Thursday, January 28, 2010

Who May Sing Halleluyah / Parshat B'Shallach

For three weeks we have been recounting the story of our redemption, from the moment Jacob and his family went down into Egypt, through the plagues, on into the wilderness. The week’s parashah, B’shallach, recounts the climax: the actual moment of redemption when the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea and the waters closed in on the Egyptians so they cannot follow after them.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their horsemen…

Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea. When Israel saw the wondrous power that the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and God’s servant Moses.

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and might; God is become my deliverance. This is my God and I will enshrine God… (Exodus 14: 26, 30, 15:1-2)
The 15th chapter of Exodus is comprised of the song of redemption the Israelites sang. It is so powerful and important that it is included in each morning’s prayers, at the beginning of shacharit (the morning prayers), establishing the purpose of prayer as redemption. What is more, this shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira (the sabbath of song) because this ancient paean in praise of God is the centerpiece of the parashah. The entire congregation stands to hear it chanted.

In the Talmud (Megillah 10b) we are told that when Israel was redeemed,
The ministering angels wanted to chant songs of praise, but the Holy One blessed be God said, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you would chant praises?
God’s contempt and disgust are evident in the text. The angels in heaven are silenced and rebuked for rejoicing at a time when the Egyptians are suffering death in the sea. This might well be the all-time favorite midrash and has found its way into many haggadot for Pesach. It is taken as a lesson on empathy and compassion: we may not rejoice when our enemies are suffering.

Yet God does not stop Israel from singing a song of victory and redemption at the shores of the Reed Sea. It is only the angels who are censured. Perhaps this is became we humans are not angels, and need the catharsis of rejoicing when we experience redemption so that we can affirm both the possibility and necessity of redemption. Perhaps it is because, having experienced redemption, Israel will fully comprehend the need to bring redemption to others. Perhaps it is because Israel does not take “credit” for the destruction wrought against Egypt nor learn from it that they should impose suffering on their enemies; rather it is God’s triumph that is the focus of the Shira. Perhaps it is because the Shira ends on a note of peace and tranquility, evoking the image of God’s Holy Mountain and Sanctuary, where some day – in the messianic future – peace will reign.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Plagues" or "Marvels"? / Parshat Bo

Last week’s parashah, Va’era, recounted the first seven plagues. This week’s parashah, Bo, recounts the last three: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. We refer to the Ten Plagues in our Haggadah as the Eser Makkot – the ten “strikes” or “plagues.” Torah confirms that they are nega “affliction” (11:1) but also employs other terms with far more positive connotation:
  • Nifla’ot “wonders” (Ex. 3:20)
  • Otot “signs” (Ex. 8:19 and 10:2)
  • Moftim “marvels” (Ex. 11:10)
There is a world of difference between a “plague” and a “marvel.” Certainly there is a difference in the eye of the beholder. For Israel Eser Makkot are wonders, signs, and marvels. For Egypt they are afflictions and plagues.

For the Torah, every event in the lives of God’s people is pregnant with meaning and purpose, and God is behind each event. Hence plagues against Egypt are “signs” of God’s power and sovereignty in the universe, “wonders” in the eyes of Israel.

There is a danger to this perspective. If each significant event in the vicissitudes of history is orchestrated by God, then everyone is continually being rewarded or punished by God, and we need only look at the outcome to confidently (and arrogantly) pass judgment on the players, as Pat Robertson’s recent repugnant remarks concerning the devastating earthquake in Haiti remind us.

Our Rabbis recognized this danger and attempted to ameliorate its effect by withdrawing (in a sense) from the march of history and declaring a “time out” until the arrival of the messiah. But this is a not a solution for me. The solution for me lies in a different conception of God and God’s interaction with the universe. God is the divine spark that operates through us, the ordering principle of the universe that makes life possible, the ethical drive that propels us to righteousness when we are attuned to God. God is within and beyond, but God doesn’t not sit at a cosmic keyboard programming the world.

For us as Jews, remembering is a sacred obligation. We are commanded repeatedly to remember: to remember that we were enslaved in Egypt, to remember that God redeemed us from bondage, to remember our covenant with God, to remember what Amalek did to our people. Remembering need not be an act of academic historicism nor an occasion to judge others. Remembering can be a profound religious act of ascribing meaning to reality, and directing our lives toward a future of redemption, justice, and compassion.

The plagues suffered by Egypt remind us that the suffering of our enemies is still human suffering, and that even amidst great suffering, redemption is possible. When Israel left Egypt they took others with them: they were an erev rav “a mixed multitude” (Ex. 12:38) because they knew that only through compassion for others can justice for any be realized. They understood that through justice and compassion, and with God’s strength, guidance, and support, redemption could be realized. That redemption is with us still – in our memories and directing our actions – so that we can be God’s hands in bringing redemption to others.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Blossoming at any age / Parshat Va'era

Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they made their demand on Pharaoh. (Exodus 7:7)
Moses and Aaron got a late start on the careers and endeavors that made the most enduring difference to the Jewish people and the world. They are not alone: Abraham was 70 when God called him from Ur of the Chaldees to leave everything and everyone he knew and start anew so that he would be the progenitor of the Jewish People. Rabbi Akiba was 40 when he began to learn the alphabet and how to read, and he systematized and shaped halakhic methodology and scriptural interpretation. If Abraham is the father of the Jewish People, Akiba is the father of Rabbinic Judaism.

Pirke Avot 5:23 provides a lifecycle schedule:
At five, one studies Tanakh. At ten, Mishnah. At 13, the mitzvot. At 15, Talmud. At 18, marriage. At 20, pursuit of a livelihood. At 30, the peak of strength. At 40, understanding. At 50, advisor. At 60, old age. At 70, the hoary head. At 80, strength. At 90, a bent back. At 100, it is as if one is already dead and passed out of this world.
If we examine various commentaries on this passage in Pirke Avot, we find that some read koach at 80 (strength at 80) as a sincere expression, but many read it as a sardonic comment or a euphemism for weakness. But Torah suggests – through the model of Moses – that 80, and indeed any advanced age, can be a time of remarkable capacity and strength. We have all known elders who retained their vitality because they had not only attained wisdom through learning and life’s experiences, but chose to invest in others and thereby found great purpose to their latter years.

Sadly, there are many elders in our midst who do not feel that their lives have continuing meaning and value. Perhaps there is more we can do to integrate such people into the life of the community, pairing them with children who have no local grandparents so they can share their stories, wisdom, recipes, and love.

There is a message in this for each of us, as well. Age is, in large measure, attitude. We can be 80 with strength, or 80 with “strength.”

What are you going to do next with your life?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Pay back? Payment due? No payment? / Shemot

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)
Rather than nurturing the good relations between Egypt and the clan of Jacob, this new pharaoh give free rein to his paranoia and us-versus-them worldview. The Israelites are “other” – they are different and hence dangerous. They must be repressed and eliminated. And so Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and enlists (coerces?) the help of Shifra and Puah, the midwives, in his diabolical plot of annihilation.

The midwives, however, defy Pharaoh and undermine his decree. They deliver babies and lie to Pharaoh. For this, God rewards them:
And [God] established households for the midwives because they feared God. (Exodus 1:21)
Because the midwives preserved and enlarged the households of Israel, God established households for them.

A mishnah in tractate Sotah asserts: In the measure with which a person measures, it is meted out to him (Sotah 8b). Not only are the Rabbis claiming that God repays evil with evil and good with good, but that the manner in which evil is perpetrated and good is done determine the punishment or reward. The subsequent mishnah outlines several examples on each side of the ledger and the gemara that follows explicates them in detail. Here they are in brief from the mishnahh on Sotah 9b:
[Examples of those who did evil:] Samson followed his eyes; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes [Judges 16:21]… Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair [II Samuel 15 – 18; the gemara continues with two more examples of how Absalom’s end mirrored his evil]… [Examples of those who did good:] Miriam waited a short while for Moses…therefore Israel was delayed for her seven days in the wilderness [Numbers 12:15 – when Miriam was stricken with leprosy, Israel waited for her to recover] … Joseph earned merit by burying his father… none other than Moses occupied himself with his burial [Exodus 13:19].
Could anything be further from our experience in this world? We might wish this sort of divine response, but do we expect it? Do we even believe it possible? And do we find God less accessible and responsive if we neither experience nor expect God’s intervention in the manner the Rabbis describe?

Pirke Avot tells us:
Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] taught: … Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. (Pirke Avot 2:1)
R. Yehudah ha-Nasi concedes that what we see in the world is not symmetrical with “measure for measure,” but that the basic system is indeed in place. We shouldn’t second-guess it. Antignos of Sokho goes further:
Antignos of Sokho received (Torah) from Simon the Just. He used to say: Be not like the servants who serve the master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like the servants who serve the master not for the sake of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you. (Pirke Avot 1:3)
Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on reward and punishment, but nothing here denies that this is how the world works. Is there an alternative?

Another view is that God, who is present in every aspect of the evolving universe, who is present in our world teeming with life, and who is the divine spark within every soul, is implicitly a part of every human choice for good or for evil. God stands present with us at the moment of choice – holding out to us, metaphorically, the best option – but does not bar us from making the wrong choice because free will is essential not only to our humanity but to our ability to be moral agents. This view of God does not require a balanced response to evil or a quid pro quo on the part of God in order for God's goodness and influence to be felt in the universe, nor does it evoke disappointment and depression when God does not punish and reward in the manner the Rabbis envisioned. Rather, this view exalts our free will and thereby empowers us to reach higher – toward heaven – to reach our potential.

If we can think of God this way, we won’t worry about reward and punishment. We won’t be hung up about payback. We’ll be more involved in paying it forward. And imagination what a difference that will make in our world!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman