Hold Your Peace – Parshat Beshalach 5782

As some of you may know, hiding my feelings on any topic doesn’t come naturally. When I’m passionate about a cause, a belief, a topic, I tend to go all in. It’s been a life-long process learning how to hold back the fire, while allowing the passion to come through and be heard. So far, the benefits are clear. I get so much closer to my end goals when I’m able to keep the big emotions in check and channel my energy into calm, well reasoned arguments, while keeping my listening ears open.  Maybe you’ve found this to be true too, that simply stepping back and allowing others voices to be heard often gets you further than impassioned pleas ever will.

The Israelites also had to learn this lesson on their life-changing journey out of Egypt. Parshat Beshalach, which we read this week, is notable for showing the power of song. We find the children of Israel on their journey out of Egypt into the wilderness. The Egyptians go after them, but God intervenes and saves them. The Israelites continue through moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them, as well as moments marking the occasional “temper tantrum” at God because the journey through the desert isn’t perfect. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards.

As the Israelites are leaving Egypt and approaching the sea, they find themselves in a panic. The Egyptian army is behind them, water in front of them, and they’ve never been in this situation before. They scream and complain and channel all their anger at Moses, pleading with him to just stop the journey and let them go back and do their own thing. While they rage, Moses remains calm and says to the entire stressed out nation, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you; you hold your peace!”

Can you hear the powerful reassurance in that final verse? Moses is explaining, “God has got you, take a breath.” The Israelites, who had never heard FDR say the only thing they had to fear was fear itself, needed to learn that their reaction to the stressful situation was actually going to cause more harm. Moses imploring them to take a breath and let God do the fighting was his way of reminding them that quiet action is usually more powerful than noisy reaction.

Parshat Beshalach is a lesson that still carries merit today. Staying cool in the face of any situation is made that much harder when things are out of your control, and there’s nothing you can really do to change it. The pandemic has given us plenty of examples of this, when we needed to make plans to move forward but every obstacle was being put in the way. When we’re too emotionally charged, sometimes taking a breath and trusting in the process gets you across the gaping sea and onto safe, dry land much faster.

The Religion of Meal Planning – Parshat Bo 5782

Every year as Passover rolls around I get out all of my recipes. Each one comes from someone in my family and must be made the exact same way as the person who taught me, and in the exact same order. First comes the charoset the night before. Then chicken soup goes on the stove, followed by chocolate chip cookies and mandel bread. While that’s going, I prepare the gefilte fish, veggie kugel, and main course. Just like my mama taught me. 

In particular, the soup has a very specific process to it, following the recipe of my Tanta, all the way down to the order in which I add the vegetables. And because the order matters to me, it must also matter to whomever is helping me make the soup that day. Of course it’s more about tradition than anything else. As much as the food should taste good, I worry that if someone doesn’t really understand the depth of the history of the food and the memories associated with this recipe, then everything will be ruined.

Is it just me, or does anyone else freak out about someone putting the parsnips in before the potatoes? Look no further than the Passover story itself to understand just how far back the notion of nuanced food prep goes. 

This week, Parshat Bo details the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. Pharaoh again refuses to allow the Israelites to leave, and each of the three refusals brings with it one of the three final plagues. The narrative 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. 

As we read about their journey out of Egypt, the final meal of the Israelites takes center stage. The meal is delicious lamb, but not just any rack of lamb. This is lamb that serves a purpose, tells a story, and teaches a lesson. It is ritualistic eating, and as such, must be understood on a different level than flavor profiles and cooking techniques. 

In chapter 12, verse 43, we learn that “no foreigner shall eat of it.” What was this ruling against inviting others to partake of the Passover meal? The commentary teaches that unless someone outside of Judaism can identify with the community’s historical experiences, they should not partake in the obligations and restrictions imposed upon the group. Meaning, this lamb is not just a meal shared between people; it is a teachable story that can only be understood by those with an open mind and heart.

Sometimes lamb is just lamb, and sometimes soup is just soup. Other times, so much more. Reading Parshat Bo offers a yearly reminder that food is one way to understand a culture, and sitting and eating together can be just as filling spiritually as it is satiating.

Quick to Forget – Parshat Vaera 5782

It’s difficult to recall the sensation of pain, even if the pain was incredibly traumatic at the time it occurred. After a physically painful event, including everything from childbirth down to a mild burn from hot coffee, our brains are wired to stop sending those pain signals eventually, even while memories of the event persist. Those memories can result in a behavior change without us having to physically relive the pain. For example, you’d probably remember to request a “mild level” of heat on your next order of Thai food without having to physically recall that time you ate a hot pepper by mistake.

But what happens when the physical or emotional pain doesn’t lead to changes in behavior? We see just such an example in the Torah this week from Pharaoh. 

Parshat Vaera, this week’s portion, begins the Israelites journey away from Egypt. This week we find the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moses about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moses tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him. And Moses isn’t so sure of himself anyway.

Throughout the narrative in this week’s portion, we see the infamous back and forth of Pharaoh and Moses. The plagues inflict pain and suffering, and of course Pharaoh wants it to stop, so he relents and accepts Moses’s plea to let the people go. When he does, the suffering ends. Then, as the Israelites are preparing to leave and Pharaoh is no longer suffering, he changes his mind and makes them stay. On and on and on this little dance goes. 

When Pharaoh is in the midst of his pain, it seems as if he’s capable of human compassion, considering the suffering of the enslaved Israelite people. However, as he “recovers,” he loses that sense of compassion. In fact, in chapter 8, verse 28, Pharaoh actually hardens his own heart; he makes the distinct choice to inflict suffering on others when he himself is no longer in pain, and it’s ultimately to his detriment.

While it’s impossible to physically feel the exact same suffering as someone else, there’s an element of empathy that comes from experience. You don’t have to guess what a paper cut might feel like when someone else gets one; the wincing you do is because you’ve felt it in the past, and even though you can’t physically share that sensation in real time, you can appreciate what that person is going through.

Sadly, some of that empathy has been traded in for the convenience and artificial anonymity of being able to shout our opinions, insults, and conspiracy theories into the public arena without any concern for whom they hurt or what it feels like on the receiving end. My hope is that we use Parshat Vaera and the lesson of Pharaoh as a reminder that compassion is perhaps our most important human gift.

Please Remove Your Shoes – Parshat Shemot 5782

We renovated our house more than four years ago, and part of the renovation included adding a mudroom. So why, after all this time, do my kids still forget to put their shoes in their cubby in the mudroom when we come in? The joy of having a mudroom (and individual cubbies) is that each family member has their own space for things, and the rest of the house stays cleaner and relatively free of mud. However, to be fair to them, the “shoes off at the door” policy wasn’t mandatory year round when I was growing up. In our house we had a bench by the garage door that was mostly used in the winter months for taking off shoes caked in mud and snow (and probably soaked). Needless to say, I didn’t always remember to take my shoes off at the bench either. 

As an adult, on the other hand, I can’t wait to remove my shoes. I love nothing more than a cozy pair of slippers in winter and the cool floor on my feet in summer. Both of those feelings connect me to the feeling of being home, in my own space. As much as I’d love to be barefoot at work or wear slippers in the office some days, I don’t, and having that separation is helpful. Although there are exceptions in some cultures and religions, the removal of shoes is usually reserved for private spaces. But that’s not the case in this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s parshah, Shemot, serves as the turning point from the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moses. Shemot leads us quickly through the change of rulers 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 Moses is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moses joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

As Moses is out tending to the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, he happens upon a special place, the mountain of God, Horeb. He sees an angel of God in a blazing fire that is engulfing a desert bush, but somehow not consuming it. Moses is mesmerized. As he’s contemplating what is happening before his eyes, God calls out to Moses and makes a peculiar request for someone standing in the middle of the desert. “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”

Why on earth would God ask Moses to take off his shoes? Yes, the presence of God is pretty significant, but why here and not at some of the other holy sites previously visited in the Torah? Perhaps this is a moment when Moses needed to be grounded, literally. After all, this is the moment God calls out to Moses and informs him that he’s going to be the one to lead the entire Israelite nation out from Egypt. Feeling the earth on his feet is a reminder that God is connected to him and the line of creation from Adam to Abraham to Moses. 

When we take off our shoes, it’s not just that the space we’re in is holy and sacred; it’s that we ourselves are holy, and making a direct connection – holy to holy – is one small way we can connect ourselves to everyone and everything that came before us.

Can You Believe It? – Parshat Vayechi 5782

One of the questions that I often struggle to answer is the one that asks why I believe in God. Yes, sometimes I question God, but I always believe in God. Why do I let that faith guide me in the world? The reason it’s hard for me to answer is because in a certain sense, I’ve never had the choice. I mean, yes, I could’ve chosen not to observe Judaism and gone off on my own different path than my family, but it was never a choice I considered. I believe in God because I was raised in a family that believes in God, and it was instilled in me that belief in God is hopeful and reinforces the sense that the world is bigger than me or this moment. Belief in God connects me to my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, all the way through our lineage to Abraham. Put simply, I believe in God because I do. For me, that’s compelling enough. 

This is not to downplay or denounce the very real crises of faith people experience. Many wonder if God exists, if God has ever existed, and why it even matters. In our Torah portion this week, we get the notion of why it matters, and we receive the reasoning for transferring this belief from generation to generation. 

This week we read Parshat Vayechi, the last in the book of Genesis. The text begins with the request of Jacob to not be buried in Egypt, and continues with Jacob blessing each of his sons in his final hours. This text ends with Joseph making the request of his kin to bury him back in Israel when they finally leave Egypt.

Toward the end of the Torah portion, we read about the grandfather’s blessing. Joseph takes his children Ephraim and Menashe to his father Jacob for their blessing. As Jacob blesses the children he says, in chapter 48, verse 16, “In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac.” The blessing he invokes upon his grandsons is that they may find faith in the actions of their forefathers (our forefathers) and that that faith will benefit them with strong belief in God.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, comments on this verse to say, “The most valuable legacy we can leave our children and grandchildren is bequeathing to them the faith that sustained us.” In other words, the transmission of faith supersedes transmission of material wealth. As far back as the Torah, we learn that blessings and family values are what matters.

Parshat Vayechi reminds us that it’s not just our faith that makes up our Judaism, but equally important is where that faith comes from and how it’s passed down. Interestingly, the Gregorian calendar has given us this parshah twice in 2021 (once in January and once in December). I hope you’ll take this extra push to reconnect with our faith and possibly get closer to the answer of why you believe. And then, of course, pass it on.