Monday, December 27, 2010

Partnering: Creating a New Paradigm

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.


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