Archive for January, 2015

Bo: Remember This, Every Day

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. (Shemot/ Exodus 13:3)

Good morning!

This week the Torah brings the Exodus narrative to a point of high dramatic tension: the death of the firstborn is pronounced, the people are ready to go, and then there are pauses in the in the action for laws related to future remembrance of these events. Among those laws are the practices we associate with Pesach, including the prohibition on leavened bread, as in the verse above; one could reasonably say that Pesach is chiefly about remembering the Exodus story in its details and implications.

On the other hand, yetziat Mitzrayim, the “going out from Egypt,” is not just for one week in the spring. Our friend Rashi, basing himself on an earlier source, makes a nice little wordplay out of the verse above, reading “this day” as literally this day today, thus rendering the meaning of the verse: remember, today, that you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage. Rashi goes on to say that the verse thus teaches that we should remember the Exodus every day.

That, in turn, fits with other verses and sources which also teach that remembering the Exodus is an every-day, not just every-year, spiritual practice. D’varim 16:3 famously says “you will remember the the day you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life,” which became the basis of a discussion in the Mishnah about remembering Egypt even in the days of the Messiah (go here and scroll down to paragraph 5). That paragraph became part of the traditional Passover Haggadah, from which some of you may remember it, and explains the importance of the third section of the Shema, recited daily.

So there are at least two verses which are the source of daily Exodus remembrance,reified in the Shema, obviously a huge part of Jewish practice. Yet we can still ask why, of all the particulars of Jewish history, the Exodus deserves continual remembrance. One traditional answer is that our liberation from slavery is the foundation of the covenant at Sinai: we owe God our loyalty because of what was done for us. Others might say that the Exodus is the ethical basis of Judaism: we should always remember that we were slaves, so that we might have compassion for others, and have faith that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

While in no way discounting those or other answers to the question, I understand the Exodus as personal, not only national or historical. Egypt, in the story, is the land ruled by Pharaoh, who is not just a character but an archetype, a symbol of the human capacity for cruelty, domination, selfishness, greed, and moral blindness.

As I’ve written many times before, Pharaoh and what he represents is not only an external enemy, but part of the human condition, an internal struggle we all face in liberating ourselves from fear, egocentricity, closed hearts and shuttered minds. That we have the potential to leave the “narrow place” of Egypt, to overthrow Pharaoh in all his forms and guises, is the faith without which Judaism makes no sense. We have to remember, today and every day, that Pharaoh doesn’t win in the end- not then and not in the future, not in our hearts and not in the world, if we can muster daily the courage of our ancestors to make the world better for our descendants.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vaera: Rivers of Blood

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera 
 
Pharaoh turned and went into his palace, paying no regard even to this. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 7:23)
 
This week we begin the plagues upon Egypt, along with the famous subtext of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. What caught my eye this week is Pharaoh’s reaction to the first plague, that of turning the river into blood. After the Egyptian magicians did something similar, Pharaoh’s heart was “strengthened” or “hardened” [vayehezak, from the word for strength] and he paid no heed to Moshe and Aaron. Then the Torah adds another detail: the verse above, we see that he turned and went into his palace, and literally “didn’t put this on his heart either,” 
 
“Either?” What else did Pharaoh choose to ignore? Some commentators suggest that gam le’zot [e.g, “this too” or “this as well”] refers to the fact that there are two miracles described in Chapter 7, one of turning the rod into a snake and one of turning the river into blood. So “this too” or “this either” could mean that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against believing in these two miracles; he didn’t take heed to either one. 
 
That’s a very plausible and simple way to read the text, but in the light of recent events, it occurred to me that Pharaoh is choosing not to see two different things when the river is turned to blood. First, according to the simple reading of the text, he is turning away from Moshe’s demonstration of God’s power, and therefore turning away from Moshe’s message of liberation for the Hebrew slaves. Yet in a very real sense, the river was “turned to blood” long before Moshe and Aharon showed up: you may remember that at the very end of Exodus 1, Pharaoh orders all the male Hebrew babies thrown into the river, in order to break, reduce and demoralize the people. 
 
Remembering this, it seems to me that Pharaoh paying no attention to “this either” implies that the plague of turning water to blood has no effect on a man who is already morally cold to the blood he ordered spilled into that same water. To put it another way, there was already a river of blood and the hearts of the rulers were hardly broken, so why should a parlor trick matter? Pharaoh goes home and sets nothing on his heart, because his heart has already learned to ignore the suffering around him. 
 
Lest you think I am describing some uniquely morally deformed monarch, whose example is far removed from the ordinary citizen who may be reading this, let me remind you that at approximately the time that the world’s attention was focused on the horrific attacks on journalists and Jews in Paris, another militant Islamic group, Boko Haram, was murdering hundreds, if not thousands, in Nigeria. The Syrian civil war rages on, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and blood is spilled daily in Iraq, Congo, and Sudan, to name just a few of the ongoing conflicts in the world. There are rivers of blood being spilled, and it’s so easy to go home and set nothing on our hearts, because it’s so far away, and so complicated, and there’s not much we can do anyway. . . . . 
 
All of which might be true, but the day we stop caring is the day Pharaoh wins. 
 
“Let my people go” means envisioning a world without rivers of blood. That world seems far away, but the whole point of Exodus is to remind us that Pharaoh doesn’t get the last word. Freedom and justice and peace are possible, but only if we don’t turn away and go home. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shemot: Total Commitment

Torah Portion: Shemot
 
The Lord said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales! (Shemot/ Exodus 4:6)
 
Greetings from the frosty yet ever beautiful Hudson Valley! 
 
Sorry about not drashing last week but glad to be back. 
 
This week we begin the book of Exodus, which begins with sufferings of the Israelites and continues with the story of Moshe’s birth, adoption into Pharaoh’s household, spiritual awakening and flight to Midian. While caring for his father-in-law’s flocks, Moshe is called by God at the burning bush, but seems skeptical that the Israelites will believe him- not only that he was commissioned by God but also that redemption is at hand. So at the beginning of Chapter 4, God gives Moshe two signs: first, his rod turns into a snake, and second, that his hand is afflicted with tzara’at, the scaly skin blemish much discussed later in the Torah. (There’s one more sign for the Israelites, turning the water of the Nile into blood, but that is promised for later and not demonstrated in this part of the story.) 
 
It’s understandable that Moshe would doubt that the Israelites would believe him when he reports God’s promise at the burning bush, and it’s also fitting within the narrative that the sign to convince them would be the staff turning into a snake and back. Within the theology of the Torah, the symbolism of the staff becoming a snake suggests God’s dominion over nature- especially those aspects of nature associated with Egypt’s gods, as the Torah imagines them- which will be more fully demonstrated in the story of the plagues. So if Moshe wanted to show the Israelites that the God of Avraham was going to redeem them, a miracle like that of the staff would be just the thing. 
 
So why, then, does God enact the second sign on Moshe himself? Surely another miracle involving some aspect of nature would be just as effective in convincing the Israelites without perhaps discouraging or overwhelming Moshe, who seems rather reluctant to take this role even without sudden impurity on his body. 
 
Another sort of miracle might be just as good at convincing the Israelites, but maybe it was Moshe who needed to be shown, not only that the commission was real but that the privilege of leadership would be not leave him unscathed. Later in the Torah, there will be detailed rules for the separation and purification of the metzorah – the one who has an eruption of tzara’at- which perhaps suggests that Moshe is being indirectly told that to  shepherd the people and confront Pharaoh will leave him too feeling separated and alone, afflicted spiritually with the moral burdens of leadership. Maybe the impurity on Moshe’s hand is a symbolic representation of the impossibility of leadership while “keeping your hands clean,” understood as not having to make any difficult compromises or troubling decisions. 
 
We know that Moshe will eventually become repeatedly discouraged with the task of shepherding Israel; even a prophet of his stature must learn that doing the right thing may not always earn one popularity or acclaim. So perhaps at this very first stage of his mission, God seems to be telling Moshe: are you prepared for the sacrifices and struggles of fighting for justice and leading a fractious people? Are you prepared to feel separate and alone when you articulate a vision of a world according to a higher law and deeper hope? Are you prepared to feel outcast, like a metzorah,  when you call out the people’s mistakes and misdeeds? In today’s parlance, are you all in
 
That’s the question: to take on a holy mission is to risk everything comfortable. Are we- you and me- all in
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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