Bo 5773 – Pharaoh, Lance, and Us

This week, we are going to talk about someone who was larger than life. Someone who was at the top of his field. His competitors couldn’t touch him. He was invincible. Anyone who dared challenge him would be trampled underfoot.

And then, even when indications began to accumulate that he was not who he had claimed to be all this time, he continued to persist.

When some of the members of his team began to question his invincibility, he responded with threats, stubbornly holding out.

Finally, when the evidence could be ignored no longer, he backed down, admitting that he was not the person whom he had claimed to be.

But was the concession sincere? Did he mean it? Has he really come down from his high podium out of genuine contrition? Or, is it merely an attempt to shake off the feeding frenzy that has been attacking from all sides? Is he a changed man, or will he revert to his old ways?

Any guesses who we are talking about?

Actually, it’s two different men: Lance Armstrong and Pharaoh. Two people who were lured by the promise of fame and wealth. Of prestige. Of knowing that there is nobody else in your field who can touch you.

It turns out that these are extremely powerful forces. They can lead a person to set aside ethics, break the law, lie, and even abandon friends and family.

Of course, we have a role in all of this as well, just as the Egyptian people had a role in Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Lance Armstrong would not have achieved what he did without us: the fans, and the consumers.

His story of overcoming cancer was inspiring to millions. His charity did so much good. His unimaginable comeback in leading the US Postal cycling team to win seven consecutive French Open titles was simply astounding.

As it turns out, Lance Armstrong was using performance enhancing drugs for years. Through bribery and lying, he avoided being caught by drug testers. He threatened anyone who confronted him, including friends and teammates. He lied under oath.

Until recently, it all paid off. Lance Armstrong brought incredible prestige and money to the sport of cycling. He made a hundred million dollars or more in product endorsements and prize money. And he became one of the most popular sports figures in the world.

Never mind that it is so unbelievably unlikely that a person could accomplish what he accomplished without using performance enhancing drugs. Come on. Did we really think he could do something so impossibly unlikely on his own? Apparently we did. Or we wanted to. We wanted it all to be true. We love our heroes, so we are willing to overlook the ugliness.

But we also love to see our heroes come crashing down. We get a sick kind of pleasure when we witness the fall of someone who has achieved greatness to a level at which we can only dream. That’s why Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah this week has drawn so much attention.

“He wasn’t that good after all,” we can now tell ourselves. But are we any better off now that Lance has fallen from his podium? No.

I’ll leave it to others who follow these things more closely to do the close analysis. I hope that Armstrong’s extremely public admission of guilt is the beginning of a long process of teshuvah, of repentance. While public opinion will pass its own judgment, only time will tell if he is ready to become a new man. And only God and Lance will know if he has truly changed his neshamah, his soul.

Pharaoh shares much with Lance. Granted, there is a big difference between being an athlete and being the King of the most powerful empire in the world. The stakes, in terms of human lives, are much greater in Pharaoh’s case.

But Pharaoh, also, is addicted to power, prestige, and wealth. In his world, he is no mere human. He is the living embodiment of the sun god, and thus cannot concede to any challenge, whether that challenge comes from Moses, or from the Lord of the Universe.

Pharaoh’s pursuit of wealth and power and his single-minded desire to retain it, leads him to trample on the lives of the Israelites. He has ordered their enslavement, decreed the murder of their male children, increased their workload, and refused to let up even a little. Why? Greed and power. These slaves built him the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses. His drive for wealth has eclipsed any smidgen of an ethical sensibility or human compassion.

But it is not all on Pharaoh. He believes what everybody is saying about him: that he is the sun god; that he is all-powerful; and that he deserves it. Pharaoh’s “fans,” so to speak, have reinforced all of the unethical behaviors of which he is guilty. And they have benefited too, with a slave underclass to make their lives a bit cushier.

Years of sycophancy have made Pharaoh hard-hearted towards Moses’ cry of “Let me people go.”

So God brings ten plagues of evidence to demonstrate that Pharaoh is not divine. Towards the end, his people are convinced. They abandon him, and urge their king to let the Israelites leave. The Egyptians have finally begun to appreciate their slaves as human beings, and especially Moses, the Prophet of the true God of the Universe. As this morning’s Torah portion tells us, “The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.”*1*

God’s plan, from the beginning of the Book of Exodus, has been to demonstrate to Pharaoh that no human being is that great. But the message is not only directed at him. God is clear that all of Egyptian society is complicit in the oppression of the Israelites. The sin is not only Pharaoh’s, and the punishment is not alone for him to bear. The lesson that God has set out to impart is directed as much to the Egyptian people as it is to Pharaoh. And through them, to the rest of the world.

What is that lesson?

Ultimately, it is a lesson of humility. As humans, we need to know our limits. We are not gods. We are not superior to one another. We are not immune to norms of basic human morality. And none of us are above the laws of a just society.

This message is timeless. For there will always be those who do not see themselves as being subject to typical norms of human behavior. Whether we are talking about politicians, business people, entertainers, or professional athletes.

But we also can’t just sit back and take silent pride in the moral failings of public figures.

We need to remember that we are an integral part of this system. Without a public to care about their lives, there would be no famous people. There is a part of me that feels bad for those celebrities whose egos and faults are reinforced and strengthened by the public’s attention. I cannot imagine how difficult it wold be to live ethically, to be one’s best self, under such scrutiny.

I hope that Lance Armstrong is sincere. I wish him the strength to face the consequences of his actions, and to correct the harm that he has caused.

And I hope that we can take a sober look at ourselves, and acknowledge how we contribute to a society that pushes people to allow greed and the quest for money or power to inflate the ego and suppress good behavior.

*1*Exodus 11:3


I love you, but I hate the way you think – Chayei Sarah 5773

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts and opened fire with a rifle.  He seriously wounded three people and killed the receptionist, Shannon Lowney, as she spoke on the phone.  He then ran to his car and drove two miles down Beacon Street to Preterm Health Services, where he began shooting again, injuring two and killing receptionist Lee Ann Nichols.

Several months later, a group of six leaders, three each from the pro-choice and pro-life movements, started meeting in secret with each other. At first, they were nervous about the project.  One of the pro-life participants was worried that if word got out that he was in dialogue with pro-choice leaders, it could generate ”a scandal if people thought [he] was treating abortion merely as a matter of opinion on which reasonable people could differ.”  One of the pro-choice leaders ”wondered if the talks would divert [her] energies from coordinating [her] organization’s response to the shootings and from assisting in the healing of [her] employees and their families.”

The two facilitators were worried that the “‘talks might do more harm than good.”

But, they stuck with it.  There were many challenges in their conversations, including over basic things like terminology.  Prochoice members would become inflamed when referred to as ”murderers” or when abortions were likened to the Holocaust or to ”genocide.”  Prolife participants became incensed by dehumanizing phrases such as ”products of conception” and ”termination of pregnancy” that obscured their belief that abortion was killing.

Nevertheless, they grew close to one another.  They learned to distinguish between the way that an opponent thought, and the person sitting across the room.  They learned to have a conversation in which they were not trying to change the other person’s mind.

They were forced to dig deep to learn to define exactly what they believed and where those beliefs came from, and to admit those things about which they still experienced uncertainty.

The dialogue did not bring them closer together politically.  It revealed deep differences between their respective positions.

But, the growing sensitivity to one another started to have an impact on the public statements that they were making, in which the media noticed a decrease in inflammatory rhetoric.  And that resulted in reaching people whom they never would have reached before.

Five and a half years later, on January 28, 2001, after the group had spent more than 150 hours together, they co-authored an article that appeared in the Boston Globe in which they described their experiences.  (“Talking with the Enemy,” published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, 28 January 2001, Focus section.)  They concluded the article by explaining why they had chosen to continue to meet together for all these years.  They felt that they had been stretched spiritually and intellectually, that they had become wiser and more effective leaders, having become more knowledgeable about their opponents.  They learned to not be overreactive and to not disparage the other side.  This is how they concluded the article:

Since that first fear-filled meeting, we have experienced a paradox.  While learning to treat each other with dignity and respect, we have all become firmer in our views about abortion.

In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.

Wouldn’t that be nice?  If we could have conversations about deeply polarizing issues, in which those conversations help us clarify for ourselves what we believe, while at the same time bringing us closer to those who think differently.

Which brings us to the recent election.  Thank God it is over.  Regardless of who you were rooting for, I think we can all agree that this election cycle has been awful, and it is a relief now that it is over.

The irony is, of course, that after all of the money that has been spent, we are basically where we were before.  Barack Obama is still President.  The Democrats still control the Senate, and the Republicans still control the House.

The political rhetoric in our country is so divisive, so polarizing.

Why is it like that?  Why can’t people with different views about the direction our country should be moving speak to and about each other with respect?  Especially when we consider that most people in America are probably closer to the center.  There is something about our political system, or about the media, that seems to drive people to the extremes, and leads to disparaging, and even dehumanizing, anyone who thinks differently.

The most recent episode of the NPR radio program This American Life dealt with this issue.  One segment was all about people who ended friendships because of political differences.  And just to be clear, people on both the right and the left were depicted.  Why do we allow ourselves to make our opinions so personal.

The truth is, the fault is not with our politics, or with the media.  It is with our brains.  This is simply how humans behave.  That, combined with the instant communication possibilities that our technology now offers, has increased the polarization in society.

People who are like-minded tend to talk only to each other, and rarely to people with opposing viewpoints.

Why is it so hard to talk about our differences?

Our brains associate what we think with who we are.  My thoughts are me.  So when I hear someone say something that challenges what I think, my brain takes it as a challenge to my identity.

My brain perceives it as a threat and releases hormones that cause me to misread or misunderstand the nature of the attack.  This leads us to respond in one of three ways:  Flight, fight, or freeze.

I might run away from the person who is expressing a different opinion.  Shelter myself from challenging ways of thinking.  By avoiding exposure to other viewpoints, my identity is secure.

The second response, fight, causes me to respond to the threat by arguing back.  And often, by escalating the argument.  That is why political disagreements often turn into accusations and name calling.

The third response is to freeze like a deer in the headlights.  To just shut down, and not engage.

Human beings are hard-wired to mirror one another’s behavior.  That is why when we experience attack and defense, we tend to respond in kind.  This creates a feedback loop, as feelings of danger and threat escalate.  Pretty soon, we have lost the ability to have intelligent conversations.

Think for a moment about how you view those who hold different values than you, or about how others perceive you.

It does not matter what the issue is, or which side of it you are on.  Take abortion, or same sex marriage, taxes, the proper role of government.

Now, in your mind, complete the following sentence:  As a ____, others view me as ______.

As someone who is pro-choice, others view me as supporting murder.

Now do the opposite.  As a ______, I view others as ______.

As someone who is pro-choice, I view others as ________.  someone who hates women, a religious fundamentalist…

We tend to speak in generalities of the other side, leading us to characterize them as the enemy, or evil, or unintelligent, or uneducated.  If the other person does not think the way I do, there must be something wrong with him or her.  We recognize the crassness of the other side before we recognize it on our own.  We tend to see ourselves as open-minded, and the other as closed.

So we end up dividing into camps of the like-minded.  Curiosity, openness, and goodwill towards the other are discouraged.  Extreme positions are enhanced.

Our political rhetoric has gone through the feedback loop and descended to name-calling.  President Obama is a socialist.  Republicans hate women.

As soon as an issue gets a slogan that portrays a side, real dialogue becomes very difficult.  Nuanced positions cannot be expressed in binary labels like pro-choice and pro-life.  It is scary to give in anything from your own position when involved in a binary political fight.  We have to get away from the labels.

We need to find a way to have real dialogue with each other.  Dialogue that helps us understand other positions better, and through that openness, our own positions better.  Our nation needs it.  I hope our newly elected leaders can do this, although I have my doubts.

But it is not just in the political arena that respectful dialogue is needed.

It is needed in the Jewish community as well.  It is needed in our shul.  Members have shared with me that they have felt uncomfortable expressing their views publicly because of what they perceive as negative reactions from other members of the community.

It is possible to break the feedback loop.

At the end of this morning’s Parshah, Abraham dies, as the Torah describes, “in a good old age, an old man, and full of years…”  The Torah then tells us that “Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah.”  Noticing that Isaac’s name is mentioned before his older brother’s, Rashi comments that “Ishmael repented and placed Isaac before himself.  This act of reconciliation constitutes the ‘good old age’ that is attributed to Abraham.”

These half-brothers certainly had their differences.  We have no record in the Torah of them interacting with each other for decades.  They clearly have different personalities, and have chosen different paths in life.  Yet, Ishmael found a way to set aside those differences and see the humanity in Isaac.  According to Rashi, this occurred prior to Abraham’s death, for the knowledge of his sons’ reconciliation enabled him to die contented, in “good, old age.”

We can only imagine how the reunion might have gone.  But for two brothers who were so different, it must have involved learning to listen to each other, and recognize the humanity in the other, despite the differences.

Having a dialogue with the other needs rules.

There are groups out there that specialize in mediating difficult, polarizing issues.  Issues like abortion, same sex marriage, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  And they have sophisticated models for leading groups of people with differing viewpoints through a productive dialogue.  I am not going to go into a detailed analysis.  Instead, I would like to suggest an approach that we might take, as individuals, the next time we are in a conversation about a polarizing topic, perhaps during kiddush today.

The first thing we have to be clear about is the purpose of the dialogue.  What do I hope to accomplish when I have a discussion with someone who disagrees with me about health care, for example?

My goal cannot be to win the argument, or convince the other person that my way is correct.  If I go into a conversation thinking that I am going to change the other person’s mind, I will fail.

The goal, for this and any other issue, is simply to understand the other person.  And that means that I have to listen, and listen closely.

And then, when it is my turn to talk, there are a couple of self-reflective questions that will be very helpful:

Why do I care so passionately about this issue?  What in my own experience has led me to this passion?

And then, equally important, is to find those areas where I am uncertain.  What is it in my own position that troubles me?  What is it in the other’s position that I find attractive?

These are the kinds of questions that the six pro-choice and pro-life leaders in Boston asked themselves.  Those are the kinds of questions we ought to ask ourselves as well.

After a Christian group had gone through a mediated dialogue over some issue that was controversial for their community, one of the participants described how he felt after it was over.  His opinion was not changed.  If anything, he felt even stronger about his position than he had beforehand.  But his feelings about his opponents had made a 180 degree shift.  This is what he said:  “I love you, but I hate the way you think.”

May we find the courage to say the same.

Ki Tov Hu – Shemot 5773

When my sister in law had her first child, she called up my wife and asked her, “Isn’t my baby the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”

To which my wife responded, “No. My baby is the most beautiful baby ever.”

Of course, they are both right. To every mother, her baby is the most beautiful, and she would do anything for that child.

This is a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been oppressing them. After trying, unsuccessfully, to compel the midwives to murder any male child born to an Israelite, Pharaoh issues a more specific decree: all Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Then, in chapter two, the camera zooms in from the wide angle lens to focus in on one particular baby boy: “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.”

And so begins the story of Moses. A couple of problems with our text.

First, as illustrated by the interaction between my wife and sister in law, there is nothing extraordinary about a mother looking at her newborn baby boy and noticing how beautiful he is.

Second, there is also nothing unusual about a mother trying to defy a horrific decree by keeping her son in hiding.

As Nachmanides says: “All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him.”*1*

The universality of a mother and father’s love of her or his child is a given, across all time and culture. So why would the Torah take the time to mention something so obvious?

Naturally, there are a number of commentaries from our tradition that give us additional insight into Moses’ birth. The Torah states, Vatere oto ki tov hu – “When she saw how tov he was…”*2* What does tov mean in this context? The Talmud offers five explanations*3*:

“Rabbi Meir says: His name was Tov” Remember that he does not receive the name Moshe until the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh rescues him from the Nile River. Tov was his birth name.

“Rabbi Judah says: His name was Tuviah” – This answer is similar to the first one, with two additional letters, yud, heh. These are letters from the name of God. It is common for biblical names to incorporate the Divine name.

“Rabbi Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of prophecy” – That is to say, Moses’ mother saw something in him that was not typical. Guided herself perhaps through prophecy, she saw God’s presence in this child in a way that made her confident he would be saved if she took extraordinary measures, which might explain why she sent him off in a basket down the Nile River.

The Talmud’s final two explanations are based on another appearance of the word tov in the Torah: Va’yar elohim et ha’or ki tov*4* – “And God saw that the light was tov.”

The word tov appears seven times in the account of creation. It indicates God’s satisfaction that each of those things that are declared tov have been made complete. The Talmud’s fourth explanation builds on this.

“Others say: He was born circumcised” Circumcision is the perfection, or completion, of the male body. So when Moses’ mother sees him and declares him to be tov, it means that he came out circumcised.

Finally, the last explanation is by the Sages: “At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light — it is written here, ‘And she saw that he was tov,’ and elsewhere it is written: ‘And God saw that the light was tov.'” Moses came out glowing. He was glowing with potential, a new creation. Like the light that God created and separated from darkness on the first day, Moses’ birth heralds the dawn of something new.

Moses is certainly an extraordinary human being. He deserves to have a a story recorded in the Torah about his birth. But the truth is, every child born is beautiful, tov, in all of these senses. Beautiful, complete, perfect, blameless. A continuation of creation. But more than just tov in the present, in that miraculous moment of coming into being. A new human being is also tov in the sense of containing the potential for redemption.

That is why we welcome Elijah the Prophet at a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat ceremony. Elijah, Jewish tradition teaches, will announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world. Every baby who is born has the potential to bring the world closer to redemption.

This is why, in our family, we tell our children “I can’t wait to see who you will become.”

This past week, the children of Newtown went back to school for the first time. Our nation is still going through a process of soul-searching after the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those twenty children, all of them tovim: beautiful, perfect creations, contained within them so much potential for goodness in our world.

The tragedy has opened up a conversation about violence in our society, gun control, mental health services, violent video games, eroding moral values, and more. These are important conversations to have. While the connections between any one particular policy issue and different outcomes is often difficult to establish, there is a widespread sense that we are off course, and not doing enough to protect and cultivate the tov in our children.

Many faith communities are getting involved in these issues, including among American Jews. The leadership of Conservative Judaism, representing all of the various bodies of the movement, have recently reiterated its call for tighter regulations of the sale of guns and ammunition through adoption of common sense gun policies.

I am skeptical, given our fractured society, whether anything will be done.

But I want to come back to Nachmanides, who stated the obvious, declared, and I’ll take the liberty of making a couple of slight adjustments “All men and women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all protect them to the best of their ability…”

We may think we are doing the best we can in our own sheltered communities. But we are part of a much larger society, in which the evidence would suggest that we are falling short of Nachmanides’ assumption. We are not protecting our kids to the best of our ability. And that has to change.

When Moses was born, light filled the room. When his mother saw it, she saw his beauty, his potential, his ability to bring goodness into the world, and she declared him tov. Every child fills our world with light. It is up to us to recognize it and build a society in which it can shine.

*1*Commentary on Exodus 2:2

*2*Exodus 2:2

*3*BT Sotah 12a

*4*Genesis 1:4