It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.
It is very hard after the seder to get excited about the last days of Passover. Seven/eight days of eating matzoh! Once we have focused so much on the drama of redemption of the seder, there is little left to focus on other than food. For some the seder was a time to reflect on personal moments of redemption, for others a vision of social justice was discussed, for others the historical background was of interest and for many perhaps multiple themes were explored. However, how much reflection really happens during the rest of Passover? There is no ritual that sets such a dramatic stage as the seder. The story has already been told. All we are really left with is more matzoh to eat.
The Sefat Emet suggests that this very well might be the point. He reminds us that the Garden of Eden was all about food, the first sin was one of eating, and with our banishment from Eden we were told in Genesis 3: 17-19
“And to man He said, “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”
For the Sefat Emet, Passover is the holiday that transforms this eating from one of toil to one of blessing. Passover is about eating because it makes eating sacred. Redemption from Egypt undoes the curse of Eden and transforms it into blessing. He quotes Deuteronomy 16:3
“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”
In Genesis we are told “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it (bread) all the days of your life“. Eating each day is a reminder of our exile from Paradise and our fundamental conflict and struggle with nature. However after the Exodus, our consuming of matzoh is now to be remembered “all the days of your life.”
Our eating is transformed from a tragic repercussion of sin into a sacred memory of hope and possibility. Our eating becomes not a sign of alienation but one of relationship to God and command/mitzvah. We will still toil and the production of food will still be complex. What has changed is our perception of the work. What was once a story of rejection by God is now the story of freedom and meaning. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”
I have always been struck by car commercials. Car commercials to me seem unique in the world of advertising. Whereas other commercials tend to advertise the features of their product, which of course will make your life easier, happier and more fulfilled, a car commercial tends to depict the experience of simply having the car. The experience alone of having this new model of car will lift your life to the heights of ecstasy and elation. You may be driving everyday to work but when you get behind the wheel of this car you will gracefully be floating down the Swiss Alps. While other industries tell you how their product enables you to be happier; the car commercial assures you that the car itself is happiness.
Yet, we know while that new car may be safer, more comfortable and more gas efficient, it alone does not bring us genuine and lasting happiness. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify any single product that has brought us real happiness. Of course, we experience the joy of having something new and revel in discovering all of its features and unique aspects but soon the newness begins to disappear and along with it the temporary boost to our sense of joy.
How do we achieve a true, genuine and lasting happiness in our lifetimes? This is to put it simply perhaps the question of our time. As people who live in an era most defined as the era of the individual, we seek personal fulfillment and personal happiness to a greater extent than those in generations before us. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the definitive answer to this perplexing question (but if I did I would be sure to blog about it on MJL!) and I am inclined to think that there is no definitive answer to this question as so much of it is contextual and specific to each case. However, I would like to propose a perspective, a shift in orientation, that could provide an avenue for a life of genuine and lasting happiness.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kirschenbaum of Tel Aviv University articulates a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities, between Western law and Jewish law. He writes in his work Equity in Jewish Law (Ktav, 1991):
“Social, political, and legal theory in Western liberal society conceives man as a plenitude of rights; people do as they please unless constrained by the hedges of the law. The state governs the individual; the liberal democratic state governs the individual by enlightened laws. In contrast, the Jewish tradition measures the human being by the duties and responsibilities he bears…
Indeed, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Covenant subsequent to the Exodus – for which the Theophany took place – was not between God and the six hundred thousand Israelites who had come out of Egypt. It was between God and the Community of Israel. The formation of the community was thus a necessary concomitant of the Revelation.”
The Jewish experience is born out of community. When we come into the world our family celebrates our birth in the context of community. When we reach crucial developmental milestones in our lives, those are marked in communal ceremonies and rituals. Our wedding symbolizes this reality most profoundly when we stand under the chuppah, the canopy representing the intimacy of marital bonds, that is open to all sides and surrounded by our family and friends. Lastly, our final passing from this world is also observed within the embrace of community. This is not coincidental, as Rabbi Dr. Kirschenbaum noted, but rather is indicative of the founding narrative of our people. Judaism; its narratives, rituals and legal system is rooted in the communal. The effect of this is a shift towards responsibilities and a perspective that places each individual within the larger story of a people and a destiny, a shared past and an equally shared future.
Who is rich? The one who rejoices in their portion.
This statement from the Sages can mean much more than only a reflection on a life satisfied with one’s worldly affairs. Of course, it does deeply mean that, and that alone is a valuable lesson for a world dominated by sheer materialism, of which the advertising I mentioned earlier is only a small part, but possibly it is also a reading on who we are on an existential level. Do I exist solely as one individual absent a larger picture? Are my needs, wants, desires, passions and concerns the only dominating motive and drive for my life? A life wholly consumed by I, quickly turns to the reality of the finitude of our lives. Deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness arises out of a sense of futility and irrelevancy.
A life interwoven and bound up in the trajectory and narrative arc of a people that transcends generations can instill purpose, dignity and genuine happiness to our existence. My needs and wants are connected to the needs and wants of others. My story is part of the greater Jewish story. I am a link between all the generations that came before me and all those that will come after me. I am a guardian of a sacred trust that I have inherited and tasked with not only its preservation, for it is not an exhibit in a museum to be mummified and put on display, but its cultivation, furtherance and elevation.
This way of thinking and approach to living can foster lasting and true happiness. I offer it as a model to consider. It has proven successful for me and as one of my mentors and teachers Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard would often end his lectures with, I invite you to explore the possibility of this for your life.
David Brooks’s recent NYT column, “The Wealth Issue,” comes at an opportune time if you’re one of those people who reads the weekly parasha. As we make our way through the story of the Exodus from Egypt, Brooks offers a sort of meditation on what it means to integrate the experience of one’s ancestors.
In the piece, Brooks takes us back to Romney’s ancestors, who were among the early Mormon families who made their way first west to Utah and Arizona, and then later south to Mexico. He attempts to make the case that Romney has none of the negative characteristics that people associate with the rich. He is not “spoiled” or “cosseted,” nor has he been “corrupted by ease and luxury.” To the contrary, he is a hard worker, “tenacious” and “relentless,” having more in common with hardscrabble immigrants than with inheritors of great wealth.
To what does Brooks attribute these traits? To Romney’s family history. As the descendant of a persecuted, driven family, Romney “seems to share his family’s remorseless drive to rise.” Though he “can’t talk about his family history on the campaign trail…he must have been affected by it.”
At which point, the Jews enter the column. Brooks brings his own “family history” by way of conceding the point that Romney himself never lived a life of persecution or privation. Yet, he writes, “Jews who didn’t live through the Exodus are still shaped by it.” Brooks knows his readership, and it’s not for nothing that he analogizes Romney’s connection to his family history to that of a contemporary Jew connecting to the Exodus.
But the analogy doesn’t ring true in light of the ways that we Jews are supposed to be shaped by our memories of Exile and Exodus. Again and again, Torah reminds us that our experience of Egypt ought to make us compassionate toward others (including Egyptians!). “You know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9; see also Exod 22:21, Deut 23:7). Which is to say, our experience of persecution and the ensuing freedom ought not be only about making sure that we never find ourselves enslaved again (though that is indeed part of it). At their best, “child-of-Exodus-ethics” are about expanding our hearts to make room for today’s persecuted strangers, and not only about continuing to best today’s Pharaohs.
The State of Israel’s current status as refuge of choice for tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers makes for an interesting laboratory in which to consider this dynamic. Our ancient memories of persecution and deliverance, and our more recent memories from Europe, provide the backdrop for the current conversation in Israel about what to do with the Eritreans and Sudanese who have crossed the very desert that looms so large in our mythic memory. On the one hand are calls to deport them, in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state and to keep Israelis employed. On the other hand, many Israelis recognize the irony of Israel, of all places, not opening its doors to asylum-seekers. Like most things in the Jewish State, it’s not simple.
Also complicated is America’s relationship to the large population of immigrants currently residing here. Some certainly came seeking relief from danger and persecution at the hands of their government or criminals in their home countries. Many came simply to seek better wages and a better life. They too, confront us with the question: how do we, a nation of immigrants, relate to the people who are perhaps a few generations behind our own ancestors. Recognizing that complex political and economic considerations don’t make for easy answers, does our basic orientation to the problem have us feeling persecuted ourselves, and responding accordingly…or do we dig into the past and emerge with heightened compassion?
As I read the parshiot that tell the story of my family’s persecution and deliverance, the lessons that speak to me have less to do with our own current-day successes, and more to do with cultivating compassion for those who are currently in need of redemption (and acting accordingly). More than great wealth, more than relentless drive, that sort of compassion is something I seek to develop in myself, and something I admire in others (including presidential candidates).
After hours of excruciating labor, the sweetest sound that can be heard is that of a crying baby. That first cry lets us know that this new child has working lungs and can breathe. But that cry doesn’t only represent physical health – it also symbolizes emotional sensitivity, the ability to connect, the desire to love and to be loved. When we read this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Shemot – if we listen closely, we just might be able to hear this cry. This is the cry that the midwives refused to turn their backs on, refused to silence, refused to discard. This is the cry that demanded a response, propelling the midwives to ignore Pharaoh’s command to kill Jewish boys. This is the cry of humanity, of justice, of a better tomorrow.
This is only the first of a handful of cries in our portion. The second comes from Moses, as he lies helpless in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter hears his sobs, and responds – feeling compassion for this small child. It is this cry that wakes up a young woman, removing her from the cruel ways of her father’s home, and softening her heart.
And then there is the cry of Bnai Yisrael (the People Israel), yearning for God to help elevate them from their misery. It is only after God hears these cries that God can respond. And likewise, it is only after God cries out to Moses – saying “Moshe! Moshe!” at the burning bush – that Moses can respond to God, and be God’s partner in freeing the slaves.
I love that this Torah portion falls right before Martin Luther King Day. A man who cried out for freedom and equality for all people, Dr. King articulated the necessity of the cry, and the urgency of the response. Both Dr. King and our Torah portion remind us that we cannot simply sit back and allow injustice to flourish. We must have the courage to cry out, from the top of our lungs, and from the top of a mountain. And we must have the conviction to respond, listening closely, making space for the small cries of those who are downtrodden, refusing to turn our backs on the pain, prejudice, and alienation that still exists in our very communities.
This Shabbat, as we read from the book of Exodus, may we commit to the tremendous task of making Dr. King’s dream a reality.