Between the split sea and the fiery mountain, Israel is a wounded, frightened people. True, they have been emancipated from four centuries of enslavement, but they are not entirely free. Like many who have endured trauma, they are prone to extreme reactions, rejoicing with song at the sea, but exploding with bitter complaints and accusations just three verses later when they find brackish water. The crisis passes when God teaches Moses how to sweeten the waters with a stick, but again in chapter 17, the ever-thirsty people will complain, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?!” These places are known as “Mara” (bitterness), “Massa” (testing), and “Meribah” (controversy), and they reveal the fragile inner state of Israel. This desert generation will never escape from its experience of enslavement. As we sing each Friday night in Psalm 95 (8-11), “Do not be stubborn as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah, in the wilderness, when your fathers put Me to the test, tried Me, though they had seen My deeds. Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, they are a senseless people; they would not know my ways! Concerning them I swore in anger, ‘They shall never come to My resting place!” Continue reading
It is no coincidence that the first mitzvot addressed to Israel come in Shmot, Chapter 12, the same chapter in which the exodus officially begins. Verse 28 says that Israel, “walked and performed as the Lord had commanded to Moses and Aaron; so they did.” Early Midrashim note the doubling of verbs and say that the Israelites accepted God’s commands both in principle and in practice, and thus the Exodus journey became not just a mass emigration, but a spiritual migration, with each footstep taking them closer to God. The chapter ends by repeating the expression that Israel did all that God had commanded to Moses and Aaron, and then states that “on this very day” the Lord took Israel out, in all its hosts, from the land of Egypt. Chapter 12 is full of mitzvot, from the consecration of the first month to the many mitzvot around Passover, to the redemption of first born and even the first sources of tefillin. The physical journey of leaving Egypt is accompanied by symbolic ritual gestures—mitzvot—which give meaning to the experience and ensure that it is preserved in memory. Continue reading
Early in the outstanding new film Selma, there is a tense meeting set in January 1965 between pastors of the Southern Christian Leadership Council and young organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The students, who have already been organizing locally since 1963, resent the intrusion of national leaders who come to lead protests and marches and then leave town, but the pastors feel that the students are not making headway, and need more national support. Finally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, representing the SCLC and SNCC respectively, work out an agreement, and the two groups join together for the marches.
In the film, Dr. King (played brilliantly by David Oyelowo) asks the local organizers what kind of man local sheriff Jim Clark is. Recalling a prior experience in Albany when the sheriff avoided confrontation and the protests were ineffective, Dr. King asks whether Jim Clark will make the mistake of reacting violently to peaceful protest. John Lewis assures King that yes, Sheriff Clark is likely to respond with violence, and this convinces King that Selma is the right place to advance the cause of voter registration for African Americans. The events of “bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when police and local bigots savagely beat John Lewis, march organizer Amelia Boynton and others, capture the attention of the nation and the world, leading to successively larger protests and then to President Johnson’s sponsorship of the Voting Rights Act one week later. (For an overview, see the Wikipedia article on the Selma to Montgomery marches.)
The question I wish to pose here is whether all of this violence and suffering was really necessary? What if Sheriff Jim Clark had not “made a mistake” and had instead left the protestors alone? How many of them would really have made the march 54 miles to Montgomery? If no one had been beaten, would the world have paid attention? In other words, would it have been possible to eliminate the racist barriers to voter registration without exposing the violent injustice that supported them? Were the injuries and even the deaths of these brave protestors necessary to shock the world, to soften the heart of a nation, and to correct an injustice?
The same questions may be posed in our Torah portion—was the suffering of Israel, including brutal and lethal abuse at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters, a necessary stage for the redemption? How about the suffering of the Egyptians through plague after terrible plague? The way the story is told it seems that, unfortunately, suffering was indeed instrumental. Israelites needed to suffer before becoming convinced that the affliction of slavery was intolerable, and that the risks of escape were worth bearing. Egyptians suffering lead to the realization that the enslavement of Israel was destroying their country. And perhaps even God had to witness Israel’s suffering, and even to experience their suffering, before the scales of justice and mercy would shift, allowing for a historic change, and redemption to follow. Continue reading
[Delivered at Minyan Maat, January 10, 2015
This is a difficult Shabbat. In addition to the painful individual losses in our community, we are in shock and mourning over the dreadful attacks in Paris this week, first at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and then at the Hyper Casher supermarket. There is a sense of the unraveling of civil society around the world, and a need to reassert the values of freedom and respect for differences in open democratic countries. I want to give this community some time to discuss these painful and confusing times, but first, would like to frame the conversation through words of Torah.
Last year I spoke here on Shabbat VaYishlah about sibling rivalries which, beginning with the evil crime of Cain in murdering his brother Abel, set the tone and perhaps the task of the Torah.
בראשית פרק ד, ט
(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל־קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי:
This evil question is not Cain’s alone. Throughout Bereshit sibling relationships drive the narrative—brothers hate brothers, sisters rival one another, brothers such as Laben toward Rebecca, and then Shimon and Levi with Dina treat their sisters as chattel. Neither are sisters always protective of their siblings, as Amy Kalmanofsky shows in her book, Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible. They may begin as ideal sisters, but can quickly turn dangerous, undermining the patriarchy of their fathers and brothers.
So, the book of beginnings opens with an evil act and an open question—Am I my brother’s keeper? For most of the book we’d have to say that the answer is no. No sibling is an effective guardian of his brothers and sisters. Then, in Judah’s beautiful speech in Vayyigash, the spell is broken. Finally we have a brother willing to sacrifice for his siblings. Take me as your slave, he tells Joseph, and let the boy go home to his father. At this moment, Cain’s still open question is answered—Judah says yes, I am my brother’s keeper. And at this moment, Joseph can finally reveal himself to them, אני יוסף אחיכם, I am your brother Joseph. He becomes a guardian of his siblings and their families, and he will also entrust them as his shomrim—the guardians of his own bones.
For all of the importance of the parent-child relationship in the Torah, sibling relations give these narratives even greater energy, both positive and negative. Perhaps this reflects the lived experiences of farming families, where there will always be competition between siblings over inheritance of the land. Or perhaps these stories mirror—consciously or not—the national narrative of Israel, with the tribes in contention for politicial, spiritual and financial dominance. Maybe these stories are just about ordinary struggles for the affection and support of a parent. Whatever the original purpose of these tales, we may discern the Torah’s meta-message: Though the default posture of siblings is to be in rivalry, self-restraint is essential so that families, communities and nations can flourish. And it is between siblings that the earliest work of overcoming jealousy and becoming guardians for one another is accomplished. When siblings are in harmony, the divine presence is welcomed, and great blessings can be realized. Continue reading