Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Parashat Beshalah: On Walls and Paths

Vehamayim lahem homah miyeminam umismolam. “The water was a wall for them to their right and to their left.” That is how the experience of crossing the Red Sea is described in this week’s parsha. This line is repeated twice, once at the start of the narrative and once at its end (14:22 and 29), as if to give the reader the same feeling of being enveloped and surrounded as the Israelites in the Sea.

What exactly is that feeling? A homah, a wall, is a symbol of protection and security. Walls were used to surround cities and keep out enemies. Here the water walls serve to protect the Israelites from their Egyptian enemy, and also from whatever killing forces are destroying the Egyptians.

But the wall of water is not just about divine protection, but also about divine guidance. The wall is said to be “to their right and to their left,” creating a clear derekh, a path. The Israelites are being taught to walk the straight and narrow, not to veer either to the left or the right.

Protection and guidance are intertwined throughout these stories. The parsha begins with a description of the divine cloud which guides the people on their derekh through the desert. Upon the arrival of the attacking Egyptians, this same divine cloud then serves a protective role, standing between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, in the stories about water and manna which follow the Red Sea incident, God offers the people protection against the hunger and thirst of the desert, but only if they learn to carefully follow His instructions and His Torah.

The intertwining of the themes of protection and guidance has an important theological implication; it means that it is not God alone who is responsible for our protection and salvation, but that He has given us a way, the Torah, to protect and save ourselves.

The midrash Mekhilta deRabbi Ishmael says as much in its interpretation of the water walls at the Red Sea. It wasn’t the water, says the midrash, that protected the Israelites. In fact, the waters were filled with anger, heimah (a play on homah, wall) at the Israelites and refused to protect them. What was it that finally caused them to be saved? Miyemanam umismolam. Things to their right and to their left, which, according to one opinion means the mezuzah which is placed on the right side of the door and the tefillin which are placed on one’s left arm, and, according to another opinion, means the Torah, on the one hand, and Tefillah, prayer, on the other. In other words, the Torah and mitzvot we surround ourselves with are the true source of our strength and protection.

Today our water does not stand for us as a wall. Our water is flexible and mobile, running in all directions so that we are uncertain what to do and how to live. We are not granted the clarity of a split Sea experience with walls on either side of us to protect and guide us. We no longer have the physical derekh clearly marked, but we have a long tradition of a spiritual derekh, a path that was first forged at the Sea. We have a long tradition of a way to live, and we have the Song that was first sung at the Sea, a song that can carry us back -- its sound surrounding us like walls of water -- and make us feel the sense of peace, security and clarity of direction the Israelites once experienced at the Sea.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Parashat Bo: On Time

In this week’s parsha we find, for the first time, not just stories, but commandments -- many, many commandments, mostly concerning the paschal sacrifice and future Passover celebrations (chapters 12-13). The first of these commandments concerns the marking of the month of Nisan, the month in which the Israelites left Egypt, as the first month of the year. The first commandment to the Jewish people, in other words, concerns the control of time. Why?

For 2, 448 years, says Rabbi Simon in the midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana, the calendar was God’s job. It was God who kept track of the months and the new moons. Now, with the exodus from Egypt, the job is being passed on to the people of Israel. The midrash compares it to a king who has many storage-houses and keys to each one. When his child comes of age, he hands the keys over to his child. The midrash also compares it to a carpenter or a doctor who passes on his bag of special tools when his child comes of age.

Jewish time centers around two big events, creation and the exodus from Egypt. During creation, God created light and dark to demarcate day and night, and then the special Sabbath day. These times are built in to the fabric of the universe, eternally God’s to control. With the exodus from Egypt, though, God passed on to humans some role in time-keeping, the keeping of the lunar year, with all its holidays, and the responsibility of ensuring that Passover, the center-piece of that holiday calendar, always falls out in the spring. Indeed, the responsibility for the holiday calendar is considered so entirely in human hands that stories are told about God looking down to earth to find out from us exactly when a certain holiday falls!

This time-keeping is the bag of tools or the set of keys that God has passed on to us. It gives us a chance to be partners with God in the running of the universe’s time. It gives us a chance to participate in God’s time, in eternal time, a chance to escape the finitude of our own mortal existence by being part of a system of time that endures.

Enduring is the whole point of this new lunar calendar. The Torah uses the term hukat olam, “an eternal institution” (12:14) for the first time here, in connection to the yearly celebration of Passover. Through such annual commemorations, we escape our individual temporariness and become part of an eternal history, part of the past event of the exodus itself but also part of its past, present and future commemorations. We become, momentarily, like God, eternal.

The alternative is to be enslaved. Part of the reason God chooses this time commandment as the first for the new Jewish people is that they need it to escape the mentality of slavery, a mentality in which someone else controls their time.

But the danger of enslavement is not limited to Egypt or to actual bondage. Time itself has a way of enslaving us, as we rush to accomplish everything we can in our limited time. That first mitzvah, then, the mitzvah to keep track of months in a divinely ordained way, is partly a way to escape such enslavement, a way to elevate our concern with time, to create and participate in a kind of time that is not finite, but eternal.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Parashat Vaera: On the Ability to Hear

In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Moshe tells the people that God will redeem them. But they can’t hear it. Velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ru’ah ume’aovodah kashah. “They did not listen to Moshe because of a shortness of spirit (or breath) caused by hard work” (6:9).

Pharaoh can’t hear Moshe either; the Torah tells us numerous times that velo shama aleihem, “He [Pharaoh] did not listen to them [Moshe and Aharon].” And so, what God does for these hard-of-hearing folk is to invent a new method of communication, one based not on the subtleties of words but on the clearer medium of the ot, the “sign,” a physical visual event which defies the ordinary laws of nature. To such otot, both the people of Israel and Pharaoh will at least eventually listen.

The fact is that in last week’s parsha, the people did listen when Moshe and Aharon reported God’s promises. The difference is that there Moshe and Aharon not only spoke, but also performed some otot , turning the staff into a snake, making a hand leprous and then healed again, and turning water into blood. There, the people listened, but here in our parsha, when Moshe tries to just report God’s words, without the aid of signs, the people cannot hear him.

And so, the redemption will come about not through words, God decides, but through many, many otot, all the wonders of the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea.

Such miracles and wonders are a new mode of communication for God. God did not communicate in this way with the avot, the patriarchs Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov. For them, simple words and promises were enough, and they believed. They were able to hear the words and find in their lives the subtle signs of God’s special care and protection. Nachmanides says that this difference is what is meant by the strange reference at the beginning of this parsha to God’s appearance to the patriarchs using one name, El Shaddai, and His current appearance to Moshe and the Israelites using a different name, the tetragrammaton. The change in names symbolizes a change in method of communication, from words and subtle signs within nature to miracles.

The change is not an entirely happy one. The midrash reports that God says to Moshe concerning the patriarchs and their trusting ways: haval al de’avdin vela mishtakhin. “It is a shame about those who are gone and no longer here.”

The change is a sad one, but not a permanent one. This new miraculous mode of communication is only a temporary tool to break the Israelites out of the blocked hearing they have developed in the course of their bondage. The ultimate goal is to open up the people’s ears to subtler modes of hearing God’s presence in the world. Listening, after all, is what they must do at Mount Sinai (although there, too, God aids their listening with some spectacular sound and light effects). No wonder tradition counts it as a great stride forward that they are now able to say, na’aseh vinishma, “We will do and we will listen!”

What about us? Where do we stand in this spectrum? Can we hear God’s words? Can we hear and see His presence in the world like the patriarchs did? Or our ears closed like the Israelites in Egypt, closed up from the stress of too much hard work? Such stress gives us kotzer ru’ah, shortness of breath and of spirit, so that we lose the peace of mind that is required to really hear one another and God, to really see the redemptive moments and opportunities that present themselves.

We don’t have the option of otot from God, and so we must learn to listen more subtly. The Hasidic master Sefat Emet says that ever since Mount Sinai, the divine voice has never ceased, and that it is our permanent task now to open ourselves to hearing it, as we declare each day with the Shma, the call to “hear.” Before we recite the Shma, though, he points out, we must first leave Egypt, first leave behind the life and work stresses that close up our ears to the subtle sounds of redemption.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Parashat Shemot: On the Human Role in Redemption

The book of Exodus tells the story of God’s redemption of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. But the story of redemption does not begin with God. It begins with human beings taking courageous action. God does not act until he sees that human beings care.

The first human beings to care are women. The midwives Shifrah and Puah, in an incredible act of bravery, defy Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn Israelite males. This is the first act of Israelite resistance, and it sets the stage for a growing movement of compassion and bravery.

The story of the saving of a specific Israelite baby, Moshe, comes next, and here, too women are at the center, three women who perform three quiet, private acts of redemption. His mother, acting against Pharaoh’s orders, bravely hides him and then carefully sets him out in a basket on the Nile. His sister stands watch, on the look-out to be of assistance when the moment is right. The daughter of Pharaoh sees him, hears his cries, and takes pity on him, adopting him as her own. The bravery, compassion and caring in all three are remarkable. Building on the movement begun by Shifrah and Puah’s act of passive resistance in refusing to kill babies, these women are actively involved in protecting the life of this one endangered baby, Moshe, and raising him into adulthood.

Moshe’s personality is formed by the acts of these women. Just as the Torah tells us of three actions done on Moshe’s behalf as a young child, the Torah also tells us of three actions he himself takes upon growing up. First, he steps out of his comfortable castle life to “see” the suffering of his brethren (vayar bisivlotam), and seeing (vayar, again) an Egyptian hitting an Israelite, kills the Egyptian (2:11). Like his sister, he has become a person who looks out for the welfare of his brethren. And like his two mothers, he has become one who views the suffering of others with great compassion, and has the bravery to defy authority. The second story has Moshe trying to break up a fight between two Israelites, and the third tells of his rescue of 7 maidens in distress at the well in Midian. This third story again displays the characteristics of courage, compassion and caring he learned from his own rescuers.

But Moshe does not just repeat what he has learned. He builds upon it, taking the resistance movement one step further. He doesn’t just act to protect and rescue the person in distress, but he also actively tries to fight the aggressor, killing the Egyptian, rebuking the fighting Israelite, and chasing away the harassing shepherds at the well. He does not just save, but fights and judges.

At this point, the resistance movement has gone as far as it can go in human hands. Moshe understands the need to translate compassion and bravery into fighting terms, but when he does so, he is threatened with death and must run away to preserve his life. God must enter the fight. And so He does in the many chapters and 10 plagues which follow.

But we should remember that the story did not start with God. Yes, the Torah tells us that God heard the people’s cries and “saw” (vayar) their pain, but He is not the first to have done so (2:25). The daughter of Pharaoh is the first to have heeded an Israelite cry, and Moshe is the first to have “seen” their suffering. In a way, God’s compassion and caring are drawn down to earth by these human actions, and His will to redeem is provoked by these signals of a ready human partnership in the project of redemption.

Some Loose Ends on the Relationship Between the Two Sets of Three Stories:

I noted above that the Torah tells us of three actions done by three women in preserving the life of the young Moshe, and then of three actions done by Moshe as a grown up. I am trying to think through the parallels between these two sets of three. Here is what I have come up with. Please feel free to add your own ideas as a comment:

1. The two first actions both involve hiding. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, hides him. Moshe hides the Egyptian he has killed.
2. The two second actions both involve an activity among peers or brethren, though in opposite attitudes. Miriam, Moshe’s sister, stands guard for her brother. The two Israelites fight. Also, the word used for Miriam’s standing, vatetatzev, sounds somewhat similar to the word used for the Israelites’ fighting, nitzim.
3. In both the third cases the one(s) being rescued are unrelated to the rescuer. They are foreigners or strangers, and the act of salvation is done despite this distance. The daughter of Pharaoh saves Moshe, an Israelite, and Moshe, an Israelite raised by an Egyptian, saves the 7 Midianites. The midrash makes a big deal out of the daughter of Pharaoh’s action for this reason, calling her Bityah or Batyah, “daughter of God” because God says, “Since you called Moshe your son, I will call you My daughter.” Also, both rescues take place alongside a body of water.