Vayeishev: When Men Bond (and Others Pay the Price)

Vayeishev is a parsha that details the violence of brothers against a sibling they reject. Their rejection is sexually fraught as are their actions, from stripping Joseph naked to selling them* into slavery. Joseph’s body was never Joseph’s. It belonged to Jacob’s sons. Jacob’s sons owned Joseph, and they sold Joseph. Others were given the power to repeat their crimes.

In the midst of the Joseph story is a chapter that is not about Joseph at all, but about Judah. Genesis 38 tells a story of Judah and the men he hangs out with, the men he sires, and the men he orders around.

Here, too, there is rejection and sexual violence. Here, too, male characters plan together and bond over sexual experience and violent behaviors.

In my recently published book Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, I make the case that shared sexual experience is a pivotal part of male homosocial relationships in the Hebrew Bible. Male characters may not be having sex with each other, but sex with women creates bonding opportunities, ways to maintain alliances and to establish status and rank.

When Judah leaves his brothers behind, he turns to Hirah, the Adullamite (Genesis 38:1). Immediately, in the verse following, Judah sights the wife he wants — notably, right in Hirah’s locale. He takes her (yes, that is  biblical texts articulates marriage) and sires three sons in quick succession. As his sons grow up, it becomes clear that Hirah and Judah have remained close friends. It is Hirah who, after the death of Judah’s wife, is part of his decision to end his mourning. They decide to enjoy themselves together. Judah is single and ready to mingle.

They travel together to a sheepshearing, a pastoral festival. As I write in Malignant Fraternities:  “It is a time to have fun, break boundaries, play tricks, an even plot murder. During a sheepshearing, Jacob surreptitiously escapes from Laban (Genesis 31); David acquires a new wife—Abigail—from a foolish husband who is inclined to heavy drinking (1 Samuel 25); Tamar disguises herself to induce her father-in-law to have sex with her and impregnate her (Genesis 38); and Absalom deceptively invites Amnon, his half-brother and heir to the throne, to festivities where his death will be arranged (2 Samuel 13).”

We forget that Hirah and Judah were traveling together when we read Genesis 38. We forget that Hirah was around or nearby when Judah crassly bargains for the use of Tamar’s body. He certainly knows the results of the negotiations, for Judah sends Hirah to redeem his pledges to Tamar. And it is Hirah who does everything he can to make sure that what has happened between Judah and Tamar remains secret (and that involves some complex and fancy dancing on his part that is revealed in the Hebrew nomenclature he uses for Tamar).

Two men shared interactions that had to do with sexual gratification. One had the actual gratification. Perhaps the other experienced it vicariously. But both were part and parcel of the negotiation and the attempt at controlling the consequences. It is an ancient version of the news we were subject to when we discovered how Donald Trump sent Michael Cohen to negotiate the silence of the women he slept with.

The story ends with an apparent redemptive moment for Tamar, when Judah cedes her right to make sure that he performed the levirate. But Tamar’s body, like Joseph’s, was never her own.

She was taken by Judah to be a wife for his first son, Er. When that son died, she was given to Judah’s second son, Onan. He, in turn, did his best to protect his own share of the inheritance, “spilling his seed.” This happens not once, but repeatedly.

When Onan dies, Judah refuses to free Tamar, casting her as a man-killer and exiling her to her father’s house. In the end, Tamar makes sure Judah himself performs the levirate by selling her body to him. He orders her burned alive when he learns she is pregnant. She escapes his sentence, bears twin sons, and disappears from the narrative, her body having served its purpose: to ensure Judah’s lineage.

Male characters plan, plot, and bond over the sexual use, misuse, and abuse of others in this story.

It is an old story. And sadly, a familiar one.

  • The use of the plural pronoun is deliberate; Joseph’s gender identity does not fall on one side or the other of a simple binary.
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The Singer of the Single Song: In Honor and Memory of Chazzan Richard Kaplan

Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with a tenderness that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with an exuberance that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with his soul so open to giving and receiving that he was, simply, unforgettable.

We were blessed with a chazzan who we could trust with our own souls because he was honest, gentle, and true to the bone.

http://www.kaplanmusic.com/

I did not know Chazzan Richard well. And I knew him well enough to be grateful for the rest of my own life.

We met at my first Kallah; my son, Erik, was hired as teenage staff to work with children and was permitted to take one single course. He chose Chazzan Richard’s.

I experienced a healthy jealousy each day as Erik reported on each class. All the usual words — inspired, excited, motivated — none of these could describe what my boy radiated that week. He was experiencing, I think, a kind of mikveh in music. He could not go from that learning unchanged — no one could.

Erik was the only teenager in the group, a reason, I expect, for Richard to notice him. He kept the connection live well after the course was over, answering follow-up questions, sending Erik sheet music.

Or maybe it was that Richard noticed all his students, noted their longings and their hopes. He seemed, inevitably, to find a way to lift their every note to the heavens. When the class gave a public recital, one song was filled with humor and joy, another with yearning, a third performed with such wholehearted love for the Holy One. We smiled, laughed and cried our ways home.

At the next Kallah, I introduced Richard to my husband, Ralf. I mentioned that Ralf played the darbouka for our services. To my astonishment, Richard asked him to play with him that night at a public performance. He had never heard Ralf play, he could not have known anything about his training, his experience, his technique.

Still: Ralf was his only accompanist that night, playing darbouka and tar. The performance was extraordinary even for those who knew Richard’s work. No one there could ever forget the niggunim, that night’s delicate Hayoshevet Baganim. I watched Ralf touching the def as if to connect every tap directly to the heart of the man who sang next to him.

It was unearthly. They played as if every note was foretold, bound to one another.

After the performance, I had to ask. “Richard, how did you know?” He looked at Ralf, gave a little shrug and a shy smile and said: “I knew.”

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg has said of his friend Chazzan Richard: “yours was a planetary Judaism…” Indeed Richard traveled the globe in his music, in his performance, in his own settings. There is no way to encompass or describe his knowledge, his clarity, or his understanding of the myriad rivulets of Jewish musical desire.

Elliot also wrote: “you showed us that the wild aggadic claim of our ancestors just might be true: that had the Torah not been given, the world could have been conducted according to Song of Songs. For you, like the Maggid, knew what Shir ha-Shirim meant:  A single Song that kindles many Songs — on high and down here below. You knew from that Song, and much more.”

Since I heard of Richard Kaplan’s death I have been unable to stop noticing the light around me. The light of the sun streaming through the five-fingered gumball tree leaves outside my office window. The light of the cerulean sky still glowing over the all the fragile dwellings of the world. The light of the moon in the morning sky, waning, but still brilliantly white and glowing.

Chazzan Richard Kaplan illuminated this world.

In honor and memory of Chazzan Richard Neil Kaplan, z”l. Every note sounds in gratitude.

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Elul – The Return of Longing and Longing for Return

Our son was born on Rosh Hodesh Elul. I did not know that, when he was born. I did not live, then, in a world that included Jewish months, Jewish seasons, Jewish time. The holidays I had grown up with were the ones one might expect from a family that only sporadically lit Friday night candles: The High Holy Days, Hanukkah, Passover.

My adult life has been a long journey of return. I expect the remainder of my life will not differ.

The rabbis say that Moses ascended Sinai for the last time on the night of Rosh Hodesh Elul. He went to recover the covenant, to make it anew after the first tablets were destroyed by doubt. Hope seemed broken beyond repair. And yet, Moses ascended. This time, the Holy One told Moses to carve the tablets. This time, the covenant would be carved and inscribed by both human and divine energies.

Moses learned that the covenant would have to be a joint project. The Israelites stayed below, reflecting on the burdens they had schlepped into their new lives. How could they let go of things they no longer needed to carry?

Elul was then – and is now – a month for reflection.

This year, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, the day our son would turn thirty, my husband, Ralf, spent eight hours in an emergency room. By phone (I wasn’t allowed inside the hospital) we went step by step through ugly possibilities. Had he suffered a stroke? A heart attack? Why that sudden loss of vision? Why the awful and debilitating flush of burning over his entire body? Why the nausea, why the dizziness? He joked despite his own fear; I walked through our little ranch house numb to everything around me.

In the end, none of the direst possibilities were fulfilled. We returned to a calmer present, and to Elul.

The name of the month of Elul has exactly the same numeric value as the word binah, wisdom. We reflect on the stuff of the past year, on the pain and trouble we have carried, the misguided decisions and the hasty actions we could wish away. It is a time to reflect on hopes and dreams yet unrealized. It is time to acknowledge our longing to draw near to God.

Elul is also an acronym for a well-known phrase from Song of Songs: Ani l’dodi v’dodi li: I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. During Elul, we hear the call of our Beloved in the shofar that is sounded each day. That primal sound awakens us, reminds us.

For what? To discover our own wisdom. To reflect on who we are now and who we long to become.

Our covenant is rewritten and reinscribed every year. During the month of Elul, we partner with God in the renewal. As this year ends, we define what we long for in the next.

I have never felt the need to rush into the loving embrace of the Holy One quite as I have experienced it this year. I was called to come home, to acknowledge my own longings, to embrace a New Year that would be filled with all that my soul is starved for in this broken world. I want clarity and truth. I want the knowledge of what is right and the doing of what is right. I want to nourish the earth I stand on and the creatures I share it with – that has become an imperative. The list of my longings is long.

There are days left in Elul. Days left to complete my list of longings, and return.

May this month birth our homecoming.
 

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Fixing the Text (or Not)

I can’t. I won’t. I will not fix texts anymore.

It is what we are taught to do, of course. We meet up with a terrible text, a dark one. Then we hunt for some word, some strategy to redeem the text, to uplift, to provide light. We look to our rabbinic royalty, famous rabbis from centuries past and times present. The right quote, the right insight. A tale complete with the sweetest of textual crumbs will lead to a wholly different conclusion.

Relief. We have fixed the text.

Each year we go through this cycle. Each year we read one painful and difficult text after another. At the end of July, we read Balak. An animal, so kindly serving and protecting her master, is beaten again and again (Numbers 22: 23-27). Should we not name the bitter abuse humanity exercises on non-human animals — then and now?

Last week, we read Phinehas. YHVH’s priest is praised for turning back divine wrath. How has he achieved such an awesome task? By driving a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman. Such relationships displease the deity.

The plague is checked, and Phinehas is richly rewarded with divine praise, commitment, and gratitude. How does one get the deity to calm down and stop slaying his people? Pick up a weapon and kill those that piss him off yourself.

This next Shabbat we will read about the war of vengeance YHVH commands against the Midianites. When the Israelite troops return from battle, Moses discovers that they failed to slaughter all the Midianite women and children. He orders them to do the deed. They may spare virgins. Only virgins (Numbers 31: 15-17).

Women taken prisoner by Israelites are owned by the soldiers who have captured them. Such a woman has one month before her body is permitted to her captor for his use — that way, he can be certain that any resulting child is his own (Deuteronomy 21: 10-14).

If we are not reminded of soldiers in our own time stealing girls and women for their sexual use, we are not paying attention to the world we live in. Would you call such women “captive brides”? That’s what the Israelite’s female prisoner is often named.

These women, like those of Tanakh, have been raped.

Animal abuse, ethnic and sexualized violence, sanctified rape — these are what we so often feel we must explain away.  

It is painful work to sit with the full implications of difficult texts; we naturally long for ways to soften the blow. And yet, naming the shadow and the dark empowers us – it brings light. We rabbis must sit with our thoughts and feelings. We must consider deeply and honestly how our grief and anger — and the grief and anger of our congregants — can and should inform us.

Otherwise, we silence not just ourselves but those everywhere around us who suffer from the kind of violence described in such texts. That is no fix.

My book on similarly dark questions, Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities, has just been published by Routledge Press. Abstracts can be found here. May we provide safe space for naming and confronting sexual and ethnic violence wherever we find it to bring the healing we seek.

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Lament in the Season of Lament

A father carries his youngest child, an infant daughter. Her elder sister walks just steps behind him, her hair caught up in a ponytail. My dad, me, and my older sister, Suzie.

It is a season of private loss for me, one inescapably colored by the season of my people’s lament. This weekend marks the start of the three weeks of mourning that lead up to Tisha B’Av, a date which records repeated planned assaults on Jews. The destruction of the First Temple and the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto — all these happened on Tisha B’Av. I could add to that short and devastating list. Those who wanted to hurt us sometimes purposefully chose that day to harm us again.

We remember Tisha B’Av, our past, in order to build our future. We remember so that we can know ourselves.

During this season, my father died. My beloved mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede, died a few years later in a shocking mishap on the surgery table — just days after my dad’s yahrzeit. Ruth Kingberg, once matriarch of my spiritual community, died in a different year, but also during the same week.

Mourning them, inevitably, calls up my greatest loss — the death of my elder sister, Suzie. Suzie died from breast cancer that had metastasized to liver, brain and lung. She died at 42 — the mother of five children. Her youngest was just three.

Suzie at 13, me at 8.

I was sewing, this past week, listening to Chicago’s Saturday in the Park. I grew up knowing Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, and the beaches that border them. The picture of my dad holding me, with Suzie walking alongside shows Lake Michigan in the near distance; we were at my grandparent’s apartment and my dad was taking me and my sister down to the beach.

Hearing the song, I was suddenly living my childhood. My dad was playing drums while the music played. “Listen to that brass section!” he’d call out. My dad was fully alive in the moment he picked up his drumsticks.

For weeks Suzie had been appearing every time I looked in the mirror.

A month ago I decided to stop coloring my hair. As I watched a thin white line emerge on my head I remembered how my sister, back in the 1980’s, stopped coloring hers. She was in her early thirties at the time. We had both seen our first gray hairs appear in young adulthood. Our mother handed us the dye that would hide them. In those days, going gray early was kept secret — no one found out your actual hair color until you were a grandparent.

I kept seeing Suzie lying on her hospital bed just days before she died. Her hair was just growing in from the waves and waves of chemo she’d been subject to. It was sparkly silver and sat short and close to her beautiful skull. I imagined it long and thick — a crazy, silvery, curly cascade that would be the right replacement for the mane of red-brown hair she’d never tried to tame in our youth.

I looked in the mirror at my own hair and wanted, badly, to have her back. We could be white and silver together, sisters grown old in each other’s company. In my mind, I told her: “Had you lived, maybe I would have had the courage to do this thing so much earlier, to become myself.”

Suzie in her early-thirties; me in my late twenties.

Had she lived, I would have seen that silvery, sparkly hair grow out, be all curly and wild again, rest on her shoulders, get loose from her braids.

My dad and my sister walk to the beach, with me in my dad’s arms. My own hair in that picture is that of an infant, but it was, even then, as blue-black as my father’s. When I was a child, people stopped my parents on the street to tell them how amazing my hair was. I remember the embarrassment and the pleasure — my hair was my only beauty, I thought then.

During my lifetime, I will have had my dad’s hair and, in a way, my sister’s. I will travel a path my sister never had the chance to complete herself.  Remembering them, do I become more myself?

Lament opens up grief and loss and sorrow. And truth, too. So we learn, all of us, who we are.

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Harvesting the Blessing of Inner Longings

May YHVH bless you and keep you.
May YHVH’s Presence illuminate and shine upon you.
May YHVH bestow Presence upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6: 24-26
Parshat Naso

It is Year Two of my Covid garden, the vegetable garden my little family and I created when we went into isolation in March of 2020.

In one year, the garden has trebled in size. It features newfound knowledge and different hopes. It has embedded itself in the little territory around our ranch house, land I had filled with many flower gardens over the decades we have spent here.

Surrounded by kale and lettuce and chard, encircled by tomatoes and peppers and strawberries, my vegetable garden is also home to nasturtium, marigolds, lavender, rosemary, basil, and borage. The hedge garden features plants beloved by wasps and bees; elsewhere I have built flower gardens designed for butterflies. A birdbath and a bee house, three compost piles, and many bird and hummingbird feeders are positioned nearby.

Kale and rosemary

Marigolds, rosemary, assorted veggies…

Now what I plant, I harvest for our table. Now, what I grow connects me with the land I temporarily inhabit and the creatures I share it with. Here, this past year, I have finally found it impossible to ignore the murmuring of my soul’s longing, the Still Small Voice.

I have suppressed and snubbed that inner voice for decades. I have drowned her in tasks, in responsibilities, in an endless and boundless number of needs I must answer to.

I love my work. I love almost all its features, all its tasks, and all of its challenges. I like to create order and clarity in the worlds I inhabit. I want to contribute to intellectual and spiritual safety while making room for adventures in every one of those realms.

And: all my adult life, I have had several jobs at once. Most of the time I have found much of the work rewarding, fulfilling, important. Whether teaching, writing, or administrating for universities or seminaries, whether writing for newspapers, magazines, or foundations, whether running a small business on Etsy featuring handmade Jewish ritual wear or serving as a rabbi or a mashpiah (spiritual director), I have been, mostly, happy in my work.

Yet, I know what it is to struggle with burnout. There are too many people to care for, too many tasks on the list, too many hats to wear and change, and far too many meetings for too many jobs. The work worlds I inhabit have the power to rule my days for 12 hours at a time. Sometimes the only breaks are for the fuel that is needed to keep me going.

The fact that so many people read me as an extrovert, as someone who wants to engage 24/7, is an irony. I love solitude and quiet. I am happiest when I read and write at home, not at my university office. I can spend hours designing in my head and creating at my sewing machine. I can spend a day in any of my gardens utterly and happily on my own. Hours without needing to say a word are a gift.

I care for my students, my congregants, my colleagues. They are wonderful, growing, and exciting human beings. And yet, the older I get the more I realize that I have been told a truism I only now understand: if I can’t balance my care for them with care for myself, I won’t be able to care about anything.

And so, even on the days I cannot work in my vegetable garden, I visit it. Walking down the slope of the backyard I feel the inner voice, the Still Small Voice, the voice of shleimut, wholeness. Her call is a physical thing, asking me to pause, to pray, to soften into a place where there is oneness in all the disparate and separate colors and sounds and movements of the garden. Striped skinks with bright blue tails surprise me with quick and sudden slithery movement. Wasps and bees make house calls at white and yellow flowering peppers and bright periwinkle blue borage. The breeze rustles a low accompaniment to birds calling overhead.

Zuchini

Hungarian hot pepper

Passionflower

The voice of shleimut is as tender as the seedlings I have nurtured for weeks. She wants loving attention, concern for her well-being. She knows that the Other Voice, the voice of tasks and, often, trouble, the tzuris voice, is the louder.

To feel blessed and kept, to experience light and peace is to listen for her.

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A Seder Not a Seder but a Seder of Our Lives

It was our second Pesach seder online. So it was not really a seder.

I wanted to be able to tell the Passover story in the light of our own, though.

For indeed, we have learned what it is to live each day in Mitzrayim, in a narrow space often defined by squares on a computer screen. We have spent a year unable to see those we love, touch those we love, live our lives alongside and intertwined with those we love. We could not be full persons in a world in which we existed as head shots, living onscreen. We were perennially faced with our own images, constantly seeing ourselves react. It was difficult to be completely free to focus on others.

Our seder unfolded in unexpected ways. The lyrics to our Passover songs resonated differently. Avadim Hayinu led us to ask: how have we felt enslaved to forces beyond our control, trapped by fear of a virus we could not see but which rode roughshod across the planet? Dayenu — what could we call enoughness in a time of scarcity? Where was the Hallelujah of the moment?

During the maggid portion of our seder, I asked members of my havurah to go to a Padlet online. I set the Padlet so that everyone’s responses would be anonymous; I wanted everyone to feel free to be open, unencumbered by any expectations. Across the picture of a desert, members wrote their responses to my Passover prompts. Their answers were simultaneously heartrending and liberating.

A first question: What element of the Passover story seems most real to you after living through a plague in your own time? “The loneliness that happens when you are walking the same direction as all the other people but still separated because there is no end point,” one wrote. And though the travails in the wilderness are not part of our traditional Pesach story, another added, still, the sense that we were all wandering in the desert without any idea how long the journey would be brought the narratives of Torah home. “There is no external place to flee to,” wrote a third.

A second question: Imagine you speak to a Jew of the future for whom the pandemic is a description in a history book. What would you need to tell that future Jew? One of my havurah members wrote, “My friend, it may not look that way to you now, but you would not be here without us.”

We are a people who tells and retells our stories every single year. We revisit a shared past — however mythical — and we reinterpret that shared past in order to give meaning to our times. To imagine ourselves part of that legacy was surprising, even shocking.

And indeed: those Jews of the future depend upon us.

A third question: If you could get a letter from YHVH in your mailbox (safe to open!) what would be in it? Some wrote words of encouragement, the Holy One blessed them with the knowledge that they would get through the pandemic. “You are stronger and braver and smarter than you sometimes believe,” one wrote.

A fourth question — perhaps the most moving on the board: What is your post powerful hope right now?

And the members of my havurah answered: Could we just mask up? Could everyone please get the shot for everyone’s well-being? Could we understand that the entire globe had to work together to beat this pandemic? Could we just normalize common sense and compassion?

We took some time to look over each other’s responses, to post and share our gratitude, too. Our families were healthy. Our little havurah had come through this without illness or loss. We had a realistic hope to be together again sometime soon, to hear each other’s voices in prayer and song.

No, it was not really a seder as we have known all our lives. It could not be so.

It was a seder describing our lives. It had to be just so.

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Magic and Art, T’rumah and Truth

T’rumah became dear to me more than a decade ago. It is a parsha so rich in imagery, so filled with color that reading it feels like being bathed in a rainbow. It is tactile, too, filled with scent and substance, magical figures (the cherubim) and magical objects (menorah).

Cloth and design, wood and metal, hues, light, and fragrance — the story of the building of the Tabernacle is exuberant, creative, holy indulgence. Inside and out, filled with every kind of material, it seems the very essence of a human project of beauty and truth. The Tabernacle is art, made of every kind of art. And though I have often heard that reading this parsha is difficult, for me it has always seemed like an incantation of making, a spell and a chant that must call up beauty and delight.

T’rumah means “to elevate, raise up.” It is often translated as “offering.” In the first verses of this parsha, the use of T’rumah suggests “gift.” Indeed, the Tabernacle is a gift made of many. The hands of multiple, uncounted artists would have been required to create it.

The Tabernacle is, of course, as the sages noticed long ago, humanity’s answer to God’s own creation. Just as we learn of color and light in the divine fashioning of the world in Genesis, so we learn of the human making of color and light in the world in Exodus.

Philo writes that the materials of the Tabernacle were made of things grown from the earth. The purple color, he said, was like that of water. Blue was to resemble the sky. Scarlet would recall fire. All four elements were stitched, molded, formed into the Tabernacle and all its implements, devices, and decorations.

There may be something holy about making art. Is not the artist a truth-teller?

If truth makes us free — or at least able to understand what freedom would look like, then it must be holy. If an artist reveals truth, her art must therefore be a vehicle for freedom. Her work must be, on some level, a sacred task, for she seeks truth in her work.

Crooked Street, Serafina Ha

The week my daughter-in-law, Serafina Ha, was born, T’rumah was read aloud all over the world.  Serafina — social worker and activist — is an artist, a creator of beauty and truth.

It has been less than two years since she began recognizing her own gift. In those first months she would draw strangers and give them her portraits. She empowered disadvantaged youth with sketches she made of them, giving them the opportunity to see their strength through her yes.

Her talent was obvious, striking, powerful. We have been lucky to be able to watch the unfolding and the unleashing of both truth and beauty under her hands.

It takes work and time and great love and one leap after another into the unknown. No one gave any dimensions for the menorah, either. Art is not predictable.

Still, it is a gift, a t’rumah. As such, it is magical and it is truthful. And it can make us free.

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Musing at the Mountain: Thoughts on Yitro, and Freedom

We arrive at Sinai. We stand, each one of us, at a location that tradition refuses to name or describe. We have arrived at the “wilderness of Sinai.” We have encamped at “the mountain.” Moses climbs high, then higher, YHVH calling to him as he rises.

The Talmud says that we should understand this very scene as figurative, not literal: “Moses went up” is be read as “Moses was raised high.” And indeed, God reminds Moses that the God Godself raised up the people, lifting them up on eagle’s wings to be born out of pain and anguish, out of oppression and depression, out of slavery and bondage. Now, we may fly free; now, we may find our strength and our power.

Who does not love this verse? Who does not feel their heart lift, rising into the promise of flight and freedom? Finally, we are out of Egypt, freed from the shackles of slavery and oppression.

And yet: Innocents everywhere suffered and died—and not only among our people. The plague that took lives of the first born passed by Israelite homes; we must have walked by the ravaged fields of Egyptian farmers on our way to freedom. This story is marked by violence, devastation, and sorrow on all sides.

“I have lifted you up. I have brought you back to me,” YHVH says after unleashing one plague after another before Pharaoh—proving, without a doubt, who was boss of the world. Do I excuse the divine horrors inflicted on Egypt by insisting that any people who oppresses another people must, in the end, be held accountable? How do I reconcile the beauty of liberation with the cost? Was there no other way to achieve our freedom? Was there no other way to escape, and fly? How do I live with the death of the first born?

Every year I find myself adrift, lost in the quagmire of a narrative that insists that Pharaoh’s heart had to be hardened—by godly intervention, no less—so that the tyrant’s humiliation would be complete.

It is a challenging guidebook, this Torah of ours. To read it is to engage in a delicate and difficult balancing act, holding the pain and the joy even in a single verse.

If I strive for the best possible interpretation, I will land in places that feel safe to me. Rabbi Ishmael says that Torah was not given in the Promised Land but in a wilderness for a reason. Torah given in a no-man’s land is Torah for every man (and woman).

YHVH lifts us up, tells us we can be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. The rabbis tell us that the role we are asked to take on is conditional, however. To be a nation of priests means fulfilling the law, devoting ourselves to creating a world suffused with righteousness, holiness, and love.

It is true: I feel more comfortable with universalizing principles. I feel safe when I am told that I must earn any position I might claim.

The Hebrew in Exodus 19:5 uses an infinitive absolute together with a regularly conjugated form of the verb shinn-mem-ayin, the three letters most of us know well in their command form, in the Shema. Im shamoa tishm’u b’koli, we read: “if you can truly obey me.” Or more gently? “If you really, really listen to what I am saying…”

Rashi explains: If you will but once hearken, you will continue to hearken. The gift of flight depends, above all, on my ability to listen to the words that will rush toward me from that mountain, my ability to take them in, to believe in their mandate, to act on the obligations they impose.

The Israelites commit before they know what they are committing to. They accept the law before they even receive it. All that YHVH has said, we will do. Then, we will get it, and by the doing, too (Exodus 24:7).

Freedom cannot be won without commitment to doing our part to make it, create it, sustain it, and strengthen it. We must ask ourselves: what must we do to fly?

All the earth is mine, says YHVH. And all the earth is ours. May we hearken so that we may hearken yet more, hear yet more, understand yet more. Listen, and do. Then, we may fly.

Upon delivering a version of these musings at services this past Shabbat, I suggested that the members of my havurah write down what they felt they could do in concrete terms, make a paper airplane out of the paper they wrote on, and fly it around their homes. I flew my own down a dark hallway and into the light a couple of times this weekend.

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Is Exodus a Myth? Not Exactly….

This last Shabbat, we read Vaera, the parsha in which the first of the plagues unfolds. Nothing can convince Pharoah to let the Israelites go. Nothing can alter his understanding of who he is and the power he wields.

Pharaoh repeatedly hardens his heart. Three different words are used in the story for the action on and in Pharaoh’s heart: Pharaoh “hardens,” “strengthens,” makes his heart “heavy.” Pharaoh is stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible.

In such a time as this, the Exodus story becomes a noisy one indeed, a narrative that sounds all the alarms. The tale we read in Torah right now tells the sordid story we are living at this moment — a story of plague and death, a story of a corrupt and grasping ruler and the people who follow him, a story of a people exhausted, worn, oppressed.

Is Exodus really a myth, after all?

After the destruction and violence we witnessed last January 6, we know that Exodus is no myth. “Camp Auschwitz” was written on the t-shirt of one of the insurrectionists; 6MWNE, which stands for “six million was not enough,” was printed on others. We, the descendants of those Israelites, have been enslaved in recent memory yet again in Nazi camps; we have lived through and died of plagues both natural and man-made. Typhus killed uncounted Jews in the camps; gas killed millions.

Torah is a mirror. Look into it, and you will see your neighbors, your brethren, your rulers. You will see all the glories and ills humanity is capable of. All that we do now, we know already in its pages. We are creating variations on themes we have before us in every parsha we read.

This year, there was a verse that emerged more powerfully than any other for me.

The Holy One has just made a slew of promises. “I will free you,” God says. “I will deliver you… I will redeem you… I will take you to be my people.” These four commitments, vows of redemption, are the source for the four cups of wine we use at our Pesach Seder. We read these promises each and every year.

But in the Torah, when Moses tells the people what the Holy One has said, the text tells us, “they would not listen (v’lo sham-u) to Moses; their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage” (6:9).

They would not listen, they did not listen — this is how v’lo sham-u is typically translated. Perhaps they could not listen.

Mikotzer ruach, the text continues. The noun, kotzer, might mean ‘short,’ and literally so. And it could also mean ‘impatience,’ or ‘despondency.’ One might translate this as so many do: The Israelites’ spirits were crushed, even stunted: made short and small.

Ruach can also evoke ‘breath.’ Perhaps it was their very breath that was cut short. The Israelites gasped for breath, and why? The text tells us. U’meyavodah kasha, because of their enslavement.

Because they had no freedom, they could have no breath. And because they could not breathe, they could not hear, either. Who among us, gasping for breath, can hear anything but our own struggle to get air into our lungs, to hear, terrified, our own rasping efforts to live?

Almost two million people on our planet have died in this past year, trying to breathe. More will die, and we, in America, will lead the world in deaths, watching as more struggle, and more die.

It was Martin Luther King’s birthday Friday. We mark a day in his honor a few days later. I often wonder how his people could hear him, how they could follow him, enslaved and cruelly used for hundreds of years, imprisoned and lynched, terrorized, redlined, denied the right to vote, denied ease and breath.

No, Exodus is no myth.

Are we, too, suffering from shortness of breath? How do we make our way out of this narrow space? Can we even imagine what it would mean, in our time, to dance our freedom from plague, from oppression, from the cruelty of corrupt and power-hungry leaders?

Despite everything, despite our knowledge and our fears, I would like to have hope. I have never believed that the Holy One will fix things for us. I do believe that God sends us all that we need to do things for ourselves. Feel divine compassion and love, and you are strengthened; you breathe more easily. And then take on the task of our time as Moses and Miriam did in theirs. We must work to free ourselves and deliver and redeem each other.

And then, perhaps, like the ancient Israelites, we will dance our joy.

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