Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bo: A Local Locust Problem

How do you pick which plague to send first? When God decides to afflict the Egyptians with ten plagues, in order to force them (but really, just hard-hearted Pharaoh) to let the slaves go free, how was the sequence of plagues decided? In fact, how were these ten chosen from among all other things that could be done? We aren't really told why blood came first, then frogs, and so on, through the Death of the First Born, which leaves us a lot of room to speculate. And in doing so, I think we come to realize something essential about Ancient Egyptian society... and about our priorities in life today.

Last week, we read about the first seven plagues, which ranged from causing a serious nuisance (blood, frogs, and lice), to incredible pain (boils and hail), to crippling the economy (death of livestock and hail again). This week we add the final three, and it's interesting to consider why these are so terrible as to come last. Working backwards, the final plague,
death of all first-born Egyptians, is understandably the blow that seals the deal. Plague #9 is interesting, because plunging Egypt into darkness was not only terrifying and paralyzing, but it challenged the essence of Egyptian theology. Ra, the sun-god of Egypt was supposed to be the head honcho, and Pharaoh was the human embodiment of Ra on earth. So to strike them with darkness completely annihilated all semblance of Ra's power, and humiliated Pharaoh.

But what about plague #8, locusts? How are they any different than the lice or insects from earlier plagues? Well, according to the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, "The locust swarm is one of the worst scourges. An area of one square kilometer can contain 50 million such insects; in a single night they can devour 100,000 tons of vegetation." We're no longer talking inconvenience or even physical
pain; this is the total devastation of an agricultural society. What else are people going to live off? As city-dwellers, it is hard for us to appreciate how shattering such a plague could be for a farming community. But here's where we transition to modern times. It is worth noting that even though we don't have swarms of locusts descending upon us, access to food and the threat of starvation is still a major fear all around the world, and even in many parts of the US. Researchers talk about something they call food deserts, and I urge you to click on that link to learn more about this essential concept. God caused Egypt to become a literal food desert in our parasha, but today's food deserts are often man-made. 

Next week, at Ohev Shalom, we will be hosting as our Scholar in Residence, Dr. Jordan Rosenblum, who will be speaking to us about all manner of food-related topics. His titles include, "The Goy of Cooking - Jews and non-Jews in the Rabbinic Kitchen" and "The Jew as Other, and the Other White Meat." I am truly hoping that this weekend
sparks a new debate about food, sustainability, and nutrition, both within the congregation and in relation to our wider community. Starvation is indeed a horrific plague, high even on God's list of punishments to reserve for dire circumstances. Many people are starving, or are seriously under-nourished today. It is, therefore, tempting to ask, is it God's fault or ours? Yet perhaps it's time to put that debate aside, and start focusing instead on how we can make a difference, and how we can get rid of some proverbial 'locusts' right here in our area.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of Aah-Yeah on Flickr   

2. CC image courtesy of luc.viatour on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of glasseyes view on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of tonrulkens on Flickr

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Va-Eira: I'm coming right back. I promise...

Why do we lie? Why do we feel the need to dance around the truth, make small 'adjustments' to facts, and sometimes convince ourselves
that white lies aren't really hurting anyone? Perhaps we imagine that brutal honesty does no one any good, so we believe we're actually protecting others (and, let's face it, ourselves) by lying. And I say 'we,' because I'm not exactly innocent myself. It's tough trying to be honest all the time! Even Moses, in this week's Torah reading, finds it hard to just be straight-forward with Pharaoh, and it leaves us feeling pretty uncomfortable about how the story plays out.

Right now, we're in the midst of the dramatic story of the Exodus, and specifically the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh. Many of
us are familiar with Moses' famous line, "LET MY PEOPLE GO!", and we know about the 10 Plagues. We also might be aware that Pharaoh keeps hardening his heart; promising to let the Israelites leave, and then swiftly changing his mind after each plague is lifted. One part that really bothers me, is when Moses feels he needs to lie to Pharaoh about his ultimate objective.

Five times in our Torah portion - five! - God instructs Moses to say to Pharaoh, "Let My people go that they may worship Me." I suppose it isn't clear to us, the readers, whether God is asking for a temporary reprieve, i.e. a few personal days so the Israelites can pray to God and then RETURN back to Egypt. It's probably left vague on purpose... Moses, however, explicitly lies to Pharaoh, asking for time off so that the slaves can all embark on a three-day journey into the desert, sacrifice to their God, and then return back to resume their servitude. It's certainly clear
from the text that Pharaoh understood it that way, when in chapter 8, verse 24, he says, "I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far." This whole, "Let my people go" business is a ruse, a sham! Moses is trying to pull a fast one on ol' Pharaoh... and it works! Eventually, after the full ten plagues have decimated the land, Pharaoh acquiesces, and the people head off to sacrifice to the Lord (or so Pharaoh thinks...). The moment Pharaoh realizes he's been hood-winked, and the people are really gone for good, that is when he sends his chariots off to bring them back. Though as we know, that doesn't work out too well for him either...

What would have happened if Moses had said to Pharaoh, "No more games, no more Mr. Nice Guy, we're leaving PERMANENTLY!"? Would Pharaoh have refused? Could his people survive more plagues? Perhaps the standoff would have lasted longer, and by lying, Moses actually spared the Egyptians 17 additional plagues of misery. Perhaps. But personally, I still vote for honesty. It ain't pretty; the 
truth can get messy, painful, and awkward, but it can also be liberating. Often times our fear of what 'might' happen if we're honest is much more terrifying than the reality once it plays itself out. Would Pharaoh have resisted? Absolutely. But would the result have ultimately been the same? I believe so, but with a lot more integrity and self-confidence. We shouldn't ever have to lie to protect our right for freedom, or make excuses for demanding equality - not in the Bible, and certainly not today. Sure, we might be able to achieve it through less honorable means, but it will mean so much more when we stand up proudly and declare out loud, "LET MY PEOPLE GO... and for real this time!" 

How might honesty change things in your life? It doesn't have to be brutal and unwavering, disguising mean-spirited comments and
hurting people under the cloak of honesty. It isn't all or nothing. But if we're being truthful with ourselves (and that is, after all, the whole point of this blog post), I think there's potential for more honesty in all our lives. If Moses had room to grow - and believe me, he did - so do we. Let's start right now.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of cinnamon_girl on Flickr   
2. CC image courtesy of Desiree N. Williams on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of garethjmsaunders on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of Ron Cogswell on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Drodeian on Flickr

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shemot: Retreating to Holiness

How do you replenish? Are you able to recharge? If we're going to be
efficient, productive individuals, we really must find a way to unplug, let go, and even retreat away from our hectic lives, so that we won't burn out. We do ourselves a disservice when we push ourselves too hard. It isn't selfish to take some time away; it's essential.

This week, I discovered a place to get away and recharge my batteries. It's called RTI, the Rabbinic Training Institute, and is also known affectionately among rabbis in the Conservative Movement as "rabbi 
camp." I spent five days with 70 other rabbis; learning, chatting, swapping stories, eating good food, and even getting a massage! It was terrific. I was especially thrilled to see six former classmates who are now spread across the country (and one in England), and to really spend some time together again. It was phenomenal, and I look forward to sharing some of what I've learned with Ohev Shalom, as well as here on the blog. 

For now, I want to just share one small insight regarding this week's Torah portion, and I think it also relates to the notion of taking time away. How does something become a holy space? What makes it special? In our parasha, Moses sees a burning bush while wandering among his sheep, and he turns aside to investigate. It turns out, God's
Presence is in that space, and God tells him to remove his sandals because the ground upon which he is standing is holy. But is it the space itself that is truly holy? An hour before Moses strolled by, was the bush yet lit? And an hour after Moses has departed, is that spot still sacred? How about a year later, or a hundred, or a thousand? I don't believe it is the location that makes something inherently holy, it is so much more. It's the people, the experiences, the relationships. The Pearlstone Retreat Center outside Baltimore isn't necessarily unique on its own (though it happens to be an amazingly beautiful place...), but when filled with phenomenal teachings, enriching activities, and spiritual camaraderie, THAT makes it special. 

What are the holy places in your life? What makes them special, and how often do you get there? I guess I don't know this for certain, but I'm betting you should try to bring yourself back there more often. 
It can be life-altering and transformative, or just relaxing, nourishing, and fun. Sometimes people think of retreats as luxury or expendable. But they really, truly are not. This week, I also learned that what people hold onto in life are experiences, not material possessions. And I learned a great deal about gratitude. I am very grateful for my week at RTI, for the experience of learning about how to replenish, and for discovering a new holy place in my life. I wish the same for all of you.

Photos in this blog post:  

1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, scene from the Pearlstone Retreat Center.  
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, JTS class of 2009!
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, more from Pearlstone.

4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, with Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth, St. Albans, UK.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Va-Yechi: Comedic Timing in the Torah

This week, we're finishing up the Book of Genesis. The story of a family morphs into the story of a nation. But before we bid farewell to Jacob and Joseph, we are given one last 
series of stories to remember them by. In these final chapters, we already see the origins of our people; and as Conservative Jews, we have the benefit of reading these stories through the 'true' lens of history. The first readers of these pages knew the outcome, because they were living hundreds of years later. The author of Genesis imagined Jacob realigning the tribes, and lo-and-behold they became the very same tribes we know today. How convenient...

Jacob is close to death. One of his final acts is to tell his son, Joseph, that his inheritance will be a double portion (still playing favorites, I see. Some people never learn...). However, instead of his own name becoming one of the tribes, his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, will become two tribes in place of their father. Sure enough, there is no Joseph tribe, and we know that in Ancient Israel Menashe and Ephraim were indeed two of the twelve tribes. Furthermore, Jacob declares that the younger brother, Ephraim, will supersede the older. Once again, we know this became reality, because Ephraim grew into one of the strongest of ALL the tribes. A few generations later, The Northern Kingdom of Israel was even called 'Ephraim,' it was such a powerful tribe. So it would certainly not have surprised the ancient reader to hear Jacob declare that, "[Menashe's] younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall be plentiful enough for nations" (Gen. 48:19).

But I would have to say that my favorite moment in this story comes at the beginning of chapter 48. Jacob makes a long proclamation to Joseph about how his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, shall be his (Jacob's); that he is adopting them like 
his own two sons. Then, in verse 8, we read: "Noticing Joseph's sons, Israel asked, 'Who are these?'" I LOVE IT! He makes a grand statement about adopting these boys, turns around, sees them, and says, 'Who the heck are they?' Every once in a while, the Bible reminds us why there are so many Jewish comedians; no one knows comedic timing better than the Torah!

I learn two things from this wonderful little vignette. 1) The importance of humor. I really mean that. In the middle of a serious scene, a pivotal moment in Jewish history and the death-bed-blessing of a family patriarch, there's still room for a little laughter and levity. Something we should never forget in our own lives as well. And 2) Humility. Jacob is about to elevate these two young boys to a pretty lofty status; higher than any of their cousins. They are being singled
out, and are given very special blessings... and a second later, their grandfather knocks them right back down again. But more than that, Jacob is saying to his grandkids, "Who are you? What are you going to make of yourselves, and how are you going to set yourselves apart from the rest?" Whatever special treatment he gives them won't matter one bit, unless they make the effort to BE special, to live special lives, and carry on the traditions of their ancestors. This too is a question we must all ask ourselves: Who are we? How are we going to make our lives special, and earn the blessings of our ancestor, Jacob? Cause if you don't watch out, and you don't make the effort, he might turn around and look at you and say, "Who the heck are you???"

Photos in this blog post:  

1. CC image courtesy of dleell on Flickr   
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, from the book, Deluxe Then And Now: Bible Maps.
3. CC image courtesy of david_shankbone on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of jrubinic on Flickr