Not the Current Me – Parshat Mishpatim 5781

I used to be the odd ball kid. (OK, to be fair, I’m still pretty weird). As a child I had high emotions all the time and struggled in large group settings. I was awkward and bookish and not very popular. I simply did not fit in with my peers for most of my life. It wasn’t until I went to college and then graduate school that I finally found a group of people I could connect with in an honest and open way. I felt as though I finally found a group of people where I fit in and understood what it was like to be part of a community. Of course maturing in age and experience probably helped some too. Unfortunately, even as an adult I’ve found that many of the people I grew up with still see me as who I used to be. No matter how much I have personally grown and changed, to some people I will always be that same strange kid, but in an adult body. If nothing else, it certainly has me hesitant about attending my 20-year reunion this year, even if it’s only on Zoom. 

We all experience this to some degree as we grow and change throughout our lives. While our past genuinely does contribute to who we are as individuals today, we’re not who we used to be, and being reminded of our past, especially if it’s painful, can be devastating and destructive more than nostalgic.

Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, actually forbids dwelling on parts of a person’s past. 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, Parshat Mishpatim, focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.

In chapter 22, verses 19-20 we read, “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word for stranger is ger, which is also used for someone who has converted. It was from these verses that the sages forbade belittling sincere converts by reminding them of their idol worshipping days. 

The current version of who you are may appear quite different to those who knew you when. Similarly, people who only know us as adults may be surprised when they learn things about our former selves. The Torah reminds us not to hold on to who we used to be or to dwell on memories that no longer reflect reality, but to let the past go when necessary and support and welcome ourselves and others in the present. 

Snow Plow Dreams – Parshat Yitro 5781

I have been traumatized by snow ever since moving to Portland. I grew up in Michigan where snow wasn’t really a big deal. It snowed most of the winter, but since that was the norm, the city was built to deal with it. We had ample snow plows and systems in place to keep roads safe. At 3:00 a.m. on snowy mornings I’d often be woken up by the sound of the plows clearing driveways and streets, knowing we’d have school that day.

When it snows in Portland, the city shuts down. We don’t currently own a car with all-wheel drive, and we live at the bottom of two slightly sloping hills in our neighborhood, so when it snows, we’re stuck until it melts. The longest we’ve stuck at home was seven complete days, back when we had a 3-year-old and 3-month-old. To say it was traumatizing is an understatement. Now every time they predict snow, I run to the store to stock up on essentials (and then some) so we won’t be stuck without. My stomach ties in knots just thinking about the first flakes falling to the ground. The weird thing is on the few snowy days we have, I’ll still wake up in the middle of the night because I think I hear a snow plow whisk through our street, pushing a path to freedom.

Why do our brains do this? Why do certain smells or sounds trick us at our most vulnerable moments? I can’t explain the biology of it, but I can tell you this happens in the Torah too, especially in our parshah this week, Yitro.

The central piece of the 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 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. And the end encapsulates the experience of intensity of being at Sinai, but in an odd way.

Chapter 20, verse 15 reads, “All the people saw the thunder and the blare of the horn.” Why is the wrong verb used here? We don’t see thunder and hear lightning, we hear thunder and see lightning. Why the reversal? A common interpretation is that the experience was so intense and so overwhelming that their senses were all in a tizzy and they experienced something beyond what they knew as reality. And the key is it doesn’t matter if the thunder was actually visible in some miraculous way, only that it seemed that way to the Israelites. It’s not necessarily that the scrambling of the senses caused an intense experience, but perhaps that the intense experience caused the scrambling of the senses.

What a fitting reminder about this past year – the pandemic has our sense of reality and time all confused. How many times have you heard someone joke about not knowing what day it is or feeling like it’s the same day over and over again? The human mind is amazing at adapting and solving problems, but it can also trip us up and cause even more problems. Your trigger might not be snow flurries, but we can still rely on each other for the mental and emotional support we need as we plow ahead together.

Carry You With Me – Parshat Beshalach 5781

There are certain items I take with me wherever I go in life. I have a small siddur that lives in my backpack. I wear a necklace daily with my children’s initials on it so that they are always near my heart, and often my father’s Jewish star necklace accompanies me for special and important occasions. I even have voicemails saved from my mother and father that I don’t delete off my phone so I can always hear their voices. There’s something comforting about carrying with us these tangible items that connect us to our past, or to a moment of strength. Perhaps you carry a special picture or letter in your wallet or wear a loved one’s jewelry every day. Whatever it is, the object or sentiment probably brings you a similar strength, connection, and comfort.

This concept isn’t new; as far back as the Torah, communities maintained physical representations of their connection to those who came before them. We see it especially in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beshalach. 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 the highs and lows of moments of bliss and wonder at the new, free world around them, as well as moments of toddler-like exasperation at God because their journey through the desert is less than ideal. God provides manna, and the people want more. God provides water, and the people complain that it doesn’t meet their standards. Parents, you know how this goes.

Back when Moses and the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt, they start packing their belongings, organizing their flocks, and gathering the things they might need on the journey. Moses’s packing list is shared explicitly in chapter 13, verse 19. “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath form the children of Israel, saying, ‘God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.’” Yes, Moses goes to get Joseph’s bones so he can carry them out of Egypt with the nation.

Why the bones? For one thing, it was Joseph’s dying wish, so that surely gives the act veracity, but what was the reason behind it? Why not an article of clothing or a tool of some kind? Perhaps the bones, which are connected to human physical strength and structure, symbolized strength of character as well. To be a proper leader in Israel, Moses needed to acquire the strength of Joseph, who dealt with similar circumstances. As a leader in Egypt, Joseph protected the region from starvation and thirst, and Moses knew the Israelites’ journey ahead might lack food and water. Joseph also forgave his brothers for their terrible treatment of him, and perhaps Moses wanted those bones as the reminder of what forgiveness might look like.

Most importantly, and maybe most obviously, through memories and objects, we carry with us those who came before us as a reminder of who we are and where we’re from. And carrying Joseph’s bones was just about the most literal way for Moses to carry his ancestor with him. These things we carry are really more about the people we carry and those they carried before us.

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.