Monday, January 30, 2012

A New Song of the Sea

Parashat Beshallach

Exodus 13:17-17:16

11 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 3-4, 2012

A New Song of the Sea

by Rabbi Dan Horwitz

In this week’s portion, Beshallach, we find the Israelites journeying out of Egypt, exploring the world around them as free people for the first time. Once he sees that the Israelites are gone, Pharaoh’s heart again hardens and the Egyptians chase after the Israelites, trapping them against the Sea of Reeds. At God’s command, Moses raises his arms, splits the sea, the Israelites cross to the other side on dry land, and the Egyptians pursuing them drown as the waters crash down on them. The Israelites rejoice with song and dance at the demise of their former tormentors, and continue on their journey into the wilderness.

The “Song of the Sea” sung by the Israelites in this portion is one of the more beautiful pieces of prose we find in our Bible. How we express thanks – how we connect spiritually to the world around us – can often be accomplished through song. Whether lyrics or melody speak to you more, whether harmonizing while singing with others or slam poetry gets you going, fulfilled expression is a key part of human existence, and as our ancestors demonstrated, is inherently part of being Jewish.

In honor of those who came before us, below is my humble attempt at a little spoken word sharing the themes of this week’s Torah portion and the lesson I hope we’ll take away from it.

The plagues are over; the Egyptian firstborns are dead

The Israelites are heading out of Egypt; Pharaoh’s got no slaves to make his bed

Backed against the sea by Pharaoh’s army; Moses throws his arms up to God above

The sea splits, the Israelites cross; for Egyptian bondage they have no love

The Egyptians chased after; their futures suddenly ending

The waves crashed down upon them; leaving none but Pharaoh requiring mending

The Israelites saw Divine intervention; raucous rejoicing ensued

Praising the Lord for being on their side; expressing gratitude

So too when we have moments in life; that require us to pause

To give thanks for our many gifts; for escaping life’s often-unrelenting jaws

Let’s think back to our ancestors before; who knew just how and when

To give appropriate due and shout it out loud; with a Halleluyah and an Amen!

This Shabbat, find your own song. And shout it from the freakin’ rooftops.

Shabbat shalom.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Date to Remember

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
4 Shevat 5772 / Jan. 27 - 28, 2012

A Date to Remember
by Benjamin Singer, MH Chicago

Parshat Bo contains the last few plagues and the beginning of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt. It includes some beautiful passages, such as, even during the plague of darkness, there is light in every Israelite’s home. It also has a few troubling and confusing elements. As many parts of the Bible, they can leave us with more questions than answers. But I believe we can derive meaning from it nonetheless.

The first verse jumps out at us with God “hardening” or “strengthening” Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh thus not allowing the Israelites to depart. I have been troubled by this from the first moment I ever read it, years ago. After all, aren’t we taught that we have free will? Isn’t it our decision what we do: if we eat breakfast, if we follow a commandment, or if we choose to liberate a group of 1.2 million people? If so, how could God be responsible for Pharaoh’s decision?

This, I submit, is the theme of the parsha: the competing roles of individuals and a higher power.

An even more troubling verse in this respect comes right before the plague of the death of the first-born (no royalty, slaves, or non-human animals excluded). Here again, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the Israelites go. This gives God the opportunity to demonstrate God’s greatness throughout all of Egypt.

But if, as we are taught in the Talmud, “whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world,” why would God interfere, particularly with free will, in a way that requires so many lives to end?

Fortunately, all the death and plagues and such take a break when we learn how to celebrate Passover (well, there is death involved with the animal sacrifices). Here’s the weird part: God tells Moses that this, the seventh month, is to be the first month of the year. It’s like saying July 1 is the first of the year—fiscal, perhaps?—or that the letter “M” is the first letter of the alphabet.

Now, if we take a step back from all this madness, I think we can find meaning in it. Think about this: the parsha says the Israelites have been in Egypt for 430 years. 430 years! And here, in this one parsha, the institution of the Israelites’ slavery comes crashing down. All these different events conspire to make it happen: Pharaoh’s heart being “strong,” the first-born dying, all the different plagues…on top of the past miracles, including Moses’ miraculous salvation and then adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter, plus being recruited by God via a burning bush.

The point is, when all this craziness transpires—ending half a millennium of slavery, and starting a new era for our people—is it surprising that, well yeah, we should consider this at least the first month of our year? I believe this is in celebration of “everyday” miracles. While a few events coincide with our arbitrary calendar (think the Cuban revolution on January 1), most significant events happen when we least expect it. Dates that occur to me: July 4, July 14, September 1, December 7, August 6 and 9. And what perhaps resonates greatest for our generation, September 11, which happened one random morning when we were just going to school like any other day. All of the events on the above dates changed the world in meaningful ways, but didn’t happen along any preset timeline. It is important to note also that it was human actions, and the power of individual actors—Castro, Washington, Cahila, Hitler, Hirohito, Truman, Bin Laden—and in this week’s parsha, Moses and Pharaoh—who took initiative and made history.

Yet no matter the actions of individuals, we do not exist in a vacuum. We are told how to commemorate the Exodus on Passover:

“And it will come to pass, if your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ / You shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for God passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, and God saved our houses.’”

No mention of Moses. No mention of Pharaoh.

Ultimately, a lot of different human and divine actions combined to create a situation and an outcome. How much divine intervention is there? No matter the answer, our actions have consequences. Yet no matter our actions, we are not alone.

Monday, January 16, 2012

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

Parashat VaEra 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, January 9, 2012

“Call me Freedom!”

Parshat Sh’mot
19 Tevet 5772 / Jan. 13-14
Sh’mot 1:1 – 6:1

“Call me Freedom!”
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

I have a simple question this week. Why is the name of the second book of the Torah called Sh’mot in Hebrew and Exodus in English? Sh’mot means names and of course, Exodus refers to freedom. As we say in Hebrew, “Mah Hakesher?” What is the connection?

The simple answer is that there is not a real connection. The book begins with the verse, “And these are the NAMES of the Children of Israel…” Thus the first portion of the book is called NAMES, making the book itself titled NAMES. This is standard practice – in Hebrew, each book of the Torah is named after the first portion. In English, we use more thematically orientated names. Thus, this book is about the nation of Israel leaving Egypt in an epic journey, an Exodus in fact! The second book of the Torah is therefore called Exodus. Simple enough.

And of course, there are always deeper levels and connection to look at.

The ancient story tellers of Torah (aka The Rabbis) shared that during the time of slavery, the Israelite nation was steeped in deep assimilation. They were hanging on to their identities by mere threads. These threads though were just enough to keep their faith and connection with G-d alive, meriting G-d’s intervention. One of these “threads” was that the nation of Israel kept their family names passed down generation to generation, reminding them that even though they lived in Egypt and were currently slaves, ultimately they were non-Egyptian free people.

When I was 14 or 15 I left Yeshivah to go to public school. When I was sitting with the guidance counselor at the Yeshivah before I left she said, “Well, with a name like Zvi, you will always remember you are Jewish.” Cheesy, but true. Years later, I am sitting writing a D’var Torah as the Director of Jewish Education of an international Jewish organization. My 15 year old self is completely baffled.

The NAMES of the Israelite people perhaps provided the cultural continuity to not get completely lost amongst the degrading identity imposed by the Egyptians.

This is a great week to think about your name and contemplate its roots. Does your name spark a memory of a beloved family member? An interesting story? Do you not feel very connected to the meaning of your name? Perhaps it’s time for a name adjustment or some deeper exploration.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Remembering the Past, Being the Future
by Rabbi Dan Horwitz (Mid-West Regional Director)

“Israel said to Joseph: I never expected to see you again, and here the Divine has let me see your children as well.” – Genesis 48:11

This week’s portion, Vayechi, is the last portion in Genesis, and contains the death of both Jacob (aka “Israel”) and Joseph.

On his deathbed, Jacob calls Joseph and Joseph’s sons to his bedside so that he can bless his grandchildren. Filled with emotion, Jacob makes the statement shared in the verse above, grateful to have had the chance to participate in the lives of his descendants.

This verse strikes particularly close to home for me, given that my grandmothers are Holocaust survivors. In their own experiences, which consisted of being forcefully separated from their families and having to grow up far too soon, I can only assume that they had doubts as to whether they would live to see children of their own, let alone grandchildren.

The generation that survived the Holocaust has reached its dénouement. Survivors who are still alive and are old enough to recall the tragedies of WWII are well into their 80s, with some in their 90s. While some were able to create new life in the aftermath of the war, many survivors never had children of their own, and as a result, have none to share their stories or love with.

In your community, wherever you are, I assure you there is a Holocaust survivor who would welcome the opportunity to spend time with you. Those seeking to rewrite history are not shy about denying the well-documented atrocities committed against the Jews and others marked as “different” or “inferior.” It is essential that our generation internalize the stories of those who survived the war (and the stories we know of those who did not), both to develop perspective on our own perceived “problems,” as well as to combat those intent on propagating hate.

As we enter the year 2012, make the time to befriend a local Holocaust survivor. Whether listening to their stories, talking about sports or playing games, make sure that every survivor is given the honor that s/he deserves. Do everything in your power to help those survivors who we are still blessed enough to be here feel as if they, too, have had the opportunity to see their children and grandchildren and leave a lasting imprint, defying whatever doubts they may have had during the dark period in their lives.