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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Keeping the Ball in the Air

Balls in the airIn his book, Tales of a Dalai Lama, Pierre Delattre tells a story about rules, about games, and about life’s purpose.

Once, he writes, when the Dalai Lama was very young, he was invited to a volleyball game after an interview with a Swedish professor.  The players batted the ball over the net and whenever the ball hit the ground there were, of course, jubilant cheers from some fans.  Others looked on, distraught.

The young Dalai Lama asked the professor to explain why people were playing against each other.  He pointed out the obvious truth:  Every time the ball hit the ground someone needed to be consoled.

The professor explained that points were won when the opposing team missed the ball.

The Dalai Lama was distressed.  “But then the ball must hit the ground all the time. Such a way to play with the human spirit!”

Delattre describes the professor sitting, watching the game, thinking remembering his students batting ideas around, himself offering a concept only to find his student chomping at the bit for an opportunity to prove his argument flawed.

Suddenly, the professor yearned for a class discussion that would keep ideas in the air, allow the human spirit to take flight.  Ashamed, Delattre writes, he left for Sweden with one desire: To go home and to change the rules of the game.

I told this story during High Holy Days and asked my congregants: What if the rules of the game were to keep the ball in the air?

What if we did not wait for others to trip and fall, but actively held each other up?  What if we did not criticize what we felt were mistakes but simply asked others if they could rethink with us – and even consider that we ourselves might have rushed to judgment.  What if we decided that having an ax to grind is equivalent to wishing humiliation and pain on someone else?

WHAT OCCURRED?  The boulder left the mountain.
Who awakened?  You and I.
Language, language.  Co-earth.  Fellow planet.
Poorer.  Open.  Homelandly.

The course?  Towards the unsubsided.
Your course and mine was the boulder’s flight.
Heart and heavy. Adjudged too heavy.
Grow more heavy.  Be more light.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, I read this poem by Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel.  Celan became one of the most well-known German – and Jewish — poets after the Holocaust.  He was the only member of his family to survive.

That night, I called the people Celan’s “unsubsided.” Class and gender-neutral, stranger in the camp and Israelite from way back, old and young, the unsubsided, I said, all these stood side by side to listen.  I imagined that the boulder’s flight must have been the truth expressed in that moment:  Torah is for us all.  We can stand together to receive truth, work together to understand it, and support each other in making our revelation real:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  1Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”  No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 30:11-14)

It is close to you.  It is in your mouth and in your heart.

On Kol Nidre I asked my congregants: Can we disavow clinging to agendas, our egos and their needs?  Could we vow to change the rules of the game, to keep the ball in the air?

Should this not be our life’s purpose?

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The Key to the Treasure is the Treasure

Sita Singing in the Rain, Copyright Nina PaleySita Sings The Blues is a full-length feature film produced by Jewish superwoman artist-cartoonist Nina Paley (available for free download at http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html). In the film, Paley mines an ancient Sanskrit epic to retell an archetypal story: Devoted woman gets done by the egocentric man she loves.

The narrative of the epic (Sita and Rama love, lose, and love again only, in the end, to lose big time) is Paley’s comment on her own ex-husband-bum’s behavior, but the film is ever so much more than that. Envision diamonds and rubies and sapphires, golden tiaras and cascades of silver filigree. Sita Sings the Blues is so dazzling you simply can’t take it in in one go.

The key to the treasure is the treasure, as John Barth’s Scheherazade points out in Chimera. The key to Sita Sings the Blues is not – appearances aside – the wild display of color or the imaginative jazz soundtrack, but Paley’s willingness to ask questions, to provoke her audience. Sita and Rama are not All Nice, and their actions cause pain and suffering – even death. The shadow puppets who narrate events also comment on the epic, noting the difficulties with standard interpretations that paint the hero and heroine as paragons of virtue. One narrator points out that Sita’s demands cause a terrible loss of life for those who would save her (she’s a bloodthirsty woman, the narrator exclaims). Another counters immediately: “Don’t challenge these stories!”

When I visit churches to speak about biblical texts, when I unpack them in university settings, I often find folks in the pews or students in my classroom growing nervous. I ask questions, and they proffer the formulations they learned in Sunday school, interpretations that will reconcile difficulties.

They’ve been taught these readings as if they were the text itself. But the interpretations they offer are often designed to obscure contradictions, to paper over ambiguities, to create more comfortable characters and a reassuringly omnipotent deity. They don’t want to challenge God.

I don’t think God would fear the challenge, though.

The God of Tanakh is compassionate and mothering, tender and loving. But YHWH also bumbles, fumbles, and grumbles. God complains. God worries. God roars.

YHWH is a moody deity, even murderous.

In Exodus 3-4, God entreats Moses to agree to take on the mission of saving his people. Almost immediately after Moses finally sets off for Egypt, God launches an inexplicable and vicious attack on his prophet. Of course, there are many readings attempting to make sense of this bizarre passage, including the claim that Moses is threatened with death because he has failed to observe an important Jewish ritual. (Just guess which…)

But seriously, now. God first commissions Moses for a really big job, and then, in the middle of the night, reminds him of forgotten obligations? This particular divine reminder comes in the form of a direct assault on Moses’ life.

Seems just a tad over the top, no?

Interestingly, it is Moses’ wife, Zipporah, who figures out how to propitiate the deity. She takes a flint and manages to circumcise their son — in the middle of the night, no less. Tanakh is dark in places.

It’s also hilariously funny.

Take Genesis 2:5 – 3. In the entertaining second version of How Things Worked (Genesis 1 tells the story of creation quite differently), God creates Adam, decides he needs a helpmeet and parades a slew of animals before him for inspection. Turns out, our presumably omniscient deity is a bumbling yenta.

Imagine the scene: God and Adam just hanging out, being guys together, checking things out.  Both are strangely unaware that chickens and porcupines are not appropriate playmates for the recently created man-person. Woody Allen would have a field day with this material. He should, actually.

Adam, so the rabbis say, tries out each and every creation God produces. But the plumbing isn’t compatible.  No “fitting helper” was found. The rabbis conclude: “Adam attempted to have sex with all the beasts and animals, but his sexual desire (knowledge) was not cooled off by them” (see b. Yevamot, 63a).

You can imagine the response of my students and church audiences to rabbinic interpretations of this sort.  You can imagine their response when I point out that our Bible is – at least sometimes– awesome burlesque.

What I love about Tanakh and, in fact, any great literature, is the refusal to offer pat answers, to make life’s questions easy. The whole point is to challenge these stories, to ask questions, to wonder, to laugh out loud. Curiosity is a good thing – a great thing. No religious tradition should be without it.

Sacred stories can and ought to bear challenges of all kinds. That’s what keeps them alive.

It’s the questions that give us the rewards we seek. The key to the treasure is the treasure.

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