Different in 2016 – Parshat Shemot 5776


We live in an age in which our differences are both praised and feared.  We are raising our children to celebrate uniqueness of character, belief, and self expression.  At the same time, we’re quick to make judgement calls and assume the worst. People of all ethnicities and backgrounds have climbed to positions of success in business and culture. At the same time, it seems like race is more of a hot-button topic than ever. How is it possible that we can celebrate differences and then run away out of fear because people are different?

In 2015 we saw the escalation of far too many race-centered issues here and abroad. Whether the answer is protesting in the streets, simply engaging in conversation, or somewhere in the middle, doing nothing is not a response that will work.

The Torah has plenty to say about people of different cultures and how we should deal with our differences.  This week we read parshat Shemot, the first section of text in the second book of the Torah.  This parshah details the Israelites’ journey in Egypt after Joseph is gone and when a new king who does not know these people comes to power.  In addition to reading about the birth of Moses and his quick rise to power in the community, we hear about a leader who fears difference and find out his response to it.  

Chapter 1, verse 19 illustrates this idea of how we choose to react to “different.” The midwives, Shifra and Puah, are noted as allowing the babies to live even after Pharaoh has decreed otherwise. When questioned by Pharaoh for their actions, they respond “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous.”  The midwives intended this to mean that they give birth too fast to try to alter the population. However, Pharaoh interprets “vigorous” as “like animals.” This is enough to convince Pharaoh that the Israelites are practically a different species, less human and less deserving of life than the Egyptians.  

The midwives see one thing, and Pharaoh sees another. They interpret the same characteristic in different ways. In this secular new year, may we learn to appreciate not only our differences, but our perspectives. Replace “eye for an eye” with “eye to eye” and imagine the kind of 2016 we could create.

Lessons in the Stars – Parshat Shemot 5775

lessons-in-our-starsThis week, we read parshat Shemot, the first portion in the second book of the Torah. It’s named Shemot (names) because the text begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’acov, each with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun and Binyamin, Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Ya’acov were seventy persons; and Yosef was already in Egypt.”

Many commentators question why the text begins by telling us not only that the sons of Jacob went to Egypt, but that it lists each name individually. Why the roll call? It reminds me of the “In Memoriam” section from an awards show. The tribes, the brothers, have lived their lives and are remembered, and the community has gathered together after a shift in location to once again look back on those who gave them comfort, those whose stories brought them laughter and tears, and those whose life lessons they have taken to heart.

Who are the bright stars on your list? Is there an entertainer or a public figure or an athlete whose absence diminishes the light in your own life just a little bit? Among last year’s “list” were two particular losses that especially affected me: Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. They were two people who brought me laughter and taught me some of life’s greatest lessons. The Genie in Aladdin taught me all the wishing and hoping in the world doesn’t change who you are inside – that’s up to you. Mrs. Doubtfire taught me about teshuva, about righting the wrongs of the past to make a better future. Joan Rivers taught me to laugh at myself, and to be proud of who I am. She was a pioneer for women in comedy and stood her ground in the face of many haters.

What are your names? What names recall lessons learned or milestones marked?

This past summer I spent time converting the VHS tapes of shows and personalities I grew up on into DVDs. Thank goodness my mom saved these so I could share this magic with my daughter. As I watched parts of each episode in real time during the transfer, it was as though I was back to being six, watching my “friends.” Everything was all right – young and innocent.

These are the names. Whether they are the names of our biblical figures, the names of our pop icons, the names of our family members who’ve had significant influence in our lives, they are the names that bring back comfort, emotion, and lessons learned.

When God Has Your Back – Parshat Shemot 5774

Self-doubt,negative self-image, low self-esteem. These issues seem to surface more and more among adults and children alike today.  When was the last time a new challenge or opportunity came your way and your first thought was “I can never do this”?  Or when did you last look in the mirror and instead of seeing a beautiful and healthy human being,you saw only flaws and were quick to point out every imperfection?  Our own negativity creates a vacuum in our incredible potential as human beings and leaves a void in its place.  So why do we let our internal voices put us down?

Our parshah this week, parshat Shemot, which begins the second book of the Torah,illustrates for us how skewed our own perception of self can be.  This 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 becomes a father. It takes an unusual interaction with God for Moshe to become a leader to his actual people and confront his former grandfather figure with the support of a God he has only recently learned about. Talk about a whirlwind series of events.

Moshe’s infamous call to leadership in the form of a burning bush, as bizarre as it seems, is still not enough to erase the doubts in Moshe’s mind.  He is told he will be the leader of a nation of people and that his life will now be devoted to freeing that nation – his nation- from bondage.  The Torah makes clear Moshe’s thoughts on this turn of fate: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Moshe is begging God to pick a different leader.  With his rock-bottom self-esteem, Moshe does not see himself as a leader and makes it a point to elaborate on his flaws.

But God, being God, doesn’t let up.  “Who gives man speech?  Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind?  Is it not I, the Lord?  Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” It’s an interesting illustration of how it’s not enough for us to believe in God.  God has to believe in us.  God reminds Moshe that even with his perceived flaws, with God’s support, he will be successful.

Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that no matter what limitations we see in ourselves, God sees only the possibilities. And we can use that little bit of divine spark within us to prove to others they possess the same potential.

What’s in a Name? – Parshat Shemot 5772

One of the most challenging moments of a new parent’s life can be coming up with the name for their new child.  Will the child be a boy or a girl?  Who should the child be named after, and should the same name be used or just the first letters?  There are parents who choose names based on the attributes they see in the child and those who’ve picked out the names of their children long before they’re ready to start a family.  As Jews we sometimes have an even bigger decision to make, giving our children both an English and Hebrew name.  And, as we grow, sometimes our names change.
The Torah tells us the importance of names as Avram becomes Avraham and Sarai becomes Sarah when the letter “hey” is added to their names in an expression of Godliness.  So too, our names represent our relationship to the divine, to the outside world, to our family and to our community. 
Our names are important; they become our identity.  While we gain other titles like Mom, Dad, Doctor, or Rabbi, our first and last names tie us to who we are in life and where we’ve come from.  For instance, I kept my maiden name, Posen, because my sister and I are the last of our family line, so I wanted to honor my family.  What’s really special to me is that my maternal grandmother was able to trace her family back to Spain in 1492, when their name was changed to Auslander, meaning outsider. 
This week, we read parshat Shemot, the first portion in the second book of the Torah. It’s named Shemot (names) because the text begins: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Ya’acov, each with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah, Issachar, Zevulun and Binyamin, Dan and Naftali, Gad and Asher.  All the descendants of Ya’acov were seventy persons; and Yosef was already in Egypt.”  Many commentators question why the text begins by telling us not only that the sons of Jacob went to Egypt, but that it lists each name individually.  Why is this necessary?
Leviticus Rabbah, a Midrashic commentary, teaches “Rav Huna said in the name of Bar Kapara:  Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of four things- that they did not change their names, nor their language; that they did not say slanderous things; and that not one of them committed sexual immorality.”  That they did not change their names means they went down as Reuven and Shimon and they came out as Reuven and Shimon.  They did not call Reuven “Rupa,” or Yehudah “Lulyani,” nor Benyamin “Alexander.”  This teaches us that while the children of Israel may have gone into a new society, and it would have been much easier on them to have names that fit in, they remained true to their own culture and identity. 
When the text teaches that Joseph was already in Egypt, it is reminding us that Joseph was still himself while in Egypt.  The dreamer who interpreted dreams to get himself stuck in Egypt remained the dreamer and interpreter that saved a people.  Joseph and his brothers remained true to their inner identities, no matter their circumstances.  For us, “Egypt” can be anywhere, but whatever “Egypt” you end up in, you’re the same person inside.
While our environment changes and we find ourselves mixed in with new groups of people where we might stand out among different customs, the Torah reminds us that we have an identity in and beyond our names.  We carry within each of us the truth about who we are, and that truth is what allows us to remain our own person even as circumstances change.  It can be easy to change to fit every situation, but you lose a piece of yourself when that happens.  The message behind our “Be the Change Club” isn’t about changing ourselves. It’s about staying true to ourselves in order to see real change in the world. 
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach:  The midwives, Shifrah and Puah take a stance against Pharoah.  While he may have been the leader and law maker of the time, they saw the error in his rulings and acted in accord with their own conscience.  As we look at the world around us, we can take our cues from Shifra and Puah and stand up to injustice in the world, what greater lesson is there for us to teach our children than to maintain our on dignity with every action.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  Jewish living is living in connection to God.  Chapter 4, verse 25 of our parshah reminds us of the importance of this connection with the covenant of circumcision.  While this covenant is made at 8 days old and remains forever, it is always good to renew our covenant.  This week, think about what connection you and your family wish to have with Judaism and God.  How will you maintain this relationship?