Beshalach

January 10, 2014 § Leave a 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.

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.” (JPS translation)

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 yourself worthy of it.

Va’era

December 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.

So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!

What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.

The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’

Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.

In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.

Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?

How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?

We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.

But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?

Consider the possible implications:

It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?

Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”[1]

In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.

But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?

In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.

Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.

So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.


[1] As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.

 

Miketz

November 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, in fact, he is second only to Pharaoh.

If he wanted to, he could have them imprisoned — or killed. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. Do they miss him? Do they ever think of him? Do they ever wish that they had acted better?

After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, sobbing. This process of testing proves to be difficult for him, and emotionally wearing on him. Reconciliation is what he really wants.

As part of his weepy speech, Joseph also says something rather problematic, from a theological perspective. It’s not obviously bad, and, frankly, it’s a pretty common theology. He tells them: ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth.’ 

This kind of theology can wound you. What happens if it does not seem like God has a plan for you? What happens if you face a tragedy that makes you re-think all those carefully constructed ideas? 

That is to say: it very well could be true that God has sent each of us to do a specific set of things. It could be that we are here for a specific reason. It is in fact quite comforting to think that God has plans for us.

The difficulty, however, is when that kind of theology breaks down: what happens when life itself is breathtakingly cruel? What happens when we find we just cannot make sense of it? How, then, do we put ourselves back together in the wake of an unimaginable loss, a great catastrophes, or an overwhelming defeat?

That is to say: the rationalizations might fail us. The narrative might become impossible.

Then what?

Then, ideally, we might come to realize that even in its most extreme situations, even at the worst times, even when the world does not work the way we think it should, our life — the individual life of each and every one of us — matters. Even then.

 

 

Vayeshev

November 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Joseph the dreamer tells his brothers all of his dreams. All of the sheaves will bow down to his. All of the stars will bow down to his. He will be the ruler of them all. And his brothers hate him when he tells them these things.

Why do they hate him? Because they know that the dreams are true. He is the kind of kid who can be dropped in the middle of a pit in an open field and end up second in command of all of Egypt. He is beautiful, charismatic, and smart. And they hate him for it.

But there is a harder question to answer here: What about his father? Joseph’s father Jacob clearly bears some of the responsibility for what happens to Joseph at the hands of his brothers. The father buys him an ornamented coat and makes his favoritism clear. And when the brothers complain about Joseph, their father ‘keeps the matter in mind’ but does not intervene. Rather, he sends Joseph out in this elaborate coat in search of his brothers. Why does he send the immature and entitled Joseph to search for his brothers? Perhaps he thought that they might teach him a thing or two? Perhaps he thought that Joseph would return after an unsuccessful search?

Joseph finds them yet does not return. And his father fears the worst: he does not send a search party, but grieves straightaway. It does appear that he believes the story that Joseph is dead — but it seems to me that he does not believe the story of a wild beast. Wouldn’t they want to follow the trail of blood to find him? After all, maybe Joseph survived the attack and is still alive? And shouldn’t they be able to tell him — at minimum — what kind of beast it was? Any question about ‘what kind of animal tracks did you see?’ is met with confusion and deceit.

Rather, it seems likely to me that Jacob suspects that the brothers did it: they return to him carrying a bloodied coat and exhibiting a weird tension among them. Something has happened — and no one is talking about it.

That’s why — later in the narrative — Jacob initially refuses to let them take Benjamin with them when they return to Egypt. He fears their jealousy: he believes that they are jealous of the sons of his favored wife. He has lost one and does not want to lose the other.

Joseph eventually finds a way to forgive them. Joseph is a model of family reconciliation. But their father, in his final speech, makes it clear that he does not.

Yet does he not also bear some of the responsibility as well?

Perhaps that is why he cannot forgive them: he cannot forgive himself.

 

More than a story about God

December 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Whenever there is a catastrophe, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ I would wish, sometimes, that my fellow-clergy were less confident of interpreting God’s will as a sound-bite for the media.

It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also the position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being, a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, would all stay clear of us if we were to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

In that case, God plays the role of symbolic placeholder in our prayers. A placeholder the same sense that a ‘zero’ is a placeholder: it holds the space open but is not filled with real content.

Why should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God? Why should we care about theology, especially at a time like this?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues. Some of it was his own doing: by all accounts, he was one seriously annoying kid. But his brothers’ reaction was well out of proportion to the reality.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh.

He could have them killed, of course, or imprisoned. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, weeping:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’”

So, when Joseph says, ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth,’ I always wonder, how does he know? This is Torah, of course, so of course he knows. But if he were your brother or neighbor, would you not wonder: how does he know?

Perhaps he cannot prove it one way or another, but his optimism seems to be a useful choice.

But there’s still a problem here: we are still left with that canard, ‘it was God’s will.’ If we accept that the good things that happen are God’s will, do we not have to accept the bad as well? Otherwise, we start creating a dualism in God: this part is the ‘good’ god and this part is the ‘bad’ god.

So let’s return to the Joseph story: as it happens, his understanding of God changes as he grows older, and his theology improves.

In next week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years later. And we see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust. After their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. He is, after all, still that powerful. And did he not test them before they reunited? They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

And what is Joseph’s reaction?

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.

This is a more nuanced theology than what we saw earlier. 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 it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

So, ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in, one in which these things do happen, or one in which they do not? Ask yourself: do we know the reasons why such things occur? Ask yourself: is there something we can do about it?

I will leave it to you to decide whether more or less guns are needed, whether better access to mental health care is needed, whether first-person games like ‘Call of Duty’ create obsessive fantasies or not. Those are social and political questions; they have entered our national debate, as well they should.

Rather, I am here to talk about theology.

Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations. Should these things happen or not?

Theology defines what is possible in your life: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

A world where these things happen, or a world in which we have the obligation to see to it that they do not.

What we do not need at this juncture is bad theology.

We do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. We do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook.

Rather, if we respond by making it a world where these things do not happen, then we might be able to say: what he had intended for evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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