Sunday, January 28, 2018

We Have to Believe That It Is (Portion Yitro)

"You speak to us,” [the Israelites] said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)

Torah is by and largely a study in failure.  Shortly after the world is created, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden.  The first child is born—and then, just a few verses later, he kills his younger brother.  God destroys the world in a flood, the tower of Babel falls, and our patriarchs and matriarchs consistently botch their family lives with short-sighted favoritism, generation after generation.  And that’s just Genesis.  It’s a lot like baseball, where hitting the ball three times out of ten gets you into the Hall of Fame.

This week’s portion, Yitro, brings us to what is in many ways the climactic moment of the entire Torah: the revelation at Mount Sinai.  Up until this point, the Israelites have clamored about how much they want to hear directly from God.  Yet when they finally get what they wish, they run away and plead with Moses to go in their stead.  We know what will follow in just a few weeks: Moses heeds their request, and while he is gone, they persuade Aaron to build them a Golden Calf.  Fail and fail again.

So how do we maintain hope in the midst of such consistent failure?  This is Torah’s core message, the insistence that despite our constant setbacks, we can always get back on the road to the Promised Land. 

This isn’t optimism, really, but it isn’t pessimism either.  It’s a path that takes us through dark and difficult times, like our own, and reminds us that there is still plenty of grace and beauty along the way if we are open to it.

Julien Baker captures this beautifully in her new song, “Appointments.”  Her hard-earned refrain embodies Torah’s extraordinary mix of hope and failure as she sings:
Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right—well, I know that it’s not—but I have to believe that it is.

These days, I think this nearly every morning as I read the news.

We have to believe that it is.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Taste of Liberation (portion Bo)

And you shall explain it to your child on that day, saying, "It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Bo,  God commands the Israelites to celebrate Pesach as a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, before they were actually released from slavery and allowed to depart. The first seder happens in Egypt itself.  How could the Israelites understand what they were supposed to celebrate, when it has not even happened yet? Indeed, the Israelites are even told what to tell their children, in the distant future, when they ask about the festival ritual: "It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt." But they've not yet gone free! Would it not have made more sense for God to wait until after the Israelites had actually departed from the land of bondage?

No.  Because in a time of darkness and deep despair, we need a taste of liberation to awaken our yearning for freedom and encourage us to take action toward that end.  As Rabbi Jordan Cohen notes: “By giving the commandment to observe Pesach before the exodus, and by emphasizing that this festival is to be an eternal observance, throughout the generations, the Israelites are being given hope. When a commandment is made for the future generations, that meant there was going to be a future generation. Pesach provides hope for the otherwise hopeless Israelites that they were going to be saved, that they were going to survive the exodus, and that their descendants throughout the generations would remember and tell the tale.”

These days, it feels like each morning brings a grimmer set of headlines.  The news goes from bad to worse.  Injustice rages around us, bigotry proliferates, and indecency oozes out from the pinnacles of power, poisoning our nation’s public life.  Heather Heyer, the young woman senselessly killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville last summer left a telling last post on her Facebook page that sums up both the difficulty and the urgency of the hour: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Yet one cannot live a decent life in a perpetual state of either outrage or despair.  We need to find sparks of light and hints of hope that break through the darkness.  We must tell tales of liberation, past and present, and in so doing, fortify ourselves for the struggle for liberty and justice that lies ahead.  Let us resolve to follow in the footsteps of our forebears, and speak and dream and work for deliverance, even—or especially—when it seems distant.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Are We There Yet? (portion Shemot)

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Our Torah agrees.  In this week’s portion, Vaera, God tells Moses to speak to the Jewish people in the Divine Name and tell them: “I am the Eternal One.  I will take you out (v’hotzayti) from under the burdens of Egypt.  I will rescue you (v’hitzalti) from their bondage.  I will redeem you (v’ga’alti) with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  I will take you (v’lakachti) to be My people and I will be your God.”

Note that there are four promises of liberation here, in quick succession.  These verses are critical to the Pesach seder, where they are translated into the four cups of wine, one for each passage of God’s deliverance. 

But there’s one problem—the biblical passage does not end here.  There is, in fact, one more verse, which adds: “I, the Eternal One, am your God, who took you out from under the burdens of Egypt and who will bring you (v’hayvayti) into the land.

There are, in fact, not four but five relevant passages about God’s liberation.  So why only four cups (and the four children—wise, wicked, simple and unable to ask) rather than five?  What happened to God’s promise to deliver us into the land of Israel?

Rabbi Shai Held notes: “Maybe the Haggadah seeks to teach us that the journey is often more important than the destination.  The Haggadah is not alone in omitting the promised ending.  The Torah itself ends before that final promise has been fulfilled.  On some level, the story the Torah tells is incomplete.  The promised destination is still out of reach.  In leaving out the arrival, then, the Haggadah is in a sense merely imitating the Torah.  The journey does not merely serve to lead us to the land.  No, the journey itself is intrinsically holy.”

This is a vital teaching, now as then.  We are so often focused, with tunnel vision, on future results that we fail to take pleasure in the moment, in the process—in the journey.  If the goal was the destination, we wouldn’t have wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  In our people’s life, and in our own, it’s all about the wandering, the joys and challenges that we encounter along the way. 

This week, take time to savor the moment—the journey—because while the destination always remains uncertain, the path we take toward it is ours to choose and appreciate.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Women and Liberation (portion Shemot)

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, marks the beginning of the book of Exodus—and the liberation of the people Israel from Egyptian bondage.  Strikingly, the first steps of that liberation are all taken by women. Shifra and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrews, perform the first recorded act of civil disobedience, refusing to follow Pharaoh’s edict to kill all male children born to Israelite women.  A few verses later, Moses’ mother, Yocheved, defies Pharaoh by hiding her son and sending him down the Nile in a basket—where he is rescued and then raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter, who our Rabbis name Batya, “daughter of God.”  And finally, Moses’ sister, Miriam, appears to Batya and offers to secure a wet nurse, who just happens to be Moses’ own mother. 

What do we learn from these heroic women?  Writing in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, Dr. Susan Niditch notes: “The presence of these five women—who collaborate with each other across ethnic, class, and religious lines—is immensely significant.  Deeply wise in fundamental, life-sustaining ways, these women understand instinctively that Pharaoh should be disobeyed; and, with initiative, they act on this knowledge.  Ultimately, these women’s defiance demeans the male tyrant.  Thus, from these women filled with a power rooted in moral reason, an ethical concern for life, and the capacity to empathize, we learn a valuable lesson in political ethics: the very weakest in society can contribute to liberation by judiciously engaging in acts of civil disobedience.”

“Ultimately, these women’s defiance demeans the male tyrant.”  Dr. Niditch’s insight here is especially timely as we begin both a new secular year and a new book of the Torah.  2017 began with the Women’s March in Washington and across our nation, and ended with the #metoo movement.  Now, more than ever, we need the voices of strong women to disrupt the status quo and bring justice to a culture seething in vulgarity, bigotry, and inequity.  And we men should welcome their leadership and join with them to create a better state, nation, and world—much as our ancestors did millennia ago.