Friday, January 26, 2018

Haftarat B'Shallach: I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore...

I wasn't going to write about it this week. I was going to start a series of blog posts/Divrei Torah NEXT week, when we entered February. But I had no choice.
The signs were everywhere, and I simply couldn't ignore them. Of course, there are non-believers out there. My colleague and friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, poo-pooed me and said, "When you're wearing green-colored glasses, anything will jump out at you!" Well, maybe she's right. When I opened up the Chumash to write about this week's Haftarah, I had a totally different idea in mind. But the commentary on the Song of Deborah caught me totally by surprise. And then one after the other, I saw clues and hints that were unmistakable. So here we go, folks: We're off to see the Wizard!

As you may (or may not) know, Ohev Shalom is putting on a production of the "Wizard of Oz" in a few weeks (2/17, 18, 24, and 25), and both my daughter and I are performing in it. Four years ago, when we put on "Fiddler on the Roof," I wrote a series of blog posts that explored several concepts underlying that story. And now, once again, I plan to do the same. So far, the topics I intend to explore include:

- Where do you go for Courage, a Brain, and a Heart?
- Pay no attention to that God behind the curtain!
- How to tell a Good Witch from a Bad Witch
- What Dorothy learned in the end... and why it's all wrong

If anyone would like to discuss other related topics, please let me know. Perhaps we can keep this yellow brick road going just a little bit longer... But for now, let's talk about how a 3,200-year old Biblical text was clearly telling me I HAD TO talk about the Wizard of Oz!

Some brief background: Our Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea, which Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sang to celebrate their freedom from the
Egyptians on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. To parallel this "song," the Haftarah presents a laudatory poem, attributed to an ancient judge, named Deborah, after a great military victory. I was all set to write about one idea, when a rabbinic commentary on the Song of Deborah stopped me in my tracks. One repetitive motif in the song, is the constant use of a Hebrew word, "Az," meaning "then." But the commentary points out that the word evokes a military term, namely "Oz." Uh, what? And by the way, the word "Oz" happens to mean "courage," which is pretty Wizard-relevant too, isn't it?

Sure enough, as I continued reading the Haftarah with my new "green-colored
glasses," I noticed a king named "Jabin," from the Hebrew word "Yaveen," meaning "to understand"; which, of course, is what the Scarecrow seeks! In Judges 5:16, Deborah proclaims that the Tribe of Reuben were "great searchers of the heart," or perhaps a Tinman might read it as "searching FOR a heart"! And then, wouldn't you know it, verse 21 declares: "March on, my soul, with courage!" I couldn't find any references to wizards or witches, but I hope you'll agree that the parallels are there nonetheless.

If nothing else, I think this is a good reminder that EVERYTHING can be found in
the texts of our tradition. It - the text - doesn't change, but we do. Every year, we are different, and our Scriptures are always ready to meet us where we are, and connect to what's going on in our lives. You've just got to open your eyes, click your heels together, and what may have seemed black-and-white before may all of a sudden be BURSTING with color!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Nabokov on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image of a Munchkin, waiting to make her theatrical debut! :-)
3. Image of a Wizard costume, slowly but surely coming together...
5. Image of the Tinman's Heart, from the movie, "The Wizard of Oz
6. CC image courtesy of dbking on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 19, 2018

Haftarat Bo: We've Been on This Ride Before!

This week has truly been a roller-coaster. In politics, deals on funding and immigration were made, broken, repaired, and then broken again. In foreign
relations, we saw a reconciliation on the Korean peninsula after months of fearing that nuclear war was imminent. But our fears and concerns have not been fully assuaged either. It's hard to keep up! We get excited... we feel dejected. We are furious! And then celebratory again. A roller-coaster of emotions indeed. And in this, my 435th blog post, you surely know what I'm going to say next: How fascinating it is, then, to see a back-and-forth of emotions reflected BOTH in our Torah portion AND in this week's Haftarah. In fact, it is "almost" a literal push-and-pull. (And I loathe using "literal" to mean "not literal"...) So let's buy a ticket and hop on board!

Even the very name of our parashah reflects this tension. The reading is called "Bo," which most translations render as "Go." The directive is issued by God to Moses and Aaron, instructing them to return once more to Pharaoh to announce
the eighth plague, locusts. The problem is, the word "Bo" doesn't mean "go"! I could only find one translation, the Everett Fox Bible, that agreed with me, but I nevertheless feel confident with this reading. Exodus 10:1 SHOULD state "Come to Pharaoh..." The Hebrew word means "to arrive," with the thrust of "come here to me." But the rest of God's sentence tells us that Moses and Aaron are then going to be thrown out by Pharaoh for pronouncing yet another plague. Right away, we see the push-and-pull; come forward to Pharaoh, and then he'll throw you out. After the plague, he'll bring you back in, only to eject you once again!! And this "whiplash" continues in our Haftarah as well.

The parallel text that accompanies Bo comes from the Prophet Jeremiah; specifically his prophecies against Egypt. Jeremiah explicitly mentions locusts, in 46:23, so there's a pretty clear linguistic connection between the two texts. But then we have our give-and-take repeated as well:
In verse 25, God promises to punish Egypt for betraying Israel... only to forgive the Egyptians (?!) in verse 26, and pledge to return them to their land. The part that REALLY caught my eye, however - that flips side-to-side like a pendulum - is the very end of our Haftarah. God first vows to defeat our enemies. But then reminds Israel that we have been banished from our own land. Then returns to assure the people that we will not remain dispersed forever, and concludes with the most push-and-pull line of them all: "I will not leave you unpunished, but I will chastise you in measure" (46:28). I believe God is saying, "You've been bad and you DO need to suffer some of the consequences of your actions... but I will go easy on you." Is anyone else as exhausted as I am? Can we get off the roller-coaster yet???

Again, I find it interesting that this all reflects how many of us feel in light of reading the morning newspaper, or listening to a daily podcast. Of course, the text hasn't changed in millenia, but different things jump out at us, based on what's going on in
our lives. And right now, I find it helpful to know that life OFTEN consists of pushing-and-pulling. It always has, throughout our history, and it continues to this day. It is ok to feel mentally fatigued; this is tough! But there is no option to give up, or to just check out. Our ancestors went through generation after generation of experiencing God's favor tangibly and miraculously saving them from harm... alternating with feeling utterly rejected and pummeled into the ground by one enemy or another. Nevertheless, we keep going. We get back up, we try to glean meaning and purpose in all the good AND the bad that occurs,  we dust ourselves off, and we keep fighting for a better tomorrow. And yes, even when we're dizzy and a little nauseous, we buy yet another ticket to get back on that roller-coaster...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Sam-Pig on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ryan Child on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Fizped on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Corey Coyle on Wikimedia Commons

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!")