Friday, January 29, 2010

B'shelach 5770: The Frst Shabbat Revisited.

Sometimes when I write these thing I’m not sure what to write about, because there is too much going on in the portion. This is one of those weeks. We start with the Israelites leaving Egypt going the long way, so the Israelites don’t meet the Philistines and get discouraged by war. Not like they don't see it looming: They get themselves sandwiched between Pharaoh’s whole army and the Red Sea, only to have a miracle save them. On the other side of the Red Sea, the people, and in a rare occurrence in biblical text, even the women led by Miriam, dance in joy. They sing that God is good, in their words mi chamocha, “who is like you?”, because he’s so good at turning live people and animals into waterlogged corpses. From there, the people complain about the water and food, when miracles save the day, including the incredible food substance Manna. God also introduces Shabbat observance by commanding that a double portion of manna be taken on the six day, as he doesn’t cook on Shabbos. To end the portion, we are introduced to Joshua, who repels an Amelakite attack with the help of God, Moses and two very tired arms.

There’s too much going on. Five years ago I wrote this original piece where I complained about how busy I am in grad school. I also wrote about Trying to talk about the triumphal Song at the Sea after the Tsunami in southeast Asia seemed in a little bad taste. Five years later, It's Haiti. Five years on what I'm busy with has changed but I'm still busy, and very blessed in what I'm busy with. With Sweetie in my life there is the stuff of another person to think about, and to care about. As she is now in school, she has a lot to do too. But I wouldn't trade busy that has to do with her for anything. I’m suffering from doing too much, and having even more that needs to be done. Sound familiar to your life? I complained about it five years ago, have complained about it constantly ever since.

In such a environment there is an interesting wrinkle to the miracle of Manna that we read this week:

23. And he said to them, This is what the Lord has said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake that which you will bake today, and boil what you will boil today; and that which remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning…. 29. See, because the Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. 30. So the people rested on the seventh day.[Exodus 16]
For years my “meditation” on Shabbat has been what is best referred to as “recreational translation”. I would spend most of Saturday morning immersed in the Hebrew texts, extracting their meaning. But at that time I was auditing classes, they were not for credit. Somewhere in trying to give the performance needed for credit in graduate-level classes, I lost the joy and holiness of it. THe recreational translation disappeared. Before that, I would make my Shabbat mornings, art mornings. I would do nothing but sit in a Starbuck's and paint for three or four hours.

Within the last few years, I now attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning. Within the last few months, Sweetie and I both attend, and make a big deal about doing so. Prayer has taken over this time, as it has for Jews for millenia. As it is written in the siddur we pray form, the v’shamru tells us that Shabbat is about v’yinafash - God re-souled God by stopping. If an infinite God does that, how much more so a limited human like me! If we never stop, we cannot re-fresh or re-soul ourselves. I, like a lot of people, have forgotten that. Like the manna, I need to just stop working and gathering and sit still for a day. Supposedly, as the Midrash to this portion notes, the messiah would come if all of Israel would just have one good Shabbat.

As I thought about Shabbat, I've not always had a good relationship with Shabbat. When I was in my teens in a conservative synagogue, like many I got a little caught up in the God-victory language found in song of the sea. I remember reading in Friday nights Psalm 92, one of the psalms for Shabbat:

8. When the wicked spring like grass, and when all the evil doers flourish; It is that they shall be destroyed forever; 9. But you, O Lord, are most high for evermore. 10. For, behold, your enemies, O Lord, for, behold, your enemies shall perish; All the evil doers shall be scattered.
My experience in those days were so different. Somehow, my enemies weren’t God’s enemies. Because when I invoked these words, I still got beaten up by bullies. Sometime in High School, after getting pulverized by two students because I was wearing a cheap knock-off of the then status symbol Izod shirts, I stopped believing in God. It just seemed that God didn’t care about me. Of course many have said that about bigger nightmares than just a bully, for example the Holocaust. Where was God when I needed Him? Where was God when we needed him?

At one point in writing the earlier version of this five years ago, I was in Starbuck’s, and noted something written as part of the wallpaper of the store. “Do I need you or you need me, things have come full circle.” The covenant with God is two way, and I have come about to a different person than the one I was back in High School. That change in me makes me think about the odd food Manna. A food from a divine origin does not show up on the Sabbath. In short, we don’t get anything on the Sabbath.Instead, we get Nothing - and that’s a good thing. The Sabbath really is for our personal rest, to just stop for a day of true Nothing, even from God in one sense. The Shabbat Amidah reflects this by cutting out a lot of blessings and petitions said during the week.

But those quotes about enemies? I realized my enemy is not an external one, It’s the one I see in the mirror every morning, my own yetzer ha ra. The enemy springs up like the grass because I'm sort of attached to him. It’s that voice that tells me to just keep doing even when it is a time to stop doing. Its the voice that get me up at 4:30 in the morning to do an extra three hours of work even before I go into the office, even on Saturday when I'm not going into the office and supposed to be resting.It's the part of me that just doesn't stop.

The constant enemy of Israel, Amalek actually attacks right after that manna and the first commandment for Shabbat. And the text gives an interesting thought - Amalek picks off the weak, and Amalek prevails when Moses' arms get tired. Only the efforts of others to keep his arms up wins the day. When we are tired the enemy grows stronger, and we get weaker. When we actually rest, we get stronger and prevail. I work very, very hard and wonder why things seem to be slipping away from me. The answer of course is simple, but one that will takes the Israelites a long time to find: I don’t really ever stop, even on Shabbat.

In a world of deadlines and consistent urgent request for immediate assistance it is not easy to just take a day off. For some it’s the difference between the next meal and no meal, at least in their perception if not in fact. But like the manna that doesn’t show on Shabbat, all that work is futility if we don’t stop, rest and continue refreshed. Even a meal is worthless if we drop dead from exhaustion.

I rambled a bit this week, for which I apologize, but it’s been that kind of week. So this week, and every week, may you have a great Shabbat. I’m certainly going to try for one myself. While complaining about doing too much hasn't changed in five years where I am this Shabbat has. Five years ago I had a date with a drum, a camera and some recreational translation. This shabbat I have a day-long date with my beloved Sweetie.

Blessed be the difference. I am certainly blessed for it.

Bo 5770:Circumcised for Passover

I have a question, but no answer, Can you help? I began by investigating one word, but it took me indirections I didn't plan.

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. After the Israelites leave we read.

17. And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for in this same day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. 18. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening.
19. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats that which is leavened, that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger, or born in the land. 20. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread. [Exodus 12]

The people leave Egypt, and shortly after they camp for the night, God says to them:

43. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the Passover; No stranger shall eat of it; 44. But every man’s servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat of it. 45. A foreigner and a hired servant shall not eat of it. 46. In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry anything of the meat out of the house; neither shall you break a bone of it. 47. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48. And when a stranger shall sojourn with you, and will keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one who is born in the land; for no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49. One law shall be for him who is native born, and for the stranger who sojourns among you. [Exodus 12]

Three words stuck out. Uncircumcised(ערל) stranger גר and alien נכר Now I have problems with these words since my own family's passover celebrations often include non Jews. What's more, while we may not be completely observant, I've been to Orthodox Seders where there were non-Jews present. They are, to say the least, a lot of fun. What is the case here, and what is and isn't allowed for particularly the uncircumcised? What does Uncircumcised mean, and why are they prohibited from eating the passover sacrifice?

King David, interestingly, mentions it in two circumstances. Once before he takes down Goliath:

26. And David spoke to the men who stood by him, saying, What shall be done to the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?[I Sam 17]

36. Your servant slew both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be as one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.

After this, he never uses the term again, until he eulogises Saul, disparaging those who defeated and desecrated Saul's body.

19. The beauty, O Israel, is slain upon your high places; how are the mighty fallen!
20. Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.[II Sam 1]

Interestingly during the entire time he was on the run form Saul, flitting in and out of Philistine territory and even settling in Ziklag under the philistines, he never use this term. It seems to be a derogatory term for foreigner. Ezekiel also seems to use such a term as foreign.

Yet the rabbinic Aramaic version Targum Jonathan to the Torah adds to circumcised not able to eat the passover sacrifice, "the uncircumcised who are Jews", a reflection found in the Talmud as well. This refers back to Genesis 17:14 notes that a male born of Jewish parents if not circumcised is to be cut off from his people since he broke the covenant. The ancient rabbis seem to have played on that to understand what is uncircumcised.

I for one have not come up up with any good answers here, but do have questions:

  • What does uncircumcised mean?
  • What is being foreign in this context?
  • Does foreign really prohibit participation in Passover?
  • Does foreign really prohibit participation in Jewish ritual in general?
  • What is the line of prohibition of participation?
  • If you feel passionately about this, why do you feel that way?

I've gotten some really interesting answers, now I'd like yours.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Va-eira 5770: The missing plague

This week we begin the plagues yet before we do we get the genealogy of Moses, and Mose's and Aaron's confrontation of snakes and staffs with Pharaoh sorcerers. One interesting aspect of this week's portion is how it reflects what happens in front of the burning bush last week inParshat Shemot. Last week we read

' 2 And the LORD said unto him: 'What is that in thy hand?' And he said: 'A rod.' 3 And He said: 'Cast it on the ground.' And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Put forth thy hand, and take it by the tail--and he put forth his hand, and laid hold of it, and it became a rod in his hand-- [exodus 4]

Then in this weeks portion:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 9 'When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then thou shalt say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.' 10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so, as the LORD had commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. [Exodus 7]
Similarly we have God commanding Moses to turn water into blood.
9. And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, nor listen to your voice, that you shall take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land; and the water which you take from the river shall become blood upon the dry land.[Exodus 4]
Later the fist plague begins
19 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.' 20 And Moses and Aaron did so, as the LORD commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. [Exodus 7]
While there are Differences between pouring out of a jar and striking the Nile, water to blood remains the same. Between these two is another thing Moses is told to do:
6 And the LORD said furthermore unto him: 'Put now thy hand into thy bosom.' And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 And He said: 'Put thy hand back into thy bosom.--And he put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.-- 8 And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.[Exodus 4]
This has no parallel in this weeks portion. In all the plagues there is no mention of tzarat, the strange disease which might inflict the people. It's next appearance will be in Leviticus where diagnosis, isolation and treatment procedures will be scrupulously detailed.
Tzarat does eventually show up of course, but not until the book of Numbers, almost two years from the time of leaving Egypt.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.[Numbers 13]
Why did Moses stretch out his rod to start the plague of blood? What did he do when his hand became tzarat? I believe these two questions are related. Why wait until deep in the desert for tzarat to show up?

Moses original question was essentially "what if they don't believe me?" In Parshat Shemot, it might well have been Moses who in some small way doubted he could complete the mission and the three wonders there where for his benefit. The Staff to snake were for the court of Pharaoh, and that went unexpectedly well when the Aaron's staff ate the other staffs. The blood to water however, wasn't private with a water pitcher, but but all of Egypt by spreading a staff across the water.

If spreading the staff over the Nile was a public act. Placing one heart on one's chest is a private, intimate one. The plague was a private one too, inflicting a family member, Miriam. It happened in a moment where she had doubts about Moses' authority. According to the rabbinic interpretation, one easily seen in the way God defends Moses' actions, Miriam's doubts was about little brother's ability to prophesy. At the heart of the argument according to the Rabbis, was Moses determination to keep celibate since he knew the people were prepared to receive the word of God by being celibate three days before Sinai. He figured someone like himself who could be called at any moment by God needed to be prepared at all times. Miriam didn't trust this argument, believing he should not be celibate as the Torah mandates, and it was that lack of belief that caused the tzarat.

There are wonders both big and small, public and private. Sometimes they are plagues and bad things happening to people. Like a lot of Torah columns this week I struggle with talking about the plagues in the shadow of Haiti's earthquake. The extending of the staff, the large widespread plague, doesn't happen often, more likely in my mind is natural disasters just happen, and what we do in their aftermath is what we are judged on. We make a disaster a plague, or we do what is necessary to mitigate the damage and prevent more. Hurricane Katrina always sticks in my mind of both how badly we sometime fail, and how wonderfully we sometimes put our own lives aside to help others. Yet it is that missing plague from this week that speaks to me, for that is all to easy to happen under the best of circumstances. Losing faith in the ones we love is eerily easy, and hurting the ones we love because of that is easy too. I truly believe Moses never wanted to hurt his sister. Some situations get out of hand between family and friends, those close to our hearts.

Sometimes, sadly, the damage is irreparable. But more often, if we understand what we are doing, both parties can try to change things for the better.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Shemot 5770: What if Moses was Just Middle Class?

This week we begin the story of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved, Moses is born, and eventually ends up confronting Pharaoh to let his people go.
That’s the short version. This is one of those stories where a lot of midrash has been written. There is a story from the Passover haggdah, taken from the Talmud, of many brilliant rabbis that met at Beni Brak for Passover. Their seder went on and on, while they discussed all night the Passover story, not realizing that it was already dawn until their students interrupted. Such a story is significant here. There is enough material just in Moses’ origins to keep people busy for a lifetime.
Interestingly enough, Hollywood had more then once stepped up to the plate. IN both the Epic The Ten Commandments” and the animated “The Prince of Egypt” much of the story fits in between Exodus 2:9 and 2:11.

9And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her: 'Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.' And the woman took the child, and nursed it. 10 And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.' 11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren.

Note here there is no palace intrigue, no love interests or triangles, and even no mention of even a friendship or rivalry with Rameses. The only mention of Rameses is a storage city named back in 1:11. It is assumed that since kings name cities after themselves, Rameses was one of the kings during the slavery.
It is also interesting to note a little point about Hebrew grammar. Due to the way the possessive phrase Pharaoh’s daughter is put together, it may mean a daughter of Pharaoh. Pharaoh may have had many daughters. Whether this one was important or not is again a matter to imagination or midrash.
I point this out because there is an archetypal story, which seems to be missed by both traditional midrash and Hollywood. Moses may have been nothing special growing up. He was a plain vanilla upper-class kid, isolated from the horrors of the world. It was when he went out to his brothers, when he saw what really happens, that he changed.
There are many fictional and true accounts of similar events. One I haven’t got out of my mind lately is the white truck driver who listened and started to play black music, particularly the Blues, in a time and place of intense racism. If Elvis Presley hadn’t listened and played that music, would rock and roll ever have been what it is today? There is the story of the young Indian attorney, who enjoyed privilege, but when he tried to take a first class train In South Africa, was thrown off merely for the color of his skin. I wonder what would have happened in India and Pakistan without Mahatma Ghandi getting thrown off that train. As bad as the situation there now, it probably would have been a lot worse without him.
Many of us can think of similar events in our own lives, when we realized someone wasn’t as well off as we were and wanted to do something about it. We did two things, we recognized who our brothers are, and we saw their burden. Then we wanted to act.
For me it was on a public bus from Playa Del Carmen to Merida, across the Yucatan peninsula. Sitting next to chickens, turtles, nursing babies and many different people during a blinding rainstorm, I think I understood a lot better what the third world thinks. Walking through the real mercados of Mexico, not the tourist ones, with their fly encrusted meats, I understood how everyone couldn’t just go to the local supermarket and buy vaccum-packed meats. It was also taking the metro and public transportation through Moscow and what was then Leningrad. It wasn’t the great monuments or statues or the Moscow circus that got me. It was the bullet holes in the Leningrad buildings left over from WWII nobody’s bothered to fix. It was talking to some students from a school of English. It was watching Russian television report every protest in the U.S. was another Kent State (and showing the same clip of Kent State for each of these). It my tour guide’s joy at finally getting the lyrics to a Stevie Wonder song she had only heard as a melody. I realized how little we know of each other, and how much the Soviet Union’s, now Russia’s biggest motivation is never to be invaded again, to always be safe, even if freedom is the price.
But unlike Moses, we need to act constructively, not destructively. Moses definitely has a temper. His first action when he finally realizes the horrors his brothers live, like many terrorists, is to kill someone. And it isn’t long until Pharaoh wants him dead. He flees into the desert to learn and be a normal person again. But at some point he finds the burning bush. And very reluctantly, he once again takes action- this time with a direct appeal to Pharaoh. No tricks this time, no snakes like the movies- that would come later. Just an appeal to go worship God.
Unfortunately, like most first requests, this request fails. We now set up the conflict to come between Pharaoh and Moses, and the plagues, which seem destructive themselves. And here we will pick up next week.