Friday, January 18, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here:  Parshat Bo

Parashat Bo - Knowing and Experiencing God

"And in order that you should relate in the ears of your children and your children's children how I have made a mockery of the Egyptians and my signs that I have placed upon them, and you will know that I am the Lord." (Ex. 10:2). This week's parasha opens with the theme that had been emphasized throughout last week's parasha as well - that the Children of Israel should know God. Through the plagues, or more accurately, the signs and wonders, we would come to know God. Not just intellectually, or as theological propositions - that God exists, that God is all powerful - but that through God's actions, and through God's direct providence, we could come to know God directly and intimately.
The experience of yitziat Mitzrayim, of the Exodus, was one of hitgalut haShekinah, of divine revelation, of a direct encounter with the Divine. "At midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt." (Ex. 11:4) "And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night" (Ex. 12:12) - "I, and not a messenger; I, and not an angel" (Pesach Hagaddah). This revelation of the Divine reached a new height at the Splitting of the Sea - "This is my God whom I will adorn" (Ex. 15:2) - "A maidservant at the Splitting of the Sea saw what even Yechezkel never saw in his prophecy of the Divine Chariot - 'This is my God' - as if one could point to God with her finger." (Mekhilta). It was this process of Divine revelation that reached its apogee at the Revelation of Sinai, when God reveled God's self to the entire people, in the one never- to-be-repeated moment in history.
This, then, is the meaning of the verb "v'yi'datem" that interrupts the string of verbs at the beginning of last week's parasha, v'hotzeiti, vi'hitzalti' v'ga'aliti, v'liakachti (Ex. 6:6-7). After all these verbs of redemption, there is then, vi'ydatem, "and you shall know that I am the Lord your God", and then, only afterwards, the final verb, vi'heiveiti, "and I will bring you into the land" (Ex. 6:8). What was that event of knowing God that followed the Exodus and preceded entering the Land of Israel? It was, of course, the Revelation of Sinai. It was this event that was the culmination and, ultimately, the goal of the Exodus, and it was this event that was the prerequisite for entry into the Land. To have a land and become a nation, the people had to forge their national identity through the physical act of redemption and through the spiritual act of the Divine revelation, by directly knowing and encountering God. For it was this - the knowing of God - that was at the bedrock of their identity as a people, as a nation.
Knowing God, thus, is the opening and framing of the Ten Commandments. "Anokhi Hashem E-lokekha" - "I am the Lord your God." This opening proclamation was the moment of v'yi'datem. And this opening proclamation was the framing for all the mitzvot that followed. For the mitzvot are only truly meaningful if they flow out of a recognition that God has commanded them, and they are only truly meaningful if - in our lived lives - they are an expression of and a cultivation of our awareness of the God Who has commanded them.
However, after the event of the Revelation of Sinai has passed into the background, it can be very challenging to sustain this awareness. A life of mitzvot can easily become one of rote observance, or a lifestyle, and we can easily forget the larger framing and the larger goal. The Torah commands us, of course, to keep our awareness of this event alive: "Guard yourself... lest you forget the things that your eyes saw... the day that you stood before Hashem your God at Mt Horeb" (Deut. 16:3). But how are we to sustain this memory? What happens to the reality of "v'yi'datem ki ani Hashem"?
To some degree, Hazal have addressed this by instituting berakhot before the performance of a mitzvah. Far from being redundant, such berakhot remind us that this act is not just some tradition that we are committed to, but that we are rather doing it because of our relationship to God. "That You have sanctified us with Your commandments." The brakha then, is the framing of the mitzvah. It is the "Anokhi Hashem E-lokekha" that precedes the commandments. The problem, however, is that this brakha just becomes another halakha, and its power to frame and to heighten our awareness becomes dulled.
The key, I believe, is found in our parasha. "And it shall be for you a sign on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the Torah of God should be in your mouth, for with an outstretched arm the Lord your God has taken you out of Egypt." (Ex. 13:8). How do we keep the memory of the Exodus, and of the Divine revelation which was its culmination, alive? By ensuring that "the Torah of God is in our mouth." This means nothing less than the verse from the Shema, "And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall teach them to your children and you shall speak of them, when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up." We are commanded, plain and simple, to thinking and talking about Torah at every moment. We should be so engaged in it, so caught up with it, that it is always on the lips, always what we are thinking about and always what we are talking about.
Halakhically, the Rabbis understand that our formal obligation to learn Torah can be discharged with much less than constant engagement, but the ethos of the Torah and of this verse remains clear. Our relationship to God is sustained and made manifest by our constant involvement in the study of and reflection on God's Torah. True talmud Torah, broadly defined, engages our thoughts, our emotions, and our passions. It raises our consciousness and frames all of our experiences in a religious context. It is talmud Torah that is the "Anokhi Hashem E-lokekha" to our life of mitzvot. It is through talmud Torah that we can, ultimately, achieve "vi'ydatem ki ani Hashem".
Such is on the personal level. How we take the experience of vi'ydatem and move to vi'heiveiti, how we bring this ethos to bear on our national identity, its foundation and its aspirations, these are questions that we need to grapple with individually and communally in the context of the current State of Israel. Let us all strive to live a life where the Torah of God is constantly on our lips and in our consciousness, and then work together to bring our personal strivings and transformation to the national level, to our identity as a People. "And you shall be for Me as a People."

Shabbat Shalom!

Happenings at the Yeshiva

Students continued to learn Makkot this week, wrapping up the first perek as we came to an end of our January zman.  We also had the wonderful opportunity of having two guests from Israel to give special shiurim this week.  Rabbi Yehoshua Engelmann, previously the rabbi of Yakar in Tel Aviv, a deeply spiritual, sensitive, and scholarly rabbi, who came to New York after having taught at Limmud in England.  Rav Engelmann gave a daily shiur each afternoon on  "Tzedakkah - Hilkhot Tact and Grace."   The shiur focused on the sugyot in Baba Batra on tzedakkah and grappled with the issues of halakha, sensitivity, and society, looking at the difference between tzedek and tzedakkah and asking whether clear cut halakhot can actually be given for such issues.

Also visiting was Rabbi Yakov Meir, a Tikvah fellow who studied with Rav Shagar at Yeshivat Siach, is a noted Israeli author, and is currently doing doctoral work on the Yerushalmi.   Rabbi Meir (no, not that Rabbi Meir) gave a daily class on Introduction to the Yerushalmi, providing students with an appreciation for the history, nature and background of the Yerushalmi, of the text and textual issues, and the ways in which it is similar to and different from the Bavli.  On Thursday, he ended our week of learning Makkot with a shiur klali on a sugya in the Bavli around a Mishna in Makkot on daf 6a, and with a look towards how the Yerushalmi deals with the same issues, but comes to a different conclusion, one that is perhaps closer to the original meaning of the mishna.

Today the week and zman comes to an end with a special workshop, led by Rav Engelmann, on the topic of "Leadership and Community: The Split of Tel-Aviv Yakar as a Case Study".   Rav Engelmann jokes that he had the privilege of starting not one, but two shuls in Tel Aviv, when, a few years ago, he allowed a lesbian couple to have a kiddush in the shul's courtyard in honor of their newly born baby.  Tel Aviv Yakar is a shul with a very diverse population and, nonetheless, this led to tremendousmachloket, which culminated in some members leaving and starting their own shul.  Rav Engelmann held this workshop to reflect on what he did right and what he did wrong, how to learn from that event, and how to think about halakha, inclusion, community, policy, and sensitivity to every individual.

It has been a wonderful zman and we look forward to next week when - prior to returning to our normal zman - we will devote a full week to the Rabbi  and Persons with Disabilities.   Stay tuned for more details.