To Have and to Clothe – Parshat Mishpatim 5783

Anyone who has spent time with me in a meeting (specifically a meeting during the colder months) knows that I am almost always freezing. For about nine months a year, I keep a space heater on in my office, and ten months a year I use one in my bedroom. I simply can’t get warm enough. This also means I always have a sweater or sweatshirt on me or with me, and sometimes even a blanket at the ready in case a meeting space is too cold for my comfort. Since I’m usually prepared with these items, I also often end up lending them out when needed. Of course, occasionally I forget to gather them back, which means sometimes I’m cold, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

The ability for me to find warmth, however, is a huge blessing, and it makes me aware of how many people do not have that luxury. It’s a reminder of how much there is to do to support those who need warmth and shelter, especially in these cold and wet months in Portland. 

This week in the Torah we read Parshat Mishpatim, the middle section of text in Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Mishpatim focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main theme of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and personal relationships as complete, equal human beings.

In these new laws, we learn, “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to them before the sun sets; it is his only clothing.” The notion that someone should have what they need by sunset, the time in which we are most vulnerable, is, according to the Torah, the essence of humanity. Sharing warmth and protection, especially during this time of year, is more than a nice gesture; it’s a commandment.  

If you’re cleaning out your home of items you no longer use, consider donating them instead of tossing them. KGW offers a non-exhaustive list of organizations that are taking donations

Asking for Help – Parshat Yitro 5783

I am terrible at asking for help. I almost always accept it when offered, but it takes me a really long time to actually ask for what I need. I’m sure part of it is my innate stubbornness, feeling like I can do it all on my own, and part of it is a desire to not inconvenience anyone. Neither of these are healthy habits, and over the years, I have had to learn how to accept help, and how to ask for what I need so that I won’t become so overwhelmed I can’t function. And I know that when I can’t function at my usual capacity, I’m not just letting myself down, I’m also letting down family, friends, and coworkers. 

The central piece of Parshat Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, is the giving of the Ten 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 people outside of slavery. But before the Torah shares these laws, it reminds us of the familial relationship Moshe has with his father-in-law and how he sets up a legal system. 

The end of the portion encapsulates the intensity of the experience at Sinai, but in an odd way. Moses is exhausted, and there’s an endless line of people needing his counsel and judgment. He’s alone as the leader; he doesn’t have an assistant or anyone else who is allowed to make those decisions. In walks his father-in-law, Yitro. Seeing the situation, Yitro, a “priest” (leader) in his own community, suggests a way to support Moses to lessen the burden and spread out responsibility for problem-solving. 

What’s odd is that throughout the parshah, it becomes almost comical the number of times Yitro is called “father-in-law.” The text goes to great lengths to emphasize that the person who Moses accepted help from was his partner’s father. Even in the best of family relationships, in-laws are not often the first people you might go to for advice. The Torah conveys this repeatedly because it’s important to know that even Moses, the leader of the Israelites chosen by God, needed and accepted help.

Perhaps there’s a lesson or two here for all of us. If Moses can ask for guidance, so can you and I. And I’m not just saying this because my own partner’s parents read these weekly writings, but maybe – just maybe – in-laws have good advice to offer too.

Supported – Parshat Beshalach 5783

As clergy, I do a lot of supporting other people. It might be through a lengthy phone call, a quick text, or an email exchange. It might come in the form of a hug or a gentle hand on the back. Support comes in the form of MealTrains and coffee dates, walking and talking. To be supported at a basic level means being seen. But as any leader will tell you, the support provided by the leader can only happen if the leader is in turn supported. Exhaustion is not a badge of honor. When I’m worn out and in need of rest, Duncan is there to pick up the slack. At various times, I’ve had generous offers of meal deliveries when I’m stressed, or a bag of chocolate to brighten my mood. 

Returning from a month of sabbatical, I’ve been blessed to be supported by others during this time away. From service and lifecycle duties, to program coordination, to even just remembering that I’ve been officially “offline,” colleagues, congregants, and friends have helped me make the most of this rejuvenating time by lifting me up in various ways.

It’s fitting that we see this in our Torah portion this week, as Moses tirelessly leads the Israelites across the sea. Parshat Beshalach 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.

After the Israelites cross the sea, they end up in a battle with Amalek near Rephidim. The text conveys that every time Moses lifts his arms, the Israelites are successful in their battle, and every time he puts them down, they’re taken over by Amalek. As you can imagine, Moses’s arms get tired. Aaron and their companion Hur from the Tribe of Judah notice this; they see his exhaustion and help him rest on a rock. When that isn’t enough, they even hold his arms up to support him. 

Is there any more relevant connection to what dedicated leadership looks like? I feel for Moses, being put through so much for the sake of community without the ability to really rest, but of course that’s the work of so many leaders. And like other leaders, Moses relies on the support of those around him to hold him up while he serves others, albeit literally in his case. While I’m certainly not Moses, I do feel the strong support of those around me when you hold up my arms to allow me to carry on, and I’m grateful for it every day.

People Plan, God Laughs – Parshat Bo 5783

If there was one lesson that stuck with me the most through the pandemic, it might be not to think any plans are permanent. For two years it felt like every single time we made plans, they would get changed, canceled, or would come with five contingencies attached to them because everything else kept changing. At a certain point, I labeled everything on my calendar as “tentative” because we really didn’t know what would transpire. On the one hand, having to pivot has made me much more flexible, albeit a little dizzy. On the other hand, the last-minute nature of just about every plan can get old after a while. 

Needless to say, Covid didn’t invent the pivot, but it certainly heightened it. Even pre-pandemic, life gave us plenty of instances that required some resetting of expectations. It’s human nature to doubt and then have to scramble, and we see one example of this in our Torah portion this week. 

This week we read from Parshat Bo, detailing the Exodus from Egypt. The Israelites are a traveling people, and in Parshat Bo the Israelites are steps away from leaving Egypt. 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 and packing up, events which are symbolized in Passover celebrations still today. 

In chapter 12, verse 39 we read about the rushed nature of the Israelites’ departure. We read that when the Egyptians finally let them go, it was a mad dash to get out. In fact, the Torah’s description of “nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves” is why we eat matzah on Passover. But here’s the question: Why didn’t the Israelites prepare? Had they not witnessed the plagues? Did they not believe that God would free them? Were they doubtful of Pharaoh? Was it an ingrained slave mentality to plan day-to-day instead of looking ahead? Or was it the numerous false starts that led them to simply sit and wait? 

Before the pandemic, it felt odd that the Israelites hadn’t prepared, and year after year I would lament the fact that they didn’t at least make some bread in advance so we could celebrate liberation with something other than matzah. Then, however, came Passover in 2020, when so many of us were not only unprepared, but couldn’t even get to the store. It was almost like the Exodus we read about this week. The lesson, of course, is that faith is not necessarily about preparation, but about how we react. It’s those pivots and adjustments that help us continue to move forward, despite what may lie ahead.

I’ll Give You Three Chances – Parshat Vaera 5783

As a child, one of my favorite nursery rhymes was “Little Bunny Foo Foo.” I’ll refresh your memory, with apologies in advance for the subsequent earworm: 

Little Bunny Foo Foo,
Hopping through the forest,
Scooping up the field mice,
And bopping them on the head.

Down came the Good Fairy, and she said,

“Little Bunny Foo Foo,
I don’t want to see you,
Scooping up the field mice
And bopping them on the head.”

“I’ll give you three chances,
And if you don’t behave,
I’m gonna turn you into a goon!”

This nursery rhyme, however silly it might seem, offers a lesson in patience and in setting expectations. The Good Fairy doesn’t just punish Little Bunny right away. Instead, she gives Little Bunny three chances to make a behavioral change. As one who works with learners of all ages (not to mention an avid Tigers baseball fan), the “three strikes and you’re out” rule is very familiar to me. 

Our Torah portion this week may have influenced this nursery rhyme to some degree. Parshat Vaera launches the Israelites’ journey away from Egypt. 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 text, we see the notion that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” As human beings, we value our free will above all else, so this idea doesn’t sit well with everyone. If God caused the hardened heart, why is Pharaoh held responsible? If God did this, does that mean we have no free will? If God did this, does that mean that God wanted to punish the Egyptians? And so on.

As a rabbi and person who believes fiercely in free will, I myself struggled with this text until about a year ago, when I came across another interpretation. Perhaps the reason God kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to give “good Egyptians” the opportunity to step forward and demand an end to the cruelty and oppression. In this interpretation, we see God testing the people as God has done so many times before. In this case, it’s a test to see if there are any other upstanders. Remember, just last week we read about Moses standing up against injustice when no one else would. Maybe this moment of “hardening the heart” is a test to see if there are others who might find their voice and step up and speak out against injustice. The name of our parshah, Vaera, means “and he saw.” It’s a reminder that part of our job as human beings is to see one another, to speak up against injustice, to do the work to soften hearts so that oppression against any people is uncovered and vanquished. We’ve been given enough chances; now it’s time to change.