Remembering By Counting Time – Bo 5780

Today’s date, according to the Hebrew calendar, is the 6th of Shevat in the year 5780. What do each of the those terms mean?  Let’s go in reverse. 

  • 5780 – According to Jewish tradition, this points back to the creation of the universe.  In other words, to the beginning of time itself.  
  • Shevat – This is the name of the month, based on a calendar of 12 months which begin with Tishrei, which also marks the creation of the world, the beginning of time.
  • 6 – That is the day of the month, which means that the new moon made its first appearance 6 days ago.

Each component of this date refers to absolute time, dating back to creation itself.  While this may be the Jewish way of recording time, this is not the Torah’s way of recording time.

The very first of the 613 commandments in the Torah appears in this morning’s portion, Parashat Bo.  God tells Moses and Aaron, 

 הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. 

Exodus 12:2

Our tradition understands this passage to be commanding Moses and Aaron, and the subsequent leaders of the Jewish people, to establish a calendar.  This commandment occurs in the context of the Israelites’ preparations for leaving Egypt.  The tenth plague is about to strike the Egyptians, after which they will finally leave Egypt.  First, they receive instructions for observing the holiday of Passover, which occurs on the night of the 14th day of the month.

What month is it?  Today, we call this month Nisan.  But the name Nisan occurs nowhere in the Torah or the Prophets.  The majority of the Hebrew Bible has a different way of describing dates.   The Torah will say something like, “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” (Numbers 10:11)  Second year from what?  Second month from what? We are not talking about absolute time.  We are talking about relative time.

Relative to what?  To the Exodus from Egypt.  “And it was in the second year, in the second month…” refers to year number 2 in the wilderness, in the second month after the month when the Israelites left Egypt. The Torah’s calendar has, as its reference point, the Exodus from Egypt.  Both years and months refer back to that event.

The 13th century medieval commentator, Nachmanides, helps us understand what this all means.  “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months,” the Torah tells us.  Lakhem—”For you” only.  This system of counting is meant just for the Jewish people, not for all of humanity.  Its meaning is particular, not universal.  While this may be the first month dating from when you left Egypt, it does not correspond to the first month of creation.

Nachmanides explains that the Torah wants us to always orient ourselves towards the moment of Exodus when God redeemed our ancestors, and us, from slavery in Egypt.  In Deuteronomy we read, “that you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your lives.”  (Deut. 16:3)  The Torah’s calendar ensures that we do exactly that.

So what would today’s date be, according to the Torah’s calendar.  It is the 6th days of the month.  That is the same.  The month has no particular name.  We can just call it the tenth month since the month of leaving Egypt.  As for the year, we have no clue.  Something along the lines of 3,270 years since the Exodus, but scholars disagree with each other, and the Bible itself is inconsistent.  

We do not use the Torah’s calendar.  We do not count our years or our months from the Exodus. We do not even know how. Are we ignoring something that the Torah explicitly tells us to do?

Yes we are.

But don’t worry.  This is not a recent development.  They did not do it in Nachmanides’ day either. Nachmanides notes that the names of the months that we actually use—Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, etc.—have nothing to do with anything in the Torah.  They are not even Hebrew words.  They are Persian.  When the First Temple was destroyed in the year 586 BCE, many people were sent into exile in Babylonia.  A few decades later, the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonian Empire and took over.  The Persian King Cyrus, whom the Bible refers to as mashiach, God’s anointed one, sent these exiles back to the land of Israel to rebuild the Temple.  They brought some traditions with them, including new months.  What we refer to as the Hebrew months are mentioned in the Book of Esther, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and some of the exiled prophets. 

They are the Persian names of the months.  Nachmanides notes that in his own day, the people who live in Persia and Media, modern day Iraq and Iran, continue to use the same names for the months. He explains that we use these foreign month names to serve as a reminder that we were once in exile in Babylonia, but God brought us out and returned us to our land.  Nachmanides concludes:

So we now commemorate the second redemption with our month names as we did up until then with the first redemption.

How we measure time is important.  What reference points do we use?  Biblical Israel used the Exodus from Egypt as its reference point.  Later, we switched reference points.  As for years, we look to Creation.  For months, we look to the return from exile. The Jews of Nachmanides day also hoped and prayed for a return.  The Babylonian exile was a metaphor for their own situation.  The Persian months gave hope to them, and us, that the state of exile can eventually end.  Until it does, we will continue referring to today as the 6th of Shevat.

We use other important reference points to measure time.  January 27, which fell on Monday this past week, marked the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz.  It is a day for remembering the horrors that took place there, and drawing lessons for today.  1.3 million people were imprisoned there during the Holocaust, of whom 1.1 million were murdered, making it the most deadly of the death camps.  My grandfather’s family, from Lodz Poland, died there.

Ceremonies were held at Auschwitz itself earlier this week, sponsored by the Polish government.  More that 200 survivors returned to the death camp to mark the occasion, some for the first time. Other ceremonies took place at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where leaders from countries around the world gathered to remember.  

What do we do to commemorate? We hear first person testimonies from the increasingly smaller numbers of survivors who are still with us.  We warn ourselves and the world about the increasing numbers and brazenness of acts of antisemitism around the world.  The horrors of the Holocaust also serve as a call to avoid indifference to violence and discrimination against minorities.

But as time passes, awareness of the Holocaust is fading.  A 2018 survey reported decreasing awareness of the Holocaust, especially among younger Americans.  Two thirds of adults between 18 and 34 were unable to identify what Auschwitz was. Large numbers indicated that they thought it was important to learn about the Holocaust.  93% overall agreed that the Holocaust should be taught in schools, and 80% said that it was important to teach so that it would not happen again.  So there is a lot of work to be done.

A week from Sunday, we will be hosting a concert here at Sinai as part of the Violins of Hope project. The Violins of Hope are a collection of more than 70 string instruments originally owned and played by European Jews in ghettos and Nazi death camps during WWII, which have been lovingly restored over the past two decades by renowned Israeli violin-makers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein.

Some concentration camp musicians owe their lives to these instruments. The music they played lifted them above their cruel, day-to-day reality. It gave the musicians hope. And did the same for their fellow Jewish inmates.

“Hope is a stubborn thing,” says Weinstein. The legacy of Jewish hope drives Weinstein to restore every Holocaust violin he can get his hands on to make them speak again. These instruments are the focal point of an impactful initiative designed to promote the power of hope through music, reaffirming that the voiceless can indeed have a voice as we reiterate our responsibility to “never forget.”

If you have not already done so, I urge you to buy tickets to the concert, which will be performed on some of these special instruments, as soon as Shabbat is over.  We will have a special opportunity to hear Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, which was commissioned specifically for the Bay Area performance.  It was composed by the renowned composer-librettist team of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer.  We are one of only two locations at which this piece is being performed, and Jake Heggie will be speaking, so it is a special opportunity for us. This is one of many ways that we can preserve the memory of the Holocaust so as to remind ourselves how much work we have to do to ensure that it never happens again.

The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

I Believe with Perfect Faith in the Constancy of Gravity; or Why We Ignore Miracles – Shemot 5780

What is a miracle?  I’ll offer a simple definition: a miracle is a supernatural event performed by God.  In other words, when something happens that breaks the rules that we expect the world around us to obey, it is a miracle.

If I drop something—this book, for example—I expect that it will fall to the ground.  All of my past experience in life tells me that this will happen.  I would bet money on it.  In fact, I would stake my life on it.

Why?  Because I believe, with perfect faith, in the constancy of gravity.  

If, when I let go of the book, it floats in the air, or flies away, that would be a supernatural event.  It would violate the theory of gravity upon which I have risked my life.  That would be a miracle.

In this example, I have just introduced two words which we typically associate with religion rather than science: faith and miracle. Faith, or emunah, as understood in Jewish tradition, is not how it is typically depicted in the wider society.  When we use the word “faith” in English the focus is on the so-called believer. If I say, “Johnny believes in God,” most people would understand me to be saying something about Johnny and would probably make other assumptions about him.  This is not the Jewish idea of faith.

In the Torah, the term emunah does not refer to the believer, but rather to the object of that belief.  Emunah in God is better described as a sense of God’s constancy.  God can be relied upon to have consistent qualities.   When the Torah says in this morning’s reading vaya’amen ha’am—”And the people believed” (Ex. 4:31)—it is not saying that the Israelites think that God exists.  Rather, the Torah is stating that the Israelites have accepted that God is going to do what God said, namely, bring them out of Egypt.

Emunah in Judaism is the acceptance of the constancy of something, whether it be a quality of God, the reliability of another person, or the authenticity of a prophet.  That is why I feel comfortable saying that I have faith in the constancy of gravity.

If the book were to fly away, I would be faced with a dilemma.  Either my faith in the constancy of gravity would fall apart, or I would find some way to explain my flying book does not actually violate the laws of gravity.

Or maybe I would just pretend that it never happened.  Yeah.  That’s probably what I would do.

Moses encounters the first miracle of Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus.  It occurs after he has fled from Egypt.  He arrives in Midian, marries Tzipporah, and joins the household of her father, Yitro.  One day, Moses is out in the wilderness with his father-in-law’s sheep when he notices something unusual, something which seems to violate the laws of nature in which Moses, you, and I all believe.He sees a bush that is on fire without being consumed.  Moses immediately thinks to himself, “there is something wrong with this picture,” and he turns aside to investigate.

You or I would recognize immediately that a bush that burns without being consumed is a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  It contradicts the principle of the conservation of energy.  Such a thing is not possible in this universe. That, by definition is a miracle.  It is the equivalent of this book floating when I let go.

What would encountering such a miracle lead a person to do?  Well, let’s look at Moses. The Burning Bush certainly gets his attention, “I’ve gotta check this out,” he tells himself.  He approaches, and God’s voice calls out, “Moses, Moses!”

“I’m right here.”

“Stay there.  Take off your shoes.”

I’m paraphrasing a little.  By the way, that’s what I tell my kids when they walk into the house.  

We hear nothing more about the Burning Bush.  It turns out that the miracle was merely to get Moses’ attention.  The real message is that God has decided to free the Israelites from slavery, and Moses is the guy who is going to bring the message. At this point, what response should we expect?  Moses has seen a violation of the first law of thermodynamics.  God just spoke to him.  What should he say?   Something like, “At your service.  Just tell me what to do.” Instead, Moses offers a series of objections, beginning with “Who am I?”  Then, “Who are You?”  Followed by, “What if they don’t believe me?”

God, of course, has an answer to each one of Moses’ excuses. To establish Moses’ credibility with the Israelites, God offers him a few miracles to perform.

Miracle one.  “Take your staff. Throw it on the ground and it will turn it into a snake.  Then grab the snake by the tail and ‘poof!’  It will turn back into a staff.”

Miracle two.  “Put your hand inside your shirt.  When you pull it out, it will be covered with white snowy scales.  Now put it back inside your shirt.  When you pull it out again, your hand will be back to normal.”

Miracle three.  “Take some water from the Nile River.  Pour it on the ground and Voila!  Blood.  Gross.”

God assures Moses: “They’ll believe you after the first miracle.  But if not, they’ll certainly believe you after the second miracle.  But if not, the third miracle will surely do the trick.”

This is not super reassuring.  But to be certain that Moses is convinced, God has him actually perform the first two miracles, right there on the mountainside. At this point, would you be convinced?  Moses isn’t.  “I don’t talk good.  Please pick somebody else.”  Moses does not seem to be very impressed by these miracles.

What about the Israelites?  When Aaron and Moses go back to Egypt, they perform the miracles, as instructed.  The Israelites believe… for a little while.  As soon as Pharaoh increases the workload, their faith collapses and they turn on Moses and Aaron, cursing them.  And who can blame them, really. Moses then starts complaining to God, again. So much for miracles.

Why are these supernatural suspensions of the laws of the universe so ineffective?  Are Moses and the Israelites simply unfaithful and ungrateful?  Not at all.  They are human.

Maimonides, the great twelfth century rabbi, philosopher, and physician, offers an explanation as to why these miracles are so unconvincing.  (Yesodei Torah 8:1) Whoever bases his or her belief on miraculous signs, Maimonides suggests, will always retain some doubt in their heart.  Maybe it was just a trick performed through sorcery or witchcraft.  We will find some way to explain away the miracle to preserve our worldview.   Moses’ credibility is not established through miracles.  After all, the Egyptian court magicians are able to replicate these opening miracles, as well as the first few plagues.

Maimonides continues.  The only miracles that do instill some degree of faith in Moses’ leadership are those that come in response to some necessity.  The Sea of Reeds divides so that the Israelites can escape Egypt, and it crashes back together in order to sink the pursuing Egyptian chariots.  The manna is sent to prevent the Israelites’ starvation.  The rock gives forth water to satisfy their thirst.  The earth splits open to swallow Korach and his followers when they rebel. All of these miracles come in response to a crisis.  The greatest of the miracles in the wilderness, however, is the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  The Israelites hear with their own ears and see with their own eyes the presence of God on the mountain, and witness the sound of God communicating with Moses face to face. It is not until that moment, says Maimonides, that the Israelites become fully committed to Moses.

Why then?  What is needed to make them believe?  Personal experience.  That is the point that Maimonides is making.  The mere witnessing of a supernatural event can only lead to a hollow faith.  True faith emerges only from lived experiences.  Trust in the wisdom and authenticity of another person only results when we have been through something together.

As I said before: I believe in the constancy of gravity.  I don’t really understand gravity, mind you.  But I have loads of experience with it.  And I trust the really smart people, those who do, in fact, understand something about gravity, when they insist that it is real.  I have so much faith in the constancy of gravity that I am willing to jump up in the air, believing with all of my heart that I am not going to go hurtling off into space.

Why do I trust the scientists who tell me that gravity is constant?  Because of education.  From a young age, I was taught that science is credible and important.  Like all of you, I learned about the scientific method in grade school, and went through my share of biology, chemistry, and physics classes. That training instilled in me a trust in scientific study and an appreciation of those who dedicate their lives to it.

Religious belief is a bit trickier.  As Jews, we are asked to accept the authenticity of Torah and the authority of those who interpret it.  Life has meaning and purpose, and the Jewish people have a role to play in the redemption of the world. None of these can be demonstrated by a scientific proof or empirical evidence.  I cannot prove to you that God exists, Moses lived, humans have souls, or even that there is such a thing as good and evil.  

But we are not asked to merely believe blindly.  The Jewish notion of emunah does not rely on miracles or proofs.  It does not ask for leaps of faith.  Emunah is developed over a lifetime and is built upon experience and community; on trust in each other and our shared experiences; on our common history and on the lessons passed down from parents to children.

The Thirteen Attributes of Parenting (On the occasion of my son’s Bar Mitzvah) – Ki Tissa 5779

It is a special privilege and joy to officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Over the past year, as we have been preparing for today, Solly and I have learned a lot about each other.  I have learned about myself.  I hope you feel the same.

This experience has made me reflect a lot on being a parent.  Specifically, how to be a better one.

The Torah is filled with stories of parents and children.  The ultimate purpose of the covenant is for parents to pass down peoplehood to their children, including: religious practices, historical memories, cultural traditions, and language.  And yet, they so often have trouble understanding each other.  

The Torah also makes us face the Ultimate parent-child relationship:  that between God and human beings.  God, the parent, wants us to just behave and do what we are told, already.  From the very first humans, Adam and Eve, we can’t seem to quite live up to those expectations.  That is what you spoke about, Solly.

God places demands on us, but we also place demands on God.  Our demand, our plea, is for God to accept us for who we are, rather than for who God wants us to be.  

As Parashat Ki Tissa begins, Moses has been up on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights.  He has left the people at the base of the mountain under the care of his brother Aaron.  Thinking he is gone, some of the Israelites build and worship a golden calf.  God wants to wipe out the people in response to their lack of faith and start over with Moses.  Moses successfully convinces God to forgive the Israelites.  On a role, Moses goes for it.  “Hareini na et k’vodekha,” he says to God.  “Please show me your glory.”

What is he asking for?  Moses wants to know more about this unseen Being whom he represents.  He wants to understand something about the essence of Divine nature.

“Nobody can see My face and live,” says God.  “But I’ll tell you what.  Stand in the cleft of the rock.  I’ll cover you with My hand.  Then, I’ll pass all of my goodness before You.  After I have passed, I’ll remove My hand and you can see My back.”

Face, hands, back.  God sounds a lot like a person.  

Rabbi Yochanan, in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), finds it hard to believe that God could be described this way.  “Were it not written, it could not have been said.”  But it was written, so Rabbi Yochanan imagines the scene further.  The Holy One is wrapped up in a tallit like a shaliach tzibbur, a prayer leader.  God then recites the Thirteen Attributes.  They might sound familiar:

Adonai, Adonai – The Lord, the Lord.

Eil rachum v’chanun – God of mercy and compassion

Erekh apayim v’rav chesed ve’emet – Patient, full of kindness and faithfulness

Notseir chesed la’alafim – Extending love for a thousand generations

Nosei avon vafesha, v’chata’ah – Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin

v’nakeh – and pardoning

Rabbi Yochanan continues imagining the scene:  “Whenever the Jewish people sin,” God tells Moses, “let them recite this prayer.  I will forgive them immediately.”

These qualities are all about kindness and forgiveness.  Of course the Rabbis would gravitate to these words.  They establish the recitation of these Thirteen Attributes of God on the High Holidays, when we come together to pray for forgiveness.  It was so popular that seventeenth century mystics added added it to Passover, Shavuot, and Succot, but not Shabbat.

The only problem is, the Rabbis have cut off the quote in mid-sentence, completely distorting its meaning from its original context.  Here is its continuation.  You may recall that the last word is v’nakeh – “and pardoning.”  But the following words are:

lo y’nakeh – “He does not pardon”

poked avon avot al-banim v’al b’nei vanim al-shileshim v’al ribe’im – but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

This changes things.  While God may be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, God also holds us accountable for our actions across generations.  This is a covenantal text.  It makes sense here, as Moses has just successfully argued God down from wiping out all of Israel.  Instead, only those who are guilty will be punished, while the rest of the nation is spared.  God sticks to the covenant.  There is both compassion and justice.  Carrot and stick.

But the Rabbis don’t feel like bringing up the stick.  They cherry pick only those attributes that they want.  What gives them the right?

Well, they are not the first.  The Bible itself misquotes the attributes—frequently.  The first Temple Prophet Joel, offering comfort to the people, reassures them that God will accept them if they return, because God “is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…”  (Joel 2:13)  No punishment mentioned.

The anti-Prophet Jonah, who disobeys God’s instructions to prophesize to the sinners of Nineveh, explains his reasoning.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  I ran away because ‘I know that you are a God who is compassionate and merciful, patient and full of kindness…’  (Jonah 4:2)”  Notice that Jonah cites the exact same Divine attributes as Joel.  Only, he is angry that God is not behaving more vengefully.  He wants the Ninevites to be punished.

Several other biblical texts treat the attributes similarly.  It is not sloppy editing.  These numerous texts simply do not want to invoke a judgmental God.  They want a God who will accept them with their imperfections.  They know that they have screwed up and probably do not deserve it, but they want forgiveness anyway.

When the Rabbis incorporate only the first thirteen attributes into our worship, leaving off the punishment, they are in good company.  Rabbi Yochanan even goes so far as to claim that God is the One who first came up with the idea of uprooting the text from its context.

The Thirteen Attributes are among the most memorable prayers in the liturgy.  Perhaps it is due to the music, or the threefold repetition in front of the open ark.  Behind all of the aesthetics of how we recite it is the message that it conveys:  we want our God to give us a second chance.  Just like we want our parents to give us a second chance, and sometimes a third, and a fourth.

Human beings have a need to be seen.  When I visit the Nursery School students, they rush over and say “Look at me.  Look at me.”  Although most of us stop being so blatant about it as we mature, the essential loneliness of “Look at me,” persists.  We all want to be seen.  Most of all, I think, by our parents.  As we mature, though, we become aware of our faults and struggles.  That knowledge can complicate our desire for acknowledgment.  What if they see my imperfections and reject me?

When we turn to God, we only mention the compassionate and forgiving qualities because we fear that God might not accept us with our imperfections.

I think children want the same thing from their parents.  A child becomes Bar and Bat Mitzvah precisely at the time when the centrifugal and centripetal forces are most intense.  They want to create distance—to differentiate from us.  But it is also a time of great vulnerability, when the need for assurance and acceptance is strong.  These forces that attract and repel us from each other can be exasperating, to both sides.

I am going to read the 13 Attributes again.  Only this time, don’t think about them as Divine qualities.  Think about them as the qualities that children want from their parents, especially when they are 13.

The Lord, the Lord, God of mercy and compassion, patient, full of kindness and faithfulness, extending love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and pardoning.

Solly, I don’t get it right all the time, but that is what I strive for.

One of the fun parts of being a father is watching how your kids think through problems to find solutions.

You are a person with strong opinions and convictions.  I have tried to convey that answers in the real world are typically not as straightforward as good and bad, right and wrong.

That was the problem with the first set of Tablets of the Covenant, as you explained to us earlier.  The Israelites needed a lawgiver like Moses who understood that it is possible for two people with different opinions to both have a point.  And who could look beyond simple right and wrong answers to guide imperfect people towards the right path.

That kind of patience is an important quality to cultivate.  It applies to our relationships with friends and classmates, teachers, parents and siblings, and religion.

As much as I may want to dictate to you the commitments that you are going to embrace in your life, I know that it would not be appropriate, or even possible, to do so.

Solly, as you grow into adulthood, I hope that you learn to recognize the nuances in life.  The Torah is not central to Judaism because it is true or false.  It is central because generations of Jews, going back thousands of years, have committed their lives to studying it and living by it.  By embracing that tradition, you pursue a life of meaning side by side with your ancestors.

As your father, I pray that you will find your path in Jewish life through learning, commitment to Jewish practice, and involvement in Jewish community.

Mummy and I have tried to surround you with meaningful experiences in our home and with our community.  Keep at it.

Mazel Tov.

What Does God Look Like? – Yitro 5779

What does God look like?

Can we ask such a blasphemous question?  God, after all, is not tied down by a body.  God is transcendent.  In the prayer Yigdal, which summarizes Maimonides’ thirteen attributes of faith, we sing Ein lo d’mut haguf, v’aeinu guf – “God has no form of a body, nor is God a body.”

So what does God look like?  Most of us do have some idea of what God looks like buried in the backs of our minds.  That image probably goes back to childhood, before we had a chance to build up all of our intellectual, rationalistic ideas about God being formless.

When I was a little kid, I remember my father being a news junkie.  So it is not a surprise that my earliest memory of God is in the form of an older man with white hair sitting behind a desk reading the news.  In this image, God bears a striking resemblance to Walter Cronkite.

In Parashat Yitro, we read the Ten Commandments.  But as much as we talk about the receiving of the Ten Commandments as being central to Judaism, the moment that we coalesced and joined together to form the Jewish people, there is an event that is even more significant.  This event occurs just before the commandments are given.

It is the simultaneous encounter of the entire Jewish people with God.  It is an experience that cannot be described in words, just like all mystical experiences.

The Torah tries to give us a sense of what it was like with nature terms:  “… there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled…  Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  (Ex. 19:16-20)

This is the encounter of God: thunder… lightning… a dense cloud… the blast of a shofar… fire… smoke… and trembling.

What does this sound like to you?  To me, it seems like a massive volcanic eruption.  But is that it?  Is that the essence of what they, and really all of us, experienced during that moment of revelation?

I do not think so. While this tremendous, mind blowing event did take place, there was also a moment of deep, intimate, and personal connection.  A passage in the Book of Kings captures that moment.

The Prophet Elijah flees Jezebel’s wrath and eventually winds up at Mt. Sinai  There, he experiences God’s Presence in a way that should sound similar.  

There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice.  (I Kings 19:11-12)

Wind, earthquake, fire.  This sounds pretty similar to what the Israelites encounter in Parashat Terumah.  But the Elijah text explicitly states that the Essence of God is not in any of phenomena.  God is found in the still small voice, kol demamah dakah.  It takes a true Prophet like Moses, or Elijah, to hear God’s voice within, or despite, the cacophony.

After the moment ends, it is impossible to accurately describe what just happened.  So the Torah describes natural phenomena that overwhelm the senses.  Too much sound, too much light, too much noise, the ground quaking.  It is sensory overload.

Either that or a really loud rock concert.  But who can a hear a still small voice at a rock concert?  Only the Prophet.

That is why the Israelites tell Moses, “You speak to us, and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”  The sensory overload is too much for them to handle, so they send Moses.

That is one way of looking at the Revelation at Mout Sinai.

A midrash from a medieval collection called Midrash Tanhuma takes a different approach entirely.  It embraces anthropomorphism unabashedly.  God is a person.  And not only that, but God has wardrobe changes to suit the occasion.  God appears in a different human form in each time and place in which God is needed.

At the splitting of the Red Sea, God is a heroic warrior battling on Israel’s behalf.  At Sinai, when God presents the Torah to Israel, God appears as a sofer, a scribe.  In the days of King Solomon, who tradition holds wrote the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs, God takes the form of a strapping young man. In the days of the Prophet Daniel, God appears as a wise old man teaching Torah.  (Tanhuma Buber, Yitro 16)

The point is that God appears to the Israelites in ways that befit the needs of the moment.  Let’s extend the metaphor into the present.  When we are in the hospital being treated for cancer, maybe God takes on the appearance of a doctor, dressed in scrubs and wearing a stethoscope.  Or when our souls are lonely and in need of relief, God can look like a lover, who comforts us with an embrace.  For a young boy who looks up to his news-watching father, God takes the form of a news anchor, conveying confidence and security.

I suspect that this midrash would make Maimonides uncomfortable.  He insists throughout his writings that God cannot be described positively in any way, whatsoever.  Language, which is finite, is incapable of representing the infinite.  But what can we do?  It is the only way we have to communicate.

Maimonides insists that any anthropomorphic language of God in the Torah must be understand as metaphor.  We naturally turn to images and symbols that already carry recognizable cultural meaning when we try to convey a transformative encounter.  Maimonidew is fully aware, however, that the majority of people in his own day do not understand this.

Today, it seems to me that many of us have embraced Maimonides’ rejection of the anthropomorphic descriptions of God without taking the next step, which is to embrace them anyways, knowing full well that they are metaphors.

We are understandably not comfortable embracing the notion that God takes human forms because it sounds so similar to certain other religions, or because it does not fit in to our modern, supposedly rational way of understanding the world.  

But the drawback is that we lose a powerful way to experience the Divine and to subsequently express that experience.  Instead, we get stuck in an intellectual head-game in which we are comfortable talking about what God is not, but never able to discuss what God is.  I wish I could be more comfortable living in both worlds.

What does God look like?  I know that God is distant, invisible, and unknowable.  But God is also a warrior, a scribe, a doctor, and even a news anchor.  The challenge is to embrace the metaphors while recognizing that they are (merely) metaphors for the Indescribable.

The Israelites’ First Shabbat – Beshalach 5779

How wonderful is it that we can be together on a special day like today!  In a little while, God willing, we will complete services and move on into the social hall for a delicious Kiddush lunch.  It will be all the more amazing because it will simply be there waiting for us.  None of us will have to do any cooking.  It will be a miracle!

Not exactly, I assure you that there was a tremendous amount of hard work yesterday preparing our delicious feast.  And we are extremely grateful to the caterers, and to today’s kiddush sponsors for providing such a wonderful meal.

But there is something special about being able to sit down once a weak, for an extended meal in synagogue, or at home, that has already been prepared.  That this opportunity comes every week is even more wonderful.  That is the gift of Shabbat.

But do we see it that way?

It is the fifteenth day of the second month after the Israelites left Egypt – exactly one month later.  They arrive at the wilderness of Sin on their way eventually to Mount Sinai.

They do what they do best – complain to Moses and Aaron.  “If only God had let us die in Egypt, where at least the food was plentiful,” they grumble, “instead of being dragged out into the wilderness to starve to death!”  The Israelites can be a bit melodramatic.

But God gives them what they want, directing Moses and Aaron to gather everyone together.  God tells Moses, to tell Aaron, to tell the people what they can expect.

“By this evening you will be eating meat, and tomorrow you will have your bread.”

That night, a vast flock of quail appears, and the people feast.

The next morning, they awake to find a strange new substance covering the ground.  Man hu — what is it?” they ask.  

“It is the bread that God has give you to eat,” Moses replies. 

Then Moses instructs them what to do with it.  “Everybody should gather as much as is needed for each individual in the household —one omer per person.”  An omer is a unit of measure.

People being people, some gather more and some gather less.  Miraculously, when they return to their tents, they find that everyone has exactly what he or she needs.  No more, no less.

“Eat your fill.  Don’t leave any leftovers,” Moses tells them.  But they don’t listen.  Some are worried about the next day, so they set aside leftovers.  By the morning, it becomes maggot infested and smelly.  Moses is angry that they continue to not listen to him.

But they quickly fall into a routine, getting up each morning to collect that day’s food.  Everybody has as much as they need, and nobody goes hungry.

Five days pass.  On the sixth day, something strange happens.  When they get back to their tents, they find that they have collected double the amount as the previous five days.  The chieftains, perplexed, turn to Moses for an explanation.  “What is the meaning of this sudden abundance?”

Then, for the first time ever, they hear about Shabbat.  “Tomorrow is a day of rest,” Moses explains, “a holy sabbath of the Lord.  Prepare all of your food now.  Whatever is left over, you can eat tomorrow.”

That is what the people do.  Unlike the previous days, the leftovers do not rot.  

“Eat up,” Moses urges them.  “You won’t find any out on the ground today.  It’s Shabbos.”

But there are some skeptics among the Israelites who go out anyways, despite Moses’ instructions.

God gets angry.  “How long will you keep defying my instructions!”

Moses explains to the people: Adonai natan lakhem et haShabbat — “The Lord has give you the Shabbat; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day.  Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.”

The people obey, and they call this miraculous bread man —manna.  It will sustain them for the next forty years in the wilderness.

Note that we have two important phenomena introduced together.  Manna and Shabbat.  Prior to this passage, the Israelites are completely unaware of both of them.  This is not a coincidence.

The Israelites will receive more details about Shabbat in subsequent parashiyot.  And the Rabbis will really go to town elucidating the fine points in Shabbat observance.  But by the end of this story in parashat Beshalach, what have the Israelites learned the day of rest?

1 Shabbat is connected with food.  

2 Shabbat is a time for staying near to the home, and not for going out to ‘bring home the man,’ so to speak.

3 To observe Shabbat properly, one must prepare for it ahead of time.

4 Finally, Shabbat is a gift from God.  Observing Shabbat is an act of faith.

That sounds like a pretty great introduction to me.

Many of us see modern life as too fast paced, too demanding, to take off a day to do something completely different.  We tell ourselves, “things were simpler in the past.  Our ancestors did not have as many distractions, or as many pressures as we have.  Observing Shabbat was easier back then.”  

The Torah’s description of the Israelites’ first Shabbat would suggest otherwise.

Surely some of those Israelites were doubtful when Moses said, “Hey!  Don’t collect any food tomorrow.  God will provide.”  They did not trust that their would be enough.  They worried they would not be able to get everything done in time.  It was too difficult, too unrealistic, to take a whole day off.  They did not see Shabbat as something special.  They wanted to continue on exactly the same as the rest of the week.  They did not understand it as a gift from God.

Perhaps that is why God wraps it up in miracles.  Unfortunately for us, we can’t walk outside to find our food lying fresh on the ground each morning.  But we are blessed to live in a world in which, if we plan for it, it is possible to have the same Shabbat experience as our ancestors in the wilderness.  The question is, can I see Shabbat as a gift?

By the way, the excuses we make for why observing Shabbat is so difficult are exactly the reasons why we need to make Shabbat a regular part of our week.

So in a few minutes, when we sit down together in the social hall for our delicious man, let’s see it as a miracle that we are so blessed to be able to celebrate God’s gift of Shabbat to us.  What can I do to appreciate that gift again next week?

Five Sets of Clothes and 300 Shekels of Silver – Vayigash 5779

This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt.  Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food.  This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.

Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids.  He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.

As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling.  News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death.  And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s.  Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.

Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion.  Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.

Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.

(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃

To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment.  (Gen. 45:22)

What is Joseph thinking?  What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment?  Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?

When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others.  He loved him more.  He did not make him work out in the fields.  Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.

Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations.  Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing.  That detail had to have registered with their siblings.  What is going on?  Is Joseph naive, or cruel?

Neither.  It is another test.  Joseph is not done with his brothers.  So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat.  They have passed this test.

Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment.  It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way.  He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.

But Joseph does not want them to fail.  Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.

וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.”  (Gen. 45:24)

But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts?  Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?

The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing.  “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?”  The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing.  Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing.  Do you know who it is?

וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.

And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad.  (Esther 8:15)

By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin.  Your offspring are destined for greatness.

What about the 300 shekels of silver?  A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer.  Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers.  In this case, it is a message about their guilt.  Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.

Here is the first detail.  The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.

Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh.  That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty.  That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.

The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.  

אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃

But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned.  (Exodus 21:32)

This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.

Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers.  Who did they sell him to?  A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews.  If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty?  It is basic math.  30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.

Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty.  When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels.  This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him.  Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.

This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path.  It was no stumbling block at all.