Archive for January, 2013

January 31, 2013 10:17 am CDT

Yitro—Awareness of God

“I am YHVH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

Yitro is one of two parshas containing the Ten Commandments (the other is Vaetchannan in Deuteronomy).  This verse, the first commandment, seems at first not be a commandment all.  It is God’s self-declaration to all of Israel at Sinai.

In accounting this as a separate, positive command, the Rabbis differ not only from all of the various enumerations of the Ten Commandments found in Christian traditions but from other ancient Jewish writers such as Philo and Josephus. The Rabbis understand these words not merely as a preamble to the commandments, but as a commandment itself, according to which we are responsible for awareness of God.

Our awareness of God is often obscured by routine.  Perhaps this routine is necessary to get things done, to prevent us from being continually stupefied by the fact that we are capable of thought, of appreciating beauty . . . , in short, that we ARE.   But we must not let such practical considerations cut us off essentially from wonder, which is the root of awareness of God.

“The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted.  Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of all sin.”  So writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, an unsurpassed exponent of wonder.  For Rabbi Heschel wonder, or “radical amazement,” is essential for “an authentic awareness of that which is; it refers not only to what we see but also to the very act of seeing, as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.”

January 31, 2013 10:16 am CDT

Yitro—Running and Returning

All the people saw the voices, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they moved and stood at a distance.  They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will listen, but let not God speak with us, lest we die.”  (Ex 20:15-16)

Rashi: They saw the voices: They saw the audible, which it is impossible to see anywhere else.
 . . . the voices:  which were uttered by the mouth of God.
and they moved: va-yanu’u means “and they shuddered”
and stood at a distance:  they recoiled twelve miles to the rear–the whole length of the camp–and the ministering angels came and helped to restore them to their place.

We often refer to this point in Israel’s story as “Standing at Sinai,” but the Torah story shows how this event undermines the conventional sense of our “standing.”   Rather than our holding our place, Rashi shows us an inner oscillation mirrored in the motions of ” running and returning” (cf. Ezekiel 1)–recoiling from the divine thunder, restored by angels; dying, and being reborn.

Avivah Zornberg relates a wonderful teaching on this from Ha-amek Davar*.  It notes that when Moses reassures the people that God has come to them “in order to test (le-nasoth) you,” Rashi translates le-nasoth  as “to exalt you.”  “The extreme polarities of Israel’s response to Revelation express a moment of immense growth.  The people are stretched to the limits of their strength.  The effect is to release a new sense of their own capacities, a new awareness of their ability to contain previously unknown extremes.  It is human spiritual greatness that is God’s purpose in revealing Himself.”  (264)

*”The Depth of the Word,” a Torah commentary by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-93, rabbi of Volozhin and head of the yeshiva there.  At the time, Volozhin was part of Tsarist Russia; now it is in present day Belarus.

January 28, 2013 9:39 pm CDT

Beshalach–“This is my God”

“This is my God” (Exodus 15:2)

The Song of the Sea begins with a simple, powerful affirmation of God.  These words, “Zeh Eli,” are referred to in the midrash as “the pointing finger”: a particularly vivid and true apprehension, the portrait that really captures its subject.

A remarkable passage from the Talmud attributes this vision particularly to the women who gave birth clandestinely in Egypt.

“When the Israelite women came to give birth [in Egypt], they did so in the fields, and God sent one from the highest heavens to clean and tend them, like a midwife.  So when God appeared to them at the Sea, they recognized him first, as it is said, ‘This is my God . . .’”  (B. Stotah 11b)

Avivah Zornberg, comments “[T]he women recognize their midwife when God appears over the Red Sea: what they have experienced of love and care in their own moment of crossing—at the breaking of their own waters—becomes a key to understanding the miracle at the Sea.” (The Particulars of Rapture, 223)

January 28, 2013 9:33 pm CDT

Beshalach–Food with Training Wheels

This is what the LORD has commanded: `Each of you gather as much [manna] as you can eat.   You shall take an omer apiece, according to the number of the persons whom each of you has in his tent.'” And the people of Israel did so; they gathered, some more, some less.  But when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat.  And Moses said to them, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.”  But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them.  (Ex. 16:16-21)

The manna that sustains Israel in the wilderness automatically redistributes itself in utopian fashion, “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”   It is there for the taking, but it cannot be hoarded.  Manna knows neither lack nor surplus.

Where can we find such manna?  We cannot find it in our fields, in our silos, in our markets, in our refrigerators.   Manna was both a food and a lesson; you could call it food with training wheels. Once Israel entered the land, the manna ceased, and the food no longer conformed, of itself, to the ideals of Torah.   Distributive justice became a human task, a question we have yet to answer.

January 17, 2013 1:53 am CDT

Bo–Bread Without Ego

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the LORD.  (Exodus 13:6)

The festival we call Passover originated as a combination of two ancient holy days:  Passover, a shepherds’ festival in which each spring a lamb was sacrificed,  and Unleavened Bread, a celebration of the barley harvest, at which time all leaven/fermentation products were avoided.

Philo gave a classic moral interpretation of this latter festival: “Bread which is leavened and fermented rises, while that which is unleavened is low.  Each of these is a symbol of types of soul, one being haughty and swollen with arrogance, the other being unchangeable and prudent, choosing the middle way rather than extremes . . . .” (Questions and Answers in Exodus 1.15)  Or, as Rabbi James Stone Goodman likes to say, matza is bread without ego.

January 17, 2013 1:47 am CDT

Bo–A Sign and a Reminder

You shall tell your child on that day [on which you celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread], ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’   It shall serve for you as a sign (‘ot) on your hand and as a reminder (zikkaron) on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.  (Exodus 13:8-9)

The Rabbis derived the injunction to relate the story of the Exodus at the Seder from this verse, and the name of the text recited at the Seder, the Haggadah, from its first word, “you shall tell” (v’higgadta).   Scholars have different opinions about what serves as a “sign,” and the Rabbis used this verse to support the practice of wearing phylacteries (tefillin), but my mind’s made up: the celebration of the festival itself  is the sign.   We could paraphrase the text as saying, “the festival shall be a reminder, like a string on your finger.”

An interestingly similar text occurs when, after the Israelites cross the Jordan, God tells Joshua to take twelve stones from the middle of the river and place them on the other side where they lodge.  Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “This shall be a sign (‘ot) among you: when your children ask in time to come, —What do those stones mean to you?’ you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off  before the ark of the covenant of the LORD;  . . . So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a reminder (zikkaron) for ever.”  (Joshua  4:6-7)

In both texts, the sign is bound up with a verbal explanation to the next generation.  Without the story, the sign really doesn’t signify.  With the story, the meaning is imprinted in both the teller and the hearer.

January 10, 2013 12:37 pm CDT

Va’era—”Install the right behavior when the remorse is strong”

“But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned once more and hardened his heart, he and his officials.”  (Ex. 9:34)

Apparently, an aspect of “hardness of heart” is being unable to move beyond an imminent threat.   Pharaoh’s repentance lasts only as long as the plague is in his face.

One does not have to be as cruel as Pharaoh to be vulnerable to this kind of hardness.   I remember Reb Zalman once addressing this problem, his quaint fondness for computer analogies mixed into his old-world-style discourse.  He spoke of “installing the right behavior while remorse is strong,” imagining in that moment of intense regret how you might have handled the situation differently, mentally and with your body, so that the path from intent to behavior is “downloaded into the imagination.”

January 10, 2013 12:36 pm CDT


“Whoever feared the Lords word among Pharaoh’s servants sheltered his slaves and livestock indoors.”  (Ex. 9:20)

Very often, when the Bible speaks of the fear of the Lord or the attribute of being God-fearing it is talking about awe or piety.  But here, as Alter points out, “the idiom has been stripped down to its literal meaning: whoever was struck with terror by the grim threat of gods took the necessary steps to protect his slaves and livestock.”  The fact that some Egyptian officials are now genuinely terrified by Moses’ dire predictions is an indication that the Pharaonic front is beginning to crack.

Pharaoh himself, in the aftermath of this plague, admits that he has offended “this time” (Ex. 9:27).  But not the other times?  This suggests that he does not really regret his actions, but merely their consequences.  Moses replies, “As for you and your servants I know that you still do not fear the Lord God” (Ex. 9:30).”  And he’s right.

January 4, 2013 11:53 am CDT

Shemot–Hardened, Part 1

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that  I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so  that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)

Having reassured Moses that he will be present with him and that his mission will eventually succeed, God now has to tell him that it will not be easy and that he should expect the most stubborn resistance from Pharaoh.  It is in this context that the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” motif first appears.  It invites Moses to reinterpret what could be seen as an obstacle to God’s plan as another proof that that plan is unfolding as promised.

To the extent that the story is a narrative of national triumph, one could say that God needs Pharaoh’s recalcitrance in order to demonstrate his power.   But Pharaoh’s character has already been well-established.  It is he who initiated the abusive enslavement of the Israelites, and who decreed death for all their male children.  One could even say that this “toughening” or hardening of the heart is a natural and predictable response when the authority of someone like Pharaoh is challenged.  That God is presented as the agent or cause of this hardening is not surprising in the light what we just heard God say to Moses: “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not  I, the LORD?” (4:11)

January 4, 2013 11:51 am CDT

Shemot–Hardened, Part 2

And Pharaoh said [to Moses and Aaron], “Behold the people of the land now are many, and you would make them cease* from their burdens.”  (Ex. 5:5)

Which is to say,”The Hebrew workforce has become vast; the Egyptian economy has come to depend on this multitude of slave laborers and can scarcely afford an interruption of their work.”  The desire to maintain wealth can harden the heart.

Or perhaps, “This vast alien population will become a threat to us as soon as we remove their yoke of servitude.” Fear of the other can harden the heart.

*and yes, “cease” translates shabbat.