Archive for gener de 2017

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.


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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.

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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.

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This week we come to the close of the book of Genesis and with it, the end of the tales of the patriarchs and matriarchs. From next week we begin reading the exodus story and our focus shifts to the tale of our people as opposed to individual family groups. The last stories in the book of Genesis concern Joseph, his life and family and in a sense he is the one who helps us to make the transition from one style of narrative to the other. Rabbi Stephen Robbins notes in his commentary on this parasha, that Joseph is not a patriarch, unlike them he has no direct contact with God. His understanding of the Divine comes from his dreams and finding meaning in the events of his own life. Interestingly, this gives him a stronger faith and connection with God than the patriarchs. In the Torah we find the others doubting, questioning God, but Joseph remains steadfast in his belief and understanding of God. So much so, that when he faces adversity he finds a way to grow and find meaning and purpose within his experience.

In this week’s reading, Joseph’s father dies and his brothers panic about what Joseph will do to them. Without their father’s presence, the brothers fear Joseph will seek revenge for the way they treated him. When they confront Joseph he is so filled with sadness he cries, he says that far from desiring revenge, he has created his own peace with what happened. Joseph says: “Am I a substitute for God? You meant evil but God meant good.” (Genesis 50:17) and what happened meant that many people, including our family, survived the famine. Joseph, more than his brothers, more than the other patriarchs who had direct lines to God, found God in all moments of his life, both the good and the bad. In that way Joseph is like all of us, working to find meaning in our lives, seeking to connect with the sacred and the holy, trying to understand our purpose and our destiny. Rabbi Robbins writes:

Joseph’s faith was purchased with his pain. He crafted it out of the shell of his own suffering. It was not a faith of escape from his life but faith that made his life worth living…unlike the patriarchs and matriarchs, Joseph is someone we can identify with…Joseph is no distant hero, he is “everyman” and “everywoman” upon whom God must rely to fulfill the partnership of faith.” (“Learn Torah With…” pg. 93)

We are the descendants of Joseph, we carry his legacy with us and our destiny is to try and find that sense of meaning in our lives, to find a connection to spirit, to heart, to soul and to create our own relationship, just as Joseph did.

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One of the key events in this week’s parasha is that of Jacob and his family
going down to Egypt. Joseph instructs his brothers, saying; “Maharu v’alu el
avi v’amartem eilav koh amar bincha Yosef samani Elohim l’adon l’chol-mitzrayim r’dah eilay al ta’amod” (Hasten and go up to my father, and say to him, ‘So said your son, Joseph: “God has made me a master over all the Egyptians. Come down to me, do not tarry”‘).
Some commentators refer to this instruction, explaining that Joseph knew that if Jacob and the rest of the family remained in Canaan, they would surely perish, as the famine engulfed the region. So, in order to save his family, he told them to move to Egypt, to Goshen to be more specific, to help make sure that they would survive. In addition, there is an even more personal reason that Joseph wants his father to come to Egypt quickly – he hasn’t seen him in so many years.
There’s also a viewpoint that God desired this move, in order to prevent
potential assimilation of the next generation (that had settled in Canaan),
and there is suggestion of that. Moving them to Egypt would serve to help
prevent assimilation, as the Egyptians were segregationists who maintained a
level of contempt, as evidenced towards the end of last week’s parasha; “ki lo
yuchlun hamitzrim l’echol et-ha’ivrim lechem ki to’eivah hi l’mitzrayim” (for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians). Perhaps we could argue that that was the very first ghetto.
In the last few parashot we’ve been focussing on Joseph’s story in Egypt, how he went from a slave, to being thrown into prison, how he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, and eventually became the governor, answerable only to Pharaoh.
With Jacob coming to Egypt, and bringing with him the entire family, our
ancestry, our heritage, moved to Egypt. Now, the full complement of our lineage
at that time, Jacob and all of his family, were in the same place. It’s as if the pause button had been pushed, and then a separate set of stories (involving Joseph)  entertained us, and now that we have everyone back together again, we can continue our story.
At first, I thought it could be like Rogue One, where the the rest of the Star Wars
story happened anyway, and if you missed out on what’s been labelled Episode  3.5 (Star Wars fans will know what I am talking about), your entertainment and experience wouldn’t be as rich, but the overall story doesn’t change.
However, upon further reflection it isn’t the same with Joseph’s adventures and
experiences. If Joseph was not taken to Egypt in the first place, the overall story
would change drastically. Taking everything at face value, it could have ended in disaster for the entire region, given that one of Joseph’s major accomplishments was interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, foreseeing the inevitable famine, and then developing a plan to take advantage of the years of plenty and store what could be stored, allowing Egypt and most of the region to survive the famine.

So, even though the story of our ancestors seems to go off at a tangent, and for the most part it leaves behind the current and previous generation (in Canaan) for some time, focusing on the story of just one of Jacob’s children, it is a necessary inclusion, allowing Joseph to make his mark on society, to grow as
a human, to realise he too needs to act less arrogantly, and ultimately, it is his
journey and his success that will allow the story of our ancestors to continue in
Goshen, helping to remove the potential dangers they were facing in Canaan.

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