Thursday, February 23, 2017

Parashat Mishpatim: My Father's Torah on the Ger

My father spoke beautiful English with a heavy Polish/Yiddish/Russian/Israeli accent. He loved this country. He liked to say that this was the only country in the world where a poor immigrant-refugee like him could come and have his children educated in the highest institutions in the country.

In 2007, almost exactly 10 years ago, he gave a dvar torah about the Torah’s attitude to the ger, the “stranger.” At the end of his talk he said: “In Yiddish there is an expression: Yeder darshen darshen zich far zich. Every preacher preaches for himself. Once I asked the question of what attracted me to the Ibn Ezra’s analysis of ger shaar, the answer was obvious. I have lived in 6 countries and in 11 localities, not all of them voluntarily, and have been the recipient of good and bad treatment.”

In this week’s parsha, we hear about the ger twice. The first time, we are told not to oppress the ger because gerim heyitem be’eretz mitzrayim, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20). Rashi comments:“every use of the word ger refers to someone who is not born in that country, but rather comes from another country to live there,” i.e. an immigrant.

[Note: My father was a Rashi maven and in his dvar torah, he suggested that people talk to him at kiddush about the question of why Rashi defines ger here rather than several parshiyyot earlier, in Parashat Bo, where the term first appears. I have an idea of what he was thinking and I wish I could talk to him about it now.]

So ger refers to a person who comes to live here from another place. We know such people. And the Torah says not to hurt them because we, too, were once such people. We were immigrants; we were strangers; we were wanderers. Not just in Egypt, but throughout history. Our history is a history of foreignness. My father embodied this history in his own life. He called himself “a marginal man”; he felt that wherever he went, he was a little bit on the outside. This is a Jewish feeling and a feeling we are enjoined to remember, that sense of slight misfit, of insecurity.

And so, not once, but twice in this parsha, as well as multiple times in other parshiyyot, the Torah tells us: do not mistreat the immigrant in your midst. It is as if each commandment refers us back to another one of our own many wanderings. In the second instance in our parsha, the Torah goes even further in explaining the rationale: atem yidatem et nefesh hager, “you know the soul of the ger (23:9)”. In my father’s words:”Yadoa (to know) in biblical Hebrew has a connotation of intimacy. The Torah tells us: you know intimately how it feels to be oppressed, you should therefore empathize with the ger and not oppress him.”

We know intimately, from the inside, what it feels like to be an outsider. Such feelings are the definition of who we are as Jews. They lie deep within us; they are our very soul.

Later in the Torah, we are called on not just to “not oppress,” but to actively love the ger: veahavta lo kamokha. In the same language as the more famous “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Torah tells us: “Love the ger as you love yourself.” Why? Because you are the ger. You have the same soul of suffering. Exchange yourself for the other. Use your memory of the suffering of being an outsider to teach you not hate, but love.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Some Lessons from Parashat Yitro

1) On Torah and Busyness:

Moshe was only able to get the Torah once he cleared his schedule.

The parsha begins with the view of Moshe’s life from the vantage point of Yitro, his father in law. What Yitro sees is a leader overwhelmed by detail, working from morning until night adjudicating disputes among his people. Yitro wisely advises Moshe to delegate, to find others to do some of the easier work so that he is left to concentrate on the harder cases.

Moshe follows this advice. The result? The biggest divine revelation of all time – Mount Sinai. And the giving of the biggest divine gift of all time – the Torah.

The Torah is only given when Moshe is free enough to hear it.

What are we not hearing because of our overscheduled lives? What divine gifts, what pieces of Torah, are we not receiving because we occupy our brains from morning until night with a million details? What might we hear if we did slow down?

2) On Sharing the Burden:

Do you think you need to do everything yourself?

Sometimes we look around and see all the problems in our private and public lives and feel that we must attend to them all ourselves. This must be how Moshe felt and why he spent all his time judging every single dispute, night and day, without break. I must do it all, he thought.

Lo tov, “not good,” is how Yitro describes this scenario. These words are reminiscent of God’s words to Adam: lo tov heyot haAdam levado. “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” It is never good to do things alone, to think that only I can do everything that is needed in this world. The world was created with two people to let us know that we are not meant to do everything, that we are meant to share in the burden, to be a team.

The message is not laziness – let someone else do it. The point of letting go is a positive one -- to make sure you are putting your energies where they belong; Moshe had to let go of doing all the judging himself in order to be open to a different task, for which he was uniquely qualified – consultation and communication with God.

Not doing it all yourself is also a question of honoring the other and honoring the talents of the other. There were plenty of honest upright people fit to be judges. Doing it all himself meant that Moshe was not giving meaningful work to these others, honoring the contributions they have to make.

In regard to tzedaka, the gemara in Bava Batra says that the act of facilitating another person’s tzedaka giving is even greater than the act of giving tzedaka yourself. Facilitating the giving of others means getting out of oneself enough to recognize the contributions that others have to make. To think we must fix all the problems ourselves comes partly from a place of arrogance and self-centeredness. To step back and recognize that others have their place just as we have ours, is to step out of oneself and turn lo tov into tov.

3) The Lesson of Yitro’s Advice: Their Wisdom is Torah, Too!

The parsha of the giving of the Torah begins not with the Torah that God gave us, but with the wisdom of Yitro, a non-Israelite.

Perhaps this juxtaposition is intended to expand our notion of Torah, to remind us to seek wisdom not just in the four walls of the Bet Midrash and in our own tradition, but also among those wise people of the world as a whole.

The source of wisdom is both above and below, both inside and outside. On the cusp of getting the Torah, it was as if God wanted Moshe to know – I am about to give you something special, but don’t let it close you off from the world’s wisdom. Keep it alongside. Be open to wisdom wherever it appears.

4) Family and Torah:

The Torah is not given to the Israelites until Moshe's family -- his wife and 2 children -- arrive. The ultimate experience of Torah is not a solitary one, but one which necessarily involves one's whole family.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Parashat Beshallah: On Divine Accompaniment in all its Forms

When we sing Shalom Aleikhem on Friday night, can you feel the presence of those accompanying angels, one to the right and one to the left?

This week’s parsha is about accompaniment. The people of Israel leave Egypt and God keeps them company and protects them, taking the form of a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of light during the night, leading them and clearing a path before them through the great unknown dessert. When the Egyptians come from behind, this divine accompaniment moves from in front to behind, to protect the Israelites and separate them from their enemies all that night before the splitting of the Sea. The midrash compares the situation to a parent who carries her child first in the front, then in the back, then on her shoulders, depending on the danger that is presented.

When the Israelites walk though the Sea, the Torah describes repeatedly vehamayim lahem homah miyiminm umismolam, “the water was for them a wall to the right and to the left of them.” In front and behind are the divine pillars and on either side are the walls of water. The feeling is one of complete embrace.

The bed-time prayer similarly says: To the right of me is Michael,
To the left of me is Gavriel,
In front of me is Uriel
And behind me is Rafael
And above my head is the Presence of God.

Do you feel this sense of divine embrace and accompaniment? It does not mean we won’t face danger and difficulty, as the Israelites do here and throughout their desert experience. Danger and difficulty are part of life, but facing them with a sense of divine accompaniment can mean the difference between winning the Amalekite war and losing it.

How do we recognize – really see -- that God is around us? Perhaps the pillar of light and cloud were clear (though perhaps not; perhaps they could have been interpreted by scientists as natural phenomena). But later in the parsha, the Israelites, struggling with food and water, ask: Is God present in our midst or not? This is our question – is God present? Where? How can we recognize God’s presence?

Sometimes God’s messengers take strange forms. Yes, sometimes God’s angels look like a pillar of light. But sometimes they look like Pharaoh. According to the midrash, the parsha actually begins with a word of accompaniment, beshalah, “when he sent,” but who is doing this accompaniment here? Pharaoh! The very same Pharaoh who caused all this suffering and will later give chase again is here doing the mitzvah of livuy, accompanying one’s guest on their way, just as Avraham did! Pharaoh is performing the divine act of accompanying!

Are we open to seeing the divine in those around us, even from those we least expect it? The other day I was deeply sad and crying and I prayed to God to give me strength. Soon after, I walked into a public space and someone I did not know looked over at me and gave me a big smile and said: How are you today? I thanked God for that angel. To feel God’s presence is to become aware of the pillars of light in all their forms, to the right and to the left, behind us, before us and always above us.

Meditation on Emet (Truth)

We say in Tefillah: Emet veYatziv. True and stable. Truth is stable. Strong. Grounded. Feel the truth of your body. Feel the truth of your body on the chair, the stability and truth of the ground holding you up. You are strong. You are stable. You are true.

What is your truth?

God wants you to be you. At Mount Sinai, the Torah says that we saw the voices. What does it mean to see voices? The Hasidic Rebbe, Sefat Emet says: “Each one of Israel saw the root of her own life-force. With their very eyes they saw the part of the divine soul above that lives in each of them.”

Take a minute to see the part of the divine soul living inside you. Take a minute to feel how you are a piece of the divine. A precious unique piece of the divine.

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin says: In the normal way of the world, a person stamps out many coins with one die and they all look exactly the same. But the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.

Each one of us has a unique piece of God inside us. Each of us has been sent down here to fix something very particular in this world. We each have a different job to do.

If you look at your friend, a successful lawyer, and think – but I am not doing as much, not as successful, or you look at another acquaintance, a great teacher, and think – but what am I compared to her? Do not do so. You are special. There is something that only you can contribute to this world. If you read someone else’s writing or hear someone else’s Torah and think – why can’t I write or think like her? Do not do so. Be happy for their contributions and remember that you have some other contribution to make. Each person has a place. Each person has a Torah.

In the end of our lives the question will not be – why were you not more like Cheryl or Sarah or Veronica? The question will be and is today – how can you be more like you? How can you honor your truth and play the part that only you can play in this world.

Honor your truth. Do you honor your truth? Or is there some piece of you that is deeply ashamed of what is unique about you? Is there some shame attached to that truth? Do you wish you were someone else? Do you hide from your truth? Do you wish you were more like everyone else?

Honor your truth. Honor your truth because it is God’s truth. God has made you as you are for some reason. To honor your truth, to search for that truth and give it respect and act it out in the world – to honor your truth is to come closer to God. God resides in each of our truths. To be more truly you is also to feel God’s presence, to feel God’s closeness, to become aware of God’s truth. Honor your truth. Be you.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Parashat Bo: On Memory and Suffering

Why are we a people who suffer? Why did we need to begin our existence as a people with the story of Egypt and slavery? Why must we always remember Egypt?

Indeed, Egypt is where memory starts for us. Yes, we have the whole book of Breshit with all of its beautiful narratives about our matriarchs and patriarchs. But we are never commanded to remember them. There is no Jewish holiday commemorating Avraham’s visit from the three angels or Yaakov’s ladder dream. The first and primary point of memorable history for the Jewish people is the exodus from Egypt.

It is in this week’s parsha that narrative actively turns into eternal history; at the very moment that they do the paschal sacrifice, on the eve of their exodus from the land of their suffering, the people learn that this is to be a permanent institution, their first permanent institution. And, as part of this new memory making process, they are given the calendar, a way to mark an anniversary each year to commemorate this event. Though in the Torah we have had days since Day 1 of creation and years since we counted how many years people lived, months are new and it is the months within the year that help us create a calendar and a way of remembering history.

Almost everything we do in Judaism ties back to this event -- zekher leyitziat Mitzrayim. Why? Why did we need to start our peoplehood in suffering? Why was it so important that we suffer and be redeemed, so much so that God told Avraham ahead of time that this was always part of the plan?

There may be many reasons for the centrality of Egypt in our religious psyche, but this year what seems paramount is that it teaches empathy. We are meant to be a people who – from our own experience – know about suffering and therefore care when others suffer. We are a people who remember what it is like to be a slave and also what it is like to be a refugee in a boat that is turned away from the one country in the world we had hoped would take us in. We know what this is like and we are commanded to remember it. May we not need more of our own suffering to remind us.