At bedtime recently, my six year old daughter asked me, "Daddy, who are our ancestors?" It was not one of those profound-sounding questions that really isn't: rather, it was a thoughtful and sincere query after watching a show about a Latina girl learning about her ancestors. "Who are ours?" she needed to know. In this Tu B'Shvat presentation, I show how i connect to our ancestors by going back through the Seven Species of the Land of Israel, presented in the Temple, which go back further to the lives of our shepherd ancestor Hebrews (patriarchs and matriarchs), and then even farther back to the ancestral memories of the first few chapters of Genesis, of the gatherer humans of 3000 BCE to 9000 BCE in the Tigris-Euphrates region with their figs, grapes, and olives. Our ancestors evolved, living in harmony with Creation, by living off of the bounty of trees. And we should, too.
While we can always make mistakes reading into the Torah something in the current news, and vice versa, we also cannot shy away from the invitation of profound synchronicities, like the fact that we in synagogue read about the "new king" being inaugurated as the women protest, as something very similar (with a million women) is happening outside the sanctuary walls. When we bring our minds to modern application or comparison, we bring our commentators and our critical thinking skills. I bring three "Rashi's" or traditional interpretations of our parashah. First, Exodus or "Shemot/Names" starts with the names of individual Hebrews, not a collective term like "the Hebrews," because God calls us to see actual individuals when we make generalizations about groups, rather than, like Pharoah, making generalizations only. Second, the new king does not ackowledge the contributions of the invidual Hebrews, their patriotism, and their hatred of the enemies of Egypt despite coming from those regions. And third, that in his fear mongering that the Hebrews are essentially refugees from the Syrian area-- and therefore will "join with" those enemies of Egypt to bring down the country-- Pharaoh actually weakens his country so much that his own prophecy comes true, first in the plagues and then, generations later, the resulting weakened Egypt falling to those (Assyrian) enemies from the north [who destroy and exile the Israelites as well].
We think of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt as "the enslavement," but didn't the Egyptians own slaves prior to that (albeit of a different kind)? I look at a Rashi which places the "enslavement" (or en-serf-ment --same word in Hebrew) of the Egyptians by Joseph as the middle step in two enslavements, first Egypt's everyday slavery -- in the ancient world slavery was the inevitable consequence of unpayable debt-- and second the reactive enslavement of the Israelites as the supposed cause of Egypt's decline. I see a parallel in American society from our initial enslavement of Africans and African-Americans to our recent reactive blaming of our decline on people of color rather than on our own national debt and lack of future planning. I make that case while remembering the close relationship of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, as recorded by Heschel's daughter, Susannah.
After killing the Egyptian, witnessing Hebrew on Hebrew injustice, and fleeing Egypt for an under-the-radar life of a shepherd-for-hire, Moses confronts the third of his three searing experiences of injustice: the bullying of Midianite shepherd girls by the boys. "And he rises to their defense." What is the significance of this third archetypal step? How has his life led up to his moment, and how does this moment continue to define it? How does it, and his marriage, shape not only his life but his imminent enlightenment at the Burning Bush?
(Something to think about before Hanukkah's gift exchange...] I read Abraham's penchant for gift giving and hospitality --and his contrasting refusal to accept a discount from the Hebron locals for the prime burial cave-- through the lens of French-Jewish sociologist Marcel Mauss's book The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, his landmark study of the centrality of gift giving in tribal societies. (The book became highly influential on French literary theory, and Mauss himself was the founder of the French Academy for Sociology, along with his famous uncle and mentor, Emil Durkheim, also Jewish, whose Elementary Forms of the Religious Life --which focuses on religion as a community, not a faith, phenomenon-- is still a required classic in the field of religion today.) What's the difference between systems of gift exchange and of money/barter exchange? What different obligations are involved? What does it mean to accept a gift, even today? What cost is there to chasing sales and Black Friday discounts? And how does this relate to the Lubavitcher Rebbe's comment that "Abraham knew that nothing comes for free?" (Comments from participants have been edited out as they were not picked up by the microphone.)
[Posted in honor of Thanksgiving] We all say we should value gratitude more and express it, but does saying words of gratitude really mean you're grateful? Of course not! So how do we actually practice gratitude, which is a form of mindfulness? How is this mental state incompatible with a life tethered to electronics? I explore these themes drawing from the Siddur, and from the books "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brene Brown and "Alone Together" by Sherry Turkle.
Our Torah Class on Exodus chapter 2. Why so many ambiguities in Moses' origin? Who are his parents? Why he is raised by all women, but all the movies just focus on his relationships with men that are not found in the Torah? What does his name mean? Is Freud right that he's an Egyptian? How does his biography turn upside down the ancient-hero-origin-archetype according to Richard Elliot Friedman? Is the Torah doing all of this on purpose? Plus many more questions. (Note: I have removed the many questions and comments that were not picked up by the microphone, and just left responses.)
In a time when so many of us are under pressure -- working night and day, taking care of the generation under us and the generation above us, watching our debts rise and the prospects of our children fade-- of course the solutions offered by those eager to capitalize on our anxiety is to call for a return to some Golden Age where those ones supposedly to blame for our problems because they didn't keep to their station are fenced out, and we are once again on top. The problem with this is that often those Golden Ages never existed: they are a fabrication about the past by those who want power. One such Golden Age that is offered up as "Traditional Judaism" is the one where women stayed in the home, having babies, and didn't seek to compete for control of the public realm with men, one where they leave Torah study to others. When I was speaking about this recently, one congregant said, "Look, Rabbi, I support egalitarianism, that's why I'm a Conservative Jew, but I also am deeply respectful of the Orthodox who are preserving Judaism the way it was." Only problem? The limitations on women are not the Judaism that was, but come from a modern reactionism that is recent. In the Shulkhan Arukh Code of Jewish Law (early 1500's), women read from the Torah. In the Talmud, women prayed our liturgy, and were not limited as they are in Ultra-Orthodoxy today to reading just Psalms. The earliest evidence for a separation mechitzah between men and women is found in the post-Talmudic medieval period in Muslim countries, adopting it from Islam. ["Traditional Judaism" should be understood as Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism, covering roughly 1200 BCE-1500 CE, not later emendations.] This "Golden Age" where "men and women knew their traditional Jewish roles" is a dangerous fiction, and dates mostly to the late Medieval period, and especially the 1800's, when laws and customs were ADDED [in violation of the Torah's rule that one may not add laws] in order to create these gender roles in a tradition that had been a champion of women's equality. In my sermon on Parashat Bereishit (Genesis), I compare the situation to the original blaming of women [especially in early Christian commentaries] for the world's problems --Eve being the weak link the Serpent tricks, and then she gives Adam to eat-- and instead locate the "sin" in Adam's adding an illegal fence around the tree to prevent her from touching it, a rule God never gave but meant, apparently, for her own good. The coincidence this week was divine: a photograph of our Simchat Torah celebration, with a woman carrying the Torah scroll, was met with a comment from an Orthodox woman that "the rabbi of your congregation should know that a woman is forbidden from touching a Torah scroll!" Really? That's news to our legal codes:
"All who are impure, even women who are menstruating, and even a non-Jew, may hold a Torah scroll and read from it, for words of Torah are not susceptible to impurity, provided that the holder's hands are not physically soiled or dirty. [If they are, then] they must wash their hands and then they may touch it." Laws of Torah Scrolls, 10:8, R. Moses Maimonides (c. 1180)
It's hard as a Jew not to be surprised, yet again, that we are building a sukkah mere hours following the intense period of introspection, prayer, self-examination, repair of relationships, internal inventories, repentance, forgiveness, and new year's resolutions that run from the beginning of the month of Elul all the way through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yes, we do it every year, but it still comes a shock. With Yom Kippur barely over, we are engaged in the building of a sukkah. Why? Does it serve some deep spiritual purpose? In this 8 minute teaching, I use Bill O'Hanlon's famous book, "Do One Thing Different: Ten Simple Ways to Change Your Life" to elucidate this deep spiritual purpose, the purpose of making it possible to actually fulfill the vows and resolutions made during the High Holidays, even when that path seems hard to get on directly. Often the indirect change approach is the most effective.
Don't blink or you'll miss it: two simple verses that help begin the Book of Exodus tell a story as ancient as our people and as recent as the nightly news tonight. What do Trump and Putin have in common with the "new king" who "arose over Egypt"? The wheels of history turn but the song remains the same. From Torah Study on October 16th.