Friday, January 30, 2015

B'Shallach: Why the Israelites Did (and We Should) Sing

There isn't a ton of music in the Torah, but there's some. We don't get sheet music or anything, but the text DOES tell us when someone sings, and it gives us the words of their refrain. Along with the Torah text 
itself, we also have traditions, passed down over centuries, that teach us how to sing the words and how to emphasize particular phrases. This week, we sing one of the most famous musical pieces in the Torah, the Song of the Sea. Moses and the Israelites walk safely through the Sea of Reeds, and escape the clutches of their Egyptian pursuers. They are free... and they sing! On Saturday morning, we'll talk more about the song itself, but here on the blog, I want to talk about the words that introduce this piece. How does the Torah prepare us to hear it sung, and why are certain, strange words emphasized for this purpose?

The Song of the Sea has its own tune. It doesn't sound like anything else in the service, and you won't hear it used anywhere else. The Song itself begins in chapter 15, but three times in the preceding chapter, in verses 22, 29, and 31, the melody begins to seep into our reading and into our heads. What caught my eye is 
the fact that two of the three instances are essentially the same verse... and the choice of words to emphasize is quite surprising. Verse 22 states: "... and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." So which part gets the prestigious honor of sharing a tune with the Song of the Sea? The words 'on their right and on their left." Seems odd, no? Is that the most majestic part of that verse? I don't think so. And then again, in verse 29, we see the same thing: "But the Israelites had marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." Sure enough, the same two words (in Hebrew) are highlighted as well: "on their right and on their left." Why?
My thought is this: The crossing of the Sea of Reeds is a problematic story for the rabbis. Well, it's uncomfortable, at least. Because it was a grandiose, miraculous, fantastical incident where God's Presence was 
unmistakably tangible. And you and I, the readers, might be inclined to judge our own experiences and our lives by this impossible standard: "If this is what it looks like to experience God, then how could I POSSIBLY know this God?? Nothing amazing like this has EVER happened to me; I have NO relationship with this God, and I don't feel God in my daily life at all." The rabbis are worried that you'll read this story and draw a line in the sand - either God starts splitting something in half for me, or God and I are through!

So what do the rabbis do? They emphasize a mundane verse in the story that actually holds a powerful message. God is everywhere. At all times, and in every moment of our lives, God is "to the right of us and the left of us." As we prepare to read the Song of the Sea - this magnificent celebration of God's role in the lives of our ancestors - 
let us pause, twice, and remember how God impacts OUR lives as well. We don't need these overstated miracles to feel God's Presence; God is at our side, both sides in fact, all the time. But we're also not that different from the Israelites. Before the sea split (and not too many minutes after...), they utterly lacked faith. They got disheartened. We don't always feel that God is close by, and neither did they. But we keep working at it. We remind ourselves that God is, indeed, on the left and the right, even when we can't feel it. And hopefully it will give us all some comfort and a sense of security. Some moments in life we can't get there. But other times we can. And when we do, it feels so good to know that God is there to support you, it almost makes you want to break out in song.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Mozartito on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Chris Lavis on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Roger McLachlan o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fry1989
 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bo: Beginning Anew, Anew, Anew

"We can do this the easy way or the hard way." A pretty common saying, right? Well, when it comes to the Torah, or indeed most Biblical books or later rabbinic writings, when 
there's a choice between a simpler, easier way of presenting something, or a more complicated, challenging, hard way, the Torah/rabbis will pretty much always choose the more difficult option. And I find myself saying this a lot, whether on the blog or in synagogue, so you may have heard this from me before. But that's because it's true! My example for you this week is the structure of the Jewish calendar. Our parashah teaches us about the laws of Passover, and says that this month, Nisan, is the first month of the year. Simple, no? That's what you think...

Right now, we are in the Jewish year of 5775, and that will switch over to 5776 in... the calendar's SEVENTH month, Tishrei, in the Fall at Rosh Hashanah. And in a few weeks, we'll also be celebrating ANOTHER New Year on our calendar; the holiday of Tu Bishvat, which is the New Year 
for planting trees. There's also a FOURTH New Year, but let's not go there... So what's the deal? Why does the Hebrew Calendar make things so complicated??? Is Nisan (Passover) the start of the year, as the Torah so adamantly insists in our Torah portion, or is it Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah)? The secular, or Gregorian, calendar is so much simpler, don't you think? In the Western World, the year has a straightforward beginning: January 1st. Well, that is unless you ask school children when the (school) year starts, and they say Labor Day; or an accountant, and s/he says April 16th; or a non-profit and they say August 1st. Hmm, not so simple anymore, is it?
This, by the way, is why I love the complexity of the Torah, and later the methodology of the rabbis. Because life IS complicated, and it IS nuanced. It has many starts and stops, and turns along the way. 
Our lives don't follow straight trajectories, or have only one primary component. A calendar with multiple new beginnings reflects our multi-faceted lives; Venn diagrams of overlapping circles filled with work, family, religion, and so much more. Each one is separate, yet they also overlap. And we keep track of them all in our heads, our smartphones, and our daily lives constantly. Our Jewish calendar acknowledges this reality, and teaches us to bless and honor each of these aspects with a separate, distinct, and important New Year's celebration. 

Look at the Israelites, who this week are at the precipice of the Exodus; the end of hundreds of years of slavery, and the start of... who knows? This is indeed a New Year for them, a MAJOR new beginning in their existence as a people. But even as they journey into the desert, they also 
bring with them memories of slavery, and of their ancient ancestors, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. One new beginning doesn't negate all that came before or that will happen later. This is precisely why we celebrate multiple New Years across our calendar, and throughout our lives. And that is also why we don't always take the easy way, even when it may seem simpler, faster, or less complicated. Occasionally our path should reflect the complexity of our lives. Sometimes the more challenging road has much to teach us, and will help us understand life in a whole new way. So if, right now, you yourself are at the start of something new in your life, celebrate this moment. Acknowledge the excitement, fear, opportunity, joy, and trepidation of this crossroads in your life, and give thanks for it. And... Happy New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Thomas R Machnitzki on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image courtesy of a wall calendar in my house (and a Sharpie) :-)

3. CC image courtesy of Dando Dangerslice o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of 
Helgi Halldórsson on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Va'eira: Stuck In The Middle With All of Us

Right now, it feels like our lives are filled with vigils, marches, and memorial services. Before the new year, services were held across the 
country for Eric Garner and Michael Brown, emblazoned with the hashtag-rubric #BlackLivesMatterIn 2015, the new slogan is "Je Suis Charlie" or "Je Suis Juif," commemorating the lethal terrorist attacks on the satirical newspaper in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and the subsequent attack on a Kosher grocery store which led to the deaths of four more people. Many people wonder, justifiably, where our world is heading. I find it particularly sad when I reflect on how many of the victims seem like innocent casualties of someone else's conflict. And when you read this week's Torah portion, you unfortunately discover that not much has changed.

We are right now squarely in the story of the Exodus, and we're witnessing the first set of plagues raining down on the Egyptians. Blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects, 
pestilence; all of them are really weapons launched in a battle between two enemies. We sometimes get distracted by the specifics of these larger-than-life plagues, when perhaps we'd do well to refocus our conversation and instead talk about modern equivalents like suicide bombings, anthrax scares, and hostage takings... or drone strikes, racial profiling, and enhanced interrogations. Ultimately, what we're really talking about is a war between two sides, where the top officials make the decisions, send the troops, and issue the threats; but the people who get hurt are the ones stuck in the middle with no place to hide.

Earlier this week, I was reading a Torah commentary out of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in California, written by Janet Sternfield Davis, where she included the line: "This is a contest between God and Pharaoh. This suffering is in service to God's plan. Moses, Aaron, the Israelites, and the Egyptians are [all] caught in the crossfire." 
On one side, the Egyptian people are getting decimated because their idiot leader won't let go of his pride. On the other, the Israelites first get punished by Pharaoh, and then get dragged out into the wilderness, all in the name of God's glory (the Torah's language, not mine). Are modern conflicts really so different? The people who walk into a grocery store, work at a newspaper, or put on a hoodie, are they prepared to suffer the consequences of war? Are they aware of the risks they're assuming? Part of what we commemorate, what we lament, in our vigils is the loss of self-determination. We mourn the absence of safety and concern for human life, and we cry bitterly over the self-righteous, sanctimonious narcissism that allows certain people, fundamentalists on all sides, to punish innocent victims in THEIR war.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor writes beautiful, heart-breaking modern prayers in the face of tragedies that befall us. Last week, he composed yet another impactful piece, which states: "How can Your images, every human being, do such horrid things, hating each other, hurting each other, killing each other?" This is truly our question. How can people ignore the sacred in one another? 
How can they allow hate to consume them so fully as to only see evil in another? To spend so much of their time on this earth plotting destruction, terror, and fear? It mystifies us. Yet it is. It exists. And sadly, it has been a part of human history since God and Pharaoh battled it out thousands of years ago, and even earlier still. But we all have to teach ourselves to see those innocent victims in the middle. We have to recognize that most people, on every side of every issue, are not evil or violent. Hate will only breed more hate, and we've got enough of that already. The vigils and marches will persist, but each of us must work hard to resist the temptation to hate. Rabbi Creditor reminds us, pleads with us, to stand strong through our pain, and to never cease our blessings for that most essential blessing of all: Peace.


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of courtesy of Quaerite on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Thomas Good 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Kosherb o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Marctasman on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sh'mot: Why No One Can Ruin the Ending

Spoiler alert! This week, we are beginning the Book of Exodus and therefore also the story of THE Exodus (from Egypt). Yet even though 
we're only at the very beginning, 
and it's going to take weeks to find out whether Moses successfully convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, I can tell you right now: Moses wins. Sorry if I ruined the ending for you, especially if you were planning to go see the new Hollywood film, "Exodus: Gods and Kings" (which was conveniently released right around the time that we started reading the Book of Exodus). I know what a nail-biter it would have been, if I hadn't just given away the exciting finish...

The funny thing is, I'm not the only one who read ahead. God did too. And in our parashah, still at the very, very start of the epic story, God spoils the ending for Moses as well. In chapter 3, verses 19-20, God 
tells Moses: "Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a greater might. So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go." What amazes me about this is that before Moses ever approaches Pharaoh with those first immortal words, "Let my people go!", God already reveals to Moses that Pharaoh WON'T listen to him. It's going to take A LOT more convincing (and plagues) to crack this nut. I wonder how Moses might have felt then at the outset of the enterprise, knowing it would be a long, long haul.

Sometimes when I discuss this section with congregants, say in our Wednesday morning Bible class, people express frustration at what they're reading: "Why go through this whole song-and-dance? Why doesn't God just cut to the chase and start with the TENTH plague so we can get this over with already!?!" 
It's a fair question. Why send Moses in to speak to Pharaoh, when God is telling him from the start that it won't work? OR, at the very least, why tell Moses how it's going to end at this early stage? What does it accomplish to, in effect, ruin the exciting conclusion for him, as I did (though not really) for you? I want to suggest two responses. First, it's about faith in God. The reason for revealing the climax to Moses is to show God's total omnipotence. It demonstrates to Moses that not only will God win the fight with Pharaoh, and not only can God work fantastical wonders to accomplish this goal, but the entire sequence of events is already known to God from the outset. In other words, God isn't the protagonist to Pharaoh's antagonist, like two opponents in a chess match; God invented the game.  

The second lesson I take from God "spoiling" the ending is that the Torah is not about outcomes, it's about processes. The Exodus itself - I mean the WHOLE thing, the entire 40-year period - is about the time in the desert, not just the destination. God tells Moses that this is not 
going to be a simple, one-time conversation with Pharaoh; all the stages between this moment and the eventual release are all valuable. The same is true for us today; it's not about the solutions or the resolutions we come to, it's about the travels we embark on and the phases we go through along the way. It's also a reminder not to worry about spoilers. If you are only looking to get to the end, whether it's a book, a movie, or a stage in life, then maybe you're in it for the wrong reasons. Try to refocus and see the value in the odyssey itself. Nothing is really pointless or devoid of value. Sometimes we just have to look harder and mine our experiences for meaning; but there is always some reason why we are where we are. God is the only one who REALLY knows how it ends, but that's ok. You and I should just hang out here, right in the middle of the journey itself.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of courtesy of Donperfectodewiki on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Benjamin West's painting, "Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh" courtesy of Captain Phoebus 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of LGD12345 o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Ewikist on en.wikipedia