Some thoughts on “Receiving Torah”
May 30 was our Tikun Leil Shavuot, and on June 1, we received the Torah, standing at our seats, as we read and trumpeted the moments when our ancestors accepted Torah with a triumphant “we will do and we will hear!” Tradition tells us that so powerful were the words of the Ten Commandments that each commandment blew the Israelites back 19 parsangs (historical unit of distance). Their souls were drawn from their bodies and God would not allow their souls to receive any new commandments. This sequential resuscitation was apparently very grueling, so they asked Moses to go up the mountain, into the fog, to receive the Torah for them. Rav Nachman of Bratzlav points out that God really wished all the people to climb the mountain with Moses and converge at the apex of Sinai, and if that had happened, we would have found a return to full redemption and purity (“when the Shofar sounds louder and louder…they should climb the mountain”). But the opportunity was lost and we must settle for understanding the Torah, not directly from the source, but through interpretation and insight.
Rabbi Levi Ischak asks the question, “Why, in beginning the counting of the Omer, don’t we recite the Shechehiyanu prayer?” The answer he gives is that the counting begins the journey and one must say a Shechehiyanu only at the end of a journey in the reception of Torah. But the reception of the Torah is, really, a never-ending proposition. Every Jew is called upon to have an open heart, to learn something new–something more nuanced and refined. Our Torah education is endless in each life and for all time. That is why there is no holiday called Hag Kabbalat Hatorah (holiday to welcome the Torah into our lives). Only Hag Natan Torah (holiday of being given the Torah). God gives the Torah endlessly. Our reception of it must be each and every day, with a newly opened mind and heart.
Years ago, here and in Israel, scientists and mathematicians were hard at work in cracking the secret code of the Bible. A book was released that got everyone excited, a New York Times bestseller, Bible Code, by Michael Drosnin, who is a Wall Street Journal reporter. Inspired by the work of Prof. Eliyahu Ripps, he suggested a formula to understand the present and predict the future. With the help of systematic computer analysis, all the letters of the Torah were scanned backwards and forwards, in a consistent pattern, to yield messages. Hits showed famous names like “Rabin” and “Kennedy,” and important natural disasters. Even the Persian Gulf War was foretold! This gave a new meaning to the words of our sages, “turn it and turn it, 'cause all is in it.” But that misses the point. I am reminded of the use of the High Priest’s Urim and Thummim (divine oracle on the High Priest’s breastplate), with letters lighting up. For my money, I think the words of Isaiah, the trenchant insight of Jeremiah, and the mystical imagination of Ezekiel, were far more penetrating.
A sage commented on the words from our Torah, “Moses would speak to God, and God would answer him in thunder (Hashem Yaanenu beKol),” saying, “Moses would speak and God would answer him in his own voice!” All of us must study the words of Torah carefully and repeatedly, but true wisdom is not acquired by how much Torah you can master and retain, how much Torah or Talmud a person can get through. Rather, wisdom comes from how much the Torah and the Talmud goes through you! Our experience and our thought processes help make Torah new each day! The insights you bring to the text are the Torah coming “through your voice.”
Between Purim and Passover
Rabbi Jason Rubenstein makes an interesting observation that the very beginning of the Megillah presents an anti-Passover message of providence. It appears that Haman rolls the dice in his lottery for the destruction of the Jews on the 12th month, Adar, and the 13th day. But on what day was the fate sealed? –On none other than the day before Pesach, Adar 14, when the Jews, instead, prevailed. And what does Mordecai tell Esther? He tells her, “Help might come from another quarter, but if you don't do something, you and your father's house will be destroyed.” Notice that he doesn’t say God will help us; he says something shall come to the rescue eventually (yavo memakom acher), but we are left wondering what form that help will take. After all, God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther at all. And Esther insists that the Jews fast for three days, but this comes at the time of feasting at the Seders of Passover! Note how despairing they must have been at this moment when they should have been fulfilling the commandment of eating matzah to celebrate God's rescue of the Hebrew Slaves at the time of the Exodus! In the end, religious significance is attached to this miracle rescue of the Jews from Haman, and it is declared a holiday, but the rite of that holiday is reading about human beings risking their lives to turn the tide.
Pesach enters, however, through the back door, in our rabbinic tradition, when it comes to the events of the story of Esther. Do you remember that Achashverosh couldn't sleep and insisted in reading from his chronicles? That occurred too, our sages tell us, on the exact night marking the time of our release in Egypt! (cf. Haggadah: cf. vayehi be chazi Halaila) This teaches that while you might think that all happens is due to luck, happenstance and human endeavor, we realize that Providence is behind this concatenation of events–ultimately God is working behind the scenes.
Passover presents a different theological view. God is a maker of miracles and will impose His will on human history if the experience of his people is dire and if their prayers and tears crack heaven. The explanation of our rescue and release comes from God and no other–a Divine rescue.
And yet, Passover depends, too, on the actions of people. It depends on a leader who evolves from a self doubting 'send someone else' sort, to a leader who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It depends on a people who evolve from insular, to advocates, to a people who begin to believe and inspire Moses. And it depends ultimately on their faith to follow God's directive to slaughter a ram at a time of Egyptian Ram worship, when Aries, the Ram, is considered sacred.
In fairness, the Trump administration is endeavoring to fulfill the enforcement end of immigration laws already on the books, and they have been saddled with the problem of 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. What is important, however, from my Jewish point of view, is that any racheting up of enforcement should be moderated through the lens of compassion to the stranger, a basic tenet of our religion. In the Torah, we read thirty-six times, "Love the stranger." Be kind to them, ki gerim heyeetem– for once we knew what it was to be spurned and marginal strangers in a land not our own. Judaism's radical claim is to turn a human reflex on its head. An abused person often becomes an abuser. God saw to it that our abuse would lead to sensitivity.
Yet it would be disingenuous if I left it only at this. The Israelites were also commanded to obliterate Amalek and destroy the seven nations that were occupying the land God promised Israel. These nations were practitioners of murderous rites and demanded compulsive adherence to their pagan religious practices for the Christian population trying to live an otherwise productive and law-abiding life. In addition, in the late Ancient time and certainly by the early Medieval time, rabbinic law had forbidden this way of thinking about any present day people.
A look at laws in Mishpatim of the parasha resonate, to some degree, with the issue currently evolving with this new executive thrust. Hebrew slaves who were serving a master to work off a debt were to be set free after six years. Their status was to be upgraded after the serving of a certain number of years, and they were to be provided with "perks" upon that upgrade–sufficient provisions, tools, etc.–to be able to get started again on their own. If he so chose, the Hebrew slave could seek harbor in the master's household and the master would be required to give him shelter and provisions in exchange for his servitude until the time of Jubilee, for as many as 49 years.
There is another mitzvah that applies to an extent, regarding the occasion upon which a poor person is required to give collateral. If that collateral ends up being a garment, the lender must make certain he or she has returned it by nightfall, for this could be his or her only covering on a cold night. God apparently cares that all human beings don't suffer from the cold or find themselves exposed to the elements. God, says our midrash, shares the distress of human beings who are suffering. "Created in His image" means more to God than just that we resemble some of His qualities; it means He's a parent to every human being. A mother and/or a father looks at a child as almost a phantom limb. When the child suffers, so does God, the parent.
A third mitzvah of the Torah tells us that if we afflict the orphan or widow, in due time God will become furious and our wives and children will end up beings widows and orphans. The Talmud takes this further and teaches that if we even witness such affliction and don't act to stop it, the same penalty applies. This is remarkable, the commentators opine. Such is the strictness God holds with widows and orphans. Since they are so vulnerable, they must be given extra iron-clad protections.
Reflections on the beginning of Exodus and the UN Resolution 2334: Saving the world while saving one’s own
We will explore the world of push-and-pull in Moses’ inner psyche and in so doing, maybe see a reflection of ourselves.
Moses bursts onto the scene an internationalist, working on behalf of those who are oppressed. Brought up as an Egyptian royal, Moses looks upon slavery in the abstract and sees an oppressed people, but it takes a while before he actually internalizes that those who are abused are his own people and is bothered enough to spring into action. It says in Vayigdal Moshe, “…and Moses matured and then went out unto HIS people and saw their suffering.” The Midrash tells us that Moses sees an Egyptian raid a man’s home at night and takes the man and his wife out into the dark. The Egyptian approaches the wife, who cannot see in the dark, pretending to be her husband. Thereafter, with the Egyptian knowing that the man is onto him, this taskmaster torments the slave daily. Moses “looked here and there…he saw the man’s debasement in his own home and he saw his debasement during the day in the field, and he struck out at the Egyptian and in the process killed him…” But Moses still, at this point, has issues with being a savior only of his own people.
A bounty is put on Moses’ head and he flees to Midian. Seeing that working to help your own is dangerous and yet not able to refrain from helping others, he immediately goes to work aiding the daughters of Jethro, who are attempting to draw water for the flock they are tending, but are being tormented by local bullies. Moses defends them and draws their water. Jethro, thinking Moses an Egyptian, rewards Moses by giving him Tzippora to wed, and Moses fathers two children and stays in Midian as a shepherd. Moses is contented for forty years, fully one third of his life, ignoring his own people’s suffering while helping a different people and helpless animals. It only when happening upon God in the form of a strangely and perennially burning bush, that he is reminded of the oppression of the Hebrews in Egypt. We know of such people that will move mountains to help the oppressed of the world and poor animals suffering, but when it comes to their own people’s plight, they poo-poo it. And aren’t some of these people us? Moses, even after a forty-year hiatus, still drags his feet to the point where God almost kills him on the way back to Egypt!
Moses seems to need to go through that journey of re-sensitizing himself to his brothers’ suffering–vayetze el Echav vayaar sivlotam–to really see the suffering of his brothers, his sisters, and his own family in the main. Much like Abraham before him, he flirts with universalism and worries a lot about people suffering like those in Midian and in Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham, in his day, overlooked the violence and the people’s incitement–the fact that they were almost all wicked– and struggled to have God save them too. That is a fine and deeply needed sensibility, to an extent. But in Abraham’s case, his focus became so much the inclusion of the wicked that he lost sight of the advocacy of his own. He seemed mute when God told him “Hey Abe, take Ishmael and his mother into the desert with a canteen of water…” He seemed frozen when God demanded, “Nu, slaughter your own son Isaac…” In other words, he loses his bearing and his right to self- preservation. So too, Moses at this point pawns off the job of rescuing those pesky “Israelites,” saying, “God, please I am slow of speech…” Send someone else, please–let me off the hook.
And of course we know this tension. It is difficult not to agree with those who claim we should care about the rights and suffering of so many groups. We should advocate equally for the oppressed groups of minorities and Muslims, of queer people and of illegals. We should be color blind and indiscriminate in embracing the liberation movements of all peoples. Consistency must be the order of the day. Like Moses and Abraham, the needs of those of Sodom and Gemorah and the needs of the Midianites and the needs of all oppressed should occupy our time equally.
In our contemporary American milieu, we begin January as a new chapter, with a batch of resolutions for the New Year. Similarly, with the departure of our beloved Chazzan, we at ENJC are also beginning a new chapter. And, according to Jewish tradition, every day is an opportunity for a new chapter, a potential for teshuva–a return to the correct path and to good living. Even God starts a new chapter each day, as the siddur claims, Hamechadesh bechol Yom Maaseah beresheet–we are awestruck at our God who each day 'creates the world anew.' With this in mind, there are four resolutions we can adopt into our Jewish lives, based on major themes in the portions we read in each of our January Shabbats. Perhaps you will embrace all or some of these opportunities.
In Miketz, which we read on December 30th, Joseph is appointed vizier of Egypt and devises a way to save the Near East from drought and hunger. Through his foresight and vision, suffering is alleviated and lives are saved. Let’s resolve, this new year, to make certain to redouble our efforts in supporting major organizations like Mazon, and make a personal effort to combat hunger by working with HIHI and with Long Island Harvest soup kitchens and food pantries, so as to minimize hunger for those who live locally.
In Vayigash, read on January 7, Joseph recognizes the repentance and improvement in his brothers, and reveals that he is their long-lost brother and that they must stop beating themselves up for past wrongdoings against him. Similarly, in our lives, we may have run-ins and moments of disagreement that turn ugly. This year, can't we perhaps turn to a loved one and forgive? Can't we gain a new perspective and maturity for a feud for which we may not even remember its' origin? Years may go by and affection may grow colder. Instead, love and let live. Forgive and forget. Reveal your real face to family and friends–a face that seeks to embrace rather than to estrange.
In Vayechi, which we read on January 14, we see an acme of pure love in the behavior of one of Jacob's grandsons, Menasseh, when he receives a lesser blessing from his grandfather than his younger brother, Ephraim. Jacob crosses his arms and knowingly puts his right hand on the head of Ephraim, even though he is the younger, saying that the younger brother will be greater than the elder Menasseh. In fact, the entire book of Genesis is about the jealousy of brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau Joseph and his brothers. But Menasseh isn't jealous. He is happy for his brother. That is why, on Friday night, we bless our sons to be like Menasseh and Ephraim. These brothers broke the cycle of envy. May we resolve this year to break our cycle of envy, and when we catch ourselves coveting the blessings of others, let's make sure to count the many that we have.
On January 21, we read from the portion of Shemoth. We are introduced to Moses, who runs away from Egypt as a fugitive, and assumes the role of a shepherd. Moses needs to be convinced that he can be so much more. Yet he resists his calling and his talents, not believing in himself. God puts a staff in his hand and says, "Just do it." Moses finds his stride, and boy does he. This might be a lesson for all of us who are perfectionists or are too hard on ourselves. This year don't talk yourself out of trying for a new level of achievement, a new skill, or a new hobby. Don't settle for the familiar. Bring it on. You may fail but you have to believe in yourself and make that effort. You, like Moses, might surprise yourself with your talents if you do!