Every year, I laugh out loud at this week’s Torah reading, the crossing of the Red Sea.
There Moses stands, so close to his goal of guiding the Israelites out of slavery, when suddenly everything goes wrong. A body of water blocks the group’s path forward. An advancing army blocks them from behind. The people begin to melt down, yelling that they prefer slavery to death.
What does Moses do? He says, “Shut up everyone, God is going to save you.”
God, however, has a different idea. “What are you calling on me for?” God asks Moses. “You’re the leader! Speak to the people and tell them to go forward! Lift up your magic staff, point it at the sea, and divide it!”
Moses raises his staff, God whips up an east wind, the sea parts and the Israelites cross. And Moses becomes such an enthusiastic leader that his father-in-law has to teach him to delegate.
Some Hassidic Biblical commentators say the moment transforms everyone. At the Red Sea, the Israelites share a profound mystical experience, uniting them into a nation.
It’s a funny interpretation, however, as the Torah itself suggests they had many different experiences. Multiple descriptions of the crossing of the Red Sea sit side by side in the text. God blows a puff of wind through the Divine nostrils. God fights for the people. Moses redirects the water with his magic wand. Moses reasons with the people, and they move forward, displacing the water. Windy weather, a happy coincidence, works in their favour.
Some Israelites see a miracle; some see human psychology at work; some see basic science. They aren’t having a shared mystical experience at all. In fact, they are all over the place in their faith and their experience of God. And yet somehow, without that spiritual unity, they move forward to save themselves and each other. A delightful message.
This year, however, I am not laughing.
Our whole world, one might say, is standing at the shores of the Red Sea. As anger over economic inequality erupts through dangerous religious conflicts, we cannot see a safe way forwards. The prophet Zechariah might have promised a day when God would harmonize all religious conflicts, but such a day seems far off. Instead of laughing, I am frowning, anxious and metaphorically paralyzed.
Then I remember the Torah’s teaching about the psychological reality of standing at the sea. Moses is unskilled. The Israelites agree on little. Yet, Moses takes leadership and the people move forward. They do not permanently abolish injustice or change Pharaoh’s mind, but they do move forward.
How do we move forward in a world torn by religious differences? Following author Stephen Prothero, we first recognize that the differences are real. Religious traditions ask different questions, and create cultural practices around the answers. Jews ask, “How can we heal broken human communities?” Christians ask, “How can we forgive and be forgiven?” Muslims ask, “How can we be aware of God in every moment?” Hindus ask, “How can we see through illusions of materialism and egotism?” Buddhists as, “How can we learn to minimize suffering?” Indigenous traditions ask, “How can we live in awe of the land that sustains us?”
Of course these are inexact generalizations, based in spiritual teachings that become distorted through political manipulations. Still, they are challenging questions, interrogating our own and each other’s cultural practices. For example, Christian-based cultures may heal rifts through forgiveness, but how do they respect the land? Jewish culture may successfully create a transnational community, but how do we see through illusions of materialism? Muslim cultures may excel at spiritual awareness, but how do they reduce suffering?
These questions, left unanswered, erupt in bursts of violence. We must ask them of ourselves and each other In our more rational, peaceful moments. And by “we,” I mean all of us.
Few of us are presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens, but all of us have spheres of influence. All of us can reach out across difference and allow ourselves to be challenged. If we don’t who will?
Because, as God says, “You’re the leader!”
Adapted from my sermon at Cloverdale United Church, for Vancouver School of Theology‘s “Theology Sunday” January 25, 2014.
The recent Sony hacking scandal raised an uproar about the movie The Interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. But it also caused an uproar about James Bond.
Emails leaked as part of that hack reveal that the co-chair of Sony Pictures believes that Idris Elba should be the next actor to play British agent James Bond, a role currently occupied by Daniel Craig.
The character of James Bond, the suave spy originally created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming, has been a fixture of the movies since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No in 1962. Elba, who is known for his work on The Wire, is black. Every previous actor who played the role is white.
This raised some hackles, especially as voiced by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. In reacting to this, Limbaugh insisted that Elba could not play Bond because Bond, as written, is white. Limbaugh’s comments received their own reaction.
This is not the only issue of race and casting to make news recently. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a retelling of the biblical narrative of Moses, received criticism for its casting choices, since white actors portray the main roles of Moses and Pharaoh (and others).
Interestingly it seems that the same people who would criticize Limbaugh and affirm Elba as James Bond would be the same to object to Moses being played by Christian Bale—that it would be OK for a black man to portray a traditionally white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character who historically would not have been white. But perhaps there is not much difference.
People who lived in the ancient Near East may not have looked like Christian Bale. Yet, the book of Exodus, which we began in our weekly Torah reading last week, is not a history book about the ancient Near East. When we read the biblical text we do not read it looking for details about the past, but rather for our present. We read the stories for the lessons that underlie them; the characters portrayed in the stories are not meant to be actual people, but archetypes that transcend time and place.
And although James Bond is a contemporary character, and although Ian Fleming did write the Bond character with a particular racial profile in mind, that character has also become an archetype.
Therefore, when it comes to the movies, there is no one way to portray these archetypal characters: Moses and Bond could be portrayed by either white or black actors.
We have recently once again confronted issues of race in this country, following several instances of black men being killed by white police officers. And these conversations about Moses and Bond, about race and the movies, are part of this larger issue. Our views about race and the movies are not about the characters themselves, but about ourselves. So let’s continue to have these conversations.
Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.
Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.
He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.
And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.
Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.
Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.
“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”
Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.
And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!
A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.
The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”
And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.
And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.
And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it up—it slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?
A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!
And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itself—completely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.
I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bones—it all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.
And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!
After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”
When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”
When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)
If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.
The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.
But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.
On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.” Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).
Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).
Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.
Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.
What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.
The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
One should not be surprised the Pope is not coming to my seder. Truth is, we do not know each other and I seriously doubt he would come. But what is more striking is that I will not be inviting Moses to join me either and it is not simply because he is dead. After all, each year I invite Elijah to join and even open the door for him to enter.
Why is Moses not present at the seder? How do we account for the fact he is virtually erased from the traditional Haggadah? If we are to be recounting the story of the Exodus from Egypt, how can we ignore a crucial character of the story? Would we tell the story of the founding of the United States and leave out George Washington? Do we really transmit the Exodus properly to our children by hiding Moses?
I would like to suggest that Moses is not present Passover night because despite of his greatness, or perhaps because of his greatness, he cannot have a seat at the table. Moses represents the opposite of what the seder is intended to convey.
In Exodus Chapter 18 we read of the encounter of Moses and his father in law Jethro after the Exodus but (according to most) before Sinai.
1. When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt;
2. Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her back,
3. And her two sons; and the name of one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land;
Notice that he brings Moses’s wife Tzipporah with him and her two children. Tzipporah was not in Egypt during the Exodus. Moses had sent her away before that fateful night. According to some he even had divorced her. One passage in the Zohar says that the reason the children are called her’s is that while Moses fathered them, she had brought them up.
In an earlier blog post I discussed a Midrash that says Moses after the Revelation at Sinai never returned to his tent, which is understood to mean he never resumed a conjugal relationship with his wife. He remained celibate, always on call to God.
Moses, the great leader and teacher he was, is the absent father and absent spouse. His family is sacrificed for his leadership. He is our hero, but not our model to be remembered at the seder. Indeed at the very first seder in Egypt, Moses was alone and had no children present who could ask him ma nishtanah, the Four Questions. Moses is the opposite of the very experience we strive to have at the seder. He represents the negation of family. His leadership might require the sacrifice of family, but the seder is still not his place. He has no seat of honor there.
I am aware that many people this Passover may be at a seder where there may be no children or where everyone is single. I am not being critical of this. It should be pointed out that tradition dictates it still be in a style of questions and answers. While people who gather may not be related, a family of sorts is created at the seder.
But then why do we invite Elijah to the seder? You can discuss it then.
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.
When stories are told, we sometimes see them through the lens of the characters, sometimes from the vantage point of the omniscient narrator, and often from a combination of the above. This week’s Torah reading presents a fine example of this. This is shaped in part by a Midrash, the result being of that which looks on the surface as a laudatory moment contains within it much greater moral complexity.
26. Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. 27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” 28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!” 29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”
There are many questions here including the identity of the lad and the sudden appearance of Eldad and Medad. This passage and its larger context deserve much study.
There is a powerful contrast between Joshua and Moses. What Joshua sees as a threat to Moses by Eldad and Medad, Moses views as a cause for celebration. The capacity of Eldad and Medad to prophesize is a sign of their greatness and is not to be viewed as an act of rebellion against Moses. Moses is happy for others to share the spirit of God.
But the story does not end here. The Midrash picked up by Rashi describes the following scenario. “R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah (Moses’s wife) when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.”
For Moses’s wife, the achievement of prophecy is a tragedy. Her fear is for the wives of Eldad and Medad. To be the wife of a prophet as great as Moses is to be abandoned by her husband. Moses has experienced so much of the presence of God that he can never return to his tent and be intimate with his wife. Zipporah understands that Eldad and Medad are indeed a threat, but not to Moses, but rather to their families and wives in particular.
It is this very complexity and mixture of viewpoints that draws me to Torah. However the attraction cannot only be to the pleasure of reading the text. Rather moral questions must emerge from Torah as well. Who suffers for my spiritual success? As I strive for meaning and purpose do I leave anyone behind in the wake? Through whose lens do I properly judge a situation? Torah calls me to face these questions. And rabbis should ask them on a regular basis.
Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.
Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.
Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”
Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.
Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.
I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.
If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.