Archives for January 2018

Torah Reflections: January 21 – 27, 2017

B’shalach

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Then!

This week’s Torah portion has all the traits of a great adventure novel. We ran away, but they pursued us. We took an unexpected turn that brought us to the edge of an impassable sea; and they were closing in on us fast. But at the last minute, miracle of miracles, the seas parted, allowing us to cross on dry land. And, as the last one of us barely managed to climb to safety onto the opposite shore, our pursuers—now just a few yards away— were drowned by the waters that suddenly came crashing down on them. We had won! We were delivered! Halleluyah!

What follows in Torah is what scholars believe to be the oldest text in the five books of Moses: The Song at The Sea. First sang by Moses, it is then reprised by Miriam the prophetess picking up a hand-drum and dancing with the women. The verse says: “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Eternal.” [Exod.15:1] It is the word “Then” that catches our rabbis’ attention. Rarely is such a simple word pregnant with so much meaning. In the two thousand years of Jewish exile, before the creation of the State of Israel almost 65 years ago, this “Then” represented the aspirations of redemption for many generations of Jews scattered the world over, living in most precarious conditions and—not unlike the Egyptian slaves of the Exodus myth—at the mercy of the sovereigns who ruled over them. They dreamed, one day, to sing a song of redemption, delivered from the harsh labors of exile.

One of these rabbis is the Alter Rebbe of Ger, known as the S’fat Emet (Speaker of Truth), a Chassidic rabbi of 19th century Poland. The Rebbe can’t help but read into the tale of the Exodus the story and hopes of Polish Jewry in his time, living in fear of the next Pogrom. He writes:

The Egyptian bondage was an iron furnace in which [the Israelites] were made pure, to serve as proper instruments for song and hymn before God. When redemption was complete, their mouths opened and they began to sing… When Israel came forth from Egypt, they did not understand what value there had been in exile. But then, as they became God’s instruments, they came to understand.

Exile, he teaches his contemporaries, is not a mistake but a necessary passage through which we have the opportunity to learn from our suffering and transform ourselves into a better people; refining ourselves as a pathway to redemption here and now. Though we might not understand it while in the midst of it, there is value in our Egypt; to intimately know the pain and the suffering of the downtrodden and oppressed must make us even more committed to a path of compassion, love, acceptance and inclusiveness. Then, we are made pure. Then, even still in physical exile, we are redeemed; and ready to become God’s instruments for song. The Chassidic path is, indeed, one of pure joy, one of ecstatic song and dance. Even in the darkness of their Polish exile, the chassidim’s Shabbats were weekly experiences of redemption to which they sang and danced and somersaulted with their souls afire.

Of course, as Chassidic masters teachings do, the Rebbe’s works on multiple levels. For him, this Egypt is our Egypt; the necessary iron furnace of our spiritual journey, where the hold that our desires, our senses, our thoughts have over us is to be burnt up, so that we might be redeemed from them. Then, and only then, will we transform ourselves into pure channels of Divine energy. Then, and only then, will we make our voices the instruments that sing the song of the One we will finally remember ourselves to be; the One that is always already free.

Torah Reflections: January 14 – 20, 2017

Bo

Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

From Pharaoh’s Slaves to God’s Slaves

There is one peculiar word in Hebrew that is used interchangeably in this week’s Torah portion. While the Torah portion itself tells of the last plagues wrought upon Egypt by God and, in the end, of the Israelites’ mass departure from Egypt; the root of the word that concerns us here is Avad. At the beginning of the portion we read: “The Eternal said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh! For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his Avadim (translated here as “servants” or “courtiers”), in order that I may display my Signs among them.” [Ex. 10:1] However, later on, we find this same word understood very differently: “Moses said to the people, “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of Avadim (rendered here as “bondage” or “slaves”).” [Ex.13:3] Yet, in another place where we are given the reason why Pharaoh has to free the Israelites from slavery, we see the root of that same word used to express something different still: “Thus says the Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to be humbled in My Presence? Let My people go that they may v’YaAv’duni (“worship Me”).” [Ex. 10:3]

I posit, however, that there is an intimate connection between the three verses when one reads the text beyond its literal meaning. When I come to Torah, I start with the assumption that I am all the characters of the story. I am the Hebrew slaves and the Pharaoh enslaver, I am Moses and I am God. This text, therefore, speaks to me of an inner experience of enslavement, of my stuckness in my own Egypt/Mitzrayim—from the Hebrew root meaning “narrowness.” But, most importantly, this story speaks to me of the possibility of liberation from such a place of enslavement to the exiguous worldview of my own limited belief system. Connecting our first two verses, we read the word Avadim as “slaves” in both cases, and understand the first verse to teach us that our enslavement, our stuckness, stems from our own hardened heart. Not only do we live in a confining self-constructed Egypt, but we have hardened our heart to the exclusive defense of this narrow place, in the never-abating fear that it might be attacked or upended.

But the Divine within, continuously works to free us from this inner bondage. On good days we are able to hear and heed the voice of our inner Moses telling us to “Let Go!” and open our heart. On not-so-good days we are met with “plagues”—“in order that I may display my Signs among them”—ultimately designed to help us realize that this closed-heartedness and constricted way of being is just not tenable. The Divine within is calling us to break free from of our enslavement to the fearful ego, so that we may YaV’duni/“become slaves to Him,” as our third verse seems to indicate. No longer refusing to see the Divine Presence in every moment—i.e. no longer rejecting the inner knowledge of the One Being within us, manifesting as us, as everything and everyone—automatically silences the ego and leaves us in a state of deep humility and awe. We do not become enslaved to a God “out there” dictating His will over ours. Rather we become enslaved or surrendered to the God “in here;” leading a life that embodies the Divine attributes of the most gentle, accepting and understanding ways of being; and expresses our highest value, doing justice, practicing love and compassion and walking humbly along our unique path.