Thursday, January 19, 2017

Some Thoughts on Parashat Shmot

1. Names --

The parsha is called Shmot, “names,” and begins by listing individually each name of the children of Yaakov, even though, as Rashi points out, we have heard this list recently, at the end of Breishit. But names are important; they show that we give each person kavod, honor. In our Mussar group last week, when we talked about working on the soul-trait of kavod, one woman, Tracey Grant, suggested that we take on the practice of using people’s names in conversation with them as a way to show them honor. Try it – notice how it feels when someone else uses your name, how honored and loved you feel by this simple gesture – and notice how easy it is to do this for someone else.

2. Seeing--

One of the roots that appears frequently in this parsha is ra’ah, “to see.” Pharaoh tells the midwives to “see” whether it is a boy or girl and kill the boys. But instead, they do a slightly different kind of seeing – vatirena et Haelokim , “they fear God,” fear being a root that in the feminine plural looks almost exactly like “seeing.” They see God -- they fear God and not Pharaoh -- and therefore save the children. You have to know what to see/fear in life.

Moshe’s mother, when he is born, “sees that he is good.” Maybe this is the best job description of a parent --- seeing that a child is good or seeing the good in a child. How can we see and focus on the good in our children in order to make this good potential grow?

The daughter of Pharaoh “sees” the little basket in the water with a baby crying in it and stretches out her arm to bring it to her and see what is there. She sees and hears the pain of others.

Her adopted son, Moshe, learns from her to see the suffering of others. He goes out and “sees the suffering of his brothers.” God, too, sees this suffering, but it is Moshe who sees it first, according to the Torah, and, as it were, brings it to the attention of God through his own noticing and caring. The first step to redemption is to see the suffering of others, not to be so immersed in one’s own affairs as to become indifferent and unseeing. In our Mussar group this week, we are working on chesed, and according to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, the first step in chesed is to train oneself to really see and notice what it is the other person is lacking and in need of, where the suffering of the other lies.

3. Eheyeh – Being with someone in pain

God reveals His name to us in this week’s parsha – it is Eheyeh, “I will be.” Rashi explains: “I will be with you in this trouble (and also in all future troubles, but they can’t hear that right now).” I will be with you. What greater chesed is there than this simple statement of accompaniment and presence in time of trouble? This characteristic of God surely we can always emulate – to simply promise that we will be with people in their times of trouble. We may not be able to fix it, but we can always ride with them.

The word eheyeh actually comes up numerous times in God’s conversation with Moshe – it is how God convinces Moshe to do the job – you say you can’t do it, that’s ok – I will be with you, I will be with your mouth, I will accompany you as you take on this difficult task. Do we feel that divine accompaniment in our own lives – do we remember that, if we are doing God’s work, God will be with us, we are not doing it alone, no matter how hard it seems?

4. Relieving God’s pain – Moshe Moshe!

When God calls to Moshe at the burning bush, he says, Moshe Moshe! And there is no punctuation between those two calls. The midrash explains that God is like a person carrying a very heavy burden – impatient and desperate to unload it – come, quick – Moshe Moshe, quickly, come on ---help me unload this burden.

God is suffering over the suffering of human beings in this world – it is like a burden He carries – and He is calling to us to help Him unload the burden, to share in carrying the suffering of others.

5. Aharon’s joy – being with someone in joy

According to tradition, Aharon merited the priesthood because of the way he reacted to Moshe’s appointment by God as leader – vera’akha vesamakh belibo, “he will see you and be happy in his heart.” There is the “seeing” verb again -- it is not enough to be able to see another person’s suffering; one also needs to be able to see another person’s joy – and be happy in one’s own heart over their joy. This may be especially hard for a brother because of competitiveness but Aharon breaks that Breshit model of sibling rivalry and gives us a different model –one of joy at another’s success. This, too, is a kind of chesed, to know how to be joyful with another person.

6. Sometimes things get worse before they get better

The parsha ends on a depressing note. After Moshe and Aharon go to Pharaoh to ask for the Israelites to leave for 3 days, Pharaoh, in anger, makes things worse for the Israelites – now they have to collect their own straw and still make the same number of bricks as before! Things are indeed about to turn around for the Israelites, but it sure doesn’t look like it right now! Haven’t we been in situations like this, where just when we are trying to fix things, they suddenly get worse? It makes us feel hopeless and despairing, and indeed, Moshe feels this way, but we as readers know the end of the story. If only we could have faith in our own lives and there, too, know that – despite appearances and temporary setbacks -- the end of the story will be good!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Parashat Vayehi: To Be Alive in Egypt

Vayehi Yaakov be’eretz Mitzrayim . The Torah says that Yaakkov lived, vayehi , in Egypt. He didn’t just stay there or sojourn there. Even in the land of Egypt Yaakov managed to have a little bit of true hayut, aliveness; even amidst a world of hiddenness and falsehood, Yaakov managed to keep his connection to the true Source of all Life.

That is the challenge, isn’t it? Not just to survive, but to live, to live with clarity and purpose and a constant sense of connection to the divine. Shiviti Hashem lenegdi tamid. I place God before me always. To remember, in our daily land of Egypt -- while we are hurrying our children out the door in the morning, while we are in the traffic jam, while we are waiting in line or doing dishes or seeing clients -- to remember at all these points our connection to the Source of Life.

Because that feeling, that connection, that sense of dignity and divine purpose, is so easily covered over in our daily existence. We may begin the day saying Elokai Neshama shenatata bi tehora hi, O God, the soul you placed inside me is pure – we may begin up in that lofty space of acknowledging that we have this pure divine soul inside us -- but how soon we are trodden down by the nitty gritty of this world, by the obstacles and challenges and daily hassle, how soon we forget that pure divine soul.

The goal is to be, like Yaakov, hay, truly alive and connected to our aliveness and the One who gave us life, even while we are in the land of Egypt, even while we are in the dirty mess of this world existence, not to leave Egypt, but to elevate Egypt, to elevate that daily mess with our consciousness of hayut, aliveness.

Maybe that’s why they say that our father Yaakov, he never really died. Yaakov lived in this Egypt existence of ours with a real sense of aliveness, an attachment to something beyond this world, something eternal. To become attached to that Eternal Source in this life is to never die, but to become part of eternity.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Parashat Vayigash: Revelations

Maybe there is always some deep unknown truth lying just beneath the surface of our daily lives.

Yosef’s brothers spent months (years?) now living in this weird covered up reality of not knowing that the powerful man who was treating them so harshly and at the same time so kindly was in fact their long lost brother.

There was this cloud of untruth and confusion whirling around them. What did it take to finally break the silence and the mystery – to force the truth to be revealed?

Yehudah’s forthrightness and courage. As the Sefat Emet points out, Yehudah had no real claim as to why this vizier shouldn’t take his brother Binyomin as a slave. Yehudah acted from the heart, speaking from a place of desperation and genuineness that was so powerful it forced the truth to uncover itself. Yosef could no longer hold back.

We are familiar with this scenario. In relationships and in Torah and in education and in other areas of life, we go through long periods of confusion and cloudiness until finally something breaks and we have a sudden vision of truth and clarity and connection.

These are moments of revelation, moments when we are offered a glimpse of the divine undercurrent in every aspect of our lives. We do all live in a haze most of the time, like the brothers, not really seeing the truth. And what finally uncovers the truth for us is our own true heart seeking desperately to see the light, not always directly – like Yehudah, we don’t know what it is we don’t know – but instinctively searching, pleading, yearning until finally the very search itself with all its heartfelt urgency breaks down the barriers and we understand that the vizier is our brother and that God Himself lies behind it all.