Friday, January 27, 2017

Va-Eira: Was Moses the Worst Person for the Job?

The Exodus got off to a rough start. So rough, in fact, that it might have petered out before it even got off the ground! In our popular imagination, we picture Moses taking on Pharaoh. Each represents a
nation, and has the FULL support of his people. The classic version of the story tells us the first road block came when Pharaoh refused to let them leave; before that, things were smooth sailing. And yet, when we actually READ the text, we see that God and Moses had a heck of a tough time rallying the troops, and that the Israelites were NOT on board with the Exodus-plan as presented. At one point, exasperated, Moses declares to God: "If the Israelites won't listen to me; why should Pharaoh listen???" (Exodus 6:12) Indeed, it is a moment for all of us - in the calm before the storm - to think about leadership, role modeling, and what it means for followers to... well... follow.

Right before Moses made his plea to God, he had actually laid out a pretty compelling case to the Children of Israel. With mighty verbs, he spoke in God's Name about all the great things that were to come: "I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you... I will take you to be My people... I will bring you into the land... I will give it to you as a possession..." (Ex. 6:6-8)
Powerful stuff. But sadly, it struck the Israelites as "too little, too late." The Torah tells us they didn't listen, because "their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage" (v. 9). And I also wonder, as many commentators do, if it was just a bit too painful to hear all this coming from Moses. They knew he had grown up in Pharaoh's palace, and that he never actually experienced ANY of their slavery himself. Just imagine it for yourself: Someone tells you they know how low your salary is, how expensive health insurance can be, the cost of daycare, and all the other bills that make it hard to stay afloat and which give you sleepless nights... and the person offering you their sympathy is themselves the wealthiest person in town. The message may be true, but do you want to hear it from them?

However, the commentators are conflicted. Our Etz Hayim Chumash posits: "It may be that only one whose spirit had NOT been crushed by slavery could be capable of leading the people to freedom." Maybe the people NEEDED an outsider to redeem them, because they themselves were too broken. And certainly we know that Moses could speak
Pharaoh's language unlike the other Israelites. So was he perfectly situated for this task, or an insult to the Hebrew slaves? One thing is certainly true; the people chafe under his leadership. He does not have their support BEFORE the plagues, then briefly holds it right after they leave Egypt, only to lose it again at the first sign of trouble in the desert. There's no way to sugarcoat it; the Israelites didn't consider Moses one of their own. As someone who grew up as an outsider-American in Sweden, and then was called "Swede" when he moved to the US, I can relate. Moses probably seemed like an Israelite to everyone in Egypt, but an Egyptian to all the Hebrews. But I still can't decide if that makes him the worst candidate for this job... or perhaps the best.

It is a difficult question, and I think it's one that resonates with us today as well. If parts of our society are broken, can we fix them ourselves or do we need an outsider to bring a fresh perspective? It's the "maverick vs. insider" debate that rages constantly in politics. Who is best suited to heal what ails us? Regardless of
the answer (if there even is one, single solution to this problem...), one thing the Torah tries to teach us is the importance of understanding the people who need help. The Israelites want to be known, seen, and understood. And they deserve to be. Even today, how can we even begin to try and free someone from proverbial (or actual) slavery, if we don't understand the underlying reasons WHY they are enslaved, or how they got there in the first place? Insight and consideration are absolutely vital. There's no question that our world is filled with problems in need of repair, calling out for Tikkun Olam. But it's important to remember that charging ahead without sensitivity and respect can sometimes harm, rather than heal. The Torah reminds us that freeing those enslaved IS good... but as crucial as that work is, it still requires love, compassion, and appreciation. Hey, nobody said it was easy.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Roger May on Wikimedia Commons
2.CC image courtesy of centpacrr on Wikimedia Commons
3. Sugarcoated CC image from Massimilianogalardi on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Hohum on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 20, 2017

Shemot: The Call of the Erev Rav

With the Book of Genesis behind us, we turn our attention this week to the Book of Exodus, and essentially the first stories of our ancestors as a people, as a nation. This book
is OUR story; it tells all about the Israelite experience in slavery, and how our God swooped in to rescue us from the bad guys, and gave us our Torah, and led us to our Promised Land. Genesis was everyone's story - detailing the creation of the world, the common ancestors of ALL people, and how monotheism was formed - but Exodus belongs entirely to the Jewish people. So how come the book is filled with so many non-Jews???

Right away, in this first Torah portion in Exodus, we learn about the midwives who saved Jewish children from Pharaoh's monstrous plan. In fact, this story shows up already in the very first chapter! Pharaoh
tells these two women, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all male babies born to the Israelite women (v. 16), but they refuse to do so out of fear of God (v. 17). They defiantly, and remarkably, lie to Pharaoh's face (v. 19), and are ultimately rewarded by God (v. 21). But that's not the only example. Pharaoh's own daughter scoops Moses out of the Nile and raises him as her son. After fleeing from Pharaoh, Moses finds shelter with a Midianite priest, Yitro, and soon marries his daughter. If you fast-forward a bit, when the Israelites eventually DO leave Egypt (sorry if I spoiled the surprise ending for you...), we are told that they leave with an "Erev Rav," a "mixed multitude" of other slaves and servants who seized the opportunity when mighty Egypt was vulnerable and snuck out too! For a story that's meant to be all about the Jews, there sure are a lot of non-Jewish players involved...

And that, I suppose, is my whole point. Our story is never just about us. Our successes and failures never occur in a vacuum, with no input from anyone else. The story of the Israelite
Exodus from Egypt serves as a vital reminder of our interdependence with all those who lived - and still live - around us in our community, our country, and indeed our shared world. I am especially aware of this right now. Just this past week, I had the incredible honor of delivering the keynote address at a Martin Luther King Day event at Calvary Baptist Church in Chester. Dr. King himself actually served as an associate pastor at Calvary Baptist in the late 1940s, under the tutelage of the Rev. J. Pius Barbour. It is hard for me to describe to you the feeling of awe, humility, and holiness that I felt standing at the same lectern as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was unbelievable. There is actually an audio recording of the service available online, with some photos (though no video), which you can find here:

The speech I delivered was very similar to one I had given a year earlier at Crozer-Chester Hospital, and which you can read on the blog here. In it, I specifically mentioned this concept of the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude that left Egypt together, and which took responsibility for one another's fate. And several people who attended either last year or this year came up to me afterwards and said they had never heard about the
non-Israelites who also escaped from slavery. Indeed, even in our Jewish community, a lot of people don't know about this, and they also don't spend too much time thinking about the midwives, Pharaoh's daugther, or Yitro; we forget that OUR story is also THEIR story. But we shouldn't forget it, and we can't. Caring about other oppressed minorities, and worrying about the struggle for freedom, equality, acceptance, or citizenship of all people, these ARE Jewish issues! Too often we care only about what happens to other Jews - in the US, or Russia, Ethiopia, Syria, or France - and we demand that others be vigilant about anti-Semitism. But it's a two-way street. Our fates are intertwined, and together we are ALL the Erev Rav. As we continue to read the story of the Exodus, let us remember all of Martin Luther King's incredible teachings, and let us see everyone's struggle as our own struggle. The battle against oppression is NEVER a zero-sum game, where my success is your failure or vice versa. We all have to work together, and we have to fight the Pharaoh's of every generation together as one.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
2.CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image from CCityBlogger's video on YouTube
4. CC image of refugees (in this case, Jewish, but they could be from anywhere, no?) courtesy of German Federal Archives on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 13, 2017

Va-Yechi: Taking Stock... For Better or Worse

It is hard to take stock, and to feel appreciation and gratitude, when we are also angry and frustrated. These emotions are just too far apart, and
they feel too incongruent to be able to hold them up at the same time. But sometimes we have to. Or we have to push ourselves to try. Right now, as we prepare for the Presidential Inauguration, most people in this country are feeling SOMETHING about that process. It is a significant political shift, and whether you have spent eight years feeling frustrated, or are apprehensive about what lies ahead, or something else along that spectrum; it is certainly also a moment to take stock. So how do we make that happen?

Our Torah portion gives us an example of what I'm talking about, but I don't know if it really helps us figure out HOW to do it ourselves. But let's start there and see where we go. This week's parashah concludes the Book of Genesis.
We read about the deaths of Jacob and his son, Joseph, and we shift from the story of one family, to that of an entire nation. As Jacob nears the end of his life, we see a lot of mixed emotions. He has regrets and frustrations, unresolved anger and grievances. He laments having to bury his beloved wife, Rachel, by the side of the road rather than in the family tomb. He rebukes several of his sons for their bad behavior and poor choices. He expresses sadness over the heartbreak and loss he has endured. And yet, he also acknowledges how lucky he is as well. There is a beautiful, though often overlooked, moment in our reading, where Jacob is about to bless his grandsons, Menashe and Ephraim. He kisses each of them, then turns to his son, Joseph, and exclaims: "I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well" (Gen. 48:11). What a gift! What an unbelievable blessing. He thought his favored son was gone forever, and now, not only have the two men been reunited, but Jacob will be able to die knowing Joseph's line is secured. It is an uplifting moment of gratitude and tremendous blessing.

This is hard for us to do. I just want to say that, because inevitably someone will say to me, "You know, you make it sound so easy!" Well, I'm sorry then, because I don't mean to. It IS hard. Can we look back on the past and say "thank you" for good things, successes, breakthroughs, and triumphs... even when we also feel sadness, anger, and
disillusionment? And if we're scared and worried about the future, can we also embrace the potential of it, the new possibilities and ways in which our eyes may be opened? The children of Israel probably had high hopes for their rapidly expanding family, and their new life in Egypt. But surely they were not so naive as to think nothing could POSSIBLY go wrong?? The future is uncertain and precarious. Yet they were optimistic. And, for a time, they were right. Last week, I wrote about blessings inside curses, and vice versa. Today I want us to hold onto the full range of emotions, and be truly thankful, without the need to say "yes, but..." or wanting to qualify or mitigate our feelings.

This weekend is also the time when we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His is a legacy of hope and optimism. Not because he saw the fruits of his labor or lived in a world where he was accepted and
beloved, and certainly not because he was too naive or wide-eyed. None of that was true. And yet, he never lost faith. Hope is a choice. Sure, we should also face the reality of the challenges we face, and be vigilant and outspoken about issues that concern us. But we CAN do all that and STILL be hopeful and grateful, positive and optimistic. Dr. King once said, "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope." This is not a factual description of how things are; it is a choice. Slavery in Egypt happened. Civil Rights happened. And in another week, an Inauguration will happen. Those are facts. But we still get to choose hope, and we get to choose to see the blessings in our lives and name them.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy Prolineserver on Wikimedia Commons
2.CC image of Jacob blessing his grandchildren, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of AEN-commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Thomson200 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 6, 2017

Va-Yigash: A Blessing inside a Curse inside a Blessing

Life certainly is unpredictable. So much of our time is spent trying to create order and structure, get into habits and rhythms, and plodding along in our day-to-day lives. And then, in an instant, things get
upended. Sometimes change is good, sometimes it's bad, but the one thing we can count on is that change WILL happen. We don't get to control it, and we don't get to determine when it happens. We can, however, decide how to respond to it, and how to move forward. And, I might add, we can also choose to reserve judgment as to whether unexpected occurrences are positive or negative. What seems like a blessing may, in fact, be a curse, and a terrible turn of events may ultimately lead to incredible opportunities. So, what the heck am I talking about?

Let me start with the Biblical example. Our parashah opens with Jacob's sons trapped in Egypt, pleading their case before a very hostile Egyptian vizier. One brother is being held hostage, a second is at risk, and the other brothers are beside themselves trying to survive and
escape. Things look bleak. Then, in an instant, the vizier reveals himself to be Joseph, their long-lost brother, and EVERYTHING changes. The whole family moves down to Egypt, food is secured, family members are reunited, and a devastating curse turns into a miraculous blessing. And yet, you and I, the story's readers, also know that around the corner waits another curse; enslavement in Egypt. BUT, one could argue that we wouldn't have become a mighty nation if it weren't for our bondage. Would we have received the Torah, if we hadn't been forced to wander for 40 years in the desert? Another blessing, hidden within a curse.

As you can probably guess - and as most of you surely know from your own lives - this isn't just about the Biblical world. A couple of years ago, I was in a minor car crash. It wasn't terrible, and (thank God) I was fine. But at the time it seemed like a very real curse, a terribly unfortunate event that brought chaos and
trauma. However, a few months later, that seemingly awful crash led to several positive changes in my life that were quite unexpected. Does that mean the car accident was "good"? No. But I did feel blessed to see the opportunities that presented themselves in the midst of a bad situation. This past fall, we had a horrible mold problem develop in our home. My family's life was disrupted, and it seemed like an enormous curse that lasted for months. Yet, on the other end we discovered that we had deepened relationships within the community, were able to make some improvements on our house, felt a renewed sense of gratitude for simple conveniences, and I even got a few good sermon topics out of it for the High Holidays! It was still not a predicament I would have wished upon myself (or anyone else, for that matter), but again, we don't decide WHAT happens in life. We can only choose how to react, and then look for blessings and opportunities hidden under the surface.

When Joseph eventually makes his true identity known to his brothers, he declares to them: "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you."
(Genesis 45:4-5) How long do you think it took Joseph to see God's plan hidden inside his terrible predicament? It probably took a LONG time. If he could do it, so can we. I'm not saying it's easy, but it CAN be done. Life throws us so many curve balls, it can sometimes feel unbearable. But our story does not have to end with the curse. On the very opposite end of the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy, God says: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse." (11:26) Our lives are filled with both the good and the bad. It is unavoidable. The choice to label which thing as "blessing" and which as "curse" is entirely up to us. In this new year, I encourage you to push yourself to pick ONE instance where you see life sending you a curse, and reframe it into a blessing. I think you'll find that it uncovers and changes more than you could have even imagined.

Happy New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy Benzoyl on Wikimedia Commons
2.CC image courtesy of Turelio on 
Wikimedia Commons
3. Picture of our shower stall back in September. Don't ask...

CC image courtesy of Aldine1984 on Wikimedia Commons