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?

I Would if I Could – Parshat Va’era 5772

This past October, the worldwide Jewish community let out a sigh of relief.  One of our own was reunited with his family, and regardless of our individual political leanings, many Jews around the world felt collectively complete again.  The release and return of Gilad Shalit was a combination of moments of celebration, moments of outrage at the deal, and thoughtful discussions on what it means to return to your home after so much time away.  Imagine what it must be like to go from terror to love, from solitude to a fury of media attention. 
This conversation doesn’t end with Shalit’s return; it’s a part of the dialogue on the release of captives all over the world.  While Gilad Shalit’s story might be the most recent event of captivity and release in our minds, this has been going on as far back as our Torah narrative.  After all, we are reminded time and again that we are to observe mitzvot “because of what God did for us when we went forth from bondage in Egypt.”  We were once held in captivity as well, and our collective memory requires us to pause and take note of this fact.  
Parshat Vaera, our Torah portion for this week, tells of Moshe and his uneasy rise to leader of the Israelite nation, including the bringing of the first seven of the ten plagues upon Egypt.  God begins by reminding Moshe of the covenant that He had made with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, reminding Moshe that freedom, release from the Egyptian shackles, was forthcoming.  In this reminder we learn of the five stages of redemption as set out by God.  Chapter 6, verses 6-8 state: “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.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.  And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians.  I will bring you to the land which I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov and I will give it to you for possession, I the Lord.”  Within these verses, God speaks of the stages of redemption, which correspond to our 4 cups of wine (plus one) at our Pesach Seder.  But what can we learn from this event having never been slaves ourselves? 
1. The first stage according to our text is to be freed from physical enslavement.  In the Torah, we’re talking about enslavement from Egypt, but in the modern world this could be any enslavement.  Whether it is our ties to our profession or overstretched obligations of any kind, we first need to recognize what is enslaving us and how we can set ourselves free. 
2. The second stage is deliverance from the psychological mindset of being a slave.  That is to say that even though we might be physically freed from what held us back, we still have emotional work to do.  It is not easy to just move forward; rather, we must work to think of ourselves in a new light.  Instead of identifying as persecuted, wronged or enslaved, we must change our mindset.
3. That leads to our third stage: redemption.  It’s not enough to remove the physical shackles and the psychological baggage we’ve carried, harboring preconceived notions about who we are. We still have to take the difficult step forward as our own human beings.  Imagine a car that has been garaged for years without running. The first step in driving it again is opening the garage, and the second step is fixing up the car so it’s in good shape, but the vehicle doesn’t really get new life until that first trip down the driveway.
4. Stage four requires us to engage with God spirituality.  According to this text, we are free, redeemed individuals when we experience our world not only through our emotions and physical senses, but rather when we take time to find our own soul, our connection to God, something greater than us.  In doing this we find ourselves in harmony with our inner thoughts and desires, and able to explore them further. 
5. The fifth stage is finding a place to call our own.  We live in a society where this stage is the most crucial.  Having a place of your own, to come home to each night and to feel sheltered and protected, helps keep our lives whole and grounded. 
Even though we may talk about the metaphor of captivity and slavery in our own lives, we know that as far back as the Torah and as recently as October, the reality is that on a physical level, these stages are still being experienced around the world.  But we also know that our people stand together, seeing the gift of each individual life, and through that truth we can work toward freedom.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:  As the Torah begins to focus on the Israelites and their new freedom, it also places emphasis on making sure to mark time with reason and responsibility.  So often we make excuses for not taking the time to do the things that keep us physically, emotionally and spiritually healthy.  The 5 stages detailed above can be seen as a key to living a balanced life.   Pick one activity that you’ve been meaning to do as a family and walk yourself through the stages of freedom to make it a reality. 

D’var Torah: Parshat Vaera: Papa Can You Hear Me?

A year ago I came to visit our wonderful school for the first time.  I was ushered between services, classrooms, and meetings with teachers, parents, and staff.  As you can imagine, it was a lot to take in.  In the midst of this whirlwind tour was a visit to our Early Childhood Center (ECC) to witness the Monday morning Havdallah celebration.  The students were attentively moving through their routine when we arrived at the Shema.  This Tefillah is usually one of the first learned by young Jews, and according to tradition, the last words a person should say on their death bed.  The Shema is the one line creed of monotheism.  We teach that we cover our eyes so that we can be in our own private space.  In the ECC all of the students got their “Shins” ready, using the three middle fingers on their hands, cupped their ears to show that they knew that Shema means to listen, and then covered their eyes to recite this line.  I fell in love with these students and found it inspiring that at such a young age they were already so attuned to the meaning of the line.  Yes, this line expresses our belief in one, singular God, but more profoundly, it calls on each of us to listen and hear.
In our Parshah this week, Moses is attempting to cajole the Israelites into formation in order to leave Egypt.  He is set to serve as their leader, but is met with a few challenges.  In parshat Vaera, Moses is given a message from God to share with the Israelites, but as we learn in chapter 6, verse 9, “When Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses…”  After his message falls on deaf ears, Moses is hesitant to go and speak to Pharaoh, giving to God the excuse that “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips!”  Moses is frustrated; he’s been speaking, but no one is listening, and if they are listening, they do not appear to really hear or understand what he’s saying. 
The Sfat Emet, the late 19th century commentary by Aryeh Leib Alter of Poland, interprets Moses’ words as a poignant moment in leadership.  He teaches that if the Children of Israel refuse to listen to their leaders, then their leaders cannot speak.  Thus, the would-be spokesperson’s lips are turned into “uncircumcised lips.”  This implies that leaders can only truly lead if they are listened to.  Without an audience, a leader has no followers.
In our daily lives, we seem to be good at giving our attention to whomever is speaking, but how much do we actually hear?  Our parshah teaches about Moses’ “uncircumcised lips;” he has a message, but his mouth is unable to share it without assurance that it will be heard.  It also appears that the Israelites have uncircumcised ears.  They are unable or unready to heed God’s message, to truly hear what their mission is.  Perhaps this moment in our narrative teaches us that we have a double duty.  Our task is to open our ears, hone our listening skills, make our Shin, and really hear what we are being called to achieve.  Once we have done this, our lips will be opened, and we too can become leaders like Moses.  We must be able to both listen to one another and speak up for those who have yet to have their lips opened. 
Moses heeded God’s call and answered.  Our challenge is to hear the calls of those around us and answer with actions, love, and blessing.
Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Our ethical covenant teaches us that we must respect others through Shmiat HaOzen, a listening ear.  How do you make sure that you not only listen to others, but also hear their message?
  2. What are some ways you can be a better listener so that family members and friends don’t speak with “uncircumcised lips”?