Saturday, January 31, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Beshallach

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Ex. 13:17-17:16) begins with the long-awaited exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt.  They journey to the Reed Sea and the chariots of Egypt pursue them.  Caught between the Egyptian army and the depths of the sea, God performs a miracle for the Israelites, splitting the waters of the sea so that they may cross on dry land.  When the Egyptians follow, God returns the sea to its normal state, drowning the army of Pharaoh.  Moses and Miriam lead the Israelites in songs of praise, and then they continue through the wilderness.  Only three days after the miracle at the sea, the Israelites begin grumbling about the lack of potable water and food, and express regret that they ever left Egypt.  

God, through Moses, Aaron and Miriam, has set the Israelites free from slavery and saved them from their pursuers by spectacular means, and yet they voice neither awe nor gratitude, only a petulant longing for the security of regular meals.  This seems outrageous until we examine their state of mind.  

A slave does not have to make decisions.  A slave works as commanded, eats what he or she is given and dares not ask questions.   The Israelites could not see the big picture; they were accustomed to living one day at a time, one hour at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time.  In this way, they resemble trauma survivors, or the critically ill.  The miracles that they had witnessed had not yet been made a part of their consciousness.  They were only able to accept it, and the miracle yet to come at Sinai, over time. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16), recounts the last three plagues of Egypt, instructions for celebrating the first Passover and the exodus out of Egypt.

The slaying of the firstborn of Egypt is the catalyst that causes Pharaoh, finally, to let the Israelites out of Egypt.  The book of Exodus began with Pharaoh ordering the death of the Israelite male children.  Now, God carries out the death of the Egyptian firstborn.  It is the act that finally gets Pharaoh to let the children of Israel out of Egypt.  

As soon as they leave Egypt, though, God commands that the firstborn male of Israel, both human and animal, are to be consecrated to God.  Many ancient Near Eastern civilizations recognized a special relationship between their god and the firstborn child, but the last of the plagues and the first commandment the Israelites are given when they leave Egypt is too similar to be coincidence.  The Israelites must bear the burden of the plague that broke the intransigence of the Pharaoh, and the hearts of his people.  The firstborn males of Israel, ol this day, undergo the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the firstborn, to free them from Temple service, though the Temple itself has not been an entity for almost two thousand years.   Erev Passover is still today a fast day for firstborn sons, a sobering recollection that the firstborn sons of Egypt were struck down by God’s hand.  Egypt and Pharaoh were our oppressors, but they were still children of the God that we worship, and their deaths should not go unremembered.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Shemot

This week we begin a new book of the Torah.  Shemot, meaning “names” is known in English as Exodus.  The first parshah, also called Shemot (Ex. 1:1-6:1) picks up the story of Israel in Egypt many years after the death of Joseph.  A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.  The Israelites grew in number, which made the Pharaoh wonder if they would join the enemies of Egypt in case of war or “rise up from the ground” (Ex. 1:10), meaning that they might ascend from their place and take over the land. And so the Pharaoh set taskmasters over them and forced them into labor to build garrison cities for the Pharaoh.  All of the advantages for the descendants of Joseph’s family disappeared.

In the early 1930s, many Jews felt that their place in German society was assured.  They had wealth, land, businesses and connections.  Many German Jewish men were veterans of World War I who had fought for Germany with loyalty and distinction and had the medals to show for it.  And then Adolf Hitler ascended to power, and all of their advantages disappeared.  
The world is a strange and dangerous place.  Today in Paris, Jews doing their Shabbat shopping in a kosher supermarket were taken hostage.  Some were killed and others wounded, and none of the survivors will ever be the same.  History has a tendency to repeat itself.  Our challenge is to remember the past and protect the present.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Torah Thoughts on Vayechi – Speaking to the Heart

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Gen. 47:28-50:26) concludes the book of Genesis.  Jacob, knowing that he will soon die, gives a blessing to each of his sons, and to Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manassah.  He gives his sons instructions to take his body out of Egypt and bury it in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, where his parents and grandparents and his wife Leah (but not Rachel) are buried.  

After his death, his sons comply with his wishes.  After they have returned to Egypt, Joseph’s brothers begin to worry.  Now that their father is dead, they wonder if Joseph will finally take revenge upon them for the way they treated him so many years ago. So they tell Joseph that, before he died, Jacob had told them “Say this to Joseph: Forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, though they inflicted harm upon you”.  It is a most unlikely story.  First of all, Joseph and his brothers had all tacitly conspired to be sure that Jacob did not know what they had done to Joseph.  Secondly, why would Jacob say such a thing to his other sons, rather than to Joseph directly?  But Joseph does not contradict them.  Instead, he sees their fear and comforts them.  He says, “Am I in place of God?  You intended harm but God intended it for good…have no fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus did he comfort them and speak straight to their hearts (Gen. 50:21).

Joseph understands what his brothers fear and he addresses it directly.  He states that they meant to harm him.  He tells them that he can’t and won’t judge them, and he assures them that he will continue to care for them, and for their children.  He doesn’t sugarcoat things or sweep them under the rug.  His acknowledgement of the truth, speaking straight to their hearts, is indeed true comfort.