Friday, January 17, 2014


Parsha Yitro is known for having the first mention of the 10 commandments in the Torah.  But the parsha opens with an interesting story.  Yitro, Moses' father-in-law, seeks out Moses and the Israelites after the miraculous stories of what happened in Mitzraim.  Yitro comes and acknowledges the power of the God of Moses as truly the greatest God, and even sacrifices to that God.  Now remember Yitro was a priest of Midian.  He had his own gods but came to worship the God that took the Israelites out of Mitzraim.  This story is often lost in the dense discussion in this parsha that immediately has Yitro as a wise advisor to Moses helping him set up judges to deal with the day-to-day problems of the people.  Then later the foundational story of the giving of the 10 commandments.

However the Yitro story interests me in terms of how the people in the time of the stories of the Torah viewed the gods of others.  Here we have a priest of his people, visiting his foreign son-in-law to give honor to his son-in-law's god, even proclaim that god as the greatest of all, then leaves to continue to worship the gods of Midian.  Recognizing the others' God does not take away from the connection one has to their own.  Even the God of the Torah recognizes the existence of other Gods in the ancient world among the people the Israelites encounter.  In fact referencing to not be seduced by them in the very 10 commandments.

This could be a lesson on how we should approach interfaith (multifaith) action in our lives.  Yitro in this story not only respects the God of Israel but acknowledges the power of the God, yet goes back to his own faith community.  This was typical in the ancient world.  Peoples often adopted the worship of a God of their conquerers, in part, because the idea that if you lose in battle your Gods were also defeated. But with Yitro this was different.  The Midianites were not the target of the plagues, but Yitro still found reason to acknowledge the power of Adonai, the God of Israel.

Today, most of us don't see our relationship with God in the same way.  Our successes and failures as a people, faith community, or nation are not seen as the result of the power of our God.  (though there is no doubt the some do).  Our faith is also not predicated on the idea that our God is in charge of all action.  Unlike people in Yitro's time, God's place in our world is deeper.   Yitro, as many in the Bible, acknowledge the Gods of other people as valid ways of worship.  It leads us to think about the neighbors we have that worship differently from ourselves today.  We can respect how our friends who are not Jewish or even not our branch of Judaism access God.  God is not a small thing that can be placed into a box.  God transcends religion, and while I don't think we have to believe the stories and concepts of another faith tradition we should be able to understand that it is part of who they are that leads them to how find God in their lives.  There was a episode of the Simpsons were Homer created a religion and asked Moe, the bartender, to join.  Moe quipped, "I was born a snakehandler and I will die a snakehandler".  A joke, but one that reflects how many people feel.  Their religion is a personal thing a gift of family and a legacy.  It binds us to a community and it is part of who we are.

For Jews, we are a people with a relationship with the concept of God in our daily lives.  Rabbi Brad Artson has said "knowledge of God is a private affair. Living in the presence of God, however, is the proper business of Judaism and the living community of the Jewish People. It is that cornerstone of Jewish living, our brit (covenant) with God that commands the attention of the sages of every period of history, and it is that realm which deserves our energies today as well. "  This works for us and does not diminish the power of God in the lives of others.  We can tend our own garden and still admire the fruits of our neighbors.  That is what Yitro does and that is what true multi-faith respect and dignity demands.  So when we experience another faith tradition, we can find it beautiful and valued without having to give up our own connection to our God concept.

Yitro can guide us, and I think there is one real thing anyone who reads the story can agree on, Yitro was a wise man and not a bad role model.  He even taught Moshe Rabbeinu a few things.

Friday, January 10, 2014


 This week's Torah portion is an exciting one as the Children of Israel finally cross the Sea of Reeds and leave slavery for peoplehood.  Moses and Miriam lead the people in song and dance and thus this week is also called Shabbat Shirah.  But for me this story focuses on a character from our tradition who gives us much to think about.  Serach bat Asher, a woman who's name is mentioned as having gone into to Egypt with Jacob and also who came out of Egypt with Moses.  Now you could easily think that it was two women with the same names but the Torah tends not to have a whole lot of coincidences.  In fact of 54 grandchildren of Jacob mentioned as entering Mitzraim, she is the only daughter.  This is a pointer in the Torah to pay attention to her.  And so she has a special place for the rabbis as her first mention and her second mention are 210 years apart.  That is some longevity.  

The Midrash truly illuminate Serach's role in the life of the Jewish people.   The most well known of the midrashim about her tells of how she was the first to inform Jacob that his son Joseph was still alive. Fearing that the news will be too much of a shock for the old man, however, she informs Jacob by playing a harp for him, gently mixing in the words that Joseph is “alive and the ruler of all Egypt.” In return, Jacob blesses her, saying “May you live forever and never die.” So she seems to live out her life without death taking her.  One of the stories tells that when Moses and the Children of Israel are ready to leave Mitzraim she remembers the promise to Joseph that his bones will go back to the land of his ancestors.  Serach shows Moses where the coffin of Joseph was put in the Nile and is with him as he brings it out and collects the bones.    Later, in the time of King David in the Second book of Samuel, Serach was "the wise woman" who caused the death of Sheba ben Bichri who had rebelled against King David.  She saved her city by convincing the people to throw his head over the wall to appease those seeking to end the rebellion.  

Serach appears even later in the history of the people.  In the Talmudic period, it Serach who is walking past the house of study and hearing the debate of what the Sea of Reeds looked like when it split settles the matter.  It is said she is one of the few people who lived her life without death and entered heaven alive.  

Serach fascinates me because she is a wonderful repository of our memories.  She serves as a person who remembers where we came from when we have forgotten ourselves.  Her piety and compassion to Jacob makes her the perfect person to help those along the journey understand who we are and what we stand for in this world.  She symbolizes the importance of the past, even as we look to the future.  Serach lived through change, she was there in the time of the patriarchs, sitting at Jacob’s knee, likely knowing the stories told by her grandfather Isaac and even great-grandparents Abraham and Sarah.  She lived through the good times in Mitzraim and survived to the dark periods of slavery and death.  She communed with Moses, helping him when he led the people to freedom.  She was a voice for King David in a time of need. She lived through The Temple period and the Roman occupation.  Every major event in ancient Jewish history she was in the center of and   some even say she was with the people of Central Europe at the time of the Shoah.  Leading her into our own time period and maybe, just maybe she is still with us.  

She would be by far the oldest person to ever live.  But her long life was not just one of existence.  Her stories teach us that reaching back into our past is as important as striving to find the future.  

Life is constant motion, every day there is a new break through that allows us to do more, see more, and learn more.  We are always looking for the next big thing.  Judaism itself is struggling with our future, what will we look like in the next generation?   I believe that we are at the water’s edge of our own Sea of Reeds.   It is easier to be Jewish, at least in North America, than in any time in history.  We now have so many ways to be Jewish in the world and connect with God or a Godness that doesn’t have to be defined by a single understanding of Torah.  But those would be meaningless if we don’t remember the history of where we came.  Serach’s roles seemed to be to keep everyone honest to their past, not simply the tradition and not simply to follow the voice of their ancestors but to add to it.  When Kaplan said that the past has a vote but not a veto he seemed to me to evoke the power of Serach who can remind us where the bones are and what the children of Israel looked like when the erev rav left slavery, not sure of a future and following a sort of stranger into a wilderness.  

Today we don’t see Amalikites, Hittites and Assyrians coming over the walls of our cities.  While anti-Semitism exists it is still mostly socially unacceptable.  We can be fully in the world around us and fully Jewish.  We are at a place where young Jews are redefining Judaism for ourselves and Rabbis are writing eulogies for whole movements and the synagogue as an institution as well.  Serach is not coming to the rescue, it is up to us to remember for ourselves and to help wonder about what the future can hold.  This change is not as dramatic as many in the past, in part because unlike the slavery of Mitzraim,  Exile into Babylon, the destruction of the Temple, the Crusades, repressions, and the Shoah, we own this change more than any other.  Maybe that is why we don’t need Serach because we are not being forced out of our comfort zone we are walking with our eyes open.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that there are many things we can take from Serach as the times are changing around us.  And maybe that is enough for her to offer.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 3, 2014


In these two parshiot we are treated with one of the most famous sections of Torah and for many it is troubling.  The plagues of Mitzraim (Egypt).  The plagues are an ever increasing series of supernatural punishments visited upon the people of Mitzraim because of the failure of the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel leave.  In fact each time a plague comes there is a direct or implied promise of freedom from the Pharoah which is then dashed in the end when the plague is no longer in action.  It is only after the death of the first born does Pharaoh relent and again has second thoughts which brings one more serious supernatural punishment as he gets to watch as his entire army is swallowed into the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites crossed the split sea to freedom.

But why is it troubling?  Well at first there is the very nature of the acts.  It isn't only Pharaoh who is punished for his actions but the people as a whole.  This story that is retold with great joy every year at Pesach has a little bit of discomfort in it.  We express this discomfort when we take a drop of wine, the symbol of our joy, out of our cups at the Pesach Seder for each plague.  We understand that we lessen our joy for the sake of the suffering of the Egyptians.  This lesson is punctuated by a Midrash that tells as the army of the Pharaoh are drowning, Moses, Miriam and the children of Israel sing praises to God for their salvation.  Angels in heaven join the Israelites only to be rebuked by God who asks "How can you sing as my children are dying?"  So the complication of the plagues is something that sits awkwardly in our modern understanding of the text.  It is impossible to justify the killing of all of the first born of the Egyptians.  Some seemed nice to the Israelites, some even seemed to fear the God of Israel.  However the story is clear, they didn't escape the wrath of God and God's need to show the power of God not only to the people of Israel but to the world.  The story of the plagues and the freedom spreads across the ancient near east according to the Torah because very soon Yitro will walk onto the scene having heard these stories.  There is another take on this from the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel who says, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Citing this idea we can make the statement that the Egyptian people aren't directly responsible they stood by and let a leader like Pharaoh remain in power, leading to this end.  I am not sure I buy that but more on that later.

Another troubling aspect is the very nature of the plagues.  They are supernatural and unbelievable by many modern thinking people.  We read these stories and see them as fanciful but not true stories.  God doesn't split seas, kill children and bring forth frogs.  These miraculous notions troubled early Reconstructionist thinkers who removed the plagues from early Haggadot only to find people putting them back in because they resonant with people.  There is something about that piece of the story that we feel deep.  And that is the power of the story.  The deep feeling of drama and play and the sense of battle between two different ways of seeing the world.

This notion is lost on those who have sought to find explanations for the plagues.  Countless hours have been devoted to finding something, anything, to explain these miracles as possible.  Watching frogs emerge from the mud after a cold snap, the series of possible complications that can lead to lice, boils, cattle disease and finally death of the first born.  One such exploration went into great detail to suggest that the first born son would get the first of the grain in storage and that it must have been contaminated by the results of the locust and hail leading to a form of natural poison forming on the grain.  The apparent stretching that had to go into linking the plagues to each other was stunning but for this person the fact that they could have occurred was more important that strain credulity.   For the writers of this notion, the plagues were a lynch pin, without faith is gone.

But the plagues likely didn't happen and certainly not as they are written in the Torah.  In fact we have little evidence that Israelites were ever slaves in Mitzraim.  What we have is a powerful story of freedom and redemption that we can see as a lesson for all of us.  The Bible in general is not meant to be a book of facts. I don't think even the earliest of people who studied the text thought so either.  It is meant to be a book of lessons.  Worrying about whether God was fair to the Egpytians or that it is possible the a Sea split for a time for a troop of hundreds of thousands to walk across is irrelevant.  What is relevant to the modern reader, to us, is the timeless lessons in it all.  There will always be parts that we don't like.  We will always argue with God, but if we approach the text with an open mind and heart we can find something in it to expand our understand of ourselves, our neighbors and our world.

The plagues trouble me.  Like many times in the Torah when someone has to die for the sake of a good I can't understand I struggle.  But the struggle is what makes the text great.  The story of freedom that is so dear to the Jewish people is a powerful one, in part because of the role of God in the story.  But we can also remember the cost of our freedom.  The destruction of Mitzraim and the death of so many will live with us for a long time.  But it is good to remember our stories and digest them for the future.   Who knows what we might find.  Shabbat Shalom.