Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sh'mot: Of Matrices and Smoldering Shrubs

One of my favorite movies of all time (and yes, you are welcome to make fun of me) is The Matrix. If you don't remember the film, or if you never saw it, it's basically a futuristic science-fiction movie about the search for a savior, a.k.a. The One. Ok, ok, 
I know it doesn't sound that terrific, but trust me, it's great! Anyway, one of my favorite scenes in The Matrix has our protagonist, Neo, who may be The One, visiting with an oracle to finally get some answers. And that scene reminds me an awful lot of Moses' first encounter with God in this week's Torah portion. That's right; I just compared Keanu Reeves to Moses, and the Divine encounter at the Burning Bush to a sci-fi movie about evil robots. I love writing a blog!

Alright, let me explain. Early on in the oracle's conversation with Neo, she says to him, 'know thy self,' and explains that no one can tell you who you are or what you're supposed to do, you just have to discover it for yourself. After that, she goes through a series of silly, fake 'rituals' (though at the time we don't know they're fake) and then she says: 'You know what I'm going to tell you, don't you?' And he responds, 'I'm not 
The One, am I?' And we, the viewers, spend most of the movie believing he's NOT the savior-to-be-named-later. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the reason I love that particular scene with the oracle is that she began with the most important piece of information he needed to hear: 'Know thy self.' In other words, nothing else I can say, or do, or predict, or decree is going to matter; you have to believe in yourself, and YOU have to think you're The One. The difference between greatness and mediocrity is only belief in oneself. That's it. And Moses too has to discover that the hard way.

When God first approaches Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses is terrified. FOUR times Moses tries to get out of the job, but God is relentless; you ARE going back to Egypt!! To give Moses confidence, God demonstrates three miracles that Moses can employ in his dealings with Pharaoh. Moses' staff turns 
into a snake (Exodus 4:2-4), his hand becomes diseased and then cured again (v. 6-8), and finally, he pours water on the ground and it turns to blood (v. 9). But to be completely honest, these are all parlor tricks. They're kind of ridiculous. Even when Moses eventually DOES try to use them, they don't really work. The snake trick impresses no one, the water-into-blood is only the first of ten plagues - nine more are needed before Pharaoh eventually relents - and Moses never even tries the weird-scary-hand-thing. So what was all that smoke-and-mirrors actually about?

That's where I see the connection to The Matrix. All that Moses - or Neo - really needed to know was stated in the first line: 'Know thy self.' Early on in the Burning Bush scene, Moses says to God: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (Ex. 3:11) And God never really answers him. God's immediate response is: "I will be 
with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you." That doesn't really answer Moses' question, does it? God needs Moses to discover his greatness for himself; and that will only come with time. Even today, a lot of people ask why we don't hear God's voice. Why don't we get signs from Heaven? Why don't we see miracles happening, seas splitting, and fiery chariots descending from the sky? Why? Because all that crap is silliness. They're parlor tricks. They don't cut to the heart of what it means to live a life of meaning. How can we be great, and do great, in this world? How can we discover our destiny, and then spend our lives striving to fulfill it? It sounds so simply, but it's the only real message we need to hear AND do: 'Know thy self.'

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of David.Asch on Flickr Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Leon Brooks on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sebastien Bourdon on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vayechi: Jacob, Joseph, and Nelson

How do you leave a legacy of greatness? As we all mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela this week, and marvel at the impact one man had on his country, and indeed the entire world, we can't help but ponder this 
question. If you knew Nelson Mandela at age 4, or 14, or in prison at 44, do you think you could have imagined that he'd become such a world leader? As we watched his funeral this week, despite being distracted by handshakes, fake sign language, and selfies, we were all given an opportunity to think about what our own legacy will be - and could be - when we are someday remembered for the life we led and the choices we made.

Not surprisingly, our Torah portion this week gives us a similar opportunity to reflect on what people leave behind after they die. 
The parashah is fittingly titled 'Vayechi,' meaning 'And he lived.' In context, it is referring to the life of our ancestor Jacob, but indeed BOTH Jacob and Joseph die in this week's Torah portion, so we are afforded the chance to review the legacy of both men, and to compare and contrast the values that they represented.

Jacob died with many regrets. He deceived his brother and his father; he favored one wife over another; then one son over the others; and he really struggled in many of his relationships with the people in his life. Even on his deathbed, many of the so-called blessings he offered his sons expressed disappointment, pent-up anger, and frustration. So much was 
unresolved for him, and thus his legacy is also turbulent and conflicted. Joseph, meanwhile, also made unwise decisions as a child. But, like Nelson Mandela, he grew and matured throughout the course of his life. Perhaps, just like Mandela, prison was a place for Joseph to take stock, to reevaluate priorities, and to really treasure all that life has to offer, and which most of us take for granted. At the end of Joseph's life, he asks only that his descendants bring his bones back to Israel when they someday leave Egypt. He has no other requests or concerns; lingering frustrations or gnawing regrets. Joseph dies at peace.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that each of us can learn from all three deaths is that anyone can leave a legacy of greatness. Jacob and Joseph were simple, humble people, living before any historical records were really kept. One poor decision, and either man might have been lost in the annals of time. And yet, 
we still read their stories today. Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, grew up tending herds as a cattle-boy, with two illiterate parents. Who could have imagined that any of these three individuals would become household names around the world? Their stories should inspire our own. We too can make a difference in the world, and leave our mark for people to talk about in generations to come. On some level, perhaps, all three were chosen by a Higher Power. But they also chose themselves. They made their own destiny. Now it's our turn.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of The US Congress on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Utilisateur:Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Liam Quinn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Steve Evans on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vayigash: Doing More Than Just Dreaming, To Ensure Plenty and Not Famine

Our Torah portion is missing something. In fact, all four Torah portions that focus on Joseph and his story are all missing the same thing. A major character in the plot, no less. 
But first, I give you the quickest recap of the Joseph story EVER: Father favors him; brothers hate him; sell him into slavery; Joseph interprets dreams; predicts REALLY bad weather; Pharaoh's impressed; Joseph runs Egypt (basically); family hit hard by famine; Joseph saves the day; moves everyone to Egypt. Sound good? So who are players in this story? Joseph, Pharaoh, God, Jacob, the other brothers. What's missing?

I'll give you a clue. This is what Joseph says to his brothers when he finally reveals his identity: "Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me to this place; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine 
in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Genesis, 45:5-7). Did you catch it? Did you see Joseph name the additional character who's in cahoots with him and with God to orchestrate this entire scenario? It's the very land itself. And indeed, throughout the Torah, the land is an ACTIVE player in the drama. In Leviticus, 18:28, the text says: "If you defile the land, it will spew (some translations even say 'vomit'!) you out, as it spewed out the nations that came before you." God and the earth are working together, in partnership, and you - we all - must recognize that the land is very much a participant in God's plan.

We read the story of Joseph, and we praise him for his dream-interpretation prowess, and then later for his ability to govern Egypt for Pharaoh, and keep the people fed during a devastating famine. But we fail to recognize how involved the land itself is in this story. Without the years of plenty, there would be nothing to store up, nothing to protect the people in the face of starvation. 
Right? If they'd only had seven years of pretty-decent-harvesting, there wouldn't be enough to squirrel away. And without the famine, we would have no story. Joseph's family wouldn't have had to come to him in desperation, utterly at the mercy of Egypt's grand vizier Tzafenat-Paneach (a.k.a. Joseph) (p.s. I really love his Egyptian alter-ego. More people should give their kids names like that...). The famine itself is ESSENTIAL to our story. The story of our people, the foundation of what it means to be Jewish, begins with us living in Egypt as slaves... and all that begins because there was a food shortage that forced our ancestors to move down to Egypt.

This weekend, at Ohev Shalom, is GreenFaith Shabbat. We are talking about the environment, we are learning about sustainability, and we are going to introduce a new Prayer for Our World into our service. Why? Because the planet is an active player in all our stories. We forget it all the time, and we instead focus on the human characters and maybe even on God. But we neglect the ground we walk on, and we surely neglect how crucial it is 'to ensure our survival on earth,' as Joseph put it. 
By working the land too hard, by pumping it full of chemicals, by fracking it for natural gas, and by ignoring the warning signals that it sends back to us; we are risking our survival on this earth. We keep assuming we're going to have years of plenty to cover us, should we happen to have a completely-accidental-totally-fluky-no-one-could-ever-have-predicted-it famine. But what if we CAN'T count on those years of plenty? Who will interpret dreams for us then, to help us discern what lies ahead? We don't have the luxury of a Joseph, to make plans for us and help avert natural disasters. We have to change course NOW, and start becoming the master of our own dreams and our own future. 

If you're in the area, please join us this weekend to learn how.