Mishpatim: Chandler was right.Could it be more relevant?

support-the-globeI keep thinking, that with each week that goes by, each parasha, (weekly portion) won’t scream “RELEVANCE.” But no, the blessing and the curse of Torah. It is always relevant.

This week our portion is Mishpatim. Laws, or rather, rules, and it happens right after the exhilarating, earth-shattering theological experience of Sinai. What happens after that kind of experience?  How do you get back to your life? Where to begin? The Ten Commandments began the long journey not just through a physical or spiritual wilderness, but through a social one as well.   God said, “Hey, you’re a people now!” and the people said, “Huh? How do we do that?”

Well, you build a society, one concept, one law, one rule at a time.  Like this one:

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I shall hear their cry as soon as they cry out to Me.” (Ex 22:20-22)

The rest of the parshat Mishpatim is a seemingly random collection of do’s and don’ts…how to build a society. We read about ox goring, witnesses, treatment of slaves, thievery, monetary recompense for injuries and damages, and lending money.

There’s more in chapter 23:

Don’t carry false rumors or join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.

Don’t side with the mighty (the many) to do wrong – you shall not give perverse testimony to pervert it in favor of the mighty

Don’t subvert the rights of the needy in their dispute.

And then there it is again:

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9)

We have a brand new society, rising up from a bunch of traumatized slaves with a reluctant leader who grows in confidence each day, and among the oxen and first fruits, the needs of the most vulnerable in society are not only highlighted, but given God’s greatest care and concern; God will hear about it if you mistreat these folks.

It just doesn’t get clearer than that. At the core of a righteous and just society, a holy society, it is our responsibility to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the ones who are vulnerable and need protection..not from God, but from us. God only comes into the picture when we screw up, and mistreat them, causing them to cry out. So when we witness their oppression, it must be our own voices that cry out on their behalf, and we must keep at it if we are to ever think of ourselves as a just society again.






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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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