Monday, January 19, 2015

More or Less Equal / Parshat Bo 2015/5775

The lineup of world leaders in Paris, linking arms and marching in protest against the murderous rampage of Islamists on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and patrons of a kosher supermarket was a moving sight. It even moved those who produce the ultra-Orthodox HaMevaser enough to include it in their publication. Well, most of it. You see, they photoshopped out German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was standing beside French President Francois Hollande. Readers of HaMevaser were treated to the world as they wish it to be: the public sector is populated only by men.  Allison Kaplan Sommer, writing in HaAretz noted that it is rather embarrassing when at a time that the Western world is rallying against manifestations of religious extremism, our extremists manage take the stage and in a newspaper owned by a Knesset member, no less.  But Tova Ross, writing in TheForward, strenuously objected to Kaplans characterization in HaAretz of the HaMevaser photoshop job, termed the digital deletion merely bizarre and comical. In the wake of two deliberate acts of religious violence in France, during a year that has been particularly venomous for French Jews and Jews the world over, she writes, wouldnt it be better to devote valuable real estate that exists in these publications, within such a fast and furious news cycle where reader interest wanes hourly, for any other number of important stories that add context and insight into the much more critical story of fundamentalism as manifesting itself in terrorist acts against people of different faiths and political stripes?

I should point out that PLO Chair Mahmoud Abbas was not photoshopped out of the image. Can there by any explanation except misogyny? And is misogyny to be taken so lightly given everything else that is happening in the world?

Much of the Jewish world has come far in recognizing the injustice of unequal. It took many, many centuriesand a big nudge from larger societyto move Judaism in the direction of egalitarianism. The Talmud encodes strict gender roles and the subjugation of women in the public sphere[1] even more than we find in Torah, and of course declares it to be Gods will, but also hints that the diminished status of women in the community is something God regrets.

The story begins in this weeks parashah, Bo, where Torah interrupts the ongoing account of the Ten Plagues to announce:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים
Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. (Exodus 12:1-2)

We are accustomed to thinking of the first day in the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) as the new year, but for the Bible, Nisan is the first month of the year. The Hebrew calendar is built on lunar months: the birth of a new moon signals the beginning of a new month. Pesach  (Passover) begins on the fifteenth day of Nisan, when the moon is full. It is crucially important to know when the first day of the month is so that we know when Pesach is. But its not always easy to determine. Today, we can scientifically calculate the new moons appearance and produce a Jewish calendar stretching out centuries in advance. But in the ancient world, declaration of the new moon required human observation of, and witness to, the tiny sliver of new moon hanging in the sky after a night in which the moon was totally absent. This is not as easy as it sounds. Imagine a rainy or overcast night.

Rashi tells us that Moses had difficulty understanding how much of the new moon needed to be visible in order to officially declare the new month. The seemingly superfluous word this (made bold in the passage above) inspires Rashis explanation. He explained that this indicates that God pointed to the new moon and said, When you see it like this, declare [the new moon].

Clearly, the size of the moon is critically important to setting the calendarthe festivals of Pesach and Sukkot fall on the full moonbut the Sages tell a fascinating story about how it came to be that the moon is smaller than the sun and waxes and wanes over the course of each month:

R. Shimon b. Pazzi raised a contradiction [between two verses in the Torah]: It is written, And God made the two great lights and it is written, The greater light [to rule the day], and the lesser light [to rule the night; he made the stars also]. (Genesis 1:16).

Said the moon to the Holy One, blessed be God, Master of the Universe, is it possible to have two kings serve with one crown?

God said to her, Go and be smaller.

She said to God, Master of the Universe, because I said to you something that is proper, [is it fair] that I have to make myself smaller?

God said to her, Go and rule over both the day and the night.

[The moon] said to God, What is the purpose of this? What good is a lamp in the daylight?

God said to her, Go so that Israel will be able to calculate through you the days and the years.

She said to God, It is not possible to calculate the seasons without the sun. For it is written, Let them be for signs and for season and for day and for years (Genesis 1:14).

[God said to the moon,] Go forth. And righteous ones shall be called by your name. Jacob was called small [When they had finished eating the grass of the land, I said, `O Lord God, forgive, I beseech thee! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!' (Amos 7:2)]. Shmuel [the tanna was called] ha-katan (the small one). [King] David was ha-katan (the youngest) [among his brothers]; the three eldest followed Saul (I Samuel 17:14)].

God saw that the moon was not placated. The Holy One, blessed be God, said, May I attain atonement because I made the moon smaller. And about this R. Shimon b. Lakish said, What is different about the goat offering for the new moon? For it is said regarding it, [Also one male goat for a sin offering] to the Lord; [it shall be offered besides the continual burnt offering and its drink offering] (Numbers 28:15). The Holy One, blessed be God, said, May I attain atonement because I made the moon smaller. (BT Chullin 60b)

In one breath, God deemed the sun and moon the two great lights and in the next breath, the sun was the greater light and the moon was the lesser light. These are the two conflicting verses that R. Shimon b. Pazzi points out. The moon, with its monthly cycle, has long been associated with women and so we can easily see this account as an allegory explaining why womens status is beneath that of men: it appears to be a reflection of the heavenly spheres, encoded into the structure of the cosmos. But lets not lose sight of what else this midrash says. The differentiation of size and status between the sun and moon was not what was originally intended. Initially, sun and moon were of equal size. God diminished the size (and status) of the moon only when the moon pointed out something God missed, but which we all know: a human organization cannot be run by two rulers. Not only was the diminution of the moons status not part of the initial plan, but it came about because of Gods anger: God resented the moons observation that Gods plan was inherently unfeasible and punished her by shrinking her. She objected, and God clumsily attempted to rectify the situation by offering the wholly unsuitable compensation of allowing her to shine both day and night. She then honestly and forthrightly pointed out that her compensation is hardly a gift, so God offered that small is an appellation that pertains to several great personages (with proof texts following).

Who would be assuaged by this rationalization? Would you? In the end, because the moon will not give in to Gods attempt to justify injustice, God atones. What an extraordinary claim! What is more, R. Shimon b. Lakish tells us that the additional sacrificial offering made each Rosh Chodesh is made not on behalf of the people, but rather on Gods behalf! It is Gods atonement offering for having treated the moon so improperly.

The midrash suggests that the lower status of women in the community was not part of the original Plan, and that God must continually atone to humanityand women, in particularfor setting in motion a society in which egalitarianism does not reign. This suggests to me that the solution is in human hands. God looks to us to correct inequality and establish the justice God wanted to plant in the world from the beginning.

Is Tova Ross correct in saying that photoshopping Angela Merkel out of the line-up of world leaders is Much Ado About Nothing, and that we should focus on far more important concerns? I think shes entirely wrong. If we look around the globe, we find the subjugation and abuse of women looms large and figures into a large part of human suffering. Any society, Jewish or otherwise, whether here in the United States or in far away Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Nigeria, that forces women behind a mechitzah and beneath a sheittel”—shunted out of public view, excluded from having a voice of authority beyond the kitchenruns a far greater risk of abuse of women than a society where all are valued equally and function equally. Securing the social and religious realms for men and confining women to hearth and home delivers the unequivocal message and reality that men are superior and women must therefore be quiet and deferential. Inevitably, womens lives are devalued and their health and safety compromised. We see it in all fundamentalist societies around the world. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that short of massacres, bombs, and military invasion, all is well.

If the lack of egalitarianism were a problem only in the Haredi world, where deleting images of women in the public sphere is de rigueur and women are patronized or bullied into second-class status, it would be easier to comprehend. But I am amazed and bewildered by others in the Jewish spectrummodern by most other accountswho defend separate prayers and privileges in the community. Separate is never equal. Recent responses attempting to justify it that I have heard include: It makes my life easier, Its actually an advantage, and I dont want to do everything my husband has to do. If you dont want to, dont. But to hold out a fundamentally unequal society as Gods will to be imposed on all the women in the community is morally  unacceptable, as every agunah will tell you. It is no different than defending segregated buses and schools as easier and advantageous. Easier for whom? Advantageous to whom?

The very Rabbis who encoded strict differentiation between men and women and inflexible gender roles into early Jewish society knew, on some level, that what they were doing was unjust. They attributed it to God, claiming that their decisions were Gods will, but even here they could not go the whole nine yards: God recognizes the injustice of it and eternally atones, month after month after month. Its time to correct the injustice, implement full and unequivocal equality, and let God off the hook.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] If you’re interested in doing some reading in this regard, I recommend Rachel Adler’s classic Engendering Judaism, as well as Miriam Peskowitz’s excellent study of gender construction in early rabbinic Judaism, Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Opening Our Eyes / Parshat Va-era 2015/5775

Daniel Goleman both coined the term “Emotional Intelligence” and wrote a wonderful book by that title. He tells the story of encountering a homeless man in New York City. Hardly an unusual encounter, you may be thinking, and you would be correct. In fact, Goleman was in New York to research and write a piece for The New York Times about homelessness at the time. Here’s his account:

One day… at the end of the day, I went downI was going down to the subway. It was rush hour and thousands of people were streaming down the stairs. And all of a sudden as I was going down the stairs I noticed that there was a man slumped to the side, shirtless, not moving, and people were just stepping over him—hundreds and hundreds of people. And because my urban trance had been somehow weakened [by researching the problem of homelessness], I found myself stopping to find out what was wrong.

Why did people stream past this man without noticing him lying in plain sight? Why did Goleman stop to check on him? And what happened as a result? More in a moment.

The Israelites have been enslaved for four centuries, toiling under the lashes of Egyptian taskmasters, producing brick upon brick upon brick, and building storehouses for Pharaoh. Finally, God notices. Parshat Va-era begins with God telling Moses: I appeared to your ancestors; my Name is Y-H-V-H, I made a covenant with them and promised them the Land of Israel. So far, God’s words seem unsurprising, particularly since they addresses the very question Moses posed to God: When I come to the Israelites and say to them, The God of your ancestors has sent me to you, and they ask me, What is his name? what shall I say to them? (Exodus 3:13) After all, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace, away from his people. If he still retains any knowledge of, or connection to, God, it was either transmitted in his mother’s milk before he was weaned, or not at all. But then God says something startling:

וְגַם אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי, אֶת-נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם; וָאֶזְכֹּר, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. (Exodus 6:5)

Just now, after 400 years, God hears  the Israelites’ moaning? Not exactly. God took notice earlier. The very first time God took notice of the Israelites’ suffering is recorded in Exodus 2:23:

וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָהכד וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נַאֲקָתָם; וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּרִיתוֹ, אֶת-אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יִצְחָק וְאֶת-יַעֲקֹבכה וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיֵּדַע, אֱלֹהִים.

A long time after that the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2:23-24)

It would seem that God took no notice of the Israelites until they cried out to God for help. Their vulnerability and suffering did not, in and of themselves, reach God’s notice until the people pleaded for help. But since then, much more time has passed. Moses has been residing in Midian with his wife, Tzipporah, and father-in-law, Jethro. He has encountered God on Horeb through the divine manifestation of the burning bush, where God tells Moses, I am mindful of their sufferings (Exodus 3:7)—this is the second time God takes note—and on this occasion commissions Moses to appear before Pharaoh. Moses demurs; God insists; Moses demurs; God promises to send Aaron with him. And indeed Moses and Aaron make their first visit to Pharaoh, which results only in Pharaoh increasing the quota of bricks required of the slaves and forcing them to find their own straw. Now God speaks again to Moses, and this time says, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites.  (see Exodus 6:5 above). This is the third time God hears or notices the Israelites’ suffering.

God takes note of the Israelites on three occasions, but it is only after the third time that God finally sets in motion a plan to secure their release from bondage.

Sometimes it is most difficult to notice the people who are right in front of us. It is as if their pain and suffering erect an enormous wall between them and us. The barrier isn’t visual; it’s emotional. How many homeless people have we, as individuals, encountered? How many times have we all lowered our eyes so we don’t “see” them or “notice” them? How many times will we, as a society, need to note their suffering before we—both as individuals and as a society—respond? It seems it took three rounds for God.

Perhaps Torah is inviting us to make Moses our role model here. The very first time Moses ventures out of the palace as a young man, what does he see? He might have seen the beauty of the land and the Nile River. He might have noted the power projected by Pharaoh’s palace, viewed from without. He might have seen vast building projects erected to honor his father and strengthen his rule. We don’t know if Moses notices any of these because Torah doesn’t record it. Instead, we know that Moses witnesses the slaves at labor and a taskmaster beating a slave. Immediately he responds. We can certainly debate his vigilante justice; I’m not defending it. Rather, I want to point out that despite the many other directions in which Moses could easily focus his eyes and mind, he notices human suffering around him first.

A second example: While shepherding Jethro’s flocks, Moses encounters a burning bush. Torah tells us that Moses stops and looks. He notices. He wonders about the meaning of what he sees. He asks himself how he should respond. It doesn’t take Moses three times to notice, or even two. Moses gets it the first time.

It is difficult and painful to see those who are suffering, those who are homeless, those who are hungry, those who are ill. That is entirely understandable. As Daniel Goleman describes, hundreds of people stepped over and around a homeless man slumped against the wall of a subway station. But it is not impossible to overcome our proclivity to not notice or respond.

First we need to understand  our own inclinations to avoid the needs of the neediest. If you like watching videos, here’s one to view. It’s remarkable how willing people are to give money to a man in a business suit, but not to the same man when he appears homeless—even standing in the same spot and making the same request.

Next, we need to move past our prejudices. Take a look what happened when youtube prankster Josh Paler Lin gave a homeless man $100. Note how he spent the money.

(Some have claimed it was all a set-up, but note that Lin has raised more than $100,000 to get Thomas back on his feet.) We’ve all heard the by-now classic argument against giving homeless people a few bucks that “they will probably spend the money on booze or drugs.” Is that a reason? Or is it an excuse?

Most impressive and important in all this is to note that Utah is on track to be the first state in the Union to end homelessness. How? By giving people apartments to live in cleanly, decently, and safely. The result is a major cost-saver to Utah. Read about it here. Kol ha-kavod to Utah.

Let’s return to Daniel Goleman and the homeless man in the New York subway. What happened after he stopped and took notice of the man:

The moment I stopped, half a dozen other people immediately ringed the same guy. And we found out that he was Hispanic, he didn't speak any English, he had no money, he'd been wandering the streets for days, starving, and he'd fainted from hunger. Immediately someone went to get orange juice, someone brought a hotdog, someone brought a subway cop. This guy was back on his feet immediately. But all it took was that simple act of noticing…

Mindfulness is a holy act. Goldman saw the humanity of a person suffering and in need. Can we do the same? With thought, intention, and commitment, I have no doubt we can—as soon as we open our eyes and take note of the people standing before us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Resolutions (Parshat Shemot 2015/5775)

Sixty years ago, film icon Marilyn Monroe (then 29 years old) jotted down her new years resolutions.[1] They reveal how seriously she was committed to acting and how deeply she wished to take full advantage of the opportunity to study with Lee Strasberg which had recently come her way. She wrote in her address book:

Must make effort to do
Must have the dicipline [sic] to do the following
z go to class my own always without fail
x go as often as possible to observe Strassbergs other private classes
g never miss actors studio sessions
v work whenever possible on class assignments and always keep working on the acting exercises
u start attending Clurman lectures also Lee Strassbergs directors lectures at theater wing enquire about both
l keep looking around me only much more so observing but not only myself but others and everything take things (it) for what they (its) are worth
y must make strong effort to work on current problems and phobias that out of my past has arisen making much much much more more more more more effort in my analisis [sic]. And be there always on time no excuses for being ever late.
w if possible take at least one class at university in literature
o follow RCA thing through.
p try to find someone to take dancing from body work (creative)
t take care of my instrument personally & bodily (exercise) try to enjoy myself when I can Ill be miserable enough as it is.

2015 is launched. Did you make new years resolutions? I want to recommend one more for all our lists. Id like to see us all open our minds about the nature and meaning of Torah. Much of the internal turmoil and conflict in the Jewish world originates in our seemingly eternal squabbling about what Torah says, requires, and means. Torah has always been, shall we say, an open book. I would offer that what we need in order to read it constructively as a community is open minds. Im aiming for something broader than אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן both these [the opinions of Bet Hillel] and these [the opinions of Bet Shammai] are the words of the living God (BT Eruvin 13b), which is about halakhah (Jewish legal decisions). Im hoping to open an umbrella so wide that Eruvins famous pronouncement will seem somewhat narrow in the scheme of things and our big, broad, diverse, wonderful Jewish world can all stand beneath it, keep dry, and make room for everyone. Toward that end, as we open Torah this week to Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus), I offer these thoughts (which admittedly are far too long but I trust youll read as much as interests you).

Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) recounts the saga of slavery in Egypt, Redemption from bondage, encounter with God at Mount Sinai, and construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the Wildernessnot to mention many laws. The Book of Exodus is contained in Torah, yet tells the story of Israels receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai but just what is Torah itself? And what role does it play in the world and in our lives? The answers to those questions depends upon how you understand and define Torah. From Torahs perspectivethe story it tells of itselfit is Gods word revealed directly to Moses at a particular time and place and containing a particular content. From the perspective of secular scholars, it is an ancient text cobbled together from oral traditions that circulated in ancient Israel, that was edited and (for the most part) canonized by the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.[2] and further edited by the Masoretes[3] in the 6th through 10th centuries.

Prof. Lawrence Schiffman (New York University) writes:

The unfolding of the history of Judaism takes place against the background of the interpretation of a revealed, authoritative body of literature. For Judaism this corpus is the text of the Hebrew Bible. The notion of a canon provides a fixed consensus on the contents of this body of sacred literature and, therefore, helps to give unity to the diverse interpretations proposed by the varieties of Judaism encountered throughout history. (From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, p. 58.)

Schiffman is saying, in essence, that Torah is a unifying text for a community that lives by its interpretations. As the anchor, Torah facilitates not only a variety of interpretations, but a diversity of forms of Judaism. Ironically, it goes further: the Jewish interpretative tradition extends to diverse understandings about what Torah itself is. The conversation about just what Torah is dates back to before the time that the content of the text was fully fixed. Sometime before the Masoretic period, the Rabbis wrote a midrash in which they envisioned a Primordial Toraha metaphysical Torahwhich God used as a blueprint to create the universe:

The Torah declares: I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be God. In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he does not build it from his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, In the beginning God created (Gn. 1:1), בראשית/beginning referring to the Torah, as in the verse, יְהוָה--קָנָנִי, רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ The Lord made me as the beginning of His way (Proverbs 8:22). (Bereishit Rabbah 1:1)

Just as a king hires an architect to build a palace, and the architect works from a blueprint, so God opened the Primordial Torah, gazed inside, and created the universe. This conceptualization of Torah is very different from a defined text composed of specific words in a particular orderhowever open to interpretation we hold that text to be. The Primordial Torah is more akin to the singularity point and the laws of physics that emerged when the universe came into existence.

In another midrash, most likely written between the 9th and 11th centuries, Torah has taken on the characteristics of a specific text, but what is significant here is how precious it is to God: as precious as a daughter is to her father. The midrash is  explaining

God said to Israel: I have sold you my Torah and it is as if I were sold together with it, as it is written, [Speak unto the children of Israel,] that they take for me an offering (Exodus 25:2). It can be compared to a king who had an only daughter. Another king comes to the kingdom, marries the kings daughter, and asks to be allowed to go home to his kingdom with his bride. The brides father says to his new son-in-law: I have given you the hand of my only daughter in marriage. I cannot bear to be separated from her nor can I order you not to take her with you because she is now your wife. Therefore, I ask you to do me this one favor: Wherever you live, please construct for me a small room so that I can live together with the two of you because I must be where my daughter is. Similarly, God says to Israel: I have given you the Torah. I cannot bear to be separated from it nor can I order you not to take it with you. Therefore, wherever you live, I ask you to construct for me a home so that I can live there, as it is written, And let them make me a sanctuary (Exodus 25:8)]. (Shemot Rabbah 33:1)

This brings us to an even later and fascinating understanding of Torah that was offered by Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730-1787). The Chernobler rebbe was a hasidic teacher, himself the student of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. Writing about this weeks parashah, Shemot, he tells us:

We all know the secret meaning of our exile in Egypt: דעת (being mindful of God) itself was in exile. We knew nothing of the Creator or Gods Torah. In the generation of the Flood people said: מַה-שַּׁדַּי כִּי-נַעַבְדֶנּוּ What is God that we should serve Him? (Job 21:15) Even though Torah hadnt yet been given in the generations before the Flood, it existed in this world as the power of the Maker within the made. It had not yet been garbed in specific worldly forms, such as it would have after being given.

From his first words, Rabbi Menachem Nachum is telling us that he views the Exodusthe entire storyas an allegory for a metaphysical truth: Its about being mindful of God, and the danger of losing that awareness. The Torah that interests him here is, likewise, the primordial, metaphysical Torah: the power of the Maker within the made. Torah is the inherent potential within the universe to burst into existence. This Torah, like the one the Rabbis spoke of in the midrash from Bereishit Rabbah (quoted above), which was analogized to an architects blueprint, existed long before Sinai, and indeed, as the Chernobler will go on to say, before the Flood, an event that marks a great change in the relationship between people, God, and Primordial Torah.

But at the time of the Flood, humans were so wicked that they cut both world and Torah off from their connection to the Creator. Both world and Torah were separated from their Root; that is why the Flood came to destroy the world.

Evil comes about when people sever their connection with the Source of all, the Root: God (or more accurately, the godhead, since were in the world of metaphysics here). Evil is, most fundamentally, a state of mind in which one sees oneself as separate from everything else, disconnected from the whole of the universe and the Source of existence (God and Torah). From the Kabbalistic viewpoint, when people become enmeshed in the physical world, losing perspective on their lives and how they fit into the bigger scheme of things, they descend into darkness, a place where evil is not only a possible, but even a likely, outcome.

In the wake of the horrific and meticulously planned and executed attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdoas I write this, it is being reported that 12 have dieddoes this notion resonate? At this time, the gunmen are presumed to be Islamist terrorists who feel no connection to anyone unlike them, anyone who does not share their convictions and worldview. No connection, no understanding, no compassion. The result is the unleashing of evil, a flood of blood.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum goes on to say that the result of the evil and the Flood that ensued was that Torah was cast down into a shell. This sounds much like the divine sparks of the Shattering of the Vessels in the initial Big Bang of Kabbalistic cosmology[4]. We call that shell Egypt. What a marvelous image! The Hebrew term for Egypt is Mitzrayim which means narrow place or straits, a constrictive, imprisoning shell. Egypt, therefore, was a place of Exile from the very mindfulness, or awareness of God, that we need and seek to be whole and connected to one another and to the universe. Again, in accordance with a Kabbalist reading of the Exodus story as allegory, the Chernobler rebbe tells us, Israel had to go down into Egypt, to raise up fallen Torah. The Exodus, then, is the release of Torah and mindfulness of God from the shell of Egypt, from exilic separation from people.

By now you might be asking yourself: How could the Chernobler make this claim that Torah and God were released from Exile when Israel left Egypt, if Israel in the Chernoblers time was still living in galut (Exile)? How could he conceive things this way? And that is precisely the wonder of his interpretation. He challenges our conventional understanding and perspective, saying that Exile is not merely an historical condition; Exile is a spiritual state of mind that is not constrained by historical reality. Our minds are free to achieve mindfulness and rise above the historical and physical conditions of our existence. This is a keen and shining psychological and spiritual insight.

The next question we might ask is: How do we free ourselves to achieve this mindfulness? The answer, not surprisingly, is through the sefirot, which in the Chernoblers thinking means cultivating the middot (character attributes) of divinity: love, awe, glory, compassion, etc. This is a beautiful tie-in with Musar (Jewish ethics) which was not yet a full-blown movement in Twerskis time, but was definitely in peoples minds and on the horizon. The Chernobler is quick to assure us that using the middot as vehicles to attune ourselves to God and Primordial Torah does not mean that we have to perfect each attribute:

Everyone knows that reality of God [i.e., that God exists] (may Gods Name be blessed) and has mindfulness/knowing in proportion to his proclivity. Yet our qualities are veiled in exile: we have improper loves, improper awe/fear, and thus we use these attributes in ways that violates the will of the Creator (may Gods Name be blessed), who shaped and apportioned these attributes only for the service of God (may Gods name be blessed)If every one of us remembered that mindfulness/knowing itself was once in exile, but came forth from it, and we became aware of Gods existence, it would be easier for us to bring those personal qualities, as well, into goodness and away from evil. We would then use them only in ways that accord with mindfulness/knowing of God.

We dont have to be perfect, we dont have to be models of morality, we dont have to get everything right. How reassuring! What is more, there is a marvelous positive feedback loop here: When we recall the Exodus (as happens in both morning and evening prayers), we become mindful of God, who is made manifest through the middot, and in practicing the middot, we become attuned to God.

This is a message that speaks far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. It speaks to Paris and to everywhere in our world where failures of love, awe, compassion, kindness lead to brutality. It speaks to the Exile of primordial Torah from our midst and our inability to see the humanity of others and ones place in the universe.

Returning to the Jewish world: Imagine that our focus in the Jewish community were not on the minutiae of kashrut and ritual, and defensive claims of authenticity, but rather on what binds us together, strengths us, and assures not just our survival (too often the highest communal goal Jews aspire to) but our creativity, our flourishing, and the wisdom we have to offer the world. I know Im probably preaching to the choir but the pain of the present situationespecially as it is played out in the State of Israel todayis intense. With this in mind, please give some consideration, and perhaps make a new years resolution, concerning how you might contribute to the broader umbrella of Torah for the sake of Israel now and in the future.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Marilyn Monroe, Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, pp. 152-3.
[2] Arguments ensued for some time concerning the content of the larger compendium of Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), specifically the status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Talmud records some of these discussions.
[3] The Masoretes were communities of scholar-scribes who lived primarily in Tiberias and Jerusalem in Eretz Yisrael between the 6th and 10th centuries. Recognizing the need for a uniform biblical text, the Masoretes determined the canonical text of Hebrew Scriptures from among extent variant versions and added a diacritical vowel notation system for pronouncing the heretofore unpointed text. The result is the version of the bible we have today, also known as the Masoretic Text.
[4] Heres an excellent piece by Howard Schwartz on the central myth of Kabbalistic cosmology. It is entitled How the Ari Created a Myth and Transformed Judaism”—