Yitro: standing in line for justice

standing in lineYitro’s advice to Moses was to make the law accessible to the people. We would do well to take that advice today.“You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times.” (Ex 18:21-22)

Something incredibly powerful just happened. As Yitro, Moses’ father in law, stepped forward to give Moses advice, there was a huge shift in the structure of the nascent Israelite society. Up until now, as we read in the verses just before, Moses had been the sole magistrate of the people. Everyone lined up to bring him their disputes, to know how the law that was given was to be applied.In one moment, Yitro not only saw the toll it was taking on Moses personally. He brought justice into the public access. Suddenly, more people were involved in the process, more people were invested in the process, and the community’s capacity for law and justice was expanded.

Building capacity for law and justice in a community is crucial, vital in fact, to its sustainability. When more people feel that they have access to the protections and application of a community’s just and righteous goals, they are that much more inclined to contribute.

In his commentary to verse 12, “and let them judge the people at all times”, Ramban (aka Nachmanides) of 13th century Spain, said the following, “If there are many judges, the one who is robbed can find a judge who will be ready to help him at any hour, something that is impossible as long as you are doing all the judging. Many of them, having no opportunity to bring their case before you, simply put up with the injustice done to them, being unwilling to leave their jobs or businesses for as long as it would take to wait for an audience.” (p 144 JPS Mikra’ot Gedolot) (emphasis mine)

How many people in our society today feel that they have no access to justice? That put up with their injustices because they can’t take off work, or can’t get childcare, or the line is too long, and the process too complicated. They are alienated from ever feeling like the justice system works for them. I don’t have to list here the implications of this – it permeates every area of our justice system, from immigration to criminal, injury and damages, even patents and trademarks. It costs too much to have one’s day in court any more, and so people just put up with the injustices.

 

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Beshallach: the long way ’round

beshellachAs is typical in the book of Exodus, a lot happens in this week’s parasha, Be’shalach, not the least of which, by the way, is Moses’ Shirat Ha Yam, the Song of the Sea. Moses sings this after the people cross the Sea of Reeds, after the Pharaoh and his army are drowned in the sea.

The people have been through a lot by now. Four hundred years of slavery, living through the plagues (though they weren’t victims, they had to be scary to witness), and daring to marshall some hope, relying on the unknown shoulders of Moses and Aaron, it was a lot!  Certainly they had been tested.

So now freedom is in sight. Pharaoh let the people go, but God puts another wrinkle in the freedom fabric, “God did not lead tem by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer.” (Ex 13:17)

Why? Why go the long way? What’s wrong with a short-cut, or at least a direct route after all this time? The text says, “God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt’” (Ex 13:18)

God seemed to be concerned that hope of freedom had a tenuous hold on the people’s hearts and minds. They would spook easily. JPS Commentary says that “the coastal road to Canaan had been heavily fortified by the Egyptians. A chain of strongholds, way stations, reservoirs, and wells dotted the area…” (p 69/Exodus)  Perhaps God felt the people needed to live a bit with this idea of no longer being slaves, without more outside pressures.

God is saying, “Let’s hear it for the long way ‘round.” Maybe direct lines aren’t always the best way. Maybe we need transition time, which may take longer, but what we’re trying to accomplish on the journey will stay with us longer.

Have you found this to be true in your major transitions in life?

In one year, I experienced a move across the country, a new town, a new home, a new husband who suddenly lost his job, personal medical challenges, and my father dying suddenly from a heart attack.

Too many transitions, too much, too quick. Looking back, I was ready to turn tail and run…somewhere, anywhere. I probably could have benefited from the long way ‘round.

Let’s hear it for the long way ‘round.

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Bo: the malevolent synecdoche

synecdoche“How long shall this one be a snare to us? (Exodus 10:7)

This comes from the part of this week’s parasha, Bo, where Pharaoh’s advisors are telling him to let the Israelites go already; they say they want to go out into the wilderness to make a festival to God, but we know that’s Moses’ ruse to get the people out.

Something caught my eye.

“This one” zeh, singular. Who is the “zeh”, the “this?” What one person are they talking about? Are the advisors thinking that only Moses himself was the problem? They must be seeing this one man as the problem, it seems.  Ibn Ezra poses a similar question, (12th c Spain) asking if the word ”zeh” refers to either this thing ([Pharoah’s]) refusal to let the people go) or this person (Moses.) But he doesn’t answer his own question.

I learned a new word the other day: synecdoche, which describes a word that is a part of something but used to mean the whole. (I’d known what it was, of course, but hadn’t heard the official grammatical name for it!) The Egyptian advisors only saw an individual man, a minor threat, so they used the single “zeh.” But as Ibn Ezra suggested, it could have been a much larger thing – Pharoah’s stubborn insistence that the Israelites remain his slaves. For better or worse, both Moses and Pharaoh respectively, saw this as a much bigger issue, one with greater ramifications, with much more at stake.

Pharaoh was threatened by Moses, and all the Israelites. We know this from the opening verses of Exodus – the people had become much too numerous and Pharaoh was afraid they would rise up against him along with other enemies. So, he enslaved the population. For Pharaoh, the synecdoche of equating Moses with the entire people was about being threatened. One man symbolized an entire dangerous community, whom he thought was poised to bring down his authoritarian rule. We see this in today’s headlines, when one or two examples of an unfortunate, even tragic, event are manipulated into being representative of an entire community. The part becomes the whole, but not in a good way.

Moses represented something else – a synecdoche that was based on justice and freedom and human dignity. In short, Moses stood for the entire people, but he represented a positive force. He didn’t want to destroy Pharaoh’s entire regime; he just wanted to take his people out of slavery, leading them towards something better.

The names Moses and Pharaoh are both synecdoche’s ,each one a “zeh”, each one a part representing a whole, but each coming from such different places, with such different motives and goals. How are we to tell the difference between one “zeh” and another “zeh?” We can look at the motives behind the representation. Does the small part bring down the entire whole, the way Pharoah does, or the way some current leaders do? Or does it life up the group? Is the “zeh” coming from hate and intolerance, misleading others? Or does it inspire and raise up?

Just one word of a very old Torah text can illuminate some very contemporary challenges. Beware the malevolent synecdoche.

 

 

 

 

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Va’era: A leading man

moses water out of rock“The Israelites would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips” (Ex 611):

Moses realized that the people whom he had just been assigned to lead wouldn’t listen to him. The whole promise that God had told Moses to bring about – bring the people out of slavery – got   worse than no response from the people. They flat out wouldn’t listen at all; it was an active disregard for his message.

We see how Moses’ self-identity is dependent on whether people listen to him, follow him, believe in him. But how to be a prophet when no one will hear your prophecy? How to be a leader if no one follows?

There are others in this story with self-identity issues. Who are the people if they end up forever in slavery, scattered amongst a majority?  Who is Aaron, the second in command, if there is no first in command, no one whose orders to carry out? And who is God, if the people God’s chosen to lead to freedom via Moses, won’t go, won’t fulfill the promise God made?

Moses is a reluctant leader. He turned God down several times, and at the first moment of resistance from the people he’s supposed to lead, he is filled with self-doubt. His identity as a leader is rocky, to be sure.  He loses his temper. But he defends the people to God. He explodes with resentment at his situation, but mourns the fact that he won’t go into the Land with the people.

A strong self-identity can both make a leader immune to wise advice, yet have the strength to carry on even if others don’t agree with them.  A leader has to balance both the will of the people to get them to follow, but also has to have the vision that the people may not be able to see clearly. So where’s the balance?

I’m not sure, as I write this. It’s a topic that requires chapters and chapters of other people’s research. But I know that, with all his doubts and uncertainties, Moses became the leader the people needed. He believed God knew what God was doing in choosing him. He took the people into his heart and had their needs at the front of his own heart. He relied on his brother and his sister, and his father-in-law, taking advice from those he needed to hear. Let’s keep our eyes and hearts open to the leader we need now.

 

 

“The Israelites would not listen to me, how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips” (Ex 611):

 

Moses realized that the people whom he had just been assigned to lead wouldn’t listen to him. The whole promise that God had told Moses to bring about – bring the people out of slavery – got   worse than no response from the people. They flat out wouldn’t listen at all; it was an active disregard for his message.

 

We see how Moses’ self-identity is dependent on whether people listen to him, follow him, believe in him. But how to be a prophet when no one will hear your prophecy? How to be a leader if no one follows?

 

There are others in this story with self-identity issues. Who are the people if they end up forever in slavery, scattered amongst a majority?  Who is Aaron, the second in command, if there is no first in command, no one whose orders to carry out? And who is God, if the people God’s chosen to lead to freedom via Moses, won’t go, won’t fulfill the promise God made?

 

Moses is a reluctant leader. He turned God down several times, and at the first moment of resistance from the people he’s supposed to lead, he is filled with self-doubt. His identity as a leader is rocky, to be sure.  He loses his temper. But he defends the people to God. He explodes with resentment at his situation, but mourns the fact that he won’t go into the Land with the people.

 

A strong self-identity can both make a leader immune to wise advice, yet have the strength to carry on even if others don’t agree with them.  A leader has to balance both the will of the people to get them to follow, but also has to have the vision that the people may not be able to see clearly. So where’s the balance?

 

I’m not sure, as I write this. It’s a topic that requires chapters and chapters of other people’s research. But I know that, with all his doubts and uncertainties, Moses became the leader the people needed. He believed God knew what God was doing in choosing him. He took the people into his heart and had their needs at the front of his own heart. He relied on his brother and his sister, and his father-in-law, taking advice from those he needed to hear. Let’s keep our eyes and hearts open to the leader we need now.

 

 

 

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Shemot: Revolution

einstein quote about authorityMany of you know I study Torah with an incredible group of people each Tuesday. I take notes. I take a lot of notes. Everybody in the class knows that. Anita. Takes. Notes. Sometimes the weekly parasha speaks to me directly, and sometimes I go back and look at my notes. That’s what happened with this week’s parasha, Shemot, the beginning of the book of Exodus.

Often I’ve written about the women, sometimes I’ve written about the Pharoah’s approach to the group of Israelites, growing in population. This week, as I was turning the pages of my notebook, I saw in big letters, circled (so I know it was important!) the following: (This) story is about flaunting authority.

This story is about flaunting authority.  It’s a revolutionary book, a temple for revolution.

Miriam stood up to her parents, according to the Midrash. The Midrash says Miriam convinced her parents that, having separated rather than lose an infant boy, they were also condemning the people by withholding baby girls, too. They reconciled, and Moses was conceived. Shifra and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives (some say Puah was Miriam herself), staged a revolution against Pharaoh’s decrees by saving the baby Moses. They were supposed to kill him. Yocheved, Aaron, Miriam, and Moses’ mother, flaunted authority by keeping her baby for three months, until she couldn’t make sure he stayed quiet. Then she (and Miriam?) concocted a plan to build a water-proof basket and send Moses down the river to whoever would find him. Much like the mothers thousands of years later, who send their children across the water to a new land, knowing they’d never see them again, and like desperate women who send their children north,  Yocheved thought this was a better solution than keeping him at home.

Pharaoh had a daughter, Batya. She staged a revolution against her father by taking that Hebrew baby in, knowing her father had decreed they should all die, knowing her father was threatened by the presence of this people in his land.

Of course, it’s not just the women who staged a revolution. The Exodus itself was flaunting Pharaoh’s authority, and led by Moses, they led Pharaoh and his supporters to their deaths in the Red Sea.

So here we are. I have made no secret of my feelings about the current administration. Here we are, this Shabbat, turning the corner from 2018 to 2019, facing a third year of this Pharaoh-like buffoon, whose fear and distrust of “others” who “fill the land”  leads to decrees and bans in the name of protecting that land.  Each of us must continue to stage revolutions, some small and personal, some larger, but revolt nonetheless. I’m not talking about overthrowing the government. Rather, it’s the continued effort to thwart and flaunt the authority of those whose power and control are more dear to them than the well-being of the people they rule over. The story of Moses and Miriam, Aaron, Yocheved and Amram echoes through history so that we continue to recognize the hard of heart, those who distort reality to serve as a way to maintain that power and control. It was life-threatening then, and it is now.

Wishing us all a 2019 of flaunting authority, calling upon the names of Shifra and Puah and the rest to give us commitment, clarity of vision, and intensity of purpose. Rest up on Shabbat, folks…we’re gonna need our strength this year.

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Vayechi: How it’s done

phone ringing“Sometime afterward, Joseph was told, ‘Your father is ill.’ So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim” (Gen 47:1)

No one wants to get that call. “Your parent/sibling/child/friend is ill and dying. Get here now.” No matter how much we know it’s coming, no matter how rational we get about that, it’s still getting the call that sets our hearts racing, stops our breathing.

As I get older, this happens to my friends more and more, and it will happen again to me someday. My father died 30 years ago, went off to work and never came home. He was 65, a number that is more and more a close neighbor. But my mom just celebrated her 90th birthday, and this text reminds me of what honoring a beloved but elderly parent is all about.

“He took with him his two sons” –which teaches us to get the family together. What a blessing that Joseph got there in time, and the presence of mind to bring the grandchildren. For my mother’s celebration, we had 20 immediate family members from around the world for almost a full week before the party, and then welcomed 30 additional dear friends and family to our home. Mom was surrounded by her 8 grandchildren, some with partners and/or spouses, and the one representative of the three great-grandchildren. We sang to her, we recited poetry, we took lots of pictures, and joy permeated the rooms of our home.

Like Jacob, Mom was able to rejoice in her family, the blessings surrounding her. Eventually, on his deathbed, Jacob asked for all his sons to gather together at his side. (I wonder where Dina was, but then again, I’m not surprised she wasn’t there; she probably wasn’t missed by those who recorded/wrote the text.) What follows is not so much a blessing for each son, but rather an assessment of a father to his child. Jacob knew what his sons were like, what their personalities were, and knew what kind of lives they would be drawn to. My mother has a remarkable relationship with her grandchildren, each one of them. They talk to her, they call her, they confide in her, and she keeps their confidences. The blessings go both ways. Mom has the same clarity of vision of her children that Jacob had. She knows our failings and our strengths, and loves us anyway.

When Jacob finally died, his son Joseph fulfilled the promise made: to bury him not in Egypt, but to take him home to where his ancestors were, to Machpelah. Joseph performed the ultimate mitzvah, honoring the dead.

I do not relish getting that call, whenever it comes (may it be a long time from now). But I also know that Mom’s active, pretty-darn-healthy life is exactly how she wants it to be, as opposed to a long, slow, painful decline. I have friends who have that sad experience, and I’m grateful we’re not there.  I know I’ll get that call someday. May I have the presence of mind that Joseph had – to gather the clan, to follow her wishes, and to look to new generations with clarity, love, and joy.

 

 

 

 

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Chanukah: Eighth night

Years ago I found an article in the Chicago Jewish News that laid out eight gifts for Chanukah, none of which cost a thing.  I don’t know the author;  I wish I did.  But for at least a decade, our children have heard one of these every night, in no particular order.  Sometimes it was the only gift they got, but even if there was something to unwrap, they got these gifts first.  In the interest of changing times, community, and adult children, I have edited these slightly.

chanukah 8

Tonight, the gift of OPTIMISM

This includes both a sense of perspective and a sense of joy.  Life will be hard enough, so relish the good moments.  Our other gifts will help you stay strong in the face of adversity.  This one will help you savor its absence.  Focus on hope, equanimity, and a positive outlook, instead of on worry and pessimism.  And when you feel despair or pessimism, take that as a sign of what work needs to be done next.  There is always work to be done in this world.  Be a joyous presence.  Count your blessings. Have fun.

Chag orim sameach;  Happy Chanukah!

 

 

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