Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

January 11, 2015
There's an Easy Way?

There’s an Easy Way?

What was Moses’ problem?

And Moses said to the Eternal: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither in the past, nor since you have spoken to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth, and heavy of tongue.” – Exodus 4:10

And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying: “Look, the children of Israel have not heard me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, I who have uncircumcised lips?’ – Exodus 6:12

And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Look, I have uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh hear me?’ – Exodus 6:30

I have deliberately translated the Hebrew in these verses as literally as I can, so that we can look at them closely. What on earth are “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” and “uncircumcised lips?”

The medieval commentators disagreed. Rashi was sure that Moses had a stutter.  Rashbam, his grandson, was equally certain that Moses was saying that he wasn’t fluent in Egyptian. Ibn Ezra, writing in 10th century Spain, suggested that it meant that Moses was not a smooth talker. In a modern translation by Nahum Sarna, he echoes the verdict of Rashi on the phrase “uncircumcised lips,” that it indicates some kind of obstruction, and he points out that elsewhere the Bible refers to uncircumcised hearts and ears in a seemingly metaphorical way.

Whatever the trouble, Moses was bothered enough that he kept bringing it up. God appeared to take it seriously in Exodus 4, and suggested a aide for Moses, his brother Aaron. Then, after a disastrous meeting with Pharaoh in which he managed to get the Israelites work increased, and an equally disastrous meeting with the Israelites over the matter, Moses brings it up again. This time, God changes the subject to genealogy, and after that discussion, Moses repeats his line about “uncircumcised lips.” What is going on here?

First, notice that God suggests Aaron as an aide. Aaron is unlikely to be fluent in court Egyptian, the language Moses spoke most of his life. However, Aaron is fluent in Hebrew, the language Moses spoke at most during the years his mother was his wet-nurse, perhaps through age 5.

Second, after things have gone so badly with both Pharaoh and the Hebrews, Moses begins talking about “uncircumcised lips.” This phrase did not appear in the first discussion. What is different? Now the Hebrews are mad at Moses, and they’ve rejected him.

I think that Rashbam was almost right: I think Moses was worried that he didn’t speak Hebrew fluently. His lips were uncircumcised because his language doesn’t sound Jewish (well, Hebraic.) Pharaoh would be unable to hear him because he had no credibility: how could he represent the Hebrews before Pharaoh if they repudiated him?

Notice that in later years, in the desert, Moses’ speech problems were never mentioned. The Hebrews got mad at him fairly regularly, but we never again read about uncircumcised lips or a heavy mouth. I suggest that with practice, Moses became more fluent, and the problem went away.

I find this interpretation encouraging. First, for those of us who learn Hebrew later in life, it is comforting to hear that perhaps even Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher) also felt insecure about his accent, but that it improved with practice.

It is a small thing in chapters with many more important points, but just in case someone reads this who is struggling with Hebrew, know that you are definitely not alone! With enough practice, we all improve.

 


For My Cousins, the Jews of France

January 9, 2015

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s never easy to be a Jew. It’s particularly hard to be a Jew on a week like this, when I read about the terror of the Jews of France and the terrible murders in Paris. Even though I am safe in California, the Jews of France are my cousins. I feel this even more sharply right now because I am aware that some of my readers are French Jews. To them I say: Mon cœur et mes prières sont avec vous! My heart and my prayers are with you.

When I feel helpless, I resort to something I’ve written about before: living on the Mitzvah Plan. There is little that I can do directly for my cousins in France, but I will not “tune out” because the news is unpleasant. The Mitzvah Plan will keep me aware and centered.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of fear or depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

This constant busy-ness with mitzvot keeps me from foolish or evil activities. If I am busy with mitzvot, I can be ready to help the Jews in trouble (with mitzvot!) but my activities will be bound by the commandments regarding speech.

  • I will not engage in negative talk [lashon hara] unless it is truly necessary to protect another from immediate harm.
  • I will not repeat anything about another even if I know it to be true, [rechilut] again unless it is truly necessary to protect someone from immediate harm.
  • I will not listen to or believe lashon hara. That means I will change the subject or move it to safer ground when someone else is speaking lashon hara.

So, while I may point out news reports from responsible sources to others (retweet them or post to facebook or email them to another) I will make myself too busy with mitzvot to spread opinion pieces that engage in lashon hara. I will be too busy with mitzvot to engage in conversation that speaks ill of “all Muslims” – for that too is lashon hara.

There are mitzvot I can observe that will help. Before Shabbat, I can give tzedakah to organizations that work to assist the Jews in France, Jews in Europe and organizations that fight anti-Semitism. I can send letters of encouragement to friends there, if I know anyone who may be affected. I can engage in the mitzvah of taking challah. I can pray, and feel my Shabbat table connected to the Shabbat tables of Jews who are in trouble or fear.

Some reader may be thinking, “That’s not much! Those things won’t make a big difference!” but to them I say, how can you know what difference they will make? And more to the point, if I am busy with mitzvot, I will be too busy to let an evil situation drag me into actions I will regret, and into attitudes I abhor. I will not become part of the problem, which is always a danger.

This Shabbat, my table will be larger. Even though there will just be two of us sitting there (one of us has a bad cold, so actual guests are not a good idea this week) we will be thinking of the Jews of France. We will include them in our feast, in hope that some of the peace at our table will be (or will have been) at theirs.

May the day come when every person on earth can live in peace, where none will be afraid.


The Jewish Path of Grief

January 9, 2015
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.


Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

January 5, 2015

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.


What’s in a Hebrew Name?

January 4, 2015

IMAG0828_1

Your Hebrew name is your Jewish ID. You will need it every time you are called to the Torah, when you sign your ketubah, and when you are sick. Those who mourn you will need it for your funeral.

A Hebrew name consists of a name, a relationship, and the names of those through whose merit a person claims membership in the Jewish people.

For example: My name is רות, Ruth, and בת, (daughter) followed by the names of those through whose merit I am a member of the Jewish people: in my case, אברהם ושרה, (of Abraham and Sarah) since I became Jewish as an adult.  A male who was born Jewish might be named דוד (David) בן (son) יעקוב ורבקה (of Jacob and Rebecca, his Jewish parents.)

What if you don’t know your Hebrew name? First, if your parents are living and are Jewish, ask them (ask for their names, too, while you are at it.) If it has been forgotten, look for any documents that might have it: a bris certificate, a naming certificate, or a bar/bat mitzvah certificate.

If you never received a Hebrew name, it isn’t too late! Talk to your rabbi. Tell them you didn’t get a Hebrew name and you want one. It is, after all, your Jewish ID! The rabbi can help you choose a name (perhaps a Hebrew form of your legal name, perhaps another name meaningful to you.) It is never too late for a naming.

What is your Hebrew name? Do you know why it was chosen for you? Or if you chose it, why that particular name?

 

 


What if I Can’t Get to Synagogue?

January 3, 2015
Isolated House by Hugh Venables

“Isolated House” by Hugh Venables

Location and/or illness make it difficult for some Jews to get to synagogue. How in that situation are we to access Jewish community?

First, the offline solution: If you live in a city that has synagogues, but you just can’t access them, call the synagogue. Express your interest in being a part of their community. Ask to talk to the rabbi, and explain your situation. I can’t promise you that every synagogue will have outreach to shut-ins, but I can promise you that rabbis care about the Jews in their neighborhood. Understand that options may be limited for non-members. However, it is always worth contacting them.

Years ago, before I became a rabbi, my rabbi called me and asked if I would be willing to visit a widow in the congregation who had agoraphobia. Her husband had been her major tie to the world, and now that he was gone, my rabbi was worried about her. I began visiting Anne (not her real name) once a week and doing her grocery shopping. We developed a friendship. Later, when my schedule changed and I could not be as reliable for shopping, I went back to the rabbi and told him. He found someone else to visit, but Anne and I stayed in touch. (Note that this required a large enough community and a willing pool of volunteers; not every synagogue will be able to deliver on something like this.)

Second, the Internet raises many more opportunities for Jewish connections. Here are some resources to check out if you don’t live near a synagogue, or if you are confined to home by illness or disability:

OurJewishCommunity.org provides the most comprehensive online access to progressive services, rabbis, and Jewish community. Rabbi Laura Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr serve both OurJewishCommunity.org and the brick-and-mortar Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH, near Cincinnati.

ReformJudaism.org maintains a list of congregations that live-stream Shabbat services, with information about access. Services are currently available in four US time zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) and at least one congregation archives services on YouTube.

JewishWebcasting.com offers a wide variety of Jewish experiences online, with links to news, podcasts, and opportunities for prayer.

Lehrhaus Judaica based in Berkeley, CA offers some of its classes online. Click this link to see the current list of courses on the Hebrew Language, Introduction to Judaism, Jewish texts, and other topics. (Full disclosure: I teach one of their online courses and am on the board of LJ.)

I hope that whatever your situation, and whether it is a short-term challenge or a long-term situation, you can find a way to connect Jewishly. Certainly I appreciate your readership and look forward to conversation in the comments on this blog!


Reform Jews Outside the USA?

January 2, 2015

World Union for Progressive Judaism logo

  • Maybe you’re planning a trip to Europe or Latin America.
  • Maybe your company is moving you to Australia for a year.
  • Maybe you’re a student looking at a year of study abroad.
  • Maybe you live outside North America and want to find a progressive Jewish congregation.
  • Or maybe you’re interested in supporting the growth of progressive Judaism worldwide.

Any of these are good reasons to get acquainted with a wonderful resource, the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The WUPJ has member congregations in more than 45 countries, congregations from Progressive, Liberal, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions. It also has a congregational directory on its website with contact information and website addresses for many progressive synagogues around the world. In other words, you can use the WUPJ website to find a congregational “home away from home” if you are a Reform or Reconstructionist Jew from North America.

Why get in touch with a congregation when you are overseas? It is a wonderful way to transcend the boundaries of being a foreigner or a tourist. Years ago, I visited London for about a week. Knowing I would be there over Shabbat, I looked on the WUPJ website and read up on the congregations in London. I called the Liberal Jewish Synagogue to inquire about Shabbat services. Long story short, Shabbat morning I joined them for a wonderful service and kiddush. I met some lovely people and the Jewish world expanded for me that day. For the morning, I was less of a foreigner, because I was with fellow Jews.

It’s important to contact congregations ahead of time, because they may have security requirements for visitors. Unfortunately anti-Semitism is on the rise in many parts of the world, so congregations may need advance warning, to be sure that prospective visitors are friendly.

If you are going to visit Israel, you should know about the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. The IMPJ has over 30 member congregations around Israel as well as a growing network of schools, educational and community centers. Israeli Reform congregations welcome visitors – again, it helps to give some advance notice. As with the WUPJ, there is a directory of congregations on the website.

For North Americans, visiting progressive congregations away from home can offer both a sense of familiarity and some surprises. For instance, we are accustomed to at least some of the service being in the vernacular. In the US and much of Canada that means English. However, in the Netherlands, the vernacular is Dutch. In Russia, it’s Russian. And in Israel, the entire service is in Hebrew, because the language of everyday life is Hebrew!

Lastly, perhaps you are not planning to travel, but you are looking for a way to support liberal egalitarian Judaism in the world as part of your tzedakah budget. The WUPJ and IMPJ websites are a great place to begin your research for a good match.


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