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What does it mean to be a stranger? Is it someone who does not belong? Or is it someone who is not familiar? Is it someone who believes differently? Who looks differently? Someone outside your family or circle of friends?

In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, twice we are admonished on how a stranger should be treated:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20).”

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9).”

The rabbis are fascinated by the repetition of what seems like the exact same commandment. There is a dictum in rabbinic exegesis that there are no superfluous words in the Torah, therefore, any words or phrases that are repeated must have a meaning aside from simply a repetition of an idea.

Some agree that the repetition of the phrase is referring to two different kinds of strangers, a physical stranger and a spiritual stranger.

There is another thread that some follow which states that the repetition is referring to different behaviours that we should refrain from, specifically taunting with words and with actions.

What both these verses have in common however, is the reason for the commandment. At that time, we knew what it was to be strangers and for the first time, we were moving to a position of being in the majority. Yet we were commanded not to simply accept the morals of the time, but to strive to be better, to learn from our experiences so that no one else would be subjected to what we had gone through. We were not to model ourselves on the societies that existed, but to create a new moral compact with a higher standard.

Today, as we have existed for most of the past two thousand years, we are in the minority and we have a collective memory of how we have been treated as a minority. We know how those just like us in the greater society should be treated, whether they are immigrants, refugees, or even converts into our own community. We are charged not only to welcome them, but to fight for them, in whatever way they might be oppressed, verbal, physical, or otherwise.

From our experience comes a wisdom that we hope to not only impart, but make a part of the collective consciousness of all the world.

The Haftarah that we read this Shabbat is from Isaiah, predominantly from chapter 6, with a few other verses from chapters 7 and 9. Isaiah goes through a mystical experience, contemplating God, and he hears the angels accompanying God calling to one another; “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tzeva’ot M’lo Chol Ha’aretz K’vado” (Holy, holy, holy is the God of heaven’s hosts, whose Presence fills all the earth) [Isaiah 6:3].

It’s a verse we are all familiar with, as it appears in the Kedushah section (the 3rd blessing), every time we recite the Amidah aloud. Not only are we standing during this part of the service, but we also rise on our toes each time we say the word ”Kadosh” (holy), symbolically lifting our praise in saying Kadosh, towards heaven. This action increases our intention of proclaiming our acknowledgement of God’s holiness.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer explains that the Kedushah is considered to have been influenced by prayers that originated in ancient mystic circles, and originally the recitation of the Kedushah took place only on Shabbat and Festivals. Later, during the time our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, the Kedushah became part of the daily ritual, and that’s our practice today. The terms Kedusha (3rd blessing of the Amidah), Kadosh (holy), Kodesh (holiness), Kaddish (memorial prayer), and Kiddushin (the wedding ceremony), and Kiddush (Shabbat blessing) are all derived from the same three Hebrew letters (Kuf, Daled, Shin), which can be pronounced different ways, depending where you place the vowels.

The basic meaning of that word is “to set aside” or “to be apart”. Over time, we have come to accept the generic terms of “holiness” or “sanctified” as the most apt translation. It seems fitting then that we apply the same sense of holiness and sanctity to this section of prayer, where we proclaim God’s Sovereignty, as well as the sacred and impressive attributes of the Seraphim (the fiery angels that accompany God) as they focus on worshipping God and singing God’s praises.

Moreover, the Kedushah is only recited when we have a minyan present, when the full sense of Jewish community is expressed. There are a number of reasons given as to why we only recite the Kedushah when we have a minyan. Some say it is because the Kedushah is an act of sanctifying God’s name, which can only be done when others are present, as it causes all of us to recognise God’s greatness and sanctity. There are others that relate the Kedushah to mystic practices, saying that Judaism frowns upon the private practice of mystical exercises as they can lead to dangerous outcomes.

Perhaps the explanation that would best resonate with us, is that Kedushah (in this case, holiness) is not attainable in isolation. It is only when we consider ourselves to be part of a community, part of something greater, that we are able to aspire to be holy. Just as the angels proclaimed to each other; “Holy, holy, holy”, acknowledging that their declaration was not in isolation, so too should our proclamations of Kedusha inspire our sense of community and holiness.

This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Shira,” the Shabbat of song because during our services we read three songs and poems to God. The first two come after the Israelites have crossed the parted waters of the sea, escaping Egyptian slavery. After years of oppression and fear they are finally free and they sing to God, first Moses and then Miriam leading the community in song and dance. The third song is in our Haftarah reading from Deborah, following a military triumph. In each of these cases, a miraculous deliverance has taken place and the people respond with song.

Music is incredibly powerful, it can evoke strong emotions but can also be an expression of our deepest fears, hopes, dreams, yearnings, joy and sorrow, in a way which words cannot convey. Music touches the innermost recesses of our souls; it can express what words sometimes cannot contain. At the shores of the sea, Moses did not gather the people and give a speech, instead he sang words of poetry. And Miriam, encouraged everyone to join together in song and dance, so that all could express their joy, relief, excitement in that moment and for what the future would hold. And that moment was made all the more powerful because the community joined their voices together, they played their instruments, they reached into themselves and allowed the song to ring out.

We too can feel that connection through music and the link with community. Rabbi Pinchus of Koretz said: “alone I cannot lift my voice in song. Then you come near and sing with me. Our prayers fuse and a new voice soars. Our bond is beyond voice and voice. Our bond is one, spirit and Spirit.” When we join together in song we meet in a place which is beyond words, we connect through music to the joy and beauty of our tradition and the power of community. And when we listen to each others’ voice, we are heard in a profound way.

This week we also commemorate Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, the time when we acknowledge and celebrate the natural world. A story is told of Rabbi Avraham Kook, the chief rabbi of Israel. He was walking in the fields deep in thought when the young student accompanying him plucked a leaf off a branch. Shaken by this act, Rav Kook turned to the student and said to him “believe me when I tell you that I never pluck a leaf or a blade of grass unless I must. Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song, breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of creation.” And from that moment the student learned to show compassion to all creatures. It is not only we who sing a song, the whole of creation sings its own song into the world and it is for us to pause, listen and hear the music and join in with our own song to create a beautiful harmony.

I pray that this Shabbat of song, we can all create beautiful music together, join our voices with all of creation and sing from the depths of our souls.

I will betroth you to me forever” are the beginning words, taken from the prophecy of Hosea nearly 2,800 years ago, one says upon wrapping the tefillin around one’s hand. The quotation from Hosea continues with the notion of being betrothed to God, the source of existence, with the core principles of how one should act as a Jew: “with righteousness and justice, with love and compassion”. This recitation indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”; we wrap ourselves with words of Torah, reminded of our core purpose in life, to serve with justice and compassion.

The tefillin embody the covenant, the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; the tefillin stand with Shabbat and circumcision as the signs of the covenant. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm each morning service (other than Shabbat and festivals) is a mitzvah that has waned and now waxes again. Perhaps the study about tefillin will lead to the mitzvah of tefillin.

Tefillin, two leather boxes with leather straps, are worn on the hand (arm) and head. Inside the leather boxes are found the four passages from the Torah that mention the tefillin, two from the end of this parasha Bo and two from the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah, are placed within it, and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah. Scholar Stephen Bailey notes that all four passages of Torah that mention tefillin have a common conceptual thread, teaching about redemption and service.

The passages from Bo state “this observance will be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead – in order that the teaching of God is to be on your lips – for God brought you out of Egypt with a show of strength” and “it will be a sign on your hand a symbol on your forehead that God brought us out of Egypt by force.” As such, the tefillin serve as daily, physical reminders of our delivery from slavery by “God’s might”. The concept of redemption in Judaism requires us to recognize that our freedom is dependent upon our connection with the life force and that in return we must serve life and humanity.

The wearing of tefillin demonstrates how to serve, highlighted by the sentence in the first paragraph of the Shema to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The hand tefillin is placed on the bicep of our weaker arm, the symbol of our strength and our ability to act with righteousness and justice in this world, with the recognition (by placing it on our weaker arm) that our strength and autonomy have limitations. It rests near our heart, symbolic of the seat of our love and compassion. The head tefillin is placed with the box at the hairline between the eyes, near the “third eye” with the knot at the base of the skull. This placement emphasizes the nature of soul and intellect in our service. Heart, soul and body stand in service to God, the Life Force.

The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. Alas, our world slips further in enslavement to greed, consumption, and entitlement. We need daily reminders it is time to give more than we consume, which we as Jews understand is gauged by how we serve humanity and the planet that sustains life on it.

We enter the Hebrew month of Shvat and consider how every new month, is potentially a new beginning. Shvat has the special focus of tree and environmental awareness, with Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, being on the 14th of the month, at the time of the full moon.

The Sages teach that at the start of every month we should consider the festival that falls during that month. Even if the festival is just a one day event, it actually gives a flavour to the whole month and it’s up to us to be aware of it. This is the month of trees!

The month of Shvat is a time to rethink our connection with nature and our commitment to help decrease pollution, each of us in our own way, whether it be educating ourselves and others about the environment, improving our methods of recycling, using renewable energy sources or simply teaching our children to love playing in parks.

Talmud teaches that a famous wise man, Honi Ha’maagel, saw an elderly person planting a sapling. He asked the person why he was planting the tree considering it would only bear fruit after he would certainly have passed away. The old man said, “I’m doing it for generations to come.” And so, our tradition teaches that part of our caring for this planet is not for ourselves but for future generations.

Consider the breath. Trees give out oxygen and we breathe it in. We exhale carbon dioxide and trees take it in. In a way, it can be said that we humans and trees have complimentary breaths. This is a perfect month to start or restart your commitment to meditating on the breath. Just 5 minutes a day. Pick your favourite relaxing music, get comfortable and let your awareness rest on your breath. As you do so, you might visualize trees breathing in your outbreath; and as you inhale, you breathe in what the trees are exhaling. A cycle of harmony in nature!

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn about Moses relaying the word of God to the Children of Israel at the time when they are slaves in Egypt. God asks Moses to give the people hope, sending them the message that they will be freed from slavery and will be able to return to the Land of Israel. It is said that the people did not listen to Moses because of the “hard labour of slavery” and because they were “short of breath” kotser ruach (Exodus 6:9). They were in so much emotional and physical pain that they were not able to listen to the divine message, they were “short of breath”. Rashi, the Tenth Century French commentator, states that the people were not able to take deep breaths.

How can we relate to this today? Living in this lucky country, we are not slaves, yet how many of us are able to have time to metaphorically breathe deeply and listen to the “still small voice” from within the depths of our souls? How often do we feel we are in tune with ourselves, with nature and “breathing easy”?

This week’s Torah reading and new moon invites us to notice when we are “short of breath” and to make time to listen to the divine voice of our Inner Self. We might do this by connecting with nature, by meditating on the breath, by being aware of times when we are ‘enslaved’ by things that do not serve us well and by listening to each other and perceiving the holiness in each person.

During this month of Shvat, may we be grateful for the trees around us and may we take note of those times when we are short of breath.

After much dithering, Moses, accompanied by Aaron, went to Pharaoh to ask him, “Let my people go that they may celebrate a festival [for the Eternal] in the desert” (Exodus 5:1). As a result, Pharaoh increased their workload, causing more hardship and more complaint from the Hebrews. It is the first step of a growing crisis between the Hebrews and the Pharaonic state that will reach its climax at the end of chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus, when the Children of Israel cross the Sea of Reeds.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we read that a new king ruled over Egypt that did not know Joseph (Ex. 1:8). He grew frightened by the people living within the borders of Egypt, and he questioned its loyalty. As a result, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. It was not uncommon in Antiquity to see a people subjugating another weaker one. However, this decision created an imbalance of power that paved the way for the upcoming crisis. According to Exodus 12:41, the Hebrews spent 430 years in Egypt (although some medieval commentators, such as Rashi and Maimonides suggest their stay was much shorter, somewhere between 190 and 210 years). The Torah tells us that they became the working force of Egypt, building its cities and its temples, and they lived in gruesome conditions.

It is a story of political tension, of a power game, where all the parties try to get the best outcome possible. Pharaoh wants cheap labor and an outlet for his fear of the stranger. The Hebrews want freedom, and Moses tries to obey a voice he never heard before, a compelling voice, a voice he once resisted with all his will.

On a higher plan, it is a story of redemption acquired through struggle and crisis. As Midrash Shemot Rabbah points out:

      “since God sent [the possibility for repentance] five times to him [Pharaoh] and he sent no        notice, God then said, ‘you have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your            own’ […] so it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God” (9:12).

In other words, since Pharaoh hardened his heart five times before God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart, Pharaoh sealed his fate and his people’s by refusing to reach a mutual agreement. Egypt suffered the consequences of his stubbornness. We are ultimately responsible for our own acts; no one else is to be blamed.

Years from now, historians will look back on our times and will decide if we have indeed come through a major civilization crisis. The least we can say is that we are experiencing a shift. Events came to a head in the last couple of years. Our values seem to be more under threat than ever. Recent major decisions made by democratic peoples reveal a diffuse and growing sense of inward-looking attitudes, hatred and intolerance towards the other, the different.

And yet, in the midst of this crisis, the Eternal reveals as Y-H-W-H, which is, according to the Jewish tradition, the God of Mercy (Exod. R. 6:1): “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddaï, but I did not make myself known to them by my name YHWH” (Exod. 6:3). A crisis can be a formidable occasion for improvement. After it has reached its climax, a crisis gives birth to another paradigm, a chance to better the self, or the society, provided that mercy and compassion guide humans’ heart and leave way for hope and renewal. The struggle is real, and it may result in serious wounds. But it is up to us to seize the opportunity and to regain control in order to create a society that excels in freedom and compassion. Our ancestors gained their freedom, and this fight is ever to be continued.

Last friday we hold an interfaith MLK service. This past Monday the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been commemorated. He is remembered for his heroic stand against injustice and demand for civil rights for all. His courage to take on the establishment and change it irrevocably altered the fabric of not just the United States, but perhaps the world. While the States still
reverberates with the echoes of his powerful and eloquent words, there
remains much work still to be done. He was driven by a need to correct wrongs he perceived in the world around him, to challenge things that were accepted and force people to take a long hard look at the order of things.
This week, we begin the book of Exodus, Shemot. It is a powerful soaring story about redemption and freedom. It is easy to focus on the perspective of the Israelites and forget about the cost to the Egyptians.
One could ask, What is the purpose of the plagues? With all of God’s power, could not God have simply taken theIsraelites out of Egypt without all the suffering and destruction of the ten plagues?
If they are simply seen as a punishment, why ten times? If the purpose of punishment is to point out and correct bad behaviour (such as punishing a student for not doing their work or misbehaving in class) why does the text point out that God’s purpose was more than simply correcting Pharaoh’s bad behaviour? Several times, in fact, God says something to the effect of, I am doing what I’m doing “in order that you
should know that there is none like the Lord, our God” (Exodus 8:6).
Perhaps this could help shed light on why all of Egypt is made to suffer through the plagues and not just Pharaoh. The objective was not simply
to punish, or simply to have God’s name made known, but both. They are not mutually exclusive. There are certain standards of behaviour that we as a society demand. There could not be a functioning community if we did not all adhere to those norms. Yet simply adhering to those standards is not enough. From time to time, it is incumbent on us to point out people or events that do not live up to those norms. The people of Egypt did not stand up and demand better treatment of the Israelites and thus, to a level, they are just as culpable as Pharaoh. Our standards and humanity dictate that we must not rejoice in their suffering, but we must also understand why they are being punished.

These plagues then serve as a reminder that when we observe immoral behaviour, it is our duty as Jews and more importantly people in a society to speak out. The plagues are a warning of what might happen if we lose our moral compass. Everybody, from the leaders down to the lowest member of our society, has an obligation to stand up for what is right and just. Failure to do so will lead to the downfall of our society.

Martin Luther King, Jr, saw this and could not simply stand by and do nothing. He stood up, lent his voice and openly and willingly paid the price, including prison and ultimately his life. He inspired and continues to
inspire many through his example.
I pray that this week we find the courage to stand up when we see injustice, for all of us to lend our voice and to constantly maintain our vigilance in order that we may continue to improve our society and never become complacent in our pursuit of justice.