January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

What does it mean to be redeemed?

The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah. Who is like you, God, among the gods that are worshipped?

What does it mean to be redeemed?

We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”

Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.

What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?

I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’

The hardest part of redemption is learning to think of yourself as worthy of it.
As the commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “This sidra portrays the character of the ‘generation of the wilderness’. We are able to watch, for the first time, the reactions of the children of Israel suddenly redeemed from two centuries of persecution and slavery.”

And, as we discover, it is very difficult to leave that mentality behind.

It is very hard for them to see themselves in a different light, to fundamentally believe that they are worthy of receiving the kind of attention and care that is being lavished on them. If, for your entire life, your needs did not matter, then how do you understand this extraordinary redemption? And, if all of your life, the only needs of yours that mattered were the basics of nutrition, would you not focus on these very same basics?

So, not surprisingly, they do not react well. As Leibowitz continues, “what do we see? – timidity, skepticism, twisted thinking – the residue of hundreds of years of bondage and exile.”

To illustrate her point, Leibowitz focuses on the opening lines of our portion:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Instead of taking the direct route, they will spend a fully generation in the wilderness. Why is this detour necessary?

According to Leibowitz, there are several possibilities suggested in the commentaries. For example, “Rashbam [otherwise known as Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi] explains that God diverted them from the short route, since they would be immediately plunged into the hostilities with the Canaanites in the attempt to conquer the land and would prefer to return to Egypt.”

It would appear that they needed some time to catch their breath, so to speak. Better to regroup in the wilderness than face a war right after this initial redemption.

She offers another possibility: “Rambam [also known as Maimonides]… in his Guide for the Perplexed offers a rather different explanation.” According to Rambam, “Divine Providence wished to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the fight to conquer the Promised Land.” In other words, the detour was not just to catch their breath. “Had they immediately been confronted with the task of conquest,” she writes, “after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it. Man cannot suddenly be freed from persecution and slavery and then be expected to wash away the sweat and toil and fight against such enemies as the giants who populated Canaan. The tough conditions of the wilderness would serve to harden them, teach them endurance and heroism.”

They would need to learn how to defend themselves, rather than crumpling in a heap before their foe. Learning self-reliance would be a good start.

Similarly, she writes, “Ibn Ezra analyzes the character and morale of the people. It is indeed astonishing, he observes, why such a large body of six hundred thousand men should fear their pursuers. Why did they not immediately turn round and fight for their lives? In his answer, Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelites were psychologically incapable of putting up a fight against those who had been their lords and masters for centuries.” Imagine being a slave and then trying to fight your master after having been afraid of him for so many years. It is not a task easily done.

Yet the slaves did take those first, most difficult steps toward freedom. We should not underestimate how difficult it is to liberate yourself. Leibowitz points out, rightly, how hard it must have been for the Israelites to take that first step out into the desert. As she writes, “beside the pettiness and grumbling we also encounter greatness, intense faith and trust in God.”

For example, in the rabbinic literature we see the following comment: “Rabbi Eliezer said: This reflects great credit on Israel. For when Moses said unto them: ‘Arise and go forth’, they did not say: How can we go forth into the wilderness when we have no sustenance for the way?”

I am reminded here of the testimony of one of the survivors of the concentration camps, relating what it was like to have been redeemed:

“All of a sudden I saw…a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle but I’ve never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear…His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, “Does anyone here speak German or English?” and I said, “I speak German.” And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish and I didn’t know if he would know what the star means or anything…I was a little afraid to tell him that but I said to him, ‘We are Jewish, you know.’ He didn’t answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.’ I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, ‘May I see the other ladies?’ You know…[to think of how] we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn’t had a bath in years. And this creature asked for ‘the other ladies.’ And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, ‘Won’t you come with me?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and that gesture restored me to humanity. And that young American today is my husband.”

In a sense, their grumblings are an expression of their faith in God and their trust in Moses: we followed you into the wilderness because we knew that you would take care of us. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why their requests – multiple requests! – are answered. It’s true that both Moses and God appear to be irritated with the people when they engage in this behavior. And to us, safe from such deprivation, it might even seem ungrateful. But the grumbling receives a response nonetheless, because they are right; they do merit food and drink. They are worthy of sustenance. And for that reason, in this portion alone, they receive water at Marah; in the wilderness of Sin they receive quail and manna; and finally, water again at Rephidim.

Eventually this people will learn self-reliance; eventually this people will no longer look to Moses and God to provide for them. But at this moment of redemption, to merely speak their needs – whether as a request or a demand – is to acknowledge that they are worthy of being cared for. And, for someone who has just been redeemed, that is the hardest step of them all.


January 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

What does it mean to honor someone?

In our adult education course this year, we have been studying Mussar, which is a school of applied Jewish ethics. That is to say, it’s a program of study for personal improvement from a Jewish point of view, through the Mussar Institute, using Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. This week, we have been studying the soul-trait of honor, known as kavod in Hebrew.

The idea, expressed in the lesson itself, is that every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

As we discovered in our discussion, that concept causes difficulties for a lot of folks – and it does so for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with God.

How is it that we derive our value from being created in the image of God?

For me, when I interact with people, what motivates my behavior, is a deep faith. The value that each person has as a human being is directly tied to this sense that we are all creatures of God. I try to keep in the forefront of my consciousness the sense that each of us is a reflection of what is right and good in the world.

I sense it when I am holding a baby, or when I am sitting with the dying. I sense it in my day-to-day interactions with others, with my family, and in this congregation.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. Secular humanists, in fact, do precisely that. It would be false to claim that they could not possibly be doing the same kind of thing as I am trying to do in the context of my faith.

In other words, you can honor others and see their intrinsic value without dragging God into it. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

Part of the issue here, however, is a matter of words. I suspect that they key difference that separates our positions is not a fundamental difference in the way that we see the world – though there certainly are differences here – but rather, a difference in what we name ‘God.’

If you are thinking that God is wholly and exclusively synonymous with the character in the Bible with that same name, then no, it’s not necessary to drag that guy into it. You can be a moral, upstanding person without having a literal faith in God.

I have a much more abstract way of thinking about God, one that is likely to be a lot more intelligible to those who agree with the positions of secular humanism.

There is a creative force in this world, a sense of order and joyousness that pervades all reality. It’s not blind chance. But it certainly allows for variation and chance. It seems to love us, though not in the sense we would usually use that word. But there is so much more to our lives than suffering. There is a dimension to our lives that seems, in my sense of it, to transcend matter. Perhaps it is an energy, or something else entirely. But there are times when it is as close as breathing.

Every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

The second difficulty raised by this idea has to do with the question of honor itself: is every human being really worthy of honor?

What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

This particular problem was thrown into high relief by the events in Paris. We are appropriately horrified by the murder of innocents.

But to return to the question at hand: is every human being really worthy of honor?

There were those in the class groups who argued that it is possible for a person to extinguish that holy light within, so that he or she is no longer a reflection of the divine.

Others argued that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. That latter position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy.

And still others argued for a distinction: there’s honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us, it turns out, have family members who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them.

And this discussion led to a new place: the realization that honor is not the same thing as cooperation.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

It doesn’t start out like that, however. And that’s what’s so painful when things devolve: this awareness that it could have been so much more.

What makes us so filled with awe when we hold a baby is that sense of potential, that awareness that there is something here which is worthy of honor.

That we can love others, and do so selflessly, is perhaps the best argument that I have for the existence of God.

I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.

Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Where Am I?

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