Friday, January 12, 2018

Haftarat Va-Eira: How Trust and Betrayal are Related

Betrayal is unfortunately something that we all encounter in life. When an enemy strikes a blow or undermines us, we're ready for it. We don't expect anything different. But a friend, an ally, an advocate; when they betray us, it stings beyond
words. Our Haftarah this week offers an interesting gloss on the Torah portion - a foe turning over into a friend... but then ultimately double-crossing our ancestors. But so what? Why should we care about a prophet, 2,500 years ago, railing against the betrayal of a would-be-ally? Well, for one, history repeats itself, especially when we don't learn from it. Understanding our past helps us be more deliberate, proactive, and vigilant in the present and for the future. And second, when we look closely, the imagery and the emotions are strikingly familiar. We all know betrayal, and we know how much it hurts; seeing ourselves in the stories of our ancestors truly makes the text come alive!

Our Torah portion, Va-Eira, tells of the clash between Pharaoh and Moses, leading up to the Ten Plagues and eventually the Exodus from Egypt. There are "good guys"; God and Moses. And there's a villain; Pharaoh.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Haftarah - written centuries later - knows a world where Egypt is NOT the "bad guy" anymore! In 586 BCE, the small nation of Judah, with its capital, Jerusalem, was desperately trying to hold off the might Babylonian Empire, approaching from the north. They turned to the south-west, to Egypt, in hopes that this other powerful kingdom would defend them against the Babylonians. They might have been our saviors! Imagine how differently we'd have remembered the Exodus story if THAT had happened... But Egypt does nothing to save Judah, and the Babylonians capture Jerusalem, destroy our Temple, and enslave the people. It is in this context that the prophet Ezekiel writes about the untrustworthy Egyptians.

Ezekiel declares: "You [Egypt] were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: When they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter and wound all their shoulders. When they leaned on you, you would break and make their loins unsteady"
(Eze. 29:6-7). Pharaoh violated their trust! Perhaps meant to evoke an earlier betrayal, when the Pharaoh who promoted Joseph in the Book of Genesis welcomed Israel with open arms... and a generation later the Egyptians enslaved Joseph's descendants. At its core - and this is where the message shifts (for me) to present day - the pain of the betrayal is the realization that so many people care only about themselves and their own family members. We thought the Egyptians were sharing their home and their land with us, but they were not. We hoped the same Egyptians, centuries later, would come to the aid of a neighbor threatened by a foreign power, but they ignored our plight. And our hopes and expectations make the treachery all the more painful.

This Shabbat is also Martin Luther King weekend. And amidst all the important messages that Dr. King shared with the world, I think one particularly crucial call that we all need to hear is about our interdependence: "All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The Torah echoes this very same principle over and over again. It is easy to forget (or just ignore) this directive, because we always have our own needs! "Blood is thicker than water," right?? We should care for our own. And yet, the Torah, the prophets, our entire Jewish history, and our modern prophets like Dr. King remind us that this is false. It has always been false, and it will ALWAYS be false. We are actually interdependent, and we MUST care for one another. We must be there to support others in our society and across our planet, and we have to keep trusting that they will do the same. There may always be betrayal in the world, but we need to challenge ourselves to be better. We need to heal rather than injure, and welcome others with open arms. It truly is our garment of destiny.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Arunbc1987 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Balabinrm on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Sanba38~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gorskiya on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 5, 2018

Haftarat Shemot: May the Force (of History) Be With You

Over the years of writing this blog, I've noticed a few different themes emerge. Some are overt and resurface over and over, while others are more subtle, but present nonetheless. One that I enjoy returning to
revolves around "famous" texts from the Bible. That is to say, the texts of our tradition sometimes function like some of the most well-known movie quotes of all time. If you watch a particular movie - or read a certain passage from the Bible - a statement or a verse may pass entirely unnoticed. Yet somehow, somewhere along the way, that line became incredibly famous. How did that happen??? In context, the quote is unassuming and, frankly, unremarkable, but it obviously resonated with SOMEBODY, and today it's become larger than life. I want to share with you one such example from our Haftarah. If I told you to pick a verse from this section of Isaiah's prophecies, this likely would NOT have been the verse you'd chosen. But, now that it's famous, let's try to figure out why.

This week, we have moved into the Second Book of the Torah, Shemot (or Exodus). We begin to learn again about Moses and the enslaved Israelites in Egypt. Our Haftarah, from the Prophet Isaiah, reminds us that for nearly all of Jewish history, the story of the Israelites was about SO much more than just an exciting fairy tale or the
basis for a Passover Seder. For most of our ancestors, reading about the Israelites' liberation from oppression was the foreshadowing of their own liberation. They too were suffering! And they hoped God would also "remember" the story of the Israelites and free them, the readers, from bondage/violence/pogroms/anti-Semitic propaganda, inflicted upon them by (insert enemy empire here). And Isaiah prophesies a future redemption that will mirror Moses' freeing of the Israelite slaves. His visions include images of God wearing a Crown of Beauty and Glory, they recall the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians and hope for more to befall their own enemies, and they conclude with all people standing in awe of the God of Israel and hallowing God's name. And none of those visions were turned into a song.

Instead, a somewhat obscure image was elevated into a popular Jewish tune. Isaiah, 27:13, states: "An on that day, a great ram's horn will sound, and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria, and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt, shall come and worship Adonai on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem."
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, both famous and, sadly, recently more infamous, wrote a melody for part of this verse (bolded above), and today it is a well-known song that you might hear at weddings, at Simchat Torah celebrations, and even at Jewish concerts. You can find one version of it here:
It's a catchy song, upbeat and fun, but why is THIS verse the one being emphasized? Again, like a famous movie quote, it's hard to know for sure. It's not the most impressive verse, or the most poetic, or even the most dramatic. And yet, there IS something compelling about the message.

I especially think this is true if you can see "Assyria" and "Egypt" as metaphors, not intended to be geographic locations. And honestly, for us as Diaspora Jews, even the "holy mountain" and "Jerusalem" are kind of metaphors as well. The point is that
Image result for pacino creative commonswherever we are, however spread out across the globe we Jews may be, we can find one another again. We are bound together across time and space, and God continues to maintain a Divine relationship with us, no matter what. Sometimes we especially feel the absence of God, and we experience emptiness, loneliness, and a total lack of empathy. But all of that is temporary. Whether we're stuck in Assyria, Egypt, or any other emotional place of distance and isolation, there IS a way back to God's favor and God's Holy Mountain. And like a good movie quote, the more you think about that message, the more it starts to resonate with you. You find yourself quoting it to others, even when it seemed so meaningless before. And just when you thought it was out... it pulls you back in! 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image from the movie "Cool Hand Luke" ("What we've got here is failure to communicate...") courtesy of GDuwen on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image from the movie "Wizard of Oz" ("Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...") courtesy of Aylaross on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of "Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi" ("May The Force Be With You") courtesy of Rakruithof on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image from the movie "Godfather, Part III" ("Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!")