Sunday, December 30, 2018

Vaera (God is God)

This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, opens with Moses in a state of doubt and despondency.  His initial challenge to Pharaoh only makes things worse for the Israelite slaves, thereby provoking the enmity of the very people whom God has tasked him to deliver.  Understandably, then, Moses confronts the One who called him to this deeply frustrating mission.

God’s response is, at first, most curious: “God replied to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Eternal One.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name, YHVH, I did not make known to them.’”  What kind of answer is this?  How does it address Moses’ despair?    What does any of this have to do with God’s names?

Yet God’s words do, in fact, make sense—and offer comfort—when we understand them through the lens of Moses’ first encounter with the Divine at the Burning Bush just a few chapters earlier.  In that section, God reveals to Moses the related name, Ehyeh Asher Ehyheh, I will be who I will be.  To which Moses humbly responds, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?”  God replies: “I will be with you. . . And this shall be for you the sign that I have sent you.”  This exchange is also a bit mysterious, for in the text, God never explicitly reveals to Moses what the sign is. 

Here Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers a brilliant reading.  As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it, “God does give Moses a sign, says the Berditchever.  And it has been right there in plain sight all along.  From his native humility, Moses cannot imagine he is worthy of such a holy task.  This is why he says, ‘Whom am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?’  Precisely this fear of inadequacy is the source of Moses’ true spiritual authority.  It is not an expression of unworthiness; it is a necessary qualification and precondition for the job of any would-be Jewish leader.”  In other words, Moses’ fear that he is unworthy is precisely the sign that he is the right leader for the task.  As Kushner notes, God effectively choses Moses because he is able to contain his ego. 

Now, in Moses’ hour of darkest anguish, God reminds him of this source of strength.  By proclaiming the Divine Name, the Holy One reiterates to Moses:  “I’m God, you’re not.”  And this is a source of deep consolation.  Genuine humility is not self-abnegation; it entails knowing our proper role in the larger drama playing out around us.  As Mussar teacher Alan Morinis it: “No more than my place, no less than my space.”  This knowledge brings comfort through a realistic rather than exaggerated sense of responsibility.

For a contemporary expression of this wisdom, listen to Steve Earle’s song, “God is God.”  Earle—who has often addressed pressing social issues in a profound prophetic voice—begins by declaring, “I believe in prophecy.”  He brings us back to the opening of Exodus, adding,

 I believe in miracles—
something burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing 

Then Earle pauses, builds momentum, and delivers the kicker:

And I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

This is the singer’s liberating insight.  His belief in a Higher Power does not negate his own strength; rather, by offering perspective, it gives him the security to speak out as an activist.  He continues:

I’ve traveled around the world
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness. . .
And as our fate unfurls
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less.

Like Socrates, Earle recognizes that true wisdom starts with acknowledging how little we know.  Checking our egos.

The song draws toward its end with a reference to the matter of Divine names, which opens our parsha, then concludes with an affirmation of our small but significant human calling, on the other side of—and embracing—all of our doubt and frustration:

God of little understanding, don’t care what name I call
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all. . .
Every day on earth’s another chance to get it right
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got
May this is why I’m here on Earth—and maybe not
And I believe in God, and God is God.

Like Moses—and Steve Earle—we find strength and sanctity in the proper perspective afforded by true humility.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Shemot (It Isn't Nice)

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew’s midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                          (Exodus 1:15-17)

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.
                                    (Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice”)

Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—is timely in this political season, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys. 

Who were these two heroes?  Our reading of their identity hinges upon how we understand their job description—m’yaldot ha-ivriot—which can be interpreted two very different ways.  Many commentators understand this to mean “Hebrew midwives,” and some, such as Rashi, go so far as to suggest that Shifra and Puah are pseudonyms for Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam.  Others read the phrase as “midwives to the Hebrews” and therefore identify these brave women as Egyptians.  I much prefer the second path, following the reasoning of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, who notes: “We may understand how Hebrew women would muster the courage to disobey the king’s orders and refuse to kill Hebrew children.  But consider the significance of the deed if Shifra and Puah were valiant Egyptian women who rebuffed the great pharaoh.  They did not say, ‘My country, right or wrong. . . ‘  The case of the Hebrew midwives is proof that dissenting individuals can resist evil and thus start a whole process of liberation.”

This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.

Of course it is easier to recognize the heroism of dissidents after the fact.  Today, when nearly all Americans honor Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, it is easy to forget how controversial they were in their own time.   So, too, with Shifra and Puah; as I imagine the story, our bibilical heroines were probably reviled by most of their Egyptian peers.

The twentieth century Jewish folksinger and political activist Malvina Reynolds expresses this truth brilliantly in her song, “It Isn’t Nice”.    The song is a pointed response to those who criticize the tactics of civil disobedience as unruly and deride those who engage in them as lawless and impolitic.  As Ms. Reynolds notes:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway
It isn’t nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail.

Sometimes the overthrow of an unjust and corrupt moral order demands stronger medicine, despite the naysayers of the status quo:

Now our new ways aren’t nice
When we deal with men of ice
But if that is freedom’s price
We don’t mind.

The melody is simple, even childlike and so is the rhyme scheme; the whole piece is, ironically, awfully nice—but the message is urgent.  Thank God, in the face of brutal injustice, Shifra and Puah were not nice.  Neither were Rosa Parks and MLK.

Nor should we be now, in confronting the challenges of our own time.

If that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Vayechi (This Grudge)

Seeing that their father had died, Joseph’s brothers reasoned: “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong we did to him?”
. . . But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to harm to me, God designed it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as God is doing today.  So do not fear—I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”  Thus he comforted them, and spoke kindly to their hearts.
                                    (Genesis 50: 15; 20-21)

Holding a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.
When Joseph first encounters his long-estranged brothers in Egypt (unbeknownst to them), he appears to revel in some revenge.  Remembering that they had sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver, he deviously sets them up with money, planting, first, silver coins in their provisions and, then, a silver divination cup in Benjamin’s bag—thereby framing them with accusations of theft.  Money was the vehicle for his brother’s betrayal; now it is the means for Joseph’s vengeance.

In the end, Joseph overcomes this desire.  After Judah heroically offers to sacrifice himself for his younger brother Benjamin, Joseph is moved to reveal himself and, weeping, offers his older brothers full forgiveness.  And yet. . . when their father Jacob dies, many years later, the brothers’ fear is rekindled: perhaps Joseph was only pretending to forgive them for their father’s sake, and now that Jacob is dead, he will at last exact his revenge.  Thankfully, Joseph alleviates their worries; his forgiveness is complete and unconditional.  As Rabbi Shai Held notes: “Joseph may well have harbored fantasies of hurting his brothers and exacting revenge—and here, finally is his chance.  But with his father dead and his brothers at his mercy, what does he do?  He forgives them.  And then, again, the poignant refrain: ‘He comforted them and spoke kindly to their hearts.’”

It is entirely natural to nurture resentment toward those who injure us; in the short run, this may even be a healthy response.  But over time, if we want to grow toward joy in our lives, we must learn to let go of our desire for revenge.  Alanis Morissette describes the challenging effort to do just that in her song, “This Grudge.”  She catalogues the all-too-familiar details of her years of bitterness:

Fourteen years
Thirty minutes
Fifteen seconds
I’ve held this grudge
Eleven songs
Four full journals
Thoughts of punishment
I’ve expended.

So much emotional energy, recalled with such precision! 

We get it.  We’ve been there.  Ms. Morissette astutely recognizes what she has gained through this unrelenting attachment to her anger:

Here I sit
Much determined
Ever ill-equipped
To draw this curtain
How this has entertained
And has served me well
Ever the victim.

There is (self-)righteousness in victimhood.

But the singer knows it does not serve her well, so in the chorus she pivots and asks herself the crucial question:

But who’s it hurting now?
Who’s the one that’s stuck?
. . . Who’s done whining now?
Who’s ready to put down
The load I’ve carried longer
Than I had cared to remember?

Her answer echoes Joseph’s:

I want to be big and let go
Of this grudge that’s grown old
All this time I’ve not known
How to rest this bygone
I want to be soft and resolved
Clean of slate and released
I want to forgive for the both of us

Like Joseph, the mature dreamer, Ms. Morissette comes to see that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness but a liberating source of strength.  Vengeance shackles us.  Forgiveness sets us free: Clean of slate and resolved.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Vayigash (Higher Ground)

Who is the hero of the Joseph story, which comes to a climax in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash?  The most obvious choice is Joseph himself, who, upon revealing his identity to his brothers, forgives them for the cruel betrayal they showed him as a youth.   Yet there is another, more flawed and less likely, candidate: Joseph’s older brother Judah.

In one of the longest and most heroic speeches in the Torah, Judah sacrifices himself for the sake of his father Jacob and his younger brother Benjamin.  Decades after his complicity in selling Joseph into slavery, Judah proves himself a changed man.  He has suffered enormously, losing two sons.  He has also transgressed—and publicly acknowledged his failings.  Judah transforms his personal pain and shortcomings into profound spiritual growth.  As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein notes: “This is the measure of Judah's greatness: his tragedy becomes the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.”

The Rabbis refer to Joseph as HaTzadik, “the righteous one.”  He is a powerful and important figure in our tradition.  But his righteousness renders him a little remote and distant.  It is hard to relate to, and engage with, Joseph.  Most of us connect more easily with Judah, the deeply imperfect man who wrestles with his moral choices and grows from his struggles.  The midrash recognizes his greatness by pointing out that his name, Yehudah, contains all four letters of God’s Name, (yud-hey-vav-hey)—and is the origin of our shared name, Yehudim, Jews.  Judah is also the progenitor of King David and, by extension, the messiah.  The messianic hope for an age of peace, justice, and compassion can only be realized if we, collectively and individually, commit ourselves to the kind of self-reflection and spiritual growth that we learn from Judah.

Stevie Wonder points us in this direction in his classic song, “Higher Ground.”  He opens:

People keep on learning
Soldiers keep on warring. . .
Powers keep on lying
While your people keep on dying
‘Cause it won’t be long

Like Judah, we frequently fail—warring, lying, dying—and yet we keep learning.  The human calling is to grow from our mistakes.

The chorus, which repeats several times, expresses this challenge:

I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on trying
Till I reach my highest ground.

This could be Judah’s theme song—and ours.  We fail, time and again—and through our failings, with openness and courage, somehow find our way.  Let us be grateful for second and third chances—and more—and strive, through them, to reach highest ground.  Indeed, because it is so hard-won, that ground is even more exalted.  As the Talmud teaches: “Those who sin and repent stand in a higher place than those who never sinned.  We feel that in our bodies with Stevie Wonder’s song, where the funky groove moves inexorably toward that aspirational chorus.

The greatest heroes are not born but are always in the process of becoming.  This is Judah’s—and Stevie’s—blessed legacy for us.


Mr. Menorah-head (Chanukah) 5779

As their favorite season drew closer this year
The Jews down in Jew-ville lacked Chanukah cheer
They all loved this holiday, boychiks and maidels
They longed to light candles, eat latkes, spin dreidels
To gather their families, from lands far and wide
To sing “Rock of Ages” and eat stuff that’s fried

But 2018 brought such sorrow and starkness
The Jew-ville Jews felt overcome by the darkness.
In a nation asunder and bleeding at heart
There were too many villains to know where to start

With no single scoundrel to bear all the blame
The grim events mounted, too many to name:

There was angry division, greed and despair
Tantrums on Twitter and rage everywhere
Murderous shooters and racist attacks
And taunts of Fake News to obscure all the facts

Huge killer storms and death-dealing fires
Couldn’t sway EPA’s science deniers
Jobs that don’t even approach living wages
Kids torn from parents and cast into cages

The poor-they got less, and the rich—they got more
We sold out our allies for tyrants galore
Like Putin and every corrupt Saudi royal
Whose evil’s forgiven because they’ve got oil

Bigotry prospered, with hateful aggression
Thanks, in no small part, to voter suppression

Corporate leaders who claimed to lean in
Turned out to be just more bad masters of spin
As Facebook and Russia connived to implore us
To blame all our failings on Jewish George Soros

Now all of the shtetl was filled with dismay
Would a hero arise who could still save the day?

Every Jew down in Jew-ville, each boychick and maidel
Held hope Lucy Latke and Dana the Dreidel
And brave Gershon Geltbag might get them un-mired
But as it turned out, they had all just retired

All hope seemed to fade as the day it grew dimmer
But off in the distance, the Jews saw a glimmer
It moved toward the people, quite quickly it sped
Yet the light did not shine on Menorah-head’s head
Yes, although their brave hero had clearly returned
His bald head was dark where the candles once burned
And boxing Reb Moishe, his side kick of old
He stood in the shadows, forsaken and cold

The people cried, “Save us!”—their hero said, “No—
We must all work together if we want to grow
I’ve come to deliver a critical warning:
It’s time to give thanks and to quit all your mourning

It’s true Jew-ville’s broken, and feeling quite dark
But if you want light, you must gather up sparks
And kindle new flames, for in this black night
There is also great beauty, and kindness and light

Look around you, he said, at school, work and home
The world’s full of color, it’s not monochrome
If life’s got you down with the Chanukah blues
Start looking around and you’ll find there’s good news:

All over the globe, hope’s flag—it unfurls
There’s more education for women and girls
Even in the most troubled and poorest of nations,
Poverty’s down, with far less starvation
Yes, the world’s getting better, despite what it seems
More people than ever nurse new hopes and dreams

More women in Congress—minorities too
With more diverse voices, so long overdue
Possessing the vision to heal and repair
And lift us, together, from dread and despair

After Parkland, our young people found a new voice
Reminding their elders that we have a choice
Their generation—our daughters and sons—
Will free schools and cities from violence by guns

 Clean energy sources that once didn’t pay
Like wind farms and solar are leading the way
Yes, carbon-free power, once thought unattainable
Lies within reach—it’s real and sustainable

Right here at home, at the people’s demanding
Medicaid healthcare will soon be expanding
And in nearby Meridian, I’m pleased to say:
The law now protects you if you’re trans or gay

And friends, if through all this, you’re still feeling low
Have faith: this year, new winds of justice will blow
When your spirit is dimmed and your vision is duller
Remember the two magic words: Robert Mueller

Though in some ways, our age—it is still fraught with fear
Just to be is a blessing, let’s be glad we’re here.
The darkness will pass, the light will return
The bright flames of freedom will once again burn

Then Mr. Menorah-head stood tall and proud
Concluding his words to the gathering crowd:

My flame comes from you—in the dark of this night
If we’re to prevail, we must all kindle light
No hero alone will deliver this nation
Together you must make your own celebration
You each have your own righteous light you must sow—
So let your light shine and the tyrants will go!

Then each Jewville Jew looked into their soul
And the flame of community glowed like a coal
With courage and faith, they banished all fear
And it’s said that a great miracle happened here—

For hope was rekindled, despair—it was gone
And Jewville burst into a Chanukah song.

And Mr. Menorahead, now shining bright
Said “Gut Yuntiff to all and to all a good night.”