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.

When No One Is Around – Parshat Shemot 5783

It has been said that the test of true character is how you behave when no one is around or watching you. I’m not talking about picking your nose in the car or looking around before adjusting your underwear. Do you pick up lost items in the street and try to find their owner? If you see a piece of trash on the beach, do you throw it away? Throughout the Torah we see examples of individuals making choices, believing no one will see them. The second book of the Torah begins with one such story. 

This week’s 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. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

As Moshe is enlightened to the injustice around him, he has a decision to make. Does he act? Does he risk his position? When Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he “sees no one is around” and then chooses to act. Why does he look over his shoulder? Could it be because he knows he’s about to do something that would forever change the way he’s seen by Egyptians? Is it because he thinks he can get away with it? Or, perhaps because he’s hoping someone else will step up, and he only acts when he knows he’s the only one who could step in?

One of my favorite teachings in Pirkei Avot is from Hillel: “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” I like to believe that Moshe stood up because if he didn’t, no one else would. It’s important to know that each of us has a voice, even if there’s not a chorus of other voices joining in.

Close to You – Parshat Vayechi 5783

My mom is in town visiting this week, and spending time together now reminds me of that feeling when I saw her for the first time after the pandemic had kept us apart for so long. Of course I missed her hugs, her caring presence, and the face-to-face conversations, but I didn’t realize just how much I missed her until I had to wait the 45 minutes it took Duncan to drive her home from PDX. That wait was excruciating, and that first hug was like something I had never experienced before.

There was a sense of familiarity with the feeling of sending my oldest to Camp Solomon Schechter for six days. I knew what missing a parent felt like, but I had no idea what it felt like to be the parent waiting to be reunited with my child. And similarly, it was the 90-minute drive home, while I waited patiently for her arrival, that was the hardest part of her time away. The human condition is set to miss and yearn for loved ones, and we are acutely aware of this because we feel it so deeply.

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.

Throughout the last number of Torah portions, we’ve seen the reactions as family members reunite after time apart: Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and then more intimately Jacob and his son Joseph. Each one is described with intense emotion and connection. In the past, I don’t think I truly understood the emotional charge of a long absence of physical presence. It seems like I’ve lived a lifetime since my father and grandparents passed away, and I miss them immensely, but I know they’ll never be back for a hug. 

In Parshat Vayechi, as we see Joseph “fling himself upon his father, weep and kiss him” when he dies, we are reminded of the emotional intensity in the space between physical presence and physical separation. The longing I felt in 2020 to hug my family, and the week of longing for my own child, gave me new perspective on how much that closeness really means.

In the Still of the Night – Parshat Vayigash 5783

Recently I’ve become somewhat of a restless sleeper. Falling asleep is not my problem, though. I’m pretty skilled at that part. It’s staying asleep that’s a struggle for me, especially following a particularly deep sleep early on in the night. Usually, by about 3:00 a.m. my mind starts to race, and my sleep goes from fluid to restless. It’s as if my brain thinks the best time to have an epiphany or take stock of my life is sometime in the wee hours, when all I really want to do is sleep. It has gotten to the point where I keep paper next to the bed so I can write down everything that comes out, not necessarily to save my thoughts, but to help them escape my brain so I can catch a few more hours of sleep.

But why do these deep thoughts strike when I’m not able to fully process them? Of course I don’t remember or understand half of what I write down in my sleepy haze, but I do know that for some people, the best ideas come at odd times, like in the shower, during a commute, or, like me, at 3:00 a.m. Perhaps it’s something about the calm darkness of night that offers a nice blank canvas for thoughts. This is often a place where epiphanies or trains of thought can occur. And apparently, our forefather Jacob and I have this in common.

Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, reminds us of the different ways in which we see behavioral changes. In the parshah, Joseph’s brother Yehudah (Judah) tries to redeem himself by asking to be imprisoned instead of Benjamin, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and heroically invites the whole family to Egypt to save them from starvation in Israel. In addition, Joseph and his father Jacob are reunited, and Joseph is able to finally reveal his newfound position of power.

The entirety of Jacob’s story is lifted through the power of dreams. From the angels on the ladder when he runs away from home, to the messenger he wrestles, to even raising a son who is a dreamer himself, Jacob is the only forefather to whom God only speaks through dreams.

This week’s parshah is no different. Jacob was nervous about the trip to Egypt, including what it would be like to travel and to see his beloved Joseph once more. In a restless sleep, God reassures Jacob that it will all be fine. Why is it only under the cover of night when God speaks to Jacob? It could be because that’s when we let our guard down. That’s when we’re vulnerable enough to show our true intentions or spirit. As we end another secular year, may we take this lesson of vulnerability and openness into our waking lives too, so that we’re better able to welcome our truest selves.