Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Bo - Maturing with Age

When I first watched Return of the Jedi, I don’t recall feeling much sympathy for Darth Vader when, and I’m sorry if I’m spoiling it, he dies at the end of the movie. He had been set up from the beginning as the bad guy, and it was hard to see him as anything buy, even though he was the one to eventually kill the Emperor and end the fighting. However, over time as I have returned to these movies, and with the back story in the prequel, I find myself much more sympathetic to his plight.

It is similar with Pharaoh and the story of the Ten Plagues. As a child, I read of these miraculous events with awe at God’s supernatural abilities, and I largely ignored the suffering of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. With age I became more uncomfortable with the suffering that happened so that we could flourish, and especially God’s role in hardening Pharaoh’s heart – so that they could do nothing to stop their suffering.

The break between Parashat Va-era and Bo interrupts the narrative of these plagues, and we are left to wait an entire week to find out what happens next.

The first two verses make for very uncomfortable reading (Exodus 10:1-2):
‘And Adonai said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart, and the hearts of all of his servants, so that I can put these signs of Mine among them. In order that you can tell in the ears of your children, and the children of your children how I mocked/destroyed in Egypt, and placed My signs amongst them –and you will know I am Adonai.”’

According to the text, the whole exercise, the immense Egyptian suffering, has been for the benefit of future generations who will know Adonai through the tales of these plagues. What had previously appeared to be a rescue mission (Exodus 3:7-10) has been transformed into something different. Future generations will learn about God, and follow God, through the stories of havoc and destruction which rained down on Egypt.

The word hitalalti, either means mockery or destruction, so that we are confronted either by a mocking God, a destructive God, or even the possibility of both. This wouldn’t be the first time we see God in this light, but it is certainly the first time we see God manipulating a situation to this extent. So where do we go from here, reading the story as adults?

Are we supposed to understand God as an impulsive Deity, using death and destruction to teach a lesson – a questionable means to a necessary end? Are we intended to view God as a sadistic abuser, destroying an entire nation for mere amusement? Or maybe God is the divine judge, meting out justice on those who have sinned and caused others suffering. This portion offers a myriad of lessons to take away, so which one do we follow? Well that is up to you.

More than anything else, the text offers us the challenge of finding our own lesson. God does not command that our children shall shema – hear this story. Instead the text instructs tesaper beoznei, which literally means recount in their ears. We have a role in the transmission of this story. We have a responsibility to teach our children not only the story, but also the lessons that we learn from it. These lessons may make us uncomfortable, and these lessons may challenge our previous understandings, but these lessons allow a deeper relationship with the text. And it allows us the opportunity to grow with the text, so that what we teach this year might not be the same as what we choose for next year. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vaera - What's in a Name?

Just under 22 months ago my name changed.  I didn’t change my name from Danny or Daniel or anything like that, but suddenly I started to be called Daddy with the birth of our daughter, Gabriella.  And similarly my wife became Mummy, and ever since then, we refer to each other far more frequently by the names Daddy and Mummy than by any other in our house.  

I like to think that that name was always there, it was just waiting for Gabi to unlock it.  But it is interesting that this new relationship brings with it a new name in our family,

This week as our Torah portion begins with God continuing to urge Moses to go to Egypt, we have a very interesting moment as God speaks to Moses and says to him “I’m the Eternal, I’ve appeared to Abraham, Isaac & Jacob as El Shaddai  But I did not make myself known to them by my name, Adonai, the Tetragrammaton, the yud-hay and the vav-hay

Before considering why now is the appropriate moment for a name change we need to go back and consider when the name El Shaddai was used.  Back in Bereshit in Genesis 17:1, God is speaking to a 99 year old Abraham and says to him, “I am El Shaddai, walk along before me and be pure of heart and I will set the covenant between us and multiply you exceedingly.”  As they enter into this covenantal relationship, God uses the name El Shaddai.  There is not necessarily an agreement on what this name means, but commentators claim it could be God Almighty, could be related to the mountain, related to rain or related to the fact that God has sufficient divinity. 

Whatever it is, its striking that now as God speaks to Moses, God uses a different name, Adonai, the yud=hay and the vav-hey, to introduce God’s self.  One might wonder if this is a moment where God is asserting the fact that with Moses there will be a new and different relationship.  Moses stands as the representative of the people’s relationship with God and so, in many ways, this is not just about God’s relationship to Moses, but God’s relationship with the whole Israelite community.  

As God enters into a relationship with all of us, God doesn’t want to be known as the God of this or the God of that, God wants to be known by Gods personal name and in many ways this allows for a deepening of the relationship that we have with God.  Moses is the one who gets to know God face to face and maybe through him we gain a glimpse of God.  With this name we’re able to enter into a personal relationship with God.  

The name Adonai was always there, it is used in the book of Bereshit several times.  But at this moment, we get given that name as a gift.  A gift of insight, so that we might know God and enter a relationship so that God will be our God and we will be God’s people and together we can begin our journey of Exodus, away from slavery in Egypt towards the promised land.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Shemot - Learning to Lead

A few days ago, the captain of Liverpool Football Club, Steven Gerard, one of my sporting heroes, announced that at the end of this season he would be leaving the team.  At the age of 34, he has made the decision that he needs to go somewhere else to continue his football career.  When looking back at his time playing for the team, he broke onto the stage in 1998 at the age of 18 years old.  At that point, he wasn’t ready to lead the team.  It took several seasons for him to establish himself as a fixture in the side, learning from his mistakes, learning from his experiences so that eventually he could assume the captain’s armband and establish himself as one of the greatest captains Liverpool has ever known. 

It’s the same for us in our lives, leadership doesn’t happen naturally, it’s something we learn to do over time.  In this week’s torah portion, as we meet Moses for the first time, he is learning how to be a leader.  In the first incident in which he he is an active participant, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster oppressing an Israelite slave and so he kills the Egyptian taskmaster.  His first response when he sees oppression and suffering is to kill the oppressor.  Then, when he goes out again, and he sees two Israelites arguing, this time he talks to them but then flees when they say “are you going to kill us like you did to the Egyptian.”  But then we get the third incidence, when waiting by the well he sees Tziporah, and the daughters of Yitro being harassed by the other shepherds, Moses steps up, intervenes, protects them and insures that they can water their flock. 

In these 3 incidents, we see that Moses learns from each and every experience what it means to be a leader.  In the first instance we could say he maybe acted a bit too rashly in killing the Egyptian.  By the second time, he realized that maybe it was time to talk to people first, but by the third time he recognizes there was the need both for force and for words, but not necessarily, ultimate force as was seen during the first incident.  Moses learned how to be a leader and while it might still surprise us that the first thing we know of Moses is that he killed someone, through his life experiences, he demonstrates why he is so appropriate as the leader for the Israelite people and God’s chosen person to take us out of Egypt and lead us toward the Promised Land. 

Moses is someone who learns from his experiences, learns from his mistakes and then develops, constantly growing. Learning to lead.  This week as we meet him for the first time, we see a young Moses, by the end of Torah we will see just how he becomes Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher and our Rabbi.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayechi - Brotherly Love

In my teenage years, I often had a curfew by which the time I was expected to be home on the weekend.  Often, when I knew I wasn’t going to make the curfew, I would arrive home and immediately tell my parents about the traffic I encountered, or often about getting lost via this place in England called South Oxhey, which was a plausible place I could have ended up, explaining those extra 10, 15, 20 minutes.  I don’t know if my parents ever really believed me, but I always thought that by starting with an excuse or a reason, they would be more charitable in considering why I’d arrived home so late. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we begin by hearing that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt for 17 years.  17 years have elapsed since Joseph and his brothers were reunited and that moment where Joseph cried and revealed himself to them.  And, this week Jacob dies.  

Immediately after the funeral we read that the brothers saw their father was dead and then they said to themselves, what if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him, and so to preempt the situation, they send a message to Joseph saying, “before his death, your father left instructions, so shall you say to Joseph, forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers, who treated you so harshly.  Therefore please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.”  They come up with an excuse in advance to encourage Joseph to deal charitably with them.

In the Torah, we have no record of Jacob ever saying this, and we read immediately afterwards, Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.  These are not the tears of joy of last week’s Torah portion, instead, I wonder if these are tears of sadness and regret.  Regret that 17 years have elapsed since that reunion, and Joseph recognizes now that the brothers still don’t believe that he has truly forgiven them.  

In their mind, it is clear that they believe that Joseph was behaving in this way purely because his father was still alive.  And, looking after them only out of deference and respect for his father.  As the brothers offered to be slaves to Joseph, he says to them, “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.”

The Torah comments on this that he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.  The brothers lie came from a place of fear of the punishment that still awaited them and the guilt that they felt for what they had done to Joseph.  But their brother demonstrated how he had risen above it all, and how through a real act of brotherly love and compassion, he was willing to forgive them, and had always been willing to forgive them.

Immediately after this, we read of Joseph’s death and we come to the end of the book of  Bereshit, the book of Genesis.  This book, which is so characterized by brotherly tension, ends with this act of brotherly love, this act of forgiveness, and this act of compassion from Joseph.  With this moment, we are ready to make the transition to become a people and begin the book of Shemot, Exodus next week.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayigash - Tears of Joy

On more than one occasion I’ve been in trouble with my wife for asking her the question – why are you crying?  Most notably it happened just after proposing to her when she started to cry and I said to her “Why are you crying?” 

For me the association was always with tears at sad occasions, tears of sadness, of pain, of hurt.  But there’s also so clearly, and importantly, tears of joy.  The release we feel at weddings, at births, and at joyful occasions when we just can’t keep it in and tears come pouring out. 

In this week’s Torah portion we have, perhaps the most famous incident of crying in our Torah.  Joseph’s brothers are standing before him, still unaware that the man in Egypt is actually their brother Joseph. As they negotiate for Benjamin’s release, Joseph is finally impressed by Judah and his words of promise, offering to take Benjamin’s place. Joseph is overcome with emotions; he makes sure that everyone leaves the room and overwhelmed by the emotion, he reveals himself to his brothers and says, I am Joseph your brother and he cries.  And the cries are so loud that they were not just heard in his household, but they were heard in Pharaoh’s house. 

At this moment, Joseph’s tears of joy come not just from the reunion with his brothers and the news that his father is still alive; but they also come from the fact that his brothers have grown and are not the same men that he left all those years ago. He cannot control himself, and keep the emotions in check any longer, and so he cries. 

When we cry, we sometimes cry from pain and sadness, but we also cry from joy.  And in both cases it’s about the emotions that we feel being so overwhelming that there’s almost nothing that we can do except cry.  And, for us, as we read our Torah and as we read the story of Bereshit, of Genesis, and as we come toward the end of this book, it is such a powerful moment to hear about Joseph crying as he’s reunited, first with his brothers and then with his father. 

It is at this point that we are finally able and ready to end the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs and move on to the stories of our people that we will begin in Exodus in a couple of weeks.

Joseph’s tears marked a turning point in our history, a reunion and a joyful moment as brothers are reunited in love.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Miketz - Credit where credit is due

Once again we are entering into awards season with Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys and a whole variety of other awards to be handed out to celebrities.  We’ll discuss the nominations process and then on the night we’ll watch as Hollywood awards its best and brightest with their gift of a statuette to take home.  But one of the things we’ll most look forward to are the acceptance speeches when the celebrities stand on stage and give thanks to all of the people who helped them get to that place they have aspired to reach.  We’ll listen out to see who’s missed and who’s included.  And, see that they give credit where credit is due.

In the case of the actors, they nearly always thank the director or the producers of the movie and similarly the directors are always thanking the actors for making them look good.  People are very conscious of thanking the people who helped them get to the place where they’re finally standing. 

And in this week’s Torah portion, as Joseph is rushed to see Pharaoh to interpret his dream, we might remember the arrogant boy of previous verses who boasted to his brothers and father that they would one day bow down to him and seemed to rub his brother’s noses in the fact that he was his father’s favorite.  And, yet when Pharaoh calls Joseph to him and says “I have a dream that no one else can interpret and I would like you to tell me its meaning”, Joseph says to Pharaoh,” I don’t interpret dreams, God will see to Pharaoh's welfare.” 

Something happened to Joseph in the period of time from his sale into slavery to this moment that he stands before Pharaoh which allowed this young man to grow up and realize that it was God working through him and that credit needed to be given to God.  And when Pharaoh explains to him the dream, Joseph says to Pharaoh “Pharaoh's dreams are really one and the same, God has told Pharaoh what God is about to do.” And then it continues “God has revealed to Pharaoh what God is about to do”.

In the interpretation, Joseph makes reference to God again and again and again.  This is no longer the arrogant young boy taking credit for everything, even the things he was not responsible for.  This is now a mature young man who recognizes that it is through the gift of God that he is able to stand before Pharaoh and offer interpretation for his dream and through the gift of God that he even has the ability to understand the dreams that Pharaoh had.

We see in Joseph the importance of giving credit where credit is due.  And when Pharaoh ultimately makes the decision to place Joseph as the leader of all Egypt to help them through the seven years of plenty and then the seven years of famine, I wonder, if part of that decision related to the fact that he saw, in Joseph, someone who was prepared to stand before the Pharaoh and not take all the credit for himself, but attribute that credit and that blessing to God.  In that moment, we, as the reader also see just how much Joseph has grown up.  And how he is ready for the next stage of his life.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayeishev - The Nearly Man

Our Torah is filled with wonderful stories of heroes, villains and larger than life characters.  We can all think about who our favorite biblical figure might be and what they did and who might be the biblical figure we least like and in the midst of all of these stories and personalities we get Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son. 

In this week’s Torah portion, he comes ever so close to being the hero but falls just short, and then gets consigned to second class status behind Judah and Joseph.  

When Joseph’s brothers see him approaching they immediately make plans to kill him, they plot that they will kill him and then throw him into a pit and then blame it on a savage beast.  But Reuben, hearing this, decides to try and save his brother’s life and says to them “let us not take his life”.  And tells them not to shed any blood and instead urges them to just throw him into a pit in the wilderness.  With his intention being to save him later on and restore him to their father Jacob.  

The problem is that Reuben appears to disappear from the story as the brothers sit down for a meal, with Joseph in the pit, they see a caravan of Ishmaelites coming and then Judah steps forward and says, why kill him, we might as well gain something by this, by selling him.  And, so they decide together to sell him to the Ishmaelites, selling Joseph, their own brother, into a life of slavery.  

And then we read of Reuben, returning to the pit and finding that Joseph was not there.  He tears his clothes in anguish, asking what will he do.  Taking personal responsibility for the fact that his brother has been sold. 

Reuben came so close to saving his brother, but he hesitated.  Instead of doing the right thing immediately, he put it off.  While his intentions were good throughout the story, his hesitation allowed for events to transpire beyond his control and for Joseph to be sold into slavery.  Reuben is a reminder that we shouldn’t put off till tomorrow what can be done today.  Especially when it’s doing the right thing.

Ben Azai in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of our Ancestors, said – run to perform even a minor Mitzvah.  He understood that when we need to do the right thing, no matter how small that thing is, we need to try and do it immediately, because in those moments of hesitation, the opportunity may be lost.  As the story of the brothers continues, the focus shifts to Joseph and Judah.  Reuben is relegated and consigned to a secondary status.  As the Nearly Man, he missed his chance.  We can learn from his mistakes and insure that we never wait to do the right thing, acting immediately.