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Basic Instinct – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

TorahScrollNo, this is not a movie review and, no, I don’t think I ever saw it either!

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, does challenge us to contemplate: What are our basic instincts as Jews?

Moses presents the Torah to the Jewish people who famously respond with the words “ naseh v’nishma,”  “we will do, then we will listen.”  Seemingly we are pledging that we first accept the Torah unconditionally, no matter what may be written within.  After making that commitment we are ready to hear the Torah’s content.   A quite noble statement, but is that what the words really mean?

Taking the words literally, how exactly is it possible to do anything before first knowing what to do?  Before beginning any task, we have to at least know what the task is.  If not where would we start?  This is really what our words as a people are: “We will do, then, we will listen.”  We seem positioned ready to act.  How, if we don’t know yet what to do?

Let’s examine basic, natural human instincts.  When a person feels hunger, thirst, or really any desire, does the person first think “I need to eat” then begin a thought process of what to eat, when to eat, do I need hot sauce?  What really happens is that, first, we instinctively feel hungry or thirsty.  Only then does our thought process begin for “how will I fulfill my need?”  The actual hunger pang is a natural instinctual occurrence by which our bodies tell us it is time to eat.  We see that the process of eating really begins well before we intellectually think about the fact that we are hungry.

Upon receiving the Torah, we as Jews not only committed to unconditionally accept its priceless lessons, but we pledged to weave the Torah into the very fabric of our being.   Living by the Torah’s word became a very basic instinct of the Jewish people.

Just as we feel a pang of hunger or a sudden thirst, if we listen closely, we can also hear the calling of our souls telling us that our spiritual needs cannot be forgotten.

Something to ponder.  Shabbat Shalom!

What in the World is That Noise? – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

EPSON scanner imageAn unassuming villager, who had never before seen or even heard of a train, once wandered out of town all the way to the edge of a large city.  In the village, people traveled on donkeys, and farmers used cows to plow their fields.  The very idea of large machines for transport or work was absolutely foreign.

As the villager came close to the city, he came across long rows of steel rods.  He couldn’t see the beginning nor the end of the rows.  Even more strange,  every couple of fee, there were these boards laying across the steel rods with these hug nails stuck into them.

The fellow stood for a moment to ponder his discovery, then, being tired from his journey, he decided to take a brief rest on these boards before returning home.  The man fell asleep.

After a short while a train was coming down the tracks.  As the train approached, the conductor noticed a person resting on the tracks and began to send warning signals.  He blew his whistle, rang his bell, and sounded any alarm he could possibly reach.  Finally, all the noise awoke the poor villager who was now perplexed as to where all of these sounds were coming from.  “Bells, whistles” he thought, “it sounds like a band.”  Then the man looked up and saw lots of lights coming at him from a distance.  The whole scene reminded the fellow of the village band and the special carriage used to escort a bride and groom on their wedding day.  “There must be a wedding coming my way” and our villager friend stood up and began to dance in the middle of the tracks.
Imagine the thoughts of a bystander watching the scene: Is this guy deaf?  Maybe he can’t hear the train coming his way?  The truth, is that he heard very well, he just didn’t know what he was listening too!

This week’s Torah portion tells us that Yitro heard all that happened to the Jews as they were leaving Egypt.  He was so inspired that he came to join the nation.  Why do we have to be told that Yitro heard?  He was not the only one that heard, in fact the whole world heard.  Yitro was just the only one who reacted.  Why?

The Torah is teaching us that even though the whole world heard about the miracles that had occurred, Yitro was the only person who was impacted because he was the only one listening and open to what he was hearing.  Yitro was a seeker of truth and when he heard it, he internalized the message and responded accordingly.

What a powerful message.  Every day of our lives we encounter “messages.”  God is constantly involved in our lives, and sometimes makes it loud and clear.  Sometimes the bells and whistles are even sounded.  Often though, we don’t even realize.  We go on with our lives as if nothing had happened at all.

The messages are loud and clear.  The question is: are we listening?

Navigating by Moonlight – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

moonlightThere is always a light at the end of the tunnel, just sometimes the tunnel seems to extend miles and miles.  The sun will come up tomorrow (bet your bottom dollar), but sometimes tomorrow fells much more than a day away.  Often when we find ourselves in the darkest most difficult moments of life we feel hopeless and as if there is no way out of our pressing situation.  The Torah, however, teaches us that it is that very feeling of despair that allows us hope for better times ahead.

In this weeks parsha, Bo, we as Jews are given our first mitzvah (commandment) as a people.  What is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people you may ask.  So many to choose from: Shabbat, Kosher?  Nope, the first Mitzvah the Torah commands us of is that of Rosh Chodesh: to bless each new month.

What is it that makes this mitzvah so significant that it should be our first charge?

The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, each month beginning with the new cycle of the moon.  Our story as a people is also compared to the cycle of the moon.  Towards the end of each month the moon’s light diminishes more and more until, in the final days, hardly a glimmer of light can be seen.  But just as much as that darkness is a sign of the end of a month, it is also a sign that a new month is about to begin.

So is the history of the Jews.  We have experienced many dark moments.  Each of those moments, though, also produces a glimmer of hope for brighter days in the future.  It is this message that in many ways defines us as Jews.  Therefore, God sees fit that our first mitzvah should be one that teaches the lesson of how to navigate life and live all the others.  Persevere and never give up because brighter days do lie ahead.

Moses and Me – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

rabbi-berkmanPonder this: “Every person can be as righteous as Moses.”  Sounds profound, right?  Is it true though?  Is it possible for you and I, regular old people, to be as righteous as the greatest leader of the Jewish people?

The words are not my own, but rather a statement made by Mimomodees.  But what does he mean that every person can be as righteous as Moses?  He was the greatest prophet to ever live.  He spoke to God face to face.  Who am I?

The Torah tells us that while Moshe was the leader of the Jews he was not a man of words.  Therefore, he partnered with his brother Aharon to lead the Jews out of Egypt.  Moshe was the leader, Aharon did the talking.  It is curious though that throughout the Torah, when Moses and Aharon are mentioned together, sometimes Moses’ name comes first and sometimes Aharon is mentioned first.  Rashi, one of our foremost commentators, explains that this is done to show that Moshe and Aharon were equals.  Really?  Aharon was great, but equal to Moses?  The Torah clearly tells us that Moses was the leader of the two.

The truth is that Moses was indeed “greater” than Aharon, but they were on a mission together and on that mission Aharon did exactly what was asked of him to the best that his abilities would allow him to.  He realized his role, accepted his role, and filled it with maximum effort.  Although he may not have been on as high as a spiritual level or possessed the same traits as Moses, it was Aharon’s approach to his role that made him considered as great as his brother.

We will never be Moses, and, truthfully, we are not expected to be.  We can though attain our own level of greatness.  We learn from Aharon that if we search for who we are, realize our own strengths and weaknesses, and strive to reach our potential, we may be surprised to see how great we really can be.

Not Getting Any Easier? – Rabbi B. on this Week’s Torah Portion

photo.1Welcome 2013!  A new year opens possibilities for new beginning.  A chance to reevaluate who we are and set new goals for the coming year is an opportunity not to let pass by.  The thought seemed really great over the holiday weekend, but I went back to work today and things seem more or less the same.  I already feel myself falling back into more or less the same old routine that I so much wanted to change!

This week’s Torah portion gives us advice as how to maneuver this challenge that so many of us are facing in this first week of the New Year.  The book of Shemot begins by telling us a count of the Jewish people that went down to Egypt.  Our commentators point out though that the Torah in fact just gave us the same exact count two weeks ago, to which many explain that then the Torah was counting the Jews as they went into Egypt and now we are being counted as we are going out.  This as a sign of how precious the Jewish people are to God as they are compared to stars that are counted by name as they come out at night, and again as they disappear in the morning.

A beautiful explanation, the only trouble is that the Jews are not yet coming out of Egypt.  In fact, right after we are told about the increased hardships the Jews face in Egypt.  What it the Torah telling us?

The truth is that this is the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be challenges and hardships along the way.  Although the process of redemption has begun, the suffering first becomes a bit more intense before the real relief is seen.

As we endeavor to make the new year different from last, we must understand that there may be challenges along the way.  We should persevere and realize that it is through those challenges that we will grow and ultimately reach our goals.

Wishing everyone a wonderful and prosperous 2013.  Shabbat Shalom

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Contested Parsing the Parsha: Identity, the Midwives, and the Burning Bush

Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at  http://sotah.net/.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.

A short meditation on identity in Parshat Shemot.

First, there are the midwives. The text tells us their names – Shifra and Puah, but the problem is that we do not know what to make of those names. They never appear again – their lineage is unknown. Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill Jewish boys as they are born. Heroically, they resist Pharaoh, protect their clients, and lie to the ruler. There is a debate as to their identity – the text refers to them as hameyaldot ha’ivriyot – a phrase that can be translated as either Jewish midwives or midwives to the Jews. According to Rashi, Shifra and Puah are Yochebad and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe – Jewish midwives. According to the Abarbenel, a contemporary of Rashi, Shifra and Puah are righteous Egyptian women – midwives to the Jews. Shamot 1:15

The subject of identity is also addressed when Moshe asks God at the burning bush, “And they [Jews] say to me what is his name, what shall I say to them?” God famously answers “I shall be what I shall be.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh. Exodus 3:14.

There are two main schools of thought on how this can be interpreted.

1) The Septuagint and Philo, influenced by Greek thought, interpreted this Hebrew phrase to mean “I am the BEING” or more simply “I am” God is existence.

2) Medieval Scholars, Rashi among them, understand this phrase not as a statement of God’s essential “being-ness” – but of God’s essential “doing-ness.” “I shall be with them during their troubles.” Buber captures a sense of doing-ness when he translates the phrase to mean “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every-time.”

Moshe, as evidenced in his question to God, is constantly concerned with identity. On his first encounter with the outside world, he immediately places all his allegiances with the Jews and kills an Egyptian overseer. He divides the world into who is his brother and who is not his brother – even though he has a foot in both cultures. One would expect him to have a more complicated view of Egyptians and Jews. Moshe wants to place God in that same paradigm – he wants to learn God’s name. God resists.

In contrast, the narrative gives the midwives specific names, but their names stand alone. They are ordinary women – it is their heroic actions that form their identity. They exceed their subject positions, moving beyond their names, to their actions, risking personal and national safety for justices.

I cannot help but wonder how the exodus story would have been different, if instead of Moshe, it was Shifra and Pauh who lead the Jews out of Egypt.