Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Mishpatim - Taking Care of Others

The story is told of 2 men in a boat when one suddenly decides to start drilling a hole underneath his seat, the other man protests – “what are you doing, we’re all going to drown”.  But the man drilling his hole says “it’s none of your business, I want to drill a hole, I like drilling holes and so I’m drilling a hole on my side of the boat, under my seat, what’s it got to do with you.”

When we hear the story we all know that if the man continues  drilling his hole both of them will suffer.  And it’s the same in our lives, we live in relationship with other people and our actions don’t just impact us, but they impact those around us. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, we receive a whole selection of laws to govern Israelite society.  And amongst them we’re given many laws that deal with our relations with other people.  At one point, it says in the Torah, when a person opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit, must make restitution paying the price to the owner but keeping the dead animal.  And, it says, when a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies they shall sell the live ox and divide its price.  They should also divide the dead animal.  If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox but shall keep the dead animal.  

In this way, the Torah insures that we have to be aware of how our actions can impact others.  If I dig a pit, I’m responsible for insuring that it is covered up so that no one falls into it and similarly if I have an ox that is known to attack others, I have to be responsible for taking care of my ox and preventing it from causing damage to someone else’s property or someone else’s animal. 

The Torah was very aware of the fact that it’s easy to be absorbed in our own world, to ignore those around us and to forget that our actions have an impact on other people.  And, in this way, these laws in Mishpatim come as a reminder that we do not live in a bubble.  And, that my actions have an impact on the people around me.  And, I can never ignore that.  

And, more than this, I have to be responsible for my actions and recognize the potential within them for good, and the potential within them to harm other people.  Mishpatim tells us that we should never be the one drilling the hole in the boat, because everyone is going to suffer as a result of our actions.  And it reminds us that when we do cause suffering or damage, we are the ones who have to make amends.  We are the ones who have to make the restitution to the person who has lost and suffered.  We do not live in a bubble.  We have to be responsible for taking care of each other.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Yitro - Remembering to Thank our Families

We’re currently in the midst of the celebrity awards season.  It feels like almost every week there’s another event for celebrities to dress up and pat each other on the back for their achievements over the past year. I don’t know about you, but I’m always interested to hear  who people choose to thank at that moment when the spotlight shines upon them.  They often begin by thanking colleagues and others connected to the project which brought them success, but then I’m always waiting to hear if, in this potentially once in a lifetime moment, they will remember to thank their families.  This issue was brought a couple of years ago by Lena Dunham at the Golden Globes when she won for best television comedy she thanked an obscure actor, Chad Lowe, because back in 2000 when Hilary Swank won the best actress Oscar she famously forgot to thank Lowe, who was at the time, her husband.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is in danger of falling into the same trap, and forgetting about his family.  Having led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the parted sea into the wilderness, Moses is a man consumed by his mission and, while it is understandable, that he may have wanted to protect his family from the experiences in Egypt, now that the Israelites are safely in the wilderness, we may assume that he would have summoned his wife and sons to join him, but the Torah is silent about Moses concern for a family reunion. 

Instead, this week’s Torah portion begins with the fact that Yitro, Moses father-in-law heard  of all that God had done for Moses and for the Israelites.  Hearing all of this good news, Yitro took Zipporah, Moses wife after he had sent her back and her two sons.  He is the one who is responsible for making sure that Moses and his family were reunited.  He was the one who made sure that she and her sons would be present for the revelation at Mt. Sinai.  And Moses appears pleased with what Yitro has done, for as we read, Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and he bowed down to him and kissed him.  And they asked each other about their welfare and they came into the tent.

In the midst of leading the Israelites out of Egypt and consumed by all of the pressures which leading a people brought with it, Moses forgot about his family.  In the same way that celebrities with the pressure of a couple of minutes in the spotlight sometimes forget to thank their family.  It is understandable, but Yitro appeared as a reminder that it is not really acceptable.  Yitro is the necessary prompt to remind Moses that despite all of the pressure of work, he has obligations to his family.

It is striking that the Torah portion which contains the giving of the Torah, the moment when the entire community of Israel stood together at Sinai is named for the non-Israelite Yitro – but without Yitro, we as a community would have been incomplete, without him Moses' family would have been absent and without him Moses would have failed in his familial obligations.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Beshallach - Stepping into the Unknown

In one of my favorite movies, The Lion King, there is a powerful moment when Simba  has to confront the past and decide to either run from it, or learn from it.  To Simba, it seems that the hardest step is that first step which he needs to take in order to return home and assume his rightful place as the King of his pride.  

We know that taking a first step can be difficult and sometimes very scary.  In this week’s Torah portion with the Israelites having left Egypt they stand in front of the sea with the Egyptian army behind them and find fear in their hearts.  It is understandable that having seen Pharaoh embark on his pursuit and with the army approaching they would be fearful of what lay behind them.  But stepping forward, stepping into the sea, also appeared to be causing them fear and a moment of pause.

God appears to be somewhat confused and perplexed as to why the Israelites are not moving forward with faith and says to Moses “why do you cry out to me, tell the Israelites to go forward, and you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.”  It is understandable that the Israelites, seeing the sea before them, might not have known that a miracle awaited, but at the same time having seen all that God had done for them up to this point, surely they should have known that a miracle was coming. 

But we know that it is difficult to take a first step and that it needs faith to step into the unknown.  The Midrash suggests that Nachshon ben Aminadav had the faith and courage to step forward into the water before it had parted; eventually getting to the point where the water reached up to his neck before the seas parted in honor of him and Moses stretching out his rod.  After all that the Israelites had seen, after all that they had witnessed, taking this first step into the sea still caused them to have a moment of pause, and a moment of concern.  

And we know in our lives that stepping into the unknown can be difficult.  But we can learn from their experience.  The importance of having faith, courage, and just trusting that when we put one foot forward our next step will be that much easier and so on and so forth until eventually they reach to the other side and join together in song praising God for redeeming them and saving them.

In our daily liturgy as we sing the Mi Chamocha and remember the song that our ancestors sang when they crossed to the other side of the sea, we might also remember that to get to that point, they had to have the courage to put one foot in front of the other and take that first step into the unknown.

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.