Are You Coming or Going?

Parashat Bo begins on a curious note. We usually translate “bo” as “come.” But in Exodus 10:1, “Bo el Par’o” in Exodus 10:1 is usually translated, “Go to Pharaoh.” “Come to Pharaoh” would suggest that God is with the ruler of Egypt, and the next phrase seems to confirm it: because I have hardened his heart. So here we have a layering of paradoxes: a “come” that means “go” and a God who is somehow with Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil.

Most translators say, “Well, that can’t be right!” and change the more common “come” to “go:”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I might display these My signs among them; and that you may recount it in the hearing of your sons, and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” – Exodus 10:1-2, JPS translation

The Zohar offers one solution to the paradox of “go” and “come”.  It reads Exodus 10:1 as a metaphor in which God calls to Moses from Pharaoh’s throne room, summoning him into the cavern of a fearful serpent, the evil heart of Egypt’s soul.

The Kotzker Rebbe offers a different solution to the problem in apparent meaning: he suggests that God is telling Moses: “Don’t be afraid because I will be with you in the throne room! In fact, I’m already there waiting for you!”

The process of Exodus is like the journey from youth to maturity. Sooner or later, those who wish to become truly mature must confront the darkest parts of their personality. “Come,” our yetzer hara [evil inclination] calls to us, and we enter its chamber, filled with dread, because we know it to be powerful. “Enjoy yourself,” it murmurs. If we surrender to it, we give ourselves over to selfishness.  The task of the mature Jew is to take a sober look and see the evil inclination for what it is. This can be terrifying, precisely because the ugly thing is deep within us. As the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us, it is then  we may realize that despite the terrors of that place, God is with us every step of the way.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to be there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

All human beings have an inclination to selfishness. Indeed the rabbis assure us that we cannot thrive without a little of that yetzer harah. (Yoma 69b) That is not just human nature, it is the nature of all creation. But our task, as human beings, is to struggle with our selfish inclination and to keep it within the limits prescribed by Torah.

In the opening phrase of this week’s Torah portion, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that we have to go into the darkness – but God not send us there alone.

A slightly different version of this d’var Torah appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

 

Shabbat Shalom! Va’era

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) continues the saga of the struggle between God and Pharaoh. It deals with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, the obstinacy of Pharaoh, and the first seven plagues.

Beyond the familiar story, what can we learn from this portion of the Torah? Here are some divrei Torah that explore parashat Va’era:

On Plagues and Hardened Hearts – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Double Vision – Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Spirits in a Material World – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Vaera and God’s Many Names – Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

Moses was Twice a Refugee – Rabbi Joshua Stanton

Does God Hear Prayer? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Kicking It Up a Notch – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

And two of my own:

It’s Not About Us

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

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.

 

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

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.

Joshua and His Trees

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.

Names and Deeds

Moses in the Bulrushes
Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get 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: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get 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! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is 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.

 

Making the Seder Count

US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read fr...
US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read from the Passover Hagaddah (prayer book) during the Passover Seder dinner in the wardroom aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We gather once a year around the seder table to eat matzah, to tell the Exodus story, and to fulfill the commandments. At some tables, it’s just that: a traditional trip down memory lane. But if we are going to take the words of the sages seriously, to rise from the table feeling as if we ourselves have been delivered from Egypt, if we want to make this experience count for something, we might want to think outside the limits of the bare minimum.

One thing we can do is to ask the “wicked child’s” question over and over again as we read through the Haggadah: What does this have to do with US? The sages criticize that child because of the way he asks the  question: he separates himself from the community. But what if we were to ask the same question in a different spirit, to say, “Where do we fit into this story?” Then more questions will open up:

  • When have I been a slave?
  • Am I now a slave to someone or something?
  • Have I enslaved someone?
  • Do I benefit from slave labor?
  • What is slavery? Does it still exist?
  • What is real freedom?
  • What are the plagues in my life?
  • Who is not welcome to come and eat at my table? Why?
  • Who is hungry within 5 miles of my house? 10 miles?

and the biggie:

• When I rise from the table, what am I personally going to do about my answers to any of those questions?

What questions are you going to ask around your seder table?  How will you make your seder count?