Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bo 5767: Can and Can't

Exodus 10:1-13:16

This week we have the last three plagues, locusts, darkness, and finally the death of the first born. Before the last plague hits, however, there is a lot of preparation done beforehand. God gives a set of directions to first chain up then kill a lamb as an assembly, eating it all in the night of the plague, and spreading its blood on the doorposts of the houses of the Israelite so to indicate whose house to pass over. Further instructions mentioned not eating leavened foods for seven days and eating Matzah instead. This was the first Passover.

2. This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you. 3. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for a house; 4. And if the household is too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbor next to his house take it according to the number of the souls; according to every man's eating shall you make your count for the lamb.5. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; you shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats; 6. And you shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. 7. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, in which they shall eat it. 8. And they shall eat the meat in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. 9. Eat it not raw, nor boil with water, but roast it with fire; its head with its legs, and with its inner parts. 10. And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. 11. And thus shall you eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste; it is the Lord's Passover.[Ex. 12:2-11]

That, in a few verses, is the entire mitzvot of Passover. I read this in the Hebrew from a rabbinic bible while on retreat this weekend. The rest of the participants were involved in some silly game (bubble gum sculpture I think) and I needed a bit of time to reflect. So entering the OSRUI Library I started picking out books to study from, and read the passage above. I thought about one particular thing in it that bothered me. Why all the emphasis on eating?

I had thought about this before, and came to a conclusion back then that this was the ultimate slap in the face to the Egyptians. We read in Exodus 8:

21. And Pharaoh called for Moses and for Aaron, and said, Go, sacrifice to your God in the land. 22. And Moses said, It is not proper to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God what is abomination for the Egyptians. Shall we sacrifice what is abomination for the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us? [Exodus 8:21-2]

And of course one of the most common sacrifices was lamb. Based on this and a passage in Genesis concerning Joseph's table manners, Midrash relates that lamb was a god to the Egyptians, and killing and eating the god was the abomination. So by eating a lamb wrap with horseradish while packed and dressed for travel, we have the mitzvot of eating fast food in front of the Egyptians. Not only did they desecrate the gods of the Egyptians by this act, but they denigrating it by saying "super size me"

And while that states what it means to the Egyptians, what did this mean to the Israelites? Here is another dilemma. In the Passover Hagaddah, we are told there is symbolism behind the matzah and maror. The matzah commemorates that the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise before leaving Egypt. Yet in 12:6, they were told exactly when to have this meal, and have four days to hold onto the lamb. Since it only takes a few hours for bread to rise, there is plenty of time to let the bread rise, yet God commands that they eat matzah, not once but several times. Exodus 12:15-17 describes not only this time but every year for seven days, starting on the 14th on the first month there will a time where no Jew will eat leavened bread nor keep it in the house. It is not until verse 12:34, which happens hours after that first Seder do we read:

34. And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders. 35. And the people of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments; 36. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent them such things as they required. And they carried away the wealth of the Egyptians.

It was of course from Exodus 12:34 and similar verses that the rabbis wrote into the Haggadah the idea that matzah was a symbol for the bread not rising in the haste to leave. But this was not what they ate the night before, nor does the removal of hameitz make any sense either from that symbolism. It is also in this portion we have part of the answer also immortalized in the Haggadah:

26. And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service? 27. That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover, who passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians, and saved our houses. And the people bowed their heads and worshipped. [Ex 12:26-7]
8. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt. [Ex 13:8]

As we tell in the four questions and four sons, we do this to remember the Exodus. But I think there is more than remembering going on. Imagine the scene. Not only are the Israelites walking out of Egypt after insulting the Egyptian gods by barbequing them as Mac Lamb tacos, but they are asking for and taking the wealth of Egypt along with them. Not the most plausible scenario. Could you imagine walking up to the guy who was beating the living daylights out of you only hours before and asking if you could borrow all his wife's jewelry, while dressed like you are about to take a very long trip picking out bits of his god stuck in your teeth?

Three words come to mind: "I can't do that!" Such words come to mind often in far too many circumstances even today. This week I ran across three people who had a different reaction. One, who clarified the rest, was Jake Shimabukuro. Jake happens to be one of my musical heroes, a ukulele player. For most ukulele is an instrument to play traditional Hawaiian tunes, a few tunes from the 20's and of course Tiptoe Through the Tulips. To say that you could play hard rock, reggae, jazz or blues on a Uke, virtually everyone would say "you can't do that" But Jake, with lightning fingers does, and does so well, he is often nicknamed "The Jimmy Hendrix of Uke.

While writing a paper yesterday, I was listening to Jake, and getting no where on this final exam. I had ideas but they never seemed to fit together, until I thought of Jake. And then I realized the one thing about this character I was writing about and what made him so different that he has ended up known as he is today. He was orphaned young, and a failure in school. Often truant, he slept during the day or wandered about the woods. Legend at least tells us he studied at night. As a teen he trained as a shohet, a kosher butcher, but later left the profession to be a wanderer and eventually opened an inn which his wife ran while he spent his days wandering around, fasting in cold caves and dipping himself in ice cold water. While this might seem like odd behavior what he was doing was thinking and meditating. For anyone else this would be the recipe for a "loser".From his actions no one could ever amount to anything would be the conventional wisdom. You can't get anywhere acting like that.

Yet the one important thing that Israel Ben Eliezer, known to the world as the Baal Shem Tov was too truant to learn in school was the word can't. Because of that he is credited as the founder of the Hasidic movement, which only decades after his death spread throughout Eastern Europe like wildfire. The detractors of the movement claim that he was not following the Torah, by introducing movement into prayer. It was not enough to pray by seeing the words or speaking them, but moving with them, making prayer active in all our major forms of perception. In this innovation, all of our senses are engaged in prayer and it becomes a more intense focused experience. In some ways he was even more scrupulous than his detractors, particularly in the area of Kashrut. There is plenty of evidence from stories of him, and even a responsum that his tolerances for mistakes in kosher meat was very tight. There a letter in his name on behalf of the Kehilla of Miedzybóz; asking for a ruling from Rabbi Meir of Konstantynow, the son of Jacob Emden, against the butchers and the assistant rabbi of the town who were too permissive in their kashrut. As a self-taught shohet, he never accepted the status quo answer that you can't get a knife any sharper, or that one can't remove certain lesions. Ironically, the polemics against early Hasidism, while stating that they never followed Torah also noted they were too careful about sharpening the knives used for butchering. The Hasidim would tell you that was in order not to render the animal treif or cause undue pain to the animal; both mitzvot mandated by Torah. Reading these polemics, written by such erudite scholars as the Vilna Gaon, it is clear that the issue was not halakah, but the status quo of traditions of 18th century Poland and Lithuania. The Baal Shem and his disciples changed the way we connected to God not by changing the mitzvot, but by the traditions of getting there €“ because they did not believe "you can't do that" Many people, when they saw the possibilities opened, followed them.

The last of three people I thought of this week was me. What I was doing in the OSRUI library? I was reading Hebrew without a dictionary. Ask me a decade ago if I could read that passage and my answer would be "I can't do that" Yet here I was reading this, and even checking a few words in the Aramaic Targum glosses. Reading and wondering about the meaning Tzli--aish oomatzot al m’rorim yoh-ac’luhu I did not have to go to a translation. In that act of reading, I also have the answer for that first Passover, why matzah, and why clear out that hameitz.

We spend too much of our lives saying we can't because were told that is true. We can't leave Egypt, because of the taskmasters and the powerful Egyptian army. But there are some acts that we can do that say "we can. Doing something while expecting the results, however impossible that outcome may seem, is one of those acts of saying we can. Eating foods that you only need the next day is one such example, so is eating the god of your slaver. By eating matzah and lamb, the Israelites were setting the expectation of leaving. And in setting that expectation, they also did something else; they became committed to that outcome. They looked for it to happen. Those who partook of that first Passover Seder became committed to the outcome of leaving, so committed, that even asking their taskmaster to borrow all their valuables didn't seem absurd any more. When the text says God found favor God does not find favor for doing nothing. God finds favor in those who commit to doing an act for God. We then find favor or, to use another common phrase, our eyes are opened to possibilities we did not see before.

Thus every year on the fourteenth of Nissan till the twenty first, we do not just remember the Exodus from Egypt, but commit ourselves and those of the next generation to God as our ancestors did back then.We move from the place of the "I can't" that the majority around us tells is the truth to the "I can" that Divine Wisdom makes true, as did the Baal Shem Tov. As I sit finishing this, listening to Jake's rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on uke, I remember this. When I break my first piece of matzah for Pesach, until the last one seven days later, I will remember that I can do things others believe impossible, and in doing so the I can't in my life increase through Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu.

and, of course, you can too.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Va-era 5767: Healing Magic

Exodus 6:2-9:35

After Moses’ first disaster talking to Pharaoh and the Israelites, God talks to Moses again and tells him to talk to the Israelites again, they are so stressed out, they promptly ignore him. Then God tells a despondent Moses to talk to Pharaoh once again, and Moses objects -- again. God tells Moses that he will use signs and wonders to make sure everyone knows God’s power. First there is the wonder of the staff being turned into a snake, then the staff eating the other snakes. Then begins the plagues, where we have the first seven of the ten: blood, frogs, lice, swarms, cattle disease, boils and hail.

Before the plagues however, we have a bit of a magic competition:

8. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 9. When Pharaoh shall speak to you, saying, Show a miracle; then you shall say to Aaron, Take your rod, and throw it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent. 10. And Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and they did as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron threw down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. 11. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments. 12. For they threw down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. [Ex 7:8-12]

While most know magic is prohibited by Torah, the question become why this competition and what is it proving. The pattern continues in the early plagues where the sorcerers of Pharaoh did something similar to each plague. To make sense of this text, there is a very interesting episode in the desert as well.

5. And the people spoke against God, and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, nor is there any water; and our soul loathes this light bread.’ 6. And the Lord sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many people of Israel died. 7. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against you; pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us’. And Moses prayed for the people. 8. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a venomous serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks upon it, shall live.’ 9. And Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of bronze, he lived. [Numbers 21:5-9]

Let us add to this one more interesting pattern with the first three plagues, all of which started, like the snake turning into a staff, with the staff. And while the Egyptians were able to seemingly duplicate frogs and blood, they didn’t do something very significant: they couldn’t stop the plague. In the Midrash, the Rabbis make the wonder of the snake even more incredible based on a literal reading of the text by noting the snake turned back into a staff first then swallowed the staffs of the Egyptians. The wonder is not the creation of the snake, which even Egyptian schoolchildren could do according to Midrash, but the removal of the other snakes. The true wonder is not the plague, but the removal of it.

In the Midrash to the story of the bronze snake the rabbis noticed the word pole, neis in Hebrew, had another meaning:

And the Lord said unto Moses: make thee a fiery serpent... And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he sees it, shall live (xxi, 8). Not merely one bitten by the serpent but, He said, every one that is bitten. Even one bitten by an asp, a scorpion, a wild beast, or a dog. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it up by a miracle (ib. 9). He cast it into the air and it stayed there. [Numbers R. XIX: 23]

Neis may be commonly remembered as the letter nun on the dreidel in the acronym Neis gadol haya sham (a great miracle happened there). Neis means both miracle and pole. For the commentator of Midrash Rabbah the snake floating in mid air was a wonder, but the Mishnah thinks otherwise:

[It is written], make thee a fiery serpent and set it up on a pole, and it shall come to pass that everyone that is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. Now did the serpent kill or did the serpent keep alive? No; [what it indicates is that] when Israel turned their thoughts above and subjected their hearts to their father in heaven, they were healed, but otherwise they pined away. [Rosh Hashanah 29a]

The real wonder is that people healed. It was not the snake that healed but that people turned to God, and then healed by God. It was not that the Nile turned to blood or frogs overran the land. The magicians could all do this. They could not get rid of the blood or the frogs, yet Moses turning his thoughts above did. The magicians could not even cure their own boils, and after we are told they take a sick day instead of confronting Moses, they never show up in the text again. The early plagues were just the setup for real wonder that only God heals and relieves from oppression.

Healing is of course not purely divine, we can help along the process in many ways, from the knowledge and technology we have for healing. There are incredible surgical procedures, and therapeutic techniques and I am the first to believe when we need them to use them . Indeed the Rabbis of the later Gemara were rather liberal in their interpretation between magic and healing stating in Shabbat 67a “Abaye and Raba both maintain: Whatever is used as a remedy is not [forbidden] on account of the ways of the Amorite [i.e. magic practices].” Even otherwise forbbiden magic could be used – if it healed.

In the early to mid 18th century we have another example of how respected a Jew using magic can be. From about the 16th through the 18th centuries a class of Jewish folk healers emerged primarily in southern Poland, but throughout eastern Europe. While some were certainly charlatans, many were serious practioners of magic and shamanic divine intercession to help heal people, basing their methods primarily on Lurianic Kabbala. As a class they are known as Baalei Shem, or Masters of the Name due to their manipulation of divine names in healing amulets. Yet most of these healers are lost to history except one who was exceptional in his abilities based in the southern Poland town of Miedzybóz. Israel ben Eliezer who most know of as the Baal Shem Tov, was the founder of the Hasidic movement and so good a healer we have a series of rather remarkable documents attesting to his status. Polish tax records of the town of Miedzybóz record that Israel Baal Shem had the title “dockor” written down on these records by the Catholic Polish authority. The Jewish ruling council of the town, the Kahal, had given him tax exempt status as part of the religious establishment not as rabbi, but as healer. Not only had the Jews believed in his mystical healing abilities, the gentiles did too. But if one were to ask The Baal Shem Tov about his healing methods, he probably would have told you all he did was pray and be pious, the rest was done up above and by the person healing.

As the Baal Shem Tov would have told you, ultimately the thing we call healing happens and is not directly controllable. It needs God, it needs us to turn to above to begin the process, Hasidism might advocate the use of the tzaddik as an intermediary, yet we as individuals must want to heal and turn to God in order to heal. As such, healing is not prohibited magic at all but recognition of the agent who really does. A common Hasidic custom of changing or mounting more mezuzahs on the doors of the house when someone is sick and needs healing is not some idolatry around the mezuzahs, but like the copper serpent, an avenue to thinking about God.

In Egypt the Israelites needed a big psychological healing. They were so traumatized by their experience as slaves they simply ignored Moses’ attempts to rally them. That healing came in these first plagues. The message was the relief from their oppression would come from God. At that point, I do not believe they were afraid of the Egyptian Chariots, but Egyptian sorcerers conjuring plagues of snakes, blood and frogs if they resisted the Egyptians and followed Moses. Yet, it was God and only God who removed these things from the scene. The magicians of Egypt needed to be proven powerless; that everything they could throw at the people could be easily healed or repealed by God. Anybody can oppress, but those who believe in God are the ones who leave Egypt. They are not afraid of earthly magicians; they have turned their thoughts upward. In the early plagues, this was the lesson that needed to sink into the Israelites before the thought of leaving was possible.

One of the shortest prayers in Torah*, Ayl na rafa na la, Please God, Please heal her [Numbers 12:13] is Moses’ prayer for healing of Miriam’s tzarat. This short, easy to pronounce prayer is in some way the most effective, and points like the staffs and snakes to above. There are many kinds of healing of course; there is the healing of the body, of the mind, and of the spirit. There is healing for individuals and healing for groups and whole societies. But part of that process, whoever is healing is inherent in Moses’ simple formula to heal his sister, to humbly acknowledge God, and to ask for healing.

And so for all who need healing Ayl na rafa na la.

* To learn to read this prayer in Hebrew, check out lesson one in the Shlomo's Drash Hebrew Page

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Drash Shemot 5767:callings

Exodus 1:1-6:1

This week we start the book of Exodus and are introduced to the setup for the rest of the Torah. A Pharaoh who does not know Joseph arises and appealing to national security, has the Israelites enslaved. Things get worse. Pharaoh has the midwives try to kill all the newborn boys but they do not heed him. In response Pharaoh then decides to kill all male newborns by drowning, though one baby escapes this by being sent down the river, ending up living in the palace, until he murders an Egyptian task master. The slave who this guy saves rewards him by ratting him out. To escape Pharaoh’s anger, this man flees to Midian where he finds a bride, becomes a shepherd and has a rather interesting conversation with a burning bush. This man is of course Moses. And this week is really his story.

After his fleeing from Egypt, Moses begins a new life with a wife, a son, extended family and a flock of sheep. Yet things change for him, and such an idyllic life is about to get very complicated:

4. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. 5. And he said, Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. 6. And he said, I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. 7. And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; 8. And I have come down to save them from the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9. And therefore, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me; and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10. Come now therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.
11. And Moses said to God, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the people of Israel out of Egypt? [Ex. 3:4-11]

Ironically this week I start a translation class where we are translating the book of Exodus and the book of Jeremiah. And I found it very interesting the beginning of the book of Jeremiah.

4. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, 5. (K) Before I formed you in the belly I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet to the nations. 6. Then said I, Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak; for I am a child. 7. But the Lord said to me, Say not, I am a child; for you shall go to all to whom I shall send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. 8. Be not afraid of their faces; for I am with you to save you, said the Lord.

The parallels between Moses and Jeremiah, and particularly their responses interest me. Rabbinic commentary also parallel the two

Our Sages say: What is the meaning of ’But He is at one with Himself, and who can turn Him?’[Job 23:13] When He pronounces a decree on man, none can revoke it…. How long Jeremiah refused to prophesy, yet he was compelled to against his will; as it says: Say not: I am a child; for to whomsoever I shall send you, you will go [Jer. 1:7]. How reluctant was Moses to go on the divine mission, as it says: Send I pray You, by the hand of him whom You will send (Ex. IV, 13); yet in the end he was compelled to go, as it says: and Moses returned to Jethro his father in-law.

Divine will, according to these quotes does tell us what to do. We are set up to do certain things as was Moses and Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s path was set with a divine connection even before his birth. And yet Moses and Jeremiah both object to God’s will, complaining they are not good enough or credible enough to do that task. And in both cases God tells them differently, that the shortcomings of youth or poor speech is not enough to stop them on their mission, on their calling.

The word calling is an appropriate one as it is written God called to him out of the midst of the bush [Ex 3:4] Literally a calling is when God calls out to us and tells us where our life path is to take us, how we can help the world in our unique way. For Moses it was leading the people out of Egypt, For Jeremiah, It was warning Jews to change for the better, even if it was ultimately a hopeless cause. We as moderns do not hear voices out of burning bushes, and yet do we too have callings? How do we find them? And what do we do when we do?

Funny thing is, I haven’t a clue. Yet things have been strange lately and made me think about all this. Over and over again, the things in my world as a corporate health inspector break down or disappear. So I’ve been wondering lately if this is some kind of sign of where I’m going to go next in my life, toward my calling, whatever it is.

While I believe we have free will, I also paradoxically believe in callings, in the one path we each are destined to contribute to the word. We each have an attribute of our identity which isn’t our own will, but from some other more inherent source. One might call it genetics, nature, temperament, neuro-physiological connections – it doesn’t matter, it is still something we don’t control, yet defines how we live our life. It leads us towards some specific outcome that is particular to us. I believe such things come ultimately from the creator of the Dice of the Universe. Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu throws loaded dice every once in a while, just to stir things up. And in doing so God knows us even before we are formed in the belly, just like Jeremiah. God knows what our path is, yet we are free to choose to strive towards or away to that outcome. Thinking of this, I can’t help but think of the famed story of the Hasidic Rebbe Zuzya of Hanipol, who on his deathbed fretted not about being asked in the world to come why he was not more like Moses or Abraham, but fretted about being asked why he was not more like Zuzya.

I believe we all have a calling, and although it may not look like a burning thorn bush, we also have a moment where things clarify, when God calls us, just like Moses. If that moment is true, we also have in that same moment a realization of our inadequacy to the tasks necessary to get to that outcome. Yet, once we get to that moment we do it anyway, and our life is set on that path. More often than not it is not as significant as Moses’ calling – but it is our own. I think of the guy who was supposed to be a refrigerator repairman, yet he knew he wanted a lot more. I am here today because my dad knew his calling was more than charging evaporators with Freon in some Brooklyn Deli. After getting a PhD in Microbiology and creating an internationally recognized healthcare business, he continues to deliver on his calling, saving unknown lives in the process. When I think of what a calling does, that is my inspirational model, one I find myself still woefully inadequate in following.

But how does one get on that path of calling? We read this week:

2. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

We really don’t know how long that bush is burning, or how long the angel waited for him; this great sight may have been there quite a while, maybe the beginning of creation. This is why it is interesting Moses say he will turn aside. The root word for turn aside in Hebrew, sur usually has a meaning of deviating or rebelling. For example you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. (Deut. 5:29) or Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them (Deut. 11:14) Transgressions often have to do with this word. Alternatively, the more common word for turn is shuv which has another connotation: turn back, or return to the path, hence t’ShUVah repentance. Why is the word more associated with transgression and not repentance used here?

The Midrash above quotes Job 23, ’But He is at one with Himself, and who can turn Him?’ where He refers to God. Here also the word for turn is shuv. We can also read the Hebrew as Now he who is with the One. To find that calling moment requires congruence with God, a knowing that God is there, and being able to see great wonders in the world. It is in that moment you can see burning bushes in everything around you, great miracles in the smallest thing. I am reminded of Jacob, when he said in a desolate desert with a stone for a pillow God was in this place and I, I did not know [Gen 28:16] When you get there and have that vision of your calling, then there is no turning back from it because you see where your calling fits in everything you do and thus everything you do is your calling. Jacob moved on from a homeless refugee headed towards Padan Aram to the leader of seventy children and grandchildren when he went down to Egypt. It is not the ordinary path of the majority but a unique one blazed and traversed by only you. That is why we read sur: We transgress against the common and conventional in society to be one with God by being our unique self, the one God fashioned even before we were formed in the womb.

Yet to be one with the creator requires us to acknowledge the One the way only we as Jews can – by following the mitzvot, by acknowledging the One in prayer like the Shema. Being Jewish is a big step in being unconventional as our ancestors found out time and time again. On the heels of the December season where both our identity shine in the light of hanukiot and pales in signs of assimilation like the Hanukkah Bush or the annual Christmas letter (which I refer to as the treif letter) it is good to see where we stand. Do we stand following a beat of the slaver drummers that are in Egypt, or do we play that beat of a different tof that is Miriam at the Red Sea? How we decide is by finding our calling, by being who we are, and seeing those burning bushes.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Drash Vayechi 5767: Family

Genesis 47:28-50:26

Seventeen years after Jacob moved to Egypt, he becomes ill and close to death. He first blesses Ephraim and Manasseh as his own sons, though oddly changing the birth order around. Later, he blesses, if not prophesizes about all of his sons not by their merit. Jacob dies, is carried back to Canaan, and then the brothers fret Joseph will finally exact revenge. But Joseph tells them once again it was God who did all this and there is nothing to worry about. Fifty four years later, Joseph makes his brother promise that when they or their descendants leave Egypt they will take his bones with them. Joseph lives to see three generations and then at 110, dies ending the book of Genesis.

At the center piece of this week’s portion is the “blessing” Jacob gives his sons. Yet as is clear very early, this is far from a happy blessing, and often comes near to a curse, Take the blessings for Reuben, Levi, and Simeon:

3. Reuben, you are my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power; 4. Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed; then defiled you it; he went up to my couch. 5. Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. 6. O my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their wanton will they lamed an ox. 7. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Other brothers get different blessings with Judah and Joseph getting some of the best. Yet what is interesting is the comment made by Jacob about Joseph:

22. Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall; 23. The archers fiercely attacked him, and shot at him, and hated him; 24. But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob; from there is the shepherd, the stone of Israel;

This comment brings in an interesting debate: how much did Jacob know of the incident with his brothers? How much did he figure out, and how much was he told. Midrash says it was not his brothers, but other in the camp of Jacob who attacked him, yet the plainer meaning sits there: the “archers” are his brothers. The same Midrash makes another interesting comment about what kind of “arrow”:

[Also, to those] who cast at him words cruel as an arrow (hez): Sharp arrows of the mighty (Ps. CXX, 4). Why does he compare them to an arrow rather than to any other weapon? All other weapons smite from close quarters, whereas this smites from the distance. Even so is slander, for it is spoken in Rome and kills in Syria.

Before the brothers were using physical violence, there was the verbal violence of slander, which can hurt even from far away, and following up on the rest of Psalm 120:4, can indeed burn internally for a long time. Yet Joseph, even after his father dies, does not show anger at his brothers.

The blessing of Jacob takes on a form more like prophecy than of blessing, yet in that prophecy, there is an odd thing that did not occur in previous blessings of sons. It describes the person first then gives a consequence of that personality trait. For Joseph and Judah “the lion’s cub,” it is good news, for some other not so good. Significantly, there is that difference in each, that even from the same father you get twelve (eleven if you count Simeon and Levi together) different prophecies about twelve very different children.

I have been thinking a lot about children. Over the last week of December, I spent a lot of time with children whether I wanted to or not. As a family my parents my sister and her family all went to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico. Yet it was a very family oriented resort, to accommodate all the little ones in our family. It was all families, with lots of little ones running around and screaming whining and yelling of “MOM WATCH THIS!” And I’m not talking my family – I’m talking everyone, everywhere. And while that’s what kids do when they are in their single digit years, it’s not the environment for a single man days from turning 41. All this while trying to get through some rather heavy books on the history of Jewish Poland, every lead on his research invariably and very literally killed off in the Shoah for a final he HAS to get done very soon.

It was, to say the least not the best vacation. But it was a thoughtful introspective one, and one I’m glad I was on. Jacob, I’m sure tried to raise his sons right, yet as we know, he preferred Rachel’s sons to the others. Even though Judah and Reuben had the same parents they turned out very differently. I wonder what it was like to have that many sons running around when they were young, I have a feeling it was a lot like that resort. With four mothers, it’s likely many were pregnant at the same time, and many were of the same age. All those kids at that resort, no matter where they came from, will grow up and be who they are, though hopefully guided by their parents in some good sane directions to turn their lives. Yet as Jacob blesses his adult sons, we realize that people are different and will follow their own path. While looking out over the bay, watching pelicans and palm trees, being by the pool or having dinner with my family, I thought about that a lot.

Post-holocaust a question which had an obvious answer before was challenged. Does the Torah keep the Jews or do the Jews keep the Torah? Put another way; is it Jewish bodies or Jewish souls that make up the Jewish people? Is populating the world with children born to Jewish parents the best way to keep the Jewish people alive, or is making sure all the mitzvoth are performed by those that are here? Or as I tend to struggle with the question: If you had a choice between Torah Study and procreation, which would you pick? Watching the beautiful sunsets, punctuated by crying kids who are bored looking at the sun boiling away into the ocean, or the sounds of electronic games overwhelming the sound of the waves breaking, before each of these beautiful chances for blessing Hashem, no matter what the faith of those children, I wondered that most of all.

While we are now at the end of the book of Genesis, it is interesting looking back at the first question Rashi asks about the book of Genesis. Rashi asks why there is a book of Genesis, and indeed the first eleven chapters of Exodus. It is not till Exodus 12 do we have a mitzvah that is exclusively for Jews. Why all the words between In the beginning to This month shall be the beginning of months? The answer is to tell the story of our family, of the family who received those mitzvot contained from Exodus 12 until the next time these twelve tribes are blessed, this time by a dying Moses in Deuteronomy 33. We see a story, as I’ve noted before, of family that just can’t quite get it together, from Adam and Eve’s blame game to story after story of family rivalry. Genesis abruptly ends when brothers can actually live together in peace, and shoot no more arrows in each other’s direction.

My sister and I chose different paths, polar opposites of that question. Neither of us is completely right, neither is completely wrong. It just is our own different path. As an uncle my nieces and nephews are sometimes a joy to be around, sometimes they are not. I sometime lament that the kids are a tangible item, so many people will comment on how cute talented and smart they are, to the pride of their parents. Yet my studies have produced so little that is tangible. Enough words to fit on one CD-ROM, with megabytes to spare, and less than 40 hits a month on a website. My efforts get so little attention I will never know how even that pebble in the pond will ripple into the greater Jewish world. As provocatively as I could write Shlomo’s Drash or a paper for my Masters in Jewish Studies, neither screams as loud as a six year old, neither brings the people running to listen words of Torah the same as running to the latest dance recital.

Jacob, in what he said to each of his sons, was creating twelve stories about the past. Twelve different tellers of the story, and we still listen and retell that story. My sister after reading Rashi’s Daughters thought of it only as a historical novel, and did not want me to ruin the other books by telling her about Rabbenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi and one of several of that generation of Rashi’s descendants who would continue the traditions of commentary started by their grandfather, opposite him on every folio of Talmud. Yet every week, though not related to Rashi, I tell that story of commentary, whether anyone listens or not, just in case anyone ever does need to. I know that is my path, however it may lead. My sister and I are two people to tell stories into the next generations of our immediate family and of the Jewish people, and like the twelve sons of Israel, each in our own way.

May you find your own.