A Change is Gonna Come – Parshat Shemot 5777

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Today we watch our nation undergo a major transition in leadership. On the one hand, it’s perfectly normal. It’s a quadrennial tradition, part of the fabric of our country. On the other hand, parts of this transition feel anything but normal. For eight years we’ve lived as citizens of the Obama administration. We had the routine of President Obama, a well-polished speaker who placed great focus on the “Torah” of hope and change for a better future. Whether or not he was the candidate you voted for, by the time he left office, he was at least the status quo, and we knew his policies and politics. In contrast, now we stand on the brink of a transition where there are many, many unknown variables.

This is obviously not the first transition of power we have witnessed, and it won’t be the last, but it does remind me of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot. Our parshah, 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.

There are two parallels in particular between the presidential inauguration and the narrative of Shemot that stand out to me. Chapter 1, verse 8 of the book of Exodus states, “And there arose a new king over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.” This verse clearly speaks to the unease that comes with the transition of power to a new leader who does not know and cannot sympathize with the experiences of a particular minority. This new king was out of touch, and that was more than a little unnerving to those living under his leadership. And the first thing this king does is legislate strict rules and laws against the groups he does not understand. Instead of trying to get to know them, understand them, or even relate to anyone else outside himself, he simply places restrictions on their lives.

Later in the story we learn specifically of Shifra and Puah, the two midwives who resisted and disregarded the new pharaoh’s laws. They stood strong and tried to save as many of the Israelite babies as they could, including Moses, who ends up as the leader of the resistance. The bravery of Shifra and Puah then inspires the bravery of others. Their desire to stand up and fight is the model for resistance. Take what you will from these analogies; however, I am not trying to compare and contrast Biblical and modern leaders. To me, this is much more an illustration of how we as a society adapt, evolve, resist, and rally under new leadership.

Transition can be difficult and scary, a point I’ve brought up before in these writings. This week we had to transition back into the outside world after seven days of being stuck in our home following a crazy snowstorm that blanketed Portland. While we were only snowed in for a week, it doesn’t take much to throw your routine out of whack. It was a difficult morning remembering to pack up the diapers and milk for the baby, get the preschooler dressed and fed, and have everyone out the door on time. Then again, sometimes that reset is helpful. It may offer a new perspective or reveal ways you can make the routine even smoother and more efficient.

As we prepare for this major political transition, may we take it as an opportunity to re-examine our own routines, our own struggles. Perhaps this is the time to grow. As author and speaker Karen Kaiser Clark says, “Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Shabbat shalom.

Different in 2016 – Parshat Shemot 5776

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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.