Laws and In-Laws – Parshat Yitro 5777

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Marriage isn’t just a union of two people, it’s a union of two families. One of the challenging parts of getting married is establishing a new relationship with your partner’s family. Best case, your new in-laws are supportive, but considerate and respectful of your boundaries. Or you may have in-laws who mean well, but are unaware of their overbearing, overreaching presence. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle, and just as we have with our own parents, there are wonderful, close moments and moments when we need space.

Moshe, the great leader of the Israelite nation, is tested with the ultimate in in-law relationships in this week’s Torah portion. This week we read Parshat Yitro, perhaps one of the most famous portions in the entire Torah. The central piece of the portion is the giving of the 10 Commandments by God to Moshe and the People Israel. We now have a set of laws to live by, a guide to being a free, self-governed people outside of slavery. But before the Torah gives us these laws, it reminds us of the family relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system.

Moshe is the leader of a nation, attempting to please the people and God, and the last thing he needs is a nosey, bossy father-in-law to tell him how he should be running the nation. Turns out that is exactly what he gets. When it comes to adjudicating the nation’s problems, Moshe is still somewhat lacking. Unfortunately, he has created a system of long lines and dissatisfied customers. In comes Yitro, his father-in-law, with a plan, a plan that ultimately works to perfection and helps save Moshe as the leader of the nation.

For this to have worked, Moshe needed to have in place a trusting – or at the very least honest – relationship with Yitro. Clearly, there was some work that went into building this relationship for the situation to play out the way it did.

All family relationships have their fair share of difficulties, and sometimes in-law relationships can be some of the most stressful, simply because of the number of people to please and appease. However, if Moshe, the great leader of the Israelites, with all the stresses he must have endured could have this level of partnership with his in-law, certainly there’s hope – and room to grow – for all of us.

Calories Don’t Count on Shabbat – Parshat Beshalach 5777

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I watch what I eat. That’s not to say I’m never tempted. Of course I sometimes cave to my favorites (just about anything with cheese and anything with chocolate), but often it feels like I spend all day trying to be good so that I won’t feel sad later. It’s on Shabbat when I allow myself to splurge a little; Friday night and Saturday are usually what you might call my carb fest days when I loosen the restrictions. We use the phrase “everything in moderation” for a reason. Moderation in all aspects of our lives – not just mealtime – means the “pain” we endure is a little more tolerable and the pleasurable moments just a little more rewarding.

In our Torah portion this week the Israelites are leaving Egypt, and they too are learning about moderation. In Parshat Beshalach we read about the Israelites crossing the sea and God’s great act to save them. As we know, the Israelites are quick to sing praises to God for this incredible miracle and just as quick to turn bitter, complaining that the desert isn’t all they might have imagined. To be fair to the Israelites, they were probably just “hangry.” After all, they endured famine in Egypt only to try to survive in the desert on the run. Perhaps this explains how we got our association with food-based traditions.

To help them survive in the desolate environment, God sends down manna, a sap-like substance that mysteriously tasted like whatever they wanted it to. The rule was you could take what you needed and no more. On Shabbat the people were expected to take double the amount of food for themselves so they’d have enough to last through the holy day. Unfortunately they get greedy in their rationing, and as a punishment the manna tastes rancid. But if you’ve ever been to a buffet on an empty stomach, you can hardly blame them. When your eyes (and options) are bigger than your stomach, your plate is suddenly overflowing because you’ve taken more than you could possibly eat.

This concept of a double potion, Lechem Mishneh, is referenced in the Bible just this once, but it is because of this verse that we have two loaves of challah on the table for Shabbat and festivals. And it is because of this that I allow myself to indulge just a little bit more each Shabbat. It’s all about balance.

Parshat Beshalach reminds us that we have a weekly opportunity – obligation even – to indulge as long as we maintain for ourselves a normal routine of fitness, spiritual care, and healthy eating the rest of the week. Everything in moderation.

 

Remember When – Parshat Bo 5777

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What advice do you hear most often just before a major life event? “Live in the moment because the memories will last a lifetime.” We spend so much time anticipating the birth of a baby (months of mental preparation, getting the house in order, picking a name, planning the welcoming ceremony), but the moment of the birth itself quickly fades, as do future milestones of childhood. So what do we do? We tell the birth stories, we make note of first words, and we take tons of pictures so that the memory will remain. Similarly, with a wedding we spend months planning out every detail, and we hire videographers and photographers to hopefully capture those beautiful moments so that the memories of that special time together will last a lifetime of marriage.

This week we read parshat Bo, which details the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from traveling again, this time leaving bondage. Pharaoh again refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. Our story continues with the procedures for leaving Egypt, including putting the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, packing up, and recreating these events by celebrating Passover in future generations.

The style of the Torah up until parshat Bo is mainly narrative. There are very few commandments given until the Israelites leave Egypt. In chapter 12, verse 14 however, the Torah shifts from the instructions given to Moses and his contemporaries to the listing of the mitzvot to be followed by later generations of Jews. These aren’t instructions on how to leave Egypt, but rather instructions on how never to forget this time in our history when we left Egypt.

Even the Torah, well before smartphones, Instagram, and Timehop, understood that the most important part of sharing our history is how we preserve the memories. The laws of parshat Bo remind us that while the moment itself has significant power, the memory, if passed down, will live on forever.

 

When Tolerance is the Worst Decision – Parshat Vaera 5777

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There are moments as a parent when I feel like the best I can do is accept and move on. So we have a day when my three-year-old won’t wear her clothes? Fine, a day spent in PJs isn’t so bad, even if she’s going to two birthday parties. Turns out we can’t handle a sudden change in the bedtime routine? Fine, the old routine will work for a few more days. There are things that we react to by accepting and moving on because doing so makes our lives less stressful. We exert minimal effort, resulting in a solution that, if not ideal, at least we can live with. This passivity is a coping mechanism; it protects us from the change we are afraid to make. Sometimes this self-preservation is essential; other times it is our job to get up, get moving, and change our circumstances.

This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion of the book of Shemot (Exodus). The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt, working for Pharaoh, having decrees levied on them daily about how much work they must do, how to family plan, and the like. Moses has become the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and the Israelite nation. God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and manipulate Pharaoh’s heart. This parshah sees Pharaoh dangling the carrot of freedom before the Israelites, only to snatch it away as they reach to grasp it.

Up to this point we are to assume that there were few if any attempts at freedom without God’s intervention, but it’s also possible that physical shackles weren’t the only thing holding them back. God expresses in verse six, “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” In Hebrew the word for labors or burdens is sivlot, but a Hassidic interpretation by the Kotzker Rebbe interprets this word as “tolerance.” He asks: What was the worst part of slavery? That the Israelites became accustomed to it. Their passivity enslaved the Israelites as much, if not more than the Egyptian bondage.

The first step to freedom is the step away from passivity and complacency toward action. In our own lives, parshat Vaera urges us to awaken from this tolerance of the intolerable. The question you must ask is do your burdens weigh you down into submission or do they motivate you to fight, to move, and to grow?

A Change is Gonna Come – Parshat Shemot 5777

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Today we watch our nation undergo a major transition in leadership. On the one hand, it’s perfectly normal. It’s a quadrennial tradition, part of the fabric of our country. On the other hand, parts of this transition feel anything but normal. For eight years we’ve lived as citizens of the Obama administration. We had the routine of President Obama, a well-polished speaker who placed great focus on the “Torah” of hope and change for a better future. Whether or not he was the candidate you voted for, by the time he left office, he was at least the status quo, and we knew his policies and politics. In contrast, now we stand on the brink of a transition where there are many, many unknown variables.

This is obviously not the first transition of power we have witnessed, and it won’t be the last, but it does remind me of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot. Our parshah, which begins the second book of the Torah, illustrates for us how skewed our own perception of self can be. This parshah serves as the turning point between the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh who isn’t so keen on the Israelites decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite.

There are two parallels in particular between the presidential inauguration and the narrative of Shemot that stand out to me. Chapter 1, verse 8 of the book of Exodus states, “And there arose a new king over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.” This verse clearly speaks to the unease that comes with the transition of power to a new leader who does not know and cannot sympathize with the experiences of a particular minority. This new king was out of touch, and that was more than a little unnerving to those living under his leadership. And the first thing this king does is legislate strict rules and laws against the groups he does not understand. Instead of trying to get to know them, understand them, or even relate to anyone else outside himself, he simply places restrictions on their lives.

Later in the story we learn specifically of Shifra and Puah, the two midwives who resisted and disregarded the new pharaoh’s laws. They stood strong and tried to save as many of the Israelite babies as they could, including Moses, who ends up as the leader of the resistance. The bravery of Shifra and Puah then inspires the bravery of others. Their desire to stand up and fight is the model for resistance. Take what you will from these analogies; however, I am not trying to compare and contrast Biblical and modern leaders. To me, this is much more an illustration of how we as a society adapt, evolve, resist, and rally under new leadership.

Transition can be difficult and scary, a point I’ve brought up before in these writings. This week we had to transition back into the outside world after seven days of being stuck in our home following a crazy snowstorm that blanketed Portland. While we were only snowed in for a week, it doesn’t take much to throw your routine out of whack. It was a difficult morning remembering to pack up the diapers and milk for the baby, get the preschooler dressed and fed, and have everyone out the door on time. Then again, sometimes that reset is helpful. It may offer a new perspective or reveal ways you can make the routine even smoother and more efficient.

As we prepare for this major political transition, may we take it as an opportunity to re-examine our own routines, our own struggles. Perhaps this is the time to grow. As author and speaker Karen Kaiser Clark says, “Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Shabbat shalom.