Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Beshalakh

Leap of Action

At the moment of the exodus from Egypt, the Torah presents us with a picture of a strong, empowered and confident people ready to take on all comers: "And the Children of Israel went out with an uplifted hand." (14:8). And yet throughout our parasha the people demonstrate a very different character time and again: fearful, needy and dependent. It seems that this initial display of confidence and strength is somewhat illusory and that time was needed for it to become an internalized reality.

The Torah reflects this concern, telling us that they were led away from the land of Plishtim, "lest the people repent when they see war and return to Egypt" (13:17). When faced with real war, the Torah is saying, it is likely that the image of the people as the "Lord's armies" (12:41, 51), who left Egypt "girded with weapons" (13:18) and "with an outstretched arm," will fall away, and the people will revert to type. They will become dependent slaves who need the security and protection of their overlords.

Much of this will indeed happen when war with Pharaoh's armies does come. But according to the Rabbis, God tells the people to go back to Egypt before they even have a chance to demand it themselves. For the people were told to return to Pi haChirot, identified by the Rabbis as Pitom, the city of their oppression and slavery. Here's how Mechilta describes the events:

Moshe said to them: "Return backwards." Once the horn was sounded to return, those who lacked faith began to tear their hair and rend their garments, until Moshe said to them, "From God it has been told to me that you are a free people." Therefore it says, "They shall return and encamp by Pi haChirot (the opening of freedom)." (Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, 14:1)

This act of returning is actually the beginning of Israel's process to establish themselves as a free people. The first step in dealing with one's fears is to confront them. As long as the people were running away, there would always be a fear that they could be dragged back to Egypt, either by the might of Pharaoh or by the weakness of their own will. The only way the people could free themselves was to stop running, to turn around and face their fears.

If the people turn back to Egypt because they have lost faith, then they will return as slaves, slaves to their weaknesses and to their lesser selves. They must learn how to turn toward Egypt through faith in God and in themselves, in their own inner strengths and resources. This will allow them to look without fear at those powerful forces that have controlled their lives, to look at those forces and to face them down.

Not all types of faith can achieve this. There is a faith of dependency and a faith of empowerment. With the Egyptians advancing, Moshe cries out to God. What is God's response? "And God said to Moshe, mah tizak a'lie, why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward" (14:15). Why, ask the commentators, is Moshe being criticized for praying to God? Isn't that what one is supposed to do at a time of distress?

Yes, one needs to cry out to God, but one cannot become stuck in this state of dependency. Li'tzok li, to cry out to, indicates a turning to God or someone in power from a state of distress and helplessness, beseeching salvation from above. A prime example of this is the case of one who oppresses the orphan and the widow. The Torah tells us that the orphan and the widow, having no protector and unable to defend themselves, will cry out (tza'ok yitzak) to God, and God will save them (22:22, 26). In fact, the entire salvation from Egypt began like this. After the death of the first pharaoh, the Children of Israel cry out from the midst of their despair, and God hears their cries (tza'akatam) and comes to save them (2:23; 3:7,9).

Crying out, then, emerges from a state of helplessness, and reinforces a relationship of dependency. When this dependency is on God, then it is of great religious value, for we must recognize that all that we have comes from God. It is God that we turn to in thanks, and it is God that we turn to in times of need. But when this dependency exists on its own, it can cultivate a diminished sense of oneself, of one's potential and abilities. It can also lead to withdrawal from the world and a shirking of one's moral and religious responsibilities. When someone is sick, we don't just pray; we must do everything in our power to heal the person.

The people need more than a faith in God that mimics the dependency they had on their Egyptian masters, one that amounts to little more than waiting to be saved from above. This was their default state, the one to which they will return time and again throughout their travels in the Wilderness.  

And so it was upon seeing the advancing armies of Pharaoh. The people's first response was to do what came naturally: they cried out to God (14:11). But what followed was not strengthened faith; it was loss of faith. "What is this that you have done to take us out of Egypt?... It is better for us to serve Egypt than to die in the dessert." Crying out to God, taken by itself and in the absence of any concrete solution, can breed fear and despondency. People need not only to pray, but also to do.

Moshe's response did not help: "Do not fear. Stand still and see the salvation of God... God will fight for you, and you will be silent." (14:13-14). But telling people to have faith does not give them faith! And having the people stand and be silent - ordering them to do absolutely nothing - disempowers them, entrenches fear, and can even undermine the faith that one is trying to instill.  

This is God's response to Moshe. Moshe, why are you crying out, and why are you, Moshe, reinforcing people's behavior of crying out? This is not the faith that is needed now. The people do not need a faith of prayer but one of action.

This point is made succinctly by Rav Nachman of Breslov: "When one cries out to God, he is told to move forward, as it says: 'Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel that they move forward.'" (Likutei Moharan, 198). One does not cry out and stand still. One turns to God, expresses and internalizes his or her reliance on God, and then acts with faith in God and in oneself, faith in one's own abilities to meet challenges, to intuit a sense of God's will, and to translate this into action. One cries out not as a slave, but as someone who is free.

It is this type of faith that the Rabbis were illustrating in the famous midrash of Nachshon ben Aminadav's jump into the unsplit sea. Their point is clear: if God says something is going to happen, you don't stand quietly by and wait for it; you take a leap. Not only a leap of faith, but also a leap of action. This is the faith of Yehudah, the forebearer of Nachshon ben Aminadav. It is a faith by which one says, "it is up to me to make it happen." Or to paraphrase a saying attributed to Ghandi: "Be the faith you want to see in the world."

Sefat Emet (Pesach, 5631) makes a similar point. He states that it was the Exodus from Egypt which came fully from God that laid the foundation for the Splitting of the Sea, which came through the merits and actions of the people. For a redemption that comes just from God takes one out of Egypt but does not result in true freedom. It is only a redemption that comes through one's own actions, built on a faith in God, which can free a person from all oppression and enslavement. It is only this that can make a person truly free.

This was the faith that the people showed in the war against Amalek. They did not do as initially feared; they did not turn about and head back to Egypt. For the first time in their journey, they did not lose faith and complain when they encountered hardship. There was no tza'akah, no crying out. For this time, they were not told to stand quietly by, but to act. Moshe lifted his hands and Yehoshua led the people into war. The people's eyes were directed upward to God at the same that they were directed forward to meet the enemy. This was the faith not of fear, but of facing one's fear. This was the faith of a free people.

  Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Bo

The Handoff

The first mitzvah that the Children of Israel are given is that of sanctifying the new moon. HaChodesh hazeh lachem rosh chadashim, "this month, the month of Nissan, shall be for you the first of the months." Why of all mitzvot was this one given first? What is it about this mitzvah that embodies the message of redemption and signifies what it means to be a free people?

First, identifying Nissan as the first of months makes a profound theological statement. From the perspective of the natural agricultural cycle, the year begins in Tishrei, the month that marks the beginning of fall and the onset of tilling and planting. It is for this reason that Rosh HaShana occurs on Tishrei and that the Torah constantly refers to Tishrei as the end and beginning of the yearly cycle. To live a life defined by the agricultural calendar, however, is to live a life dictated by the laws of nature and nothing more. It is to live a cyclical existence - people are born, reproduce, and die, the world keeps spinning, and the cycle goes round and round. "One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever." Any change is non-disruptive and predictable. Such a world, then, is ultimately unchanging and static. Such a world does not progress and such a life serves no higher purpose.

In such a world, slaves are never freed. In such a world, miracles never occur.

To declare that Nissan - the month of redemption - shall be the first month is to assert that we do not live in a world governed only by nature. With the exodus comes a reordering of our time and a reorienting of our outlook on our existence and the world. Yes, this is a natural world with seasonal cycles. But it is also a world of history. It is a world in which radical, disruptive change can occur. It is world where God plays a role, where God breaks through the natural order, wreaking plagues and creating miracles, freeing an enslaved people and bringing them to Mount Sinai and the Promised Land.

To live in such a world is to live a life of messianic promise; it is to live a life of purpose and meaning.

This first mitzvah, however, does not end here. For the mitzvah not only calls for Nissan to be identified as the first of the months but also, as Hazal understood it, for us to be partners in the process. It tasks us with establishing when the month begins on the basis of observing the new moon. "This month is for you," says the verse.  Kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh, explains the Talmud, "you must see the new moon, and you must sanctify it."

This mitzvah, then, represents a world in which we as a people are masters of our own fate and destiny.

While we cannot violate the laws of nature, we do not have to live under their tyranny. The moon waxes and wanes every month, but we decide how to relate to it. The beginning of the month is not defined by cosmological reality of the position of the moon but by our observation and recognition of it, by the significance we give it. And if we declare the month to begin on a day other than when the new moon appears, that day will nevertheless be recognized as the first of the month.

We create the sanctity of the month and the holidays that occur in it. We see; we sanctify. It is through this that we reject determinism. We declare that we are free agents. We declare that we shape our existence and define our world.

This is what freedom is all about. We leave a world where others define our existence, dictating what we do, where we eat, and where we sleep. And we enter a world in which we are the masters of our time, where we have the opportunity - but also the weighty responsibility - to dream and plan, to decide what we will do today, and to determine the future direction of our lives.

The exodus from Egypt came from God and through miracles. But to live a free life our ongoing exodus must come from within. With this mitzvah God is handing over the responsibility to us. God is saying, from here on in, kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh, when you see the natural world, you must sanctify it; it is upon you to give it significance.  It is up to you to break through the repetitious sameness of existence.  It is up to you to give your life direction and purpose. It is up to you to make it holy.

According to Sefat Emet:

For at the time of redemption it was made evident that God was the life-force of all, and... that this is the source of the ongoing renewal of the natural order, as it is written: "God renews every day, constantly, the acts of creation." However, one who forgets this is defined by the natural order, as it is written: "There is nothing new under the sun." But one who cleaves to the inner reality, to the life-force of God, constantly experiences renewal. This is what is meant, "This month," this renewal (chodesh/chadash), is yours. For each person of Israel can stir up this power of renewal through faith, by it being clear in his heart that all is from God (Sefat Emet, Bo, 5631).

Do we live in a world of nature, where nothing is new and God is nowhere to be found? Or do we live in a world suffused with God's presence, filled with dynamism, life-force, and possibility? The choice, says Sefat Emet, is ours. If we choose to see God in the world we will find it filled with opportunity and possibility, and this vision will be nurtured and reinforced, becoming our reality.

To truly achieve this, however, it is not just a question of how we see but also how we speak. This week's parasha begins and ends by stressing the importance of the stories that we tell and their role in shaping our reality. "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart... so that I may perform these signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed My signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord" (10:1-2). The miracles, at least according to these verses, serve no other purpose than for us to relate them in stories that will shape the way we look at the world and the way we see God's presence therein.

And so it is at the end of the parasha: "On that day tell your son, 'I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (13:8). And similarly, "In days to come, when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (13:14). Returning to Sefat Emet:

For behold, this is the power of speech that was given to the Children of Israel, and it is through this that they sanctify the months and the holidays, when the court says: mekudash haChodesh, the new month is sanctified. It was at the time of the exodus that the Children of Israel merited the covenant of speech. And this is the mitzvah of pesach - peh (a mouth) sach (that speaks). And "In order that you may tell" (10:1)... For the power of the mouth is to bring renewal... and this is what is meant by haChodesh hazeh lachem, this month - this making new - is yours (Sefat Emet, Bo, 5656).

After all the miracles are done we will return to living in a world in which miracles are not evident, where what we see most obviously before our eyes is nature, not God. It will be our responsibility to look at this world, to look at our present and our past and to see possibility, to see purpose, to see God. Kazeh re'eh vi'kadesh. Through our words we sanctify the month, and through our words and the stories we tell we can and we must shape and sanctify our world.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Vaera

Becoming a People of Faith

Moshe tells the children of Israel that he is coming as God's messenger to take them out of the bondage of Egypt and to bring them to the land of Canaan. To Pharaoh, however, a different message is given: Send out the people for three days so that they can celebrate to God in the wilderness. It seems impossible that Pharaoh will ever willingly agree to permanently free the people, so a more reasonable request has to be made, allowing him to choose to do the right thing of his own free will. Hence, the stated purpose to Pharaoh is not freedom and possession of a land but merely a festival to God.

But there is more to it than that. For while it is clear why Pharaoh was not told of the goal to return to Canaan, it is unclear why the people were not told of the more religious goals of the Exodus. Our parasha is the first time that these goals are stated clearly:

And I appeared unto Avraham, unto Yitzchak, and unto Yaakov... And I have also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan... and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians... And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God... And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I did swear to give it to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord. (Shemot, 6:3-8)

Consider all the points made in this passage: there is a covenant with the forefathers that continues now and that defines the relationship between God and the people; the people will know that there God exists and is their God; the people will be freed so that they will be able to be God's people in the land that is their inheritance from their forefathers and from God.

These are the lofty national-religious goals of the Exodus. But this is not what the people were originally told. If we look back to the original vision at the burning bush, the primary message is one of freedom from oppression and material well-being: "And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good and spacious land, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:8). It is true that God tells Moshe that the people will worship at this mountain, and it is true that Moshe asks God how to respond to the people who will ask for God's name, and that God identifies Godself as the God of their fathers (3:12-16). But the purpose of all this is to persuade the people that Moshe has indeed been sent by God; it is not to define a religious purpose for the Exodus. Thus, even the statement, "the God of your forefathers has appeared to me," ends with, "I will bring you out of the oppression of Egypt... to a land flowing with milk and honey" (3:16,17).

The emphasis on the freedom from slavery rather than some spiritual goal is understandable. Oppression and slavery are inherent evils, and the highest priority of freeing them is to relieve their suffering and eradicate these evils. This in itself is a spiritual mandate. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said, "Yenems gashmius iz dein ruchnius" - another person's physical needs are for you a religious mandate. So this must be the first stated goal of the exodus. But why is the next message not the religious one for the people - that this will be a fulfillment of the covenant and that they will come to live as God's people?

It seems that the people are not ready to hear this. As famously described by Abraham Maslow, we have a hierarchy of needs. When our most basic needs - food, shelter, and safety - are not being met, we cannot attend to any higher-level needs, such as those for love, belonging, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence, or the desire for a higher, spiritual purpose. The people were only prepared to hear the message about their material needs and desires. It is thus not surprising that, at this early stage, God is already telling Moshe that the people will despoil Egypt and leave laden with gold and silver (3:22-23). This is a message that will resonate. The religious message could come later.

But this won't last. The focus on some future material success does not give the people the inner-strength to withstand their current hardships, especially when things begin to get worse. As long as the promise is not realized, the immediacy of the current harsh reality will overshadow any promised future. And this is exactly what happens. Pharaoh increases the demands, the beatings increase, and the people attack Moshe. You have only made things worse, they say to him, so who needs you?

The solution to this problem lies in realizing that Maslow was not totally right. Even people in privation can focus on something beyond their physical needs, and it is often exactly this that gives them the resilience to withstand great hardships. This is the primary teaching of Viktor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning: the key to persevering amidst even the most horrific of circumstances is not to focus on what one most immediately needs but to identify and immerse oneself in a higher purpose.

This is why Pharaoh increased the workload on the people - to ensure that they would not busy themselves with "vain words" (5:9). If they are laboring ceaselessly, he reasoned, they won't have time to cultivate a vision that will feed and strengthen their spirit. He believed that the people were saying, "Let us go sacrifice to our God" (5:8), that they desired not milk and honey, but God. It was this that was so threatening, for such a goal would fill the people with a sense of purpose, with ideas that could foment a rebellion and give them the fortitude to withstand any opposition. Popular rebellions only succeed when people are willing to lay their lives on the line, believing that they are fighting for something greater than themselves. Barring any Divine intervention, this was Pharaoh's greatest worry.

Pharaoh succeeded in keeping the people down. The people were now toiling endlessly. They had no time to think about any religious purpose, and in fact they had never been supplied with one in the first place. It is now, in our parasha, that there comes the attempt to do just that.  Moshe is told to reveal to the people what this is all about. It is about covenant; it is about God; it is about being God's people in the Promised Land. But this spiritual vision also falls on deaf ears: "And they did not listen to Moshe, for anguish of spirit and cruel bondage" (6:9).

After all the years of enslavement and the resultant deadening of the human imagination and spirit, a religious vision was not something that the people were capable of. It is one thing to be free and then be enslaved. Such a person can hold onto or cultivate a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. But to create this almost ex nihilo for those who were never in control of their time, their destiny, or any degree of self-directed purpose, is almost an impossible task.

The redemption from Egypt could not be a popular rebellion; it could not be a redemption from below. It could only be a redemption from above, from God, and also through Moshe, a person who did not grow up as a slave and who could truly possess and sustain this religious vision.

Moshe, for now, will have to turn his attention away from the people. From this point on his interactions will be solely with Pharaoh. It is only at the end of all the plagues, when the moment of redemption is almost upon them and they can begin to dream, that the people can be reengaged and begin to become an active part in their own redemption. It is then that they will take the paschal lamb and begin to imagine a future in the land of Israel, passing on their traditions and religious history to their children.

This will be a long process. There will still be much backsliding; the people will need to work constantly to sustain this higher purpose to withstand the privations of the desert. They will have to learn to focus on the promised land of Canaan and not on the fleshpots of the land of Egypt. They are about to begin a long and arduous journey, a journey to becoming a people of faith.

Shabbat Shalom!