Monday, December 27, 2010

Parshat Va’Era
Sh’mot 6:2 – 9:35
25 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 31 – Jan. 1, 2011

Partnering: Creating a New Paradigm
by Maya Bernstein, UpStart Bay Area

Parashat Va’Era marks the beginning of the maelstrom that culminates in the Israelites’ escape from the bondage of Egypt. Moses, representing the God of Israel who has heard the Israelites’ suffering, and remembered the promise of freedom given to their ancestors, takes action, and rains down plague after plague upon the Egyptians. Structurally, the Parasha is quite predictable: God speaks to Moses, Moses brings the message to Pharaoh, God brings on the plague, Pharaoh begs for mercy, God stops the plague, and Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. The cycle then begins anew.

Before this paradigm begins, though, there is a strange insertion of verses tracing Moses’s lineage. Chapter 6, verse 13 recounts God’s charge to Moses and Aharon to begin the process that will result in the Israelites’ freedom. Then, suddenly, the next verse seems to completely switch tracks, and tells us about the heads of the houses of Jacob’s sons, their marriages and their children. This genealogy ends with the following statement in verses 26-27: “He is Aharon and Moses, whom God told to bring out the Israelites from the land of Egypt…they speak to Pharaoh the king of Egypt…he is Moses and Aharon.”

What does this genealogy add to the story? What is it doing here, breaking up the pattern to which the Parasha so closely adheres? And why does the genealogy end with a strange pronoun confusion, referring to Aharon and Moses in the singular, then in the plural, and then again in the singular?

The Book of Genesis, the first book in the Torah, is a story about the challenges of relationships. The pattern throughout is one of dysfunctional familial relationships: Cain kills Abel; Ishmael is banished; Jacob steals from Esau, and the parental units, often dysfunctional as well, encourage this pattern amongst siblings. Jacob and his sons perpetuate this pattern too, with Jacob’s choosing of Joseph as the beloved son, and the brothers’ jealousy, attempted murder, and successful expulsion of Joseph to Egypt. The end of Genesis, though, marks a twist in the pattern, when Judah, representing his brothers, owns up to his mistake, and Joseph forgives his brothers. The Book of Exodus begins with list of all of Jacob’s sons, dwelling together in Egypt. This is a tentative beginning of co-existence amongst those who are different, a fragile rejection of the old pattern, and symbolic hope of a new one. The Book of Exodus as a whole marks the struggle of a group of people to come together as a nation, with a core set of shared values and practices.

Perhaps this is why, before the Exodus process begins, the Torah takes the time to remind us that the pattern of familial disunity, which had marked this nation until this point, has now been fully repaired. Moses and Aharon, literally, are referred to with a singular pronoun. They work together, as one. They are different, yet they complement each other. They are both necessary, for the work they must accomplish is greater than each is capable of managing on his own.

Great challenges require deep learning and growing. Had Israel been stuck in the pattern of exclusion, they would have remained in Egypt, Mitzrayim, which literally means a “narrow place.” The genealogy at the end of Chapter 6 foreshadows the success of this mission. New challenges will arise. But the old patterns have been broken, and brothers, previously a symbol of disunity, hatred, and suspicion, now represent love, complementary strengths, and unity.

Great challenges require great collaborations, specifically with those who think differently from us, and who have the skills and strengths that we lack. As we enter a new secular year, celebrating the potential for renewal, let us think about those changes we can make when we imagine “New Year’s Resolutions” not only for ourselves, but for our community. And let us be blessed with the ability to find partners who challenge and complement us, allowing us to accomplish great feats, and to move from the narrow to the vast.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Confessions of a Young Prophet

Parshat Sh'mot
18 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 24-25, 2010
Shmot 1:1 – 6:1

Confessions of a Young Prophet
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I am so furious at G-d! I am talking fed up, volcanic, hella A-N-G-R-Y with the Lord of Hosts! Oh, You have a new name now, “I will be what I will be.” Well, I will tell You what I won’t be – the Savior of Israel. That is what I won’t be. I am a man of action. When I saw that Egyptian pig whipping my own flesh and blood, I did not hesitate to turn the suffering around. I am not proud that I killed him, but I couldn’t just stand by. Not anymore. And when those beastly shepherds were giving my lovely Tzipporah and her sisters trouble in Midian, I took action. I shut them up good and drew water for the ladies’ plump sheep. (Don’t think I don’t know about my family’s history when it comes to women, wells, and love.) But G-d, you are asking too much now.

I am good with my fists, but not with my words. And now I’ve pulled my brother Aaron into this mess. I just don’t know how to stand up to Pharoah. How can I gain the nation’s trust? Thank you G-d for the signs and all. The staff to snake trick, and the hand of leprosy healing act. And of course, turning Nile river water to blood. That helped get some of Israel to believe that You sent me to save them. But, look what happened. I talked to Pharoah and he increased their labor beyond any person’s physical capabilities. It is just not fair. Why did you send me to fail?

I get that I have no choice in the matter. You’ve already told me to suck up my complaints and accept my responsibility. I am not sure if I can trust You, not sure how to trust you. But I want to. I know that my people can live freely. We can go back to our homeland and live as our own masters again. I have nothing to offer except for passion, a faulty tongue, and shaky faith. If that works with You, then I guess it will have to work for me. Alright, it’s time to go see Pharoah again. Please G-d, don’t desert me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Milk and Honey

Parashat Vayechi
11 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 17-18, 2010
Bereshit 47:28 - 50:26

Milk and Honey
by Joshua Avraham Einstein, MH Hoboken

In Parshat Veyechi, the last parsha in Genesis, there are two things of note. One is the passing of two of our forefathers, Jacob and Joseph, and Jacob’s corresponding pre-death arrangements. Jacob blesses his children and grand children, doing so in the manner he wants too and against prevailing custom. Jacob designates Joseph as the first born and makes Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menassah, his own children, incorporating them each into the 12 tribes by his blessing.

Jacob states that he is to be buried in the land of Canaan, on the plot of land known today as the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacobs’s wife Leah are buried. He does this because he sees the Jewish people already comfortable outside of the Promised Land. In the area of Egypt known as Goshen the Jewish nation had grown both in number and in influence. By insisting that his burial take place in Canaan, Jacob is attempting to remind the Jewish people that they are but strangers in a strange land and that their birth right lies in Canaan.

When Joseph dies the parsha does not dwell on whom he blessed or what he blessed them with. Compared to Jacob he gets the short end of the stick. That said it’s important to note that both state to the masses that Canaan is their land and that G-d will bring them there. While Joseph is to be buried in Egypt he states that his bones be taken “up out of here.” Presumably, he is referring Canaan.

The parsha is an interesting one because it addresses the dualistic nature of Jewish people hood. We are an exilic people and yet all of our tradition is permeated by the notion of a return to our much vaunted and ballyhooed homeland. The Jewish people began in exile with Abraham who journeyed to the Promised Land, then went back to exile in Egypt with Joseph and Jacob, and then back to Israel with Moses, etc. Clearly times have not always been good for the Jewish people, whether in exile or the Promised Land our history, Biblical and factual, has been replete with migrations. Yet focusing our community on a spiritual notion of Israel as the “Land of Milk and Honey” has focused and kept us together as a coherent group distinct from the larger culture around us, this was true in Jacob and Joseph’s last statements and it remains true today.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Who’s Your Daddy!

Parashat VaYigash
4 Tevet 5771 / Dec. 10 – 11, 2010
44:18 – 47:27

Who’s Your Daddy!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

In this week’s Parasha we have the meeting of two national super-giants. The great Emperor of Egypt, Paroah becomes acquainted with Jacob, the Patriarch of the Jewish people. I imagine some high drama at this gathering. Jacob, who has thought his son was dead, goes to Egypt to be reunited with Joseph who is #2 to the ruler of Egypt. The excitement, fear, joy, confusion, and disbelief could only have been overwhelming. Then the moment comes, for Jacob to stand face-to-face with the man that saved Joseph’s life. Paroah nurtured Joseph, clothed and fed him, and gave him a status level that Jacob could never have offered.
What might have Jacob felt looking into the eyes of the man who became the stand-in father for his most beloved son. This man, Paroah, was able to protect and elevate him. Under Jacob’s watch, Joseph was cast-off and sold into slavery.  

The Torah tells us that when Jacob and Paroah meet, Jacob blesses Paroah two times – once upon introduction and the second upon their parting. Rashi (1040 – 1105) comments that this was in the natural way of people who greet royalty. Though he goes on to quote a Midrash (interpretive story) that Jacob blessed Paroah that the Nile River will rise up to meet him whenever he approached it. And the blessings came true. When Paroah would approach the Nile the waters would rise, enabling their crops to be irrigated.

It seems that in offering this power blessing to Paroah, Jacob was reminding everyone (and perhaps himself too) that the source of Joseph’s success was not only the physical gifts and prestige bestowed on him from Paroah, but rather the spiritual gifts that suffuses Jacob’s blood line. One way of looking at Jacob’s blessings is a statement of power – “Hey Paroah! You think you’re such a hot potato latke! Take this.” In this instance (and with Paroah’s willingness) Jacob was able to re-establish his place as the head of his family, and the father of his beloved and praised son, Joseph.

What is the message in this for us today? I feel that in the U.S. we have to be very careful how we appreciate our Jewishness. “It is great to be Jewish, but not greater than any other religion.” (I wonder how it is for you outside of the U.S.) I think that keeping a level-headedness about our Jewish heritage is necessary. At the same time, I recommend taking some time to contemplate the gift of being Jewish. The rich history and blessing that is part of our story and our spirit. Being Jewish engraves practices and ethics like Shabbat, charity giving, and community support into our daily lives. I believe that we should not shy away from honoring our beautiful traditions.