Archive for January, 2006

Vaera: Identity and Integrity

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Well, friends, Theo is back with the Red Sox, so I can’t think of a better time to read about signs and wonders! (now, if Theo can put together a team to put a plague on the Yankees, we’re really talkin’ miracles.)

Speaking of signs and wonders, Parshat Vaera begins with God “prepping” Moshe to confront Pharaoh, and ends with the plagues in full force. However, the text has a break in the action, just before the plagues begin, in which we find a family tree for Moshe and Aharon, going all the way back to Levi, the third son of Yaakov.

This genealogy ends with a confirmation of that the Moshe and Aharon who were commissioned by God to free the Israelites are the same Moshe and Aharon who confronted Parsha in Egypt:

“It is the same Aharon and Moshe to whom the Lord said, `Bring forth the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.’ It was they who spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt to free the Israelites from the Egyptians; these are the same Moshe and Aharon. ”
(Shmot/ Exodus 6:26-27)

This genealogical interpolation into the Exodus narrative links the family that came down to Egypt- Yaakov’s sons and their households- with the much larger nation which will
soon leave Egypt. This section of text also puts Moshe, who was raised as an Egyptian prince, firmly into the context of Israelite identity and history- it “proves,”as it were, that he is really an Israelite, and has a right to lead the people.

However, if you’ve been reading these email commentaries for more than a few weeks now, you know that the ancient rabbis look for moral and spiritual meaning in every
sentence of the Torah- this does not cancel out the more direct textual understanding, but adds to it. You also know that any time a word is repeated or used in an unusual way, the rabbis “perk up their ears,” as it were, and investigate what’s going on. In our
passage above, one phrase noticed by Rashi (among others) is the repetition of the phrase “Moshe and Aharon”- if we know it’s the same Moshe and Aharon who were commanded by God, why do we need to know it’s the same guys who confronted Parsha?

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, sees “the same Moshe and Aharon” as a statement about their essential integrity, not their public identity:

“These are the same Moses and Aaron”. . . . They remained in their mission and in their righteousness from beginning to end.

Rashi’s comment takes us from a straightforward family history to an ideal of human self-knowledge and steadfastness in the face of tremendous challenges. After all, Moshe and his brother had been commissioned by God, and were given signs and wonders which
confounded a great empire. It’s entirely possible that lesser people would have become arrogant, or self-important, or lost sight of the ultimate goal, which was not the destruction of Egypt, but the liberation of Israel.

Not every person is called directly by God to confront a tyrant- but each of us has a mission to change the world for the better. Each of us is given a unique responsibility and the task of using our gifts of mind and heart for lifting up the world. Yet it’s not so easy to
remain true to ourselves and our spiritual tasks when the world can push back with all kinds of pressures and distractions.

There is a famous story about Reb Zusya of Hanipol, who said that in Heaven, they wouldn’t ask him about why he wasn’t more like Moshe or Aharon- but why he wasn’t more like Zusya. “These are the same Moshe and Aharon”- they were fully engaged in the
needs of the community, but they retained their essential integrity and sense of a purpose greater than themselves. Nobody is ever going to ask why any of us aren’t more like Moshe- but all of us could stand to ask ourselves how we intend to be fully ourselves and
fully, consistently present in the task of fixing what’s broken, in ourselves and in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, the first link takes you to the text of the parsha and haftarah, and the second leads you to a page where you can find a summary of the parsha and additional commentaries:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/vaera.shtml

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/vaera_index.htm

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Shmot: Responsibility and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

One of the small consolations of a long commute is the chance to listen to audio books that I might not get around to reading; this week, I’ve been listening to The Fifth Discipline, a book about organizational development by the noted theorist Peter Senge. He describes a game in which participants take on the role of retailer, distributor, and manufacturer, and maps out how certain perfectly reasonable decisions will invariably produce bad results for the whole system. More than that, what struck me was his comment that after running this game for more than 20 years with executives and business students, another almost invariable result is that when the system starts breaking down, participants look for somebody to blame- it must have been somebody’s fault, somebody’s incompetence, that led to shortfalls in supply or demand.

The point, of course, is that it’s easier to look for somebody to blame than to examine how our own thinking and behavior may have contributed to the problem in front of us. Nor is this a new phenomenon: at the end of this week’s parsha, after Moshe and Aharon have confronted Pharaoh with the demand that he let the people worship God in the wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload- but the people blame Moshe and Aharon for provoking him rather than admit that no amount of obedience will win the king’s mercy. It’s quite amazing to me that after Pharaoh has been killing their boys for some time now, the people hold Moshe and Aharon responsible for Pharaoh’s contempt, as if things had been just fine till they came along:

“They met Moses and Aaron standing before them when they came out from Pharaoh’s presence. And they said to them, `May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his
servants, to place a sword into their hand[s] to kill us.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 5:20-21

I don’t meant to blame the victim; it’s not an unreasonable decision to obey in the hope that things won’t get worse. My point is that the situation was already bad when Moshe and Aharon started to take risks to make things better- and blaming them for Pharaoh’s oppression shows the desperate need of the people to believe that they has some small measure of control over their circumstances. It’s easier to be angry at the proximate source of disorder than to step back and realize that what needs to change is a whole way of thinking- in this case, what needed to change was the faith of Israelites, or lack thereof.

The signs and wonders that Moshe performed were as much for the Israelites as for Pharaoh- to show them that a new day was dawning, and to strengthen their courage for the upheavals to come. Major changes require patience, vision and courage; these are, in fact, things we do have some small measure of control over. It’s easier to blame another than to look at ourselves; but if we can find the fearlessness to do so, it’s entirely possible that signs, wonders, and miracles await.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

A summary and more commentaries can be found here:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/shmot_index.htm

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Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

Vayigash: Closing the Eyes, Opening the Heart

A joyful January to all!

This week’s Torah portion is Vayigash, which is the story of Yehudah’s
plea to Yosef, followed by Yosef being reunited with his brothers and
father in Egypt. Yaakov, their father, can hardly believe that his
son, missing for so many years, is not only alive, but the Prime
Minister of a world power! He immediately wants to go to see his son,
but before he leaves the Land of Israel for the last time (he won’t
return alive), he has a “vision of the night,” when God appears to him
with words of consolation:

“God called to Yisrael [i.e., Yaakov] in a vision by night: `Yaakov!
Yaakov!’ He answered, `Here.’ And He said, `I am God, the God of your
father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a
great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself
will also bring you back; and Yosef’s hand shall close your eyes.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 46:2-4)

These words recall the famous verses of the 23d Psalm: “Though I walk
through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for
You are with me.” The promise to Yaakov is not that he won’t have to
“go down” into a frightening and new situation, but that God will be
with him when he does. That’s a powerful image for any of us who face
difficult times- we might have to leave the security of a settled
place, but the Holy one travels with us.

OK, so far, so good- but what about the last part of the promise, that
Yosef will “close your eyes?” This is a reference to the practice of
“kavod ha’met,” or honor due to the dead- we close the eyes of the
dead as a sign of respect, as it is considered unbecoming for eyes
which can no longer see to be open as if alive. So not only will God
be with Yaakov in Egypt, but Yosef, the beloved son of the beloved
wife, will also be there, and will care for Yaakov even in death.

The promise to Yaakov that Yosef will close his eyes — that is, care
for him in death- is a promise that he will not be abandoned, neither
in life, nor at its natural conclusion. It’s a promise of
reconciliation with a long-lost son, mourned as dead. (We might note
here that God’s promise restores a more natural order to the universe,
where sons care for their fathers in death, rather than fathers
mourning lost sons.)

Yet as powerful as these images of restoration and reconciliation are,
there is one more aspect to this promise, one that I didn’t fully
understand until I closed my own father’s eyes (factually, not
metaphorically), just about two months ago. Yosef may have been a
beloved son, but he was hardly perfect- his self-regard was a major
factor in tearing the family apart. Yaakov, for his part, was by no
means a perfect father: his favoritism among sons created jealousy and
resentment, which provided the fuel for the fire of his other son’s
anger towards Yosef.

Yet despite Yaakov and Yosef’s imperfections, which led to years of
separation and grief, the relationship could be renewed, even in its
final moments, in an act of hesed. Hesed is usually translated as
“lovingkindness,” but is better understood as “loving generosity and
giving-ness,” if there is such a word. Yosef, despite all the mistakes
he had made, and all the anger and grief and loneliness he had
experienced, could still treat his father with respect and honor at
the last moments of his earthly journey. Yaakov was promised: no
matter what happened in the past, no matter what you did that caused
resentments among your children, at the end, there will be love, there
will be respect, there will be a relationship of grace.

That, to me, is an even more powerful promise than the one God made to
go down to Egypt with Yaakov. That promise is this: our most precious
relationships, no matter how weighted down with the freight of the
past, can still resolve themselves towards hesed, towards generosity
of spirit and true giving. Our imperfections do not create an
immutable destiny- the Divine Promise is that kindness and concern for
another can burst through our inner walls, at any moment, and come to
permeate our lives.

Yosef and Yaakov were driven apart in a paroxysm of violent emotions,
and yet there could be the purest hesed at a poignant moment years
later. How much more true is that for the rest of us, who are
separated from each other only by our memories of past slights and
sharp words, and not by miles of desert and wilderness! The promise is
given: we can find hesed for each other, if we open ourselves to it,
and the greater miracle still is that we don’t even need to suffer the
years apart that our ancestors did- we can move ourselves towards
honoring and love right now, if only we are ready.

RNJL

P.S.: You can find a summary of the parshah here, near the top of the
page:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/vayigash_index.htm

The text of the Torah portion and haftarah can be found here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/vayiggash.shtml

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