Rock and a Hard Place – Parshat Bo 5781

One of the moments I try to be so careful of as a rabbi is getting in the middle of a debate between two partners, or between parents and their children. When families used to stop by my office on their way out, I always made sure the parents gave permission before I offered snacks to students. Or when someone comes to me seeking validation in an argument, I also try to understand the bigger picture so I don’t end up in an uncomfortable position. There’s an often used phrase, “between a rock and a hard place,” describing a choice no one really wants to make or one that has negative consequences no matter how you look at it. Think about all the decisions you’ve had to make when you knew either option had potentially challenging outcomes.

This week we read from Parshat Bo. Parshat Bo details the Exodus from Egypt. In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are steps away from freedom, but Pharaoh refuses again 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 you might recall from the text, the tenth and last plague is the most severe. Chapter 11, verse 5 teaches that in the plague of the killing of the firstborn, it was the firstborn of all Egyptians, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the poor Egyptians working the millstones to even the firstborn of the cattle. This plague makes no distinction between ruling class and slave class, or even animals.

So why such a broad approach? One commentary reminds us that there were Egyptian slaves too, and the Israelites were slaves alongside the Egyptian slaves. Moses stood up for those who he saw being hurt or displaced, but we have no record of an Egyptian slave (other than the midwives) making any sort of prolonged protest against the treatment of the Israelites. This, perhaps, is why the plague does not distinguish them from anyone else in the community. No Egyptian, leader or slave, took action to stand up for the oppressed. Thus, their punishment was the same as those who were doing the oppressing. 

What made Moses different? Given the choice between difficult things, Moses chose the more difficult one. We’ve all been given choices that leave us trying to decide between the best of the worst options. However, the Torah this week reminds us that our job is to think beyond ourselves, and sometimes the “hard place” for us is the place of freedom for generations to come.

Magic and Miracles and Bowling – Parshat Vaera 5781

When I turned nine, I had a bowling birthday party. All my friends gathered for pizza and cake and some afternoon at the local lanes. Full disclosure: I am and have always been a terrible bowler, and back then there were no bumpers blocking the gutters or those handy ramps to guide the ball down a straight line. So every time I would step up for my turn, I’d do the same thing. I’d let the ball go, and then as it rolled down the lane, I’d lean my body in the direction I wanted the ball to go. If it was too far to the left, I’d lean to the right, and if it was too far right, I’d lean to the left. I have video proof that I did this. Obviously moving my body after the ball had already left my hand wasn’t going to have any kind of impact on where it went as it rushed towards the pins, but in my young mind, I could magically change the fate of that ball.

We all engage in this type of thinking at some point. You may call it wishing, dreaming, or perhaps even praying, but we’ve all been in situations we wanted desperately to change but without having any real control or power to change. The thing is, if the ball had actually changed course, it wouldn’t have been magic, it would have been a miracle.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vaera, illustrates this difference when it shares the magical thinking of Pharaoh and his “magicians.” 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. Furthermore, Moses isn’t so sure of himself to begin with.

When Moses and Aaron, with God’s support, approach Pharaoh to convince him to let the Israelite nation go, Pharaoh and his courtiers want to prove that the unseen Israelite God could not possibly be more powerful than they are. In an attempt to use marvels and magic to prove their power, Pharaoh’s courtiers start going toe to toe with God and Moses. 

This really comes down to magic versus miracles. How can magic, which is based in the human realm, compete with the miraculous doings of God? Of course God’s miracles have ability and greatness well beyond the limits of human power. And perhaps more importantly, where magic is imposing your will on another object or human, miracles cannot be controlled or invoked. 

Parshat Vaera and the struggle between magic and miracle is a struggle I relate to. Too often we’re consumed with making magic happen, and we miss the real miracles in front of us. Sadly the pandemic has only highlighted this shift. While we magically connect over Zoom and FaceTime, we’ve lost – at least temporarily – the miracles of human connection and of voices coming together in song. At the same time, it’s the “magic” of science that makes us optimistic for the future. In Vaera magic and miracles are on opposing sides, but let’s envision and create a world in which they, like us, are hand-in-hand once again.

But the Fighter Still Remains – Parshat Shemot 5781

I am a fighter. Not in the boxing ring, and not even with other people usually; I’m a fighter for justice, for what I believe in, and for what I want to accomplish. Like lots of kids, I had my own obstacles early on in life. I struggled to make friends easily, and I often felt on the outside of large groups. I always seemed to be on the periphery instead of experiencing those tight connections others were making. This also manifested itself in my grades and school performance. In my pre-college academic career I was a B average student, and my high school guidance counselor didn’t think I’d get into the University of Michigan.

At some point I realized that each time one of these obstacles came at me, I had a choice. I could let the internal and external negativity affect me. I could let it get me down and stop pushing myself forward. Or I could fight hard, learn coping strategies, and work my way into the place where I wanted to be. This wasn’t easy, and there were and still are plenty of times when I feel like throwing in the towel, when I feel like I don’t have any fight left in me. Somehow there’s always a new spark of energy, a new drive to fight.

This week we read Parshat Shemot. This parshah serves as the turning point from 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, one 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. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

In the wilderness, Moshe comes across an odd sight. He sees a blazing fire coming out of a bush but not consuming the bush. As Moshe takes note of this spectacle, God calls out to him to remove his shoes, respect the sanctity of the moment, and hear God’s promises.

Plenty has been said about the fire, but what about the shrubbery itself? Interestingly, the exact plant is often understood to be a thorn bush. Why would God choose a type of bush which by nature pushes others away? Why not an olive tree or a sycamore? Ancient philosopher Philo teaches that the bush burning and not being consumed symbolizes the Jewish people, perpetually attacked and endangered, but perpetually surviving. The thorn bush, the humblest bush, is just doing what it needs to survive, and it comes back, it is not consumed.

Parshat Shemot is just the first in a long line of narratives about the Israelites (later the Jewish people) in which we will be met with fire, yet not consumed. The call of God from the bush is the reminder to us all that the earth we stand on is holy because we are holy, and the fire of others cannot consume us. 

“Benefit of the Doubt” is a Jewish Value – Parshat Vayechi 5781

I try not to hold your outbursts against you. What I mean is that everyone has their Jekyll and Hyde moments. It starts as children, when the sweetest child can suddenly grab a toy from another child or scream uncontrollably, seemingly from out of nowhere. Of course these outbursts change as we grow and mature, but they still happen to adults. Something might set you off and cause a sudden and uncharacteristic personality shift. When this happens it can be startling, but I know this temporary emotion is not really you, just as you know it’s not really me. 

It’s only when our actions and our moods – good or bad – become more regular that they start to define us. As bad as misplaced meanness might seem in the moment, there’s a difference between having one bad day and taking it out on someone versus constant yelling or always bullying. In the Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayechi, Jacob teaches us about this difference too.

This week, Parshat Vayechi, which is the final section of text in Sefer Bereshit (Genesis), tells of the deaths of both Jacob and Joseph and of their final moments with family. In his final moments, Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons and all of his own children. He promises in this blessing to tell them what will happen to them in the future, but instead, he actually shares with each child their special gifts and character. 

As Jacob is giving the blessings to each of his children, he is careful to focus on their actions as they relate to who they are. For instance, about Simeon and Levi he says, “Their weapons are tools of lawlessness . . . when angry they slay men.” He doesn’t say that Simeon and Levi are lawless or always angry; he qualifies it. Jacob does this in turn for each of his children. He mentions their behavior, but makes it clear he’s not saying his children are their behavior.

So often in the world our first impressions of someone will color how we perceive them throughout our relationship with them. So if that first meeting is tinted with anger or an off day for some reason, it’s hard to disassociate that experience from them. Seeing someone once on one day isn’t seeing who they truly are the other 364 days of the year.

Appropriately, Vayechi means “and he lived.” It reminds us that our lives are complex and filled with ups and downs. We make poor choices, and we have bad days. However, each of us as a human being is the total of all our actions, not just one action. Dan l’chaf zechut is the Jewish value of giving the benefit of the doubt. Jacob reminds us of this value when describing his sons, and our task is to build a world in which the benefit of the doubt is simply automatic.