Yitro: Breathing together

breatheawareness“The thing you are doing is not right.  You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.  For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”  (Ex 18:17-18)

Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, gives Moses the staggered-breathing advice when it came to hearing the pleas and complaints of the people out in the wilderness.  Moses was the only one hearing their disputes, and he was setting up for quite a backlog.  So, Yitro suggested that Moses bring on others to share the load, and they created a system of “thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” to hear and judge the minor disputes, and the major ones that couldn’t be solved, they would bring to Moses.

I saw something on Facebook the other day, recalling the choral technique of staggered breathing.  When there’s a really long note to hold, not everyone can do it for the entire length of the note, but if everybody grabs a breath at some point when one’s neighbor isn’t breathing, it sounds like it’s one continuous note, but the burden is spread out among the chorus.  The post was referring to the marathon some of us are running, staying ever vigilant against the vitriol and incompetency coming out of the White House, and its current resident. (Although how often is he really there…he’s gone golfing nearly every weekend since the Inauguration….but I digress, which brings me back to my point.)

We have to stay focused, and we can’t do it alone.  I can’t be out there writing letters, postcards, posts, and marching on every topic that concerns me right now.  I can’t donate to every cause that is so very important and needs support.  But if we all take a piece of the challenge, if we all breathe when our neighbor isn’t, we can stay strong in the face of such overwhelming challenges.

Moses was right to take Yitro’s advice.  He would wear himself out if he tried to do it all alone.  We will wear ourselves out, too, trying to fight every fight ourselves.  Rather, we have to share the challenge so it all gets done.  “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this

.. you will be able to bear up, and all these people will go home unwearied” (Ex 18:22-23)  Ramban (13th c Spain) says about the word “unwearied”, rather “ ‘in peace’.  Currently being unable to get to you [Moses] to see justice done, no one can rest peacefully.”

We can’t rest until justice is not only done, but secured and protected for all.


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Beshallach: Song and strength

It’s tech week. As the Hebrew saying goes, “mavin yavin” (he who understands will understand). So, given “tech week tired”  this is a reworking of a post from Beshallach, 2012.  Astounding that it’s still relevant.  Song can change the world.  

Sometimes I open the next week’s text and just stare at it.  Some parashiot are so huge and layered and profound I just don’t even know where to start.  That would be the case this week, with Beshallach.  Crossing the Sea of Reeds.  Armies drowned.  Singing the Song of the Sea.  Miriam dancing with the women.  Beginning to travel as a people, not just tribes. Complaining about no water. Miracles of water. Miracles of manna.  More miracles of water. And Amalek attacking.

I mean, seriously, where do you begin?  A few weeks ago, millions of us marched or stood in protest, and many of us have made ourselves present at more marches and protests. We raised our voices in song.  The one I kept singing in my head, and out loud, was “Never Turning Back” by Pat Humphries.  (sung here by Judy Small)

The centerpiece of the parasha is the Song of the Sea – Shirat ha Yam.  It is the song of victory sung as we passed through the Sea of Reeds, safe from the Egyptian pursuers.  Not surprisingly, after such an escape, the people, led by Moses, broke into song and dance, taking  what they’d just experienced and translating the Divine into very human terms.

The Song of the Sea is bold and strong, militaristic and unbowed at the death of the Egyptians.  It’s loud and long.  It’s the cry of a new birth – those who have passed through the waters from a narrow place into the open, into a journey.  There was death and blood, crying and shouting…and a new life: tentative, scary, vulnerable .

The poem mentions chariots thrown into the sea, strength of God’s right arm, wind and fury.  Personally, I don’t find the Shirat ha Yam all that compelling, in its totality; the battle images don’t appeal.  But  I like parts of it.  At the very beginning of the poem is a verse that evokes more calm than fury.    We sing, “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vay’hi li yeshua” (Yah is my strength and song, Yah is my deliverance.)

God is my strength and my song, and that is what saved me.  (If you want to hear a beautiful setting to this verse, check out  a couple of recordings using Rabbi Shefa Gold’s melody to the text   http://bit.ly/A9MeOt, or at a recent Limmud http://bit.ly/zgSoKz )

Ozi v’zimrat Yah-Yah is my strength and my song.  I love the idea of pairing strength and song. It does take strength to lift up your voice and sing.  I’m not talking about the “stage-fright-I-can’t sing” strength;  I mean “something is wrong here that needs to be righted” strength.   If you can sing about it, it’s real and lasting.  Song is what changes the world, and song changes us, too.  We have sung when the danger has passed, like the Israelites did here, and we have sung while we are still in the scary places, when we need the strength.  We sing to give strength to others.  We sing when something needs to change, and then sing again when it does.  We sing to remember, and we sing so we’ll never forget.

Vayihi li yeshua…and that is what saved me.  The Israelites were literally saved from their pursuers.  But they were being pursued by their past – what they had been: slaves.  Moses told them that the Egyptians they see that day they will never see again.  They must not see them again; they must not go back “there” to what they were.  There is only onward into the wilderness.  What pursues us today?  Our enslavement to whatever has kept us in our own “mitzrayim” (Egypt, but also “narrow place, from the word “metzar”, narrow), our indifference, our resistance to sing it out and sing it strong; who we’ve been, for which we need the strength to move onward.

Sometimes our songs are put to melodies, sometimes to dance, sometimes to words, and sometimes to our mere presence in a place.  These are the songs of the soul.

Ozi v’zimrat Ya-Yah is my strength and my song, and that is what will save me.

This is the Sabbath of song.  Go out and sing to change the world.

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Bo: Hold High Your Signs

Somehow this never got posted last week.  Not sure why, but this is last week’s dvar Torah.  Next week’s will be posted in a couple of days.

“They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts an the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it.” (Ex 12:7)

The Israelites were identifying their homes, so the Angel of Death would pass over them, and omit them from the 10th plague, the death of the first borns.  “And the blood on the houses were you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt (Ex 12:13)

One can imagine there was more than one audience for those blood smears.  God saw it, and knew the people were obeying God’s instructions.  Egyptians saw it, and would have surmised that they were about to be struck with another plague, one that, again, avoided affecting the Israelites.  And the Israelites saw it, knowing that their national identity was visible and their solidarity was on display.

Solidarity on display.  There have been many signs of solidarity on display over the last week.

Signs held over pink hats.  Signs calling for humanity and love. Signs against a hateful, fear-mongering ban on Muslim immigrants and refugees.  Signs of welcome for these same immigrants and refugees.  Signs of resistance to erosion of rights fought and died for.  Signs of determination to keep our voices heard.  Signs of vigilance and vision.

Many have said that these massive demonstrations don’t really do anything, that our voices are going to be ignored anyway.  But the signs on the lintels weren’t only for the Egyptians, the oppressors.  They were for the Israelites, too, so they would see they weren’t alone.  The signs were there to tell them why they were about to go into the wilderness, following one man with a vision and faith in a God they couldn’t see.  The signs told them that they would begin their journey together, and that if they kept their eyes on the signs all around them, throughout that journey, they would arrive at a place of plenty.

Keep making and holding high your signs.

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Va’era: Sight words

Last week in Shemot, after Moses had run away from Egypt after killing a man, he was wandering in the wilderness with his flock and “he looked and he saw a bush all aflame.  Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight’” (Ex 3:23) It was, of course, God, about to speak to Moses and change the course of history.

In this week’s parasha, Va’era, God “spoke to Moses and said to him, I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Y’HVH” (Ex 6:2-3)

Among the lofty words for God in these two passages are other really important words:  Look.  See. Appear. Look.  These are sight words. Change comes from seeing what’s right.  Change comes from seeing what’s wrong.   I saw both this week.

Friday was the Inauguration, and I have to say I am such a news-junkie I had to listen to it on the radio, at work.  I’ve always taken comfort from the “peaceful transition of power”, and it was there, of course. But this next stage of our country’s existence is coming from a dark place, and I can’t help but feel scared and wary and on guard.  And then there was Friday night, when instead of a typical Kabbalat Shabbat, I gathered with others to sing and raise funds for Planned Parenthood and ACLU.  And then there was Shabbat, a glorious blue-sky-sunshine-Shabbat on the lake, standing with so many, many others; a quarter of a million people, all together.  We didn’t march, in fact, because there were just too many people to go anywhere, so the organizers called it off.  And yet we marched anyway, walking up and down the streets of Chicago, carrying signs and wonders.

I looked.  I saw.  I didn’t need to turn aside to look at the marvelous sight, it was all around me. I was surrounded, encompassed, held. I couldn’t see the end of the sea of people.  We sang. We called out.  We smiled.  We shared.  And it couldn’t…won’t end there.  There is work to be done, steps to take toward a time when we won’t have to keep standing up with signs and working for each other.

When Moses saw the burning bush, he was standing on holy ground. He was about to begin changing the destiny of a people who were oppressed, vulnerable, needing hope.  But first he had to look.  First he had to see.  He didn’t do it alone, but it started with seeing what was right, what was wrong, and seeing a pathway to fixing it.

Va’era. Sight. Vision. Seeing. Appearing.  We saw ourselves among hundreds of thousands, millions across the world, ready to take the steps to freedom and justice.  Those are lofty words for a gathering, but hundreds of thousands walked out of slavery.  Hundreds of thousands stood by the water and took a step.  I don’t know if the Israelites could see themselves as free.  On Shabbat, however, we saw ourselves as strong, aware we were standing on holy ground, and focused our eyes on the future.  Here we go.eyes

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Shmot: starting the journey

civil-disobedienceI have a friend who posted that “inauguration” means marking the beginning of something, and so challenged us to respond with whatever we are going to begin tomorrow.  Well, I answered “to keep raising my voice to speak [for] truth and justice.”  That may sound incredibly lofty and dramatic.  But we are standing on the eve of a different inauguration, one that is bringing out the lofty in me, or at least, the desire to strive for the lofty…and dramatic.

This week’s parasha is Shmot, the first parasha of the book of Shmot, Exodus.  There is so much to learn from this week’s portion.  It’s a great portion. Moses’ birth, the burning bush, the moment when God reveals God’s-self (I am who I am), and more.  But I am riveted this evening by this:  the beginning of the journey to freedom started with subversive, morally consistent and intentional acts of justice.

Shifra and Puah.  The  Hebrew midwives. Rashbam says they were midwives who were Hebrews rather than Egyptian women who were midwives to the Hebrews.  Abarbanel says the opposite; they were Egyptian women who were midwives for the Hebrews, for how could Pharaoh expect Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies?  It doesn’t matter.  Shifra and Puah were told by Pharoah to kill all Hebrew baby boys, and said no.  By that time, the leadership had separated out one people, the Israelites, from the others, though they had lived in Egypt for hundreds of years.  Then, the leadership decided to enslave the Israelites and make their lives hard.  No one spoke up. No one stood with them.  Only two women, Shifra and Puah, said no.  When Pharaoh called them to the palace, to find out why so many Hebrew boys were still living, they lied to the king, saying the Israelite women birthed too quickly, and the midwives couldn’t get their fast enough to kill the babies.

Shifrah and Puah didn’t just birth babies.  Shifrah and Puah birthed an entire nation’s trek to freedom, simply by saying no, they wouldn’t take part in marginalizing or victimizing a vulnerable people.

We are on the eve of what I consider to be the results of an enormous shift in the acceptable social foundational values.  I am not Shifrah or Puah, but I decided that I won’t spend the next four years holding back on speaking truth in the pursuit of justice.  I believe what happens tomorrow demands nothing less.  I’m not exaggerating, I’m not giving in to hyperbole or panic.  I believe I’m seeing clearly what is at stake.  I have lived through bad presidents. This is different.  I have lived through the inaugurations of men with whom I’ve disagreed tremendously, and I knew we would survive until the next election because the basic protections of liberty and freedoms were inviolate, or so I thought. I believe in our country, and our institutions and our Constitution.  This is different.

So, I’m not staying as quiet anymore, and I wasn’t that quiet before. I will march on Shabbat, I will show up. I will pray with my feet, as Rabbi Heschel said. I will sing, I will volunteer, I will stay ever vigilant because we are witnessing how fragile our freedoms really are.

If you disagree with me, if you share other political opinions, go ahead and unfollow this blog. Or don’t.  Answer back to me with respect, and I will do the same.  But this is a time for clarity of voice and vision, and I will be exercising both in the coming years. There are Shifras and Puahs out there to stand up and do what’s right.


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Vayechi: End of a cycle

Now Israel’s eyes were dim with age (Gen 48:10)

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see…(Gen 27:1)

Two old men with failing eyesight.  A father and son. When Isaac’s eyes were too old to see, he mistook his younger son Jacob (Israel) for his older son Esau, when he was preparing to give the oldest son’s blessing.  Jacob had tricked his father into thinking he was Esau, by presenting his dad’s favorite meal and donning a costume of animal skin to appear like his hairy brother.  He had total support from his mother in this deceit.  As a result of stealing his older brother’s blessing, Jacob and Esau were separated in hatred for 20 years, reconciled with one embrace, saw each other again at their father’s funeral, and that was the end.

Now it’s Jacob that is old, feeble, and blind.  Once again, two young boys come to his deathbed to receive blessings.   It’s Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menasseh.  Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, and long-lost son, who had been in Egypt for decades; not dead but Jacob had been told he was dead.  Ephraim and Menasseh had been born to Joseph in Egypt – Jacob makes note of this, “Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you (before they were reconciled)”  (Gen 48:5) The rest of the sentence is, “[they] shall be mine”  Jacob was accepting these boys as his own, to be included in his inheritance.

Unlike with Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Menasseh appear together, and though the younger was blessed before the older, there was no estrangement, no feud, no life-long brother hatred. They are both included in the inheritance, in honor of Joseph’s mother Rachel, “I do this because….Rachel died, to my sorrow…” (Gen 48:7)

The rabbis say the curse of feuding brothers that started with Abel and Cain, ended with Ephraim and Menasseh, and that’s why their names are invoked every Shabbat in blessing one’s sons: May you be like Ephraim and Menasseh.  Perhaps the enmity cycle was broken because these two young men were accepted, brought into the family as equals, after years and years of estrangement, the children of an interfaith marriage.  Joseph had married an Egyptian woman, not a Canaanite, not a woman from home, like his father and grandfather before him.

We don’t necessarily know how Jacob felt about the 20 year estrangement between himself and his brother.  We do know that being separated from his family pained Joseph deeply.  Two fathers, blind with age, yet one could see clearly that keeping hatred and animosity would only continue to destroy families.  Jacob had a favorite son, as did his father…and it wasn’t Jacob.  The wisdom he learned by thinking his dear son was dead taught him that ultimately, favoritism had to stop.


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Vayigash: Two sets of brothers

joseph-and-benjamin-embraceAfter years of separation, two brothers are finally reunited, falling on each others’ necks and weeping.
Yes, you did read about this recently, when Jacob and Esau reconciled in parasha Vayishlach, only a few weeks ago.  Jacob had run away when he tricked Esau out of the first son’s blessing, and Esau threatened to kill him.  Twenty years went by, during which time Jacob married (twice) had 13 children, and did quite well for himself.  After a night alone before seeing each other again, struggling with an angel, Jacob met Esau on the field, as if for battle.  Jacob bowed low to his brother, and Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him, kissed his neck, and wept.
In this week’s parasha, Joseph has also been separated from his brothers for twenty years, starting from when the brothers sold Joseph as a slave….instead of killing him. They lied to their father about Joseph’s fate, however. Joseph ended up in Egypt, at first imprisoned, and then as the most trusted advisor to the Pharaoh.  During the drought foretold by Pharaoh’s  dreams, which Joseph correctly interpreted, the remaining sons of Jacob came to Egypt in search of food.  After going back and forth, framing his younger brother Benjamin for a “stolen” cup, and keeping his identity hidden, Joseph finally revealed who he was. “Joseph could not bear anyone standing near him, and called out, “Take everyone away from me! So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.” (Gen 44:1)
And then, he went to his little brother Benjamin, the only full brother he had among all his siblings, the one whose birth coincided with their mother’s death, ” he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept and Benjamin wept on his neck.” (Ber 44:14)
Two sets of brothers, weeping on each other’s necks, bridging a gap of years and old hurt feelings. But a careful read suggests a difference. In the case of Jacob and Esau, the encounter seems more one-sided; Esau “fell on his neck and he kissed him, and they wept.” (Gen 33:4) Esau had wanted to kill Jacob because he cheated him. Joseph may have been an annoying, self-centered little brother who kept talking about his own dreams, but he didn’t cheat or deceive his brothers.  They were the ones who plotted against him. Jacob probably felt more relief than actual love when Esau embraced him; they never saw each other again until their father died.  With Joseph and his brothers, though he was the one whose life was in danger, he always hoped to find his family again.  We don’t get that sense from Jacob at all.  When Joseph told the brothers who he was, his first thoughts were of his father, and his brothers’ welfare.  He immediately made arrangements to bring the family to Egypt, and made sure they were taken care of.
Joseph knew what it was like to be a target of his brothers’ hate.  Benjamin had been unjustly accused and Joseph saw that his brothers protected him, speaking of the injustice to the powerful vizier, not knowing it was their brother.)  Joseph and Benjamin sought each other out at just that moment of revelation, could hold each other, and each weep with the other for the return of their family unity, in a way that Jacob and Esau never attained.
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