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Archive for gener de 2015

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.

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I will betroth you to me forever” are the beginning words one says upon wrapping the tefillin around the fingers, and this quotation from the prophet Hosea indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”. The tefillin embody the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; according to the received tradition, the tefillin, Shabbat and circumcision are known as “the signs of the covenant”. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm every morning service (other than Shabbat, festivals and Tisha B’Av) 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 of them come from the end of this parasha Bo. The other two mentions of tefillin are in the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah. Jewish educator Stephen Bailey notes that all four passages have a common conceptual thread, teaching about redemption and service.

The passages from Bo mention “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 and 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 bicep symbolizes our strength and our ability to do. The weaker arm reminds us 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 the life force, known as God, with the values stated in Hosea recited as we wrap the tefillin around our finger in a sign of commitment to the covenant: “And I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice and with love and compassion and you shall know God.”

The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. After decades of enslavement to greed and consumption, to selfishness and apathy, it is time again to serve life, as manifested in our relationships, community and environment.

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This week we read from Parashat Va’era, the second portion of the Sefer Shemot — the Book of Exodus. As commanded by God, Moses makes his first approach to Pharaoh, to demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Despite the first seven of the ten plagues that are to afflict the people of Egypt, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. As the text tells us, “Pharaoh is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go” (Exodus 7:14).

In the Broadway musical “Wicked”, Glinda the Good Witch asks the question: “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” (1st act) This question is terribly relevant both to our parashah this week and to the world in which we live today. This week, as we mourn the tragic and senseless terrorist murders in Paris, as well as the mass killings in Nigeria, we read about Moses’ confrontation with the man who exemplifies evil in our tradition, Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. Again and again Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, no matter how many plagues strike Egypt. Contrasted to the humility that characterizes Moses, extreme stubbornness and pride prevent Pharaoh from letting the Israelite slaves go free.

We Jews are way too familiar with the experience of confronting evil. It began with Pharaoh and continues in the Bible with Amalek, Korach, Bilaam and Haman. In history we have survived crusades, inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts. At our Passover Seder, when we celebrate God taking us out of slavery in Egypt, we proclaim, “In every generation they rise up to try to destroy us.” In our own generation, with the murderous assaults on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market and café sieges in Sydney, we again see the face of evil. Today that face is extremism, those who hearts are so hardened that they would rather violently kill than tolerate any sort of offense to their way of life.

As Glinda asks, how does one become this way? Was Pharaoh born evil? Was Hitler born evil? Were the jihadists born evil? If not, how did they become this way? As human beings we are not guided entirely by biological determination. From one’s culture and community we grow up learning essential values and ways of seeing the world. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that there are many paths to the same God. We are instructed to “love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that human beings possess both an inclination toward good and an inclination toward evil. Both exist as pure potential in each of us. One inclination can never fully defeat the other, but the eternal challenge is to maintain a balance between the two, a balance somewhere between the extremes of Moses and Pharaoh. No child is born evil. But the teachings of family and community, of culture and religion, can push one from one inclination to the other. That is how hearts are hardened. If children are taught to hate, they will grown up hating; if one is taught that it pleases God to murder those who are different, then they will murder.

Pharaoh serves as a negative example. Our tradition commands us to “teach it to your children” — to soften the heart, to develop compassion and loving-kindness and to cultivate the good inclination. These are the fundamentals of Jewish tradition. And it is in the spirit of these same teachings that we can join together with the soft-hearted peoples of all faiths and traditions to work together to bring a just peace to this world in which we all live.

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As we open the book of Exodus, or Shemot, the second book of the Torah, we almost feel as if we have entered into a new story entirely. Until this point, there has been a slow development of relationship between God and the patriarchs and matriarchs: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Ya’akov and Leah and Rachel. Nearly an entire book has focused on three generations; within a few verses of this book we span hundreds of years, many generations and an entirely different dynamic for our ancestors. Having settled with plenty and protection in Goshen, an area of Egypt, they have now become a nation of hundreds of thousands, enslaved by a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” God seems distanced from the condition of our slavery and suffering. How God allows such suffering remains a vexing question; what God demands in the face of that suffering is dramatically clear in the way the major characters of this week’s parasha act.

Out of the voiceless masses we first engage women who will be heroes: Shifra and Puah, midwives willing to risk their lives when they refuse to follow Pharaoh’s genocidal orders to destroy the male babies of the Hebrews; Pharaoh’s daughter who takes in and saves a young baby boy whose life has been preserved; that boy’s mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, who further take action to nurture that baby through his infancy. All these women share two important qualities: empathic awareness of the suffering of another and the justice-motivated drive to do something to alleviate that suffering.

That young baby boy, Moses, whose life has been preserved, protected and nurtured by those women learns his lesson well from them. He is destined to become the leader of the nation of Israel that is born out of that slavery and suffering. When we first encounter him in action as a young man he is motivated by those same two principles: empathy and a commitment to justice. Moses’ first action is to intervene and stop the beating of a Hebrew slave by an Egyptian taskmaster. Soon thereafter, he is protecting vulnerable women. Compassion and justice. These values are the essence of Torah itself. While hinted at in the stories of Genesis, their centrality to our story and way of life becomes clear with Moses and the women who shaped his life.

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This week we finish reading the book of Bereshit. We answer a question asked at the opening of the book and raise a new one that will challenge the nascent nation of Israel. The question arising from the opening of Bereshit is Cain’s famous query after killing his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The whole book of Bereshit, in a sense, is a response to that first question posed by the killer Cain. From Noah’s sons, to Yitzchak and Yishmael, to Yakov and Esau, conflicts abound.

It takes the epic story of Joseph and his brothers, which concludes in this week’s parasha, to answer affirmatively that indeed we are our brother’s keeper. This is made evident in the words and actions of the two main protagonists, Judah and Joseph. Judah makes the clear commitment to put himself in jail so that his baby brother Benjamin can go free; Joseph informs his brothers that his being sold into slavery has all been for a larger purpose, so that the entire family can be sustained. While his brothers remain wary, Joseph declares strongly,

Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

(Genesis 50: 19-21).

While Jacob’s blessing of his children shows that they each remain unique and distinct, the story reveals that despite the conflicts that arise within families and among brothers, they indeed are their brother’s keeper.

The second and more serious question of the Torah is whether we can extend the concept of being “our brother’s keeper” beyond our family to “the other”, Jew and gentile alike. We might think the answer to the second question is as patently obvious as the answer to the first, but our deeds do not match our words. Clearly, as much as our ancestors had to evolve for thousands of years to answer affirmatively that we are our brother’s keeper, so too we still need to evolve to understand our responsibility for all humanity.

The parashah and book ends with the ominous word “Egypt”. Soon we will read that Egypt represents the land where we developed as a nation in slavery and oppression. Our redemption from Egyptian slavery and our standing together at Sinai are the core events for our people. Throughout the Torah we are constantly taught the lesson that we are never to be an oppressor, that we must be champions of justice especially for the underprivileged in our society, and that we should have one standard of law for citizen and stranger alike – all because we know what it was like to suffer in Egypt.

Thousands of years of history and tomes of teaching of Torah by prophets and rabbis apparently falls on “deaf ears” located just above perpetually “stiff necks”. While we as Jews have taken on the concept that “each Jew is responsible for each other Jew”, we have not been as good as extending that level of concern and responsibility to the non-Jew as well. Just think of how the word “goyim”, which in Hebrew literally means “nations”, has developed a derogatory connotation for the gentile nations. It does no good to respond, “but think how they treat us” if what we are trying to do is be God’s people and lead the way as a light to the nations. I fear a world of Jewish arrogance and triumphalism. According to the narrative of Torah, it took dozens of generations and thousands of years to learn that we are our brother’s keeper. How long will it take us to learn that “brother” now extends beyond our fellow Jew to the rest of humanity as well?

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