When Tolerance is the Worst Decision – Parshat Vaera 5777

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There are moments as a parent when I feel like the best I can do is accept and move on. So we have a day when my three-year-old won’t wear her clothes? Fine, a day spent in PJs isn’t so bad, even if she’s going to two birthday parties. Turns out we can’t handle a sudden change in the bedtime routine? Fine, the old routine will work for a few more days. There are things that we react to by accepting and moving on because doing so makes our lives less stressful. We exert minimal effort, resulting in a solution that, if not ideal, at least we can live with. This passivity is a coping mechanism; it protects us from the change we are afraid to make. Sometimes this self-preservation is essential; other times it is our job to get up, get moving, and change our circumstances.

This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion of the book of Shemot (Exodus). The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt, working for Pharaoh, having decrees levied on them daily about how much work they must do, how to family plan, and the like. Moses has become the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and the Israelite nation. God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and manipulate Pharaoh’s heart. This parshah sees Pharaoh dangling the carrot of freedom before the Israelites, only to snatch it away as they reach to grasp it.

Up to this point we are to assume that there were few if any attempts at freedom without God’s intervention, but it’s also possible that physical shackles weren’t the only thing holding them back. God expresses in verse six, “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” In Hebrew the word for labors or burdens is sivlot, but a Hassidic interpretation by the Kotzker Rebbe interprets this word as “tolerance.” He asks: What was the worst part of slavery? That the Israelites became accustomed to it. Their passivity enslaved the Israelites as much, if not more than the Egyptian bondage.

The first step to freedom is the step away from passivity and complacency toward action. In our own lives, parshat Vaera urges us to awaken from this tolerance of the intolerable. The question you must ask is do your burdens weigh you down into submission or do they motivate you to fight, to move, and to grow?

No Pain, No Gain – Parshat Vaera 5776

No Pain No Gain

A 2012 study by a Polish university asked marathon runners several months after a race to recall the pain they had experienced when actually running the race. On average, the level of pain they reported after the race dropped by about 40%, regardless of how long after the race they were polled.

Similar studies have been conducted about the pain during childbirth. It’s common for the memory of the labor pain itself to fade over time. I even experienced this with my C-section. The pain of trying to regain mobility after the surgery was excruciating and I thought I’d never get over that feeling, yet now it seems like a distant memory.

Our brains provide what seems like a coping mechanism, allowing us to move on. For those painful moments that are simply a part of life (childbirth, cutting teeth, accidental injuries) as the wounds heal, the brain heals too, and the memory of the pain fades soon after the pain itself. However, what happens when the pain is something we should remember? What about the instances in which the pain is an important part of the journey or the lesson?

This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion in the second book of the Torah. The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt working for Pharaoh and are having decrees levied on them daily that control all aspects of their lives.  Moshe rises as the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and his people.  God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and manipulate Pharaoh’s heart as a method of persuasion.  

Chapter 8, verse 28 of this week’s parshah is a turning point for Pharaoh and his enslavement of the Jewish people. “And the Lord did as Moses asked:  He removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his courtiers and from his people; not one remained.  But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go.” We discover God is no longer the force that is hardening Pharaoh’s heart; rather, Pharaoh becomes stubborn on his own.

How quickly Pharaoh forgets the pain of the previous plague. When he and his people were suffering, we imagine he could empathize with the Israelites and their daily suffering.  But when his own suffering was eased, the memory was quickly lost and his compassion was gone. Pharaoh learned nothing from the plagues because he (with some manipulation by God) couldn’t recall the pain in the moment.

Memory is fleeting. This can be helpful when it comes to alleviating some of the pains associated with human existence, but in certain cases it’s the memory of pain that actually helps us move forward. To this day our celebration of Pesach includes symbols like matzah and maror to remind us of bitter hardship. As Jews, part of our tradition is the recollection of pain as a way to pass on the experiences of our people so that we may continually learn and grow.

I Get Knocked Down – Parshat Vaera 5775

i-get-knocked-downIf you say it often enough, “No I can’t” can become a mantra just as easily as “Yes I can.” Last year I was facing a new job and a move across country with an infant and puppy. Having to coordinate the logistics for the entire move created so many moments when I felt “I can’t.” It was easier than I’d like to admit to just sit and do nothing instead of face the new challenges.

The “I can’t” and the “It’s too hard” can take many forms. They might be uttered by a child attempting to master a new skill and wanting to give up or an adult who is at her wit’s end with work, family, and life in general. Life can take us by storm, and the very thought of moving forward can be overwhelming and crushing. Perhaps you’ve been fired or let go from a position you loved, or you have so many projects all depending on you that you’re not even sure what the next step should be.

Each of us has a certain amount of struggle and stress we can handle at a given time, and when we reach our breaking point, out comes the “I can’t.” The Israelites also have a breaking point as a people. This week’s parshah, Vaera, finds the Israelites in the midst of their transition from slavery to freedom. God reminds Moshe about the covenant made with our forefathers and that redemption is in the near future. Moshe tries to share this with the people Israel, but they aren’t ready to listen to him.

The image painted is one of Moshe, perched in front of the nation, ready to share God’s promises with them, and the nation has their heads down, their ears closed. They are tired, and even more telling, are unsure whom to trust. Chapter 6, verse 9: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Our commentators question what the “soul crushing” was. Could it be that they are so tired from the hard work that they are unable to understand the possibility of change? Or could it be that they are aware of the hard work freedom would require and they are simply unable to comprehend putting that amount of energy forward?

Ultimately, the Israelites are able to rally their efforts and move forward, but our Torah portion this week reminds us of the difficulty in moving forward after traumatic or overwhelming events or when the “I can’t” becomes so ingrained it feels normal. For the Israelites it took the leadership of Moshe and the trust of an entire community to forge a better life. When our spirits are crushed, may we find some inspiration in our own power to get up and move forward to a renewed freedom.

Free to be Me – Parshat Vaera 5773

There are many fallacies about the life of an educator, but perhaps the biggest one is that we get the summers off, essentially ten months of working and two months of not working.  At the end of every school year, someone asks me what I’m doing with my two months of summer away from school,  and then I get a surprised look when I explain that I spend most of that time getting ready for the next school year.  While we do have vacations, shorter hours, and more flexibility, the time spent not teaching is really meant to do all of the other work that sets up the next year’s classes for success.  The “freedom” of summer comes with responsibility.  The same is true with growing up.  I remember wanting to be in charge of my own life:  bedtime, clothes, food, and all that came with moving out of my parents’ house.  But, as I found out when I became an adult, that freedom came with the obligation to pay bills, grocery shop, and clean for myself.  We sometimes feel bound by our current situation, only to realize that the freedom we desire brings with it restrictions of its own that just might not have been visible to us before.
This week we read parshat Vaera, the second portion of the book of Shemot (Exodus).  The Israelites are deep into their slavery in Egypt, working for Pharaoh, having decrees levied on them daily about how much work they must do, how to family plan, and the like.  Moses has become the leader of the Israelites and is now pressed by God to stand up to Pharaoh, the one in whose house he was raised, and ask for freedom for himself and the Israelite nation.  God partners with Moshe and Aaron to send the first seven plagues and toy with Pharaoh’s heart.  This parshah has Pharaoh dangling the carrot of freedom before the Israelites, only to snatch it away as they attempt to grasp it. 
As the story unfolds, it is striking the way in which Moshe asks for freedom.  In chapter 7, verse 16, Moshe is to go to Pharaoh and ask if the Israelites can leave.  The words he is to use are “Let My people go that they may worship Me.”  We often only hear the first section of this phrase, “Let My people go,” which is simple and straightforward, but the Torah text, here and throughout theparshah, connects freedom with an action.  God connects freedom with worship, and ultimately, the responsibility of Torah.  Pharaoh later agrees to allow the Israelites to go so they can sacrifice to and worship God. 
In our parshah we learn that freedom is not the release from all obligations; rather, freedom is the ability to act for something.  The Israelites’ freedom was more than release from bondage; it provided the opportunity to serve God in the ways they were commanded.  So too, our freedom today does not allow us to sit back and do nothing, but to stand up and act.  Freedom demands that we take advantage of our opportunities.
While it may have sounded nice to the teenage me to have complete freedom over my life, I know now that freedom from my teenage years means the necessity of bill paying.  While it would be nice to have an entire summer of doing nothing, I know that the time is better spent preparing for the coming year and focusing my attention on some of the personal things I may have neglected during the year. 
As we begin 2013, let’s remember to embrace the responsibility of Torah, which is not only the core of what we read in Shemot, but our entire heritage.
THIS TOO IS TORAH: John F. Kennedy once said that Israel “honors the sword of freedom.” What are some ways in which you honor your freedom both Jewishly and secularly?