheroes strive to redeem themselves when they cause harm.  Let’s remember how Esau redeems himself when he embraces his brother years later, and his only interested is greeting his brother and he has no interest in the gifts Jacob brings out of fear. 

Esau surmounts and surpasses his brother in that moment.  God must redeem and liberate us, but Esau finds it within himself.  That power, to find hope, to find the possibility of transformation within ourselves, is a superpower that we all have.