A Different Moses Emerges for All Time Parshat Ki Tisa

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiWhat is the significance of the dazzling radiance of Moses’ face and why did it not attain this shining glow until he received the Second Tablets on Yom Kippur? And, perhaps the most difficult question of all, why did Moses break the first tablets?

Yes, he was bitterly disappointed, perhaps even angry, at the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf only 40 days after God’s first revelation on Shavuot; however, these tablets were “the work of God and they were the writing of God.” How could the holiest human being take the holiest object on earth and smash it to smithereens? Was he not adding to Israel’s sin, pouring salt on the wounds of the Almighty (as it were)?

My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, taught that Moses emerges from our portion of Ki Tisa not only as the greatest prophet of the generations, but also as the exalted rebbe of klal yisrael, all of Israel, as Moshe Rabbeinu — Moses the teacher and master of all the generations. This unique transformation of his personality took place on Yom Kippur; it is the sobriquet of rebbe, which occasions the rays of splendor that shone forth from his countenance.

The Midrash on the first verse of the Book of Leviticus, “And [God] called out to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting,” provokes a remarkable insight.

The biblical word for “called out” in this text is vayiker, a word that suggests a mere chance encounter rather than an actual summoning or calling out of the Divine; indeed, our Masoretic text places a small letter alef at the end of the word. The Midrash explains that it was Moses’ modesty that insisted upon an almost accidental meeting (veyikra) rather than a direct summons.

However, when God completed the writing down of the Five Books, there was a small amount of ink left over from that small alef; the Almighty lovingly placed the surplus of sacred ink on Moses’ forehead, which accounts for the glorious splendor that  emanated from his face.

Allow me to add to this Midrash on the basis of the teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The essence of the second tablets included the Oral Law, the human input of the great Torah sages throughout the generations that had been absent from the first tablets.

Hence, Chapter 34 of our portion opens with God’s command to Moses, “Hew for yourself two stone tablets” — you, Moses, and not Me, God; the first tablets were hewn by God and the commandments were engraved by God, whereas the second tablets were hewn by the human being Moses and the commands were engraved by him. The chapter concludes: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write for yourself these words for on the basis of these words [the Oral Law, the hermeneutic principles and the interpretations of the rabbis of each generation] have I established an [eternal] covenant with Israel.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik maintains that during the 40 days from the beginning of the month of Elul to Yom Kippur, Moses relearned the 613 commandments with the many possibilities of the Oral Law; Moses’ active intellect became the “receiver” for the active intellect of the Divine, having received all of the manifold potential possibilities of the future developments of Torah throughout the generations. This is the meaning of the Talmudic adage that “Every authentic scholar (talmid vatic) who presents a novel teaching is merely recycling Torah from Sinai.”

In this manner, Moses’ personality became totally identified and intertwined with Torah, a sacred combination of the Divine words and the interpretations of Moses. Moses became a living Torah scroll, a “ministering vessel” that can never lose its sanctity.

The Beit Halevi (Rav Yosef Dov Baer Halevi Soloveitchik, the great-grandfather of my teacher) maintains that the special radiance that emanated from Moses’ countenance originated from the concentrated sanctity of Moses’ identity with the many aspects of the Oral Torah that his own generation was not yet ready to hear, but that Moses kept within himself, for later generations. Whenever the inner world of the individual is more than it appears to be on the surface, that inner radiance becomes increasingly pronounced and externally manifest. Moses’ radiant glow was Oral Torah dependent, not at all germane to the first tablets, which contained only the Written Law.

Why did Moses break the first tablets? Moses understood that there was a desperate need for a second set of tablets, born of God’s consummate love and unconditional forgiveness, with an Oral Law that would empower the nation to be God’s partners in the developing Torah. But God had threatened to destroy the nation. Moses breaks the first tablets as a message to God: Just as the tablets are considered to be “ministering vessels” that never lose their sanctity even if broken, so are the Jewish People, knesset yisrael, teachers and students of Torah, “ministering vessels,” who will never lose their sanctity, even if God attempts to break them! The Jewish nation, repositories of the oral teachings, are the heirs to the eternal sanctity of Moses their rebbe.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

The Stigma of Fame Parshat Tetzaveh

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebPeople are motivated by many things. The search for pleasure is certainly one of the great motivators of human beings. So are the search for power and the search for riches. There are also those among us who seek to be liked by others, to the extent that the search for adulation is their primary motivation in life.

Others, and this is particularly true with religious people, hope for a place in the World to Come. For them, a vision of eternity is a major motivation. Still, others devote their lives to the search for meaning, wisdom or spiritual enlightenment.

For me, while all of the motivations listed above are interesting and deserve study, there is yet another human motivation that is more noteworthy: the search for fame.

We all know individuals who are devoted, sometimes even obsessed, by their urge to become famous. For them, just to be mentioned in a newspaper article or to be glimpsed on television for a fraction of a minute is a powerful reward.

This particular motivation is hard to understand. Fame does not necessarily bring material rewards. Not every famous person is rich, nor is he powerful. Famous people are often not popular people; indeed, they
are often disliked. And there are certainly no spiritual or intellectual achievements that come with fame. Furthermore, fame is notoriously fleeting. Yesterday’s famous person often dwells in oblivion today.

Since the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we have been reading about Moses. Surely he is the most famous person in the Jewish Bible. Yet for him, fame was of no consequence whatsoever. He was not motivated
by a need to make headlines, to be immortalized for all eternity or even to be popular and well-known. He would be the last to be concerned if a weekly Torah portion did not even contain his name.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh, is the only one, since we are introduced to the newborn Moses, in which he is not mentioned by name. Tetzaveh, a Torah portion rich in all sorts of particulars and details, fails to mention Moses.

Long ago, some keen Torah scholar noted this fact and attributed it to a verse in next week’s parshah, Ki Tisa. There, we read of how Moses pleads to God to forgive the Israelites who worship the Golden Calf. He says, “If You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the book which You have written.”

“Erase me from the book!” I have no need for fame. Insightfully, this keen scholar found Tetzaveh to be the book from which Moses was indeed erased.

I suggest that Moses learned how unimportant fame is from his personal experiences with stigma. For you see, just as fame is no indication at all of the genuine worth of the famous person, so too, negative stigma does not reflect the genuine worth of the stigmatized individual.

One of the most perceptive observers of human relations was a writer named Erving Goffman. Almost 50 years ago, he authored a classic work entitled ”Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.” There, he describes the psychology of stigma and of how society assigns negative labels to people, spoiling or ruining their identities as valuable members of that society.

A person who has suffered from being stigmatized learns how meaningless the opinions are that other people have of him. Should he shed these stigmas and gain the positive opinions of others, he would know full well how meaningless those opinions are.

Moses was a stigmatized individual earlier in his life. Goffman distinguishes three different varieties of stigma, and all three were experienced by the young Moses.

The first of these conditions, Goffman termed “abominations of the body.” Physical deformities result in such a stigma. Moses had such a physical deformity; he stammered and stuttered.

The second condition, Goffman called “blemishes of individual character.” In the eyes of the world, Moses was a fugitive, a criminal on the run, who was wanted by the pharaoh for the murder of an Egyptian citizen.
Finally, the third source of stigma: “tribal identities.” Moses was a Hebrew, a member of an ostracized minority.

In contemplating what the life of Moses was like in the many decades he spent as a refugee before returning to Egypt as a redeemer, it’s clear that he suffered from a triple stigma: fugitive, stutterer, and Jew.

I suggest that one of the greatest achievements of Moses, our teacher, was his ability to retain a sense of his true identity, of his authentic self-worth, in the face of the odious epithets that were hurled at him.

This is how, in his later life, when fame and prestige became his lot, he was able to retain his self-knowledge and eschew fame. This is what enabled him to say, “Erase me from the book.” This is why he was able to not only tolerate but to value this week’s portion, where his name is not mentioned.

“The man Moses was humbler than all other humans” (Numbers 12:3). The deeper meaning of Moses’ humility was his ability to understand himself enough to remain invulnerable to the trials of stigma and insult, and to
remain equally unaffected by the temptations of glory and fame.

When we refer to Moses as rabbeinu, our teacher, it is not just because he taught us the law. Rather, it is because he told us how to remain impervious to the opinions of others and to value our own integrity and character. Would that we could be his disciples in this teaching.

Bringing Light Into Lives Parshat Terumah

This week we read from Parshat Terumah. This parshah describes the construction of the tabernacle, which is the traveling place of worship for the Israelites during their travels in the desert.

The word terumah means donation or gift. The Israelites were asked by Moshe to bring gifts for the mishkan, the tabernacle, which was the temporary place of worship. As recorded in the Book of Exodus, “Each person was expected to give as much as his heart moved him.” The root of the word terumah means to elevate. By giving these donations, the Israelites are elevating themselves to a higher level in God’s eyes.

Even though the Israelites had practically no possessions, they felt strong connection to God, which is why when Moses told them to bring gold, silver and fine material, they obeyed with no resistance. The Israelites may not have known the purpose for giving the gifts, yet they did so because they felt connected to God.

I feel a strong connection to this idea of giving. Giving refers not only to material things, but also to devoting one’s time to helping others. In my own life, I have been lucky enough to help others. For me, the giving is more of a donation of time for projects, activities and volunteering.

For my bar mitzvah project, for the past year and a half I have been leading Friday night prayers at my grandmother’s assisted living facility. It is very special to me, because I am able to bring joy to those who don’t have many other people to care for them. The residents look forward to my coming and leading the Friday night prayers. I have developed special relationships with some of the residents because of their appreciation for my involvement with them.

When the Israelites brought the gifts to the Tabernacle, it was a communal effort. As part of my bar mitzvah project, I also brought my friends to help me lead the Friday night prayers, and they also had the satisfaction of knowing they performed a mitzvah. I hope I have inspired others to take part in similar events in other places.

In addition to leading the Friday night prayers, I also enjoy volunteering with children in different settings. During the Rosenbloom Religious School’s sessions, I help out with one of the second-grade classes by assisting the teacher with the activities. I feel I have bonded and started a relationship with the students.

Another volunteering opportunity involves me working with children as they learn to play tennis. Every Friday, I assist the kindergarten tennis teacher at Krieger Schechter Day School. I get to help the kids develop skills as they learn how to play the game. I love helping kids because it feels very special to me to be able to teach them.

To me, volunteering is not hard work; it is a gift because I get to bring joy to others, and this brings me personal reward.

In the mishkan, and later in the Temple, the seven-branched menorah stood for illuminating the area around it. For us, as the Jewish people, light symbolizes hope. When I meet with the young children and my grandmother and the other residents at the assisted living home, I feel that I am bringing light into their lives by teaching them and interacting with them.

Rules and Regulations Parshat Mishpatim

After the Revelation at Sinai, after the giving of the Ten Commandments, after the thunder and lightning and the mountain covered in a cloud of smoke — what could possibly come next? What could follow that spectacular event?

Rules and regulations: ordinary, mundane, everyday rules about how to live in a society.

The contrast between last week’s portion, Yitro, full of lofty principles accompanied by fireworks, and this week’s portion, Mishpatim — laws on property and damages and personal injury — is almost too extreme. One moment is filled with drama and divine majesty and the next seems like the ancient equivalent of traffic ordinances. At first glance, all those mishpatim, “rules” that Moses is instructed to set before the Israelite people, seem so ordinary, not the stuff of divine pronouncements. But upon reading them carefully, we find that they are the beginning of a legal structure that will uphold this society.

No society can live on lofty principles alone; society needs rules and standards to regulate commerce and other interactions; it needs limits to restrict baser human instincts; and it needs a system to adjudicate disputes. Mishpatim takes us down from the mountain to the presentation of laws that will guide and govern.

The laws set out are not presented systematically, but rather are arranged by analogy and association. They are not divided neatly into categories we might impose upon them. The laws come out of a context of other law codes of the ancient Near East, but they differ in source and content. In his book, “A Commentary on the Book of Exodus,” Umberto Cassuto tells us: “When we come to compare the Pentateuchal statutes with those of neighboring peoples, we must not forget … the difference in character between them: The laws of the neighboring peoples were not decreed on behalf of the gods, but on behalf of the kings; whereas the laws of the Torah were not promulgated in the name of the monarchy, nor even in the name of Moses as the leader of Israel, but are religious and ethical instructions in judicial matters ordained in the name of the God of Israel.”

Throughout the portion, there are reminders that these are not simply civil and criminal laws established by a governmental authority. For example, we find the command: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is repeated in the following chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The instruction to be empathetic is a moral lesson, not an ordinary regulation. The former slaves at Sinai could understand it easily, but it is intended as a principle for future generations as well. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has written: “The Torah itself is, in part, a book of law, presenting the Jewish conviction that the will of God is translated into action through law.”

We all want to live in a society that respects the rule of law. We do not want rules to be absent or arbitrary; we want to know the guidelines by which we and our neighbors can and should function. Some of these guidelines are large principles like the Ten Commandments, and some are rules and regulations instructing us to return lost property or make restitution for damages we caused or let the land lie fallow in the sabbatical year. We need both: the overriding principles and the day-to-day regulations. After the spectacle at Mount Sinai, we can settle down for some law and order.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Ill. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

Becoming the Best Person I Can Be Parshat Yitro

In this week’s parshah, God hands down the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people. With these laws, the group of tribes finally becomes united as a nation, establishing a covenant between themselves and God. Essentially, this is a contract: If the Jewish people follow the commandments, God will protect them and provide for them.

But the Ten Commandments are more than a contract. They form the basis for our relationship with God and teach us the basics for how to maintain good relationships with other people. The mitzvot are often divided into two categories. There are mitzvot that are bein adam l’makom, which deal with our relationship with God; and there are mitzvot that are bein adam l’chavero, which have to do with how we treat our fellow man.

The first two of the Ten Commandments set the tone: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: You shall have
no other gods besides Me.” This is the foundation on which the covenant is built. This commandment recognizes God’s authority as the one and only God. It also reminds us of the historical moment when God saved us from slavery and we began the journey toward nationhood and the Promised Land. That experience of the Exodus marked and defined the bond between God and all of the Jewish people forever more.

The covenant, as described in the Ten Commandments, goes on to reassure us that God will show “kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” God’s infinite kindness, His chesed, also serves as a model for how we should act toward each other. We should be honest and fair and respect another person’s possessions. We should treat others with dignity. We should honor our parents.

I am very happy that this is my parshah, because I immediately thought of my mom. I thought of her, because she also sets rules for me to follow and she protects me. Her rules, just like the mitzvot, are meant to guide and teach me throughout my life how to be a good person and to make a positive contribution to my community.

Becoming a bar mitzvah means that I am old enough to understand the obligations of the mitzvot and that I am mature enough to follow them. I am now responsible for my own actions, for making wise choices and to know right from wrong. While I still have a lot of growing to do, I am mature enough to be able to consider the needs and feelings of other people. I am also old enough to better understand what God wants of me. I have new responsibilities, such as fasting and wearing tefillin. By living my life according to the laws of Torah, I have a better chance of becoming the best possible person I can be.

A Model of Jewish Leadership Parshat Beshallach

This Shabbat we read Parshat Beshallach and the “Song of Devorah” from the Book of Judges. The haftarah focuses on Devorah, a prophet and judge, and Barak, a general. They lead the Jews in a battle against the Canaanites.

Devorah asks Barak to gather 10,000 men and go up to Mount Tabor and fight the Canaanites. However, Barak will do this only if Dvorah comes with him. At the time, asking a woman to help lead an army was not the typical thing to do. This shows how inspirational and how important a leader Devorah was to the Jewish people.

The Jews were victorious in their battle, and they celebrate with a song led by Devorah. The song praises God and thanks Him for the victory, because they couldn’t have done it without God’s help.

This song is also the connection between the haftarah and the Torah portion, since it describes how Moshe and Miriam also lead the Jewish people in song and dance after they cross the Red Sea and escape from Pharaoh and his army. In both songs, we rejoice at our victory. From the text, we learn that we are not celebrating the defeat of our enemies, but we are rejoicing in the victory that we accomplish.

This behavior is something that we should emulate throughout our lives. For example, in school, we do not brag about the grades that we get on tests, because even if we are very happy with our grades, our classmates may not be happy with theirs, and we do not want to rejoice in someone else’s disappointment. Similarly, on the sports field, if we win a game, we don’t want to say anything denigrating to our opponents, but rather we should celebrate our own successes.

Devorah was a leader, a mother to the nation. She is one of my role models. Devorah is one of only a few women prophets, a messenger of God and the only woman judge in the Torah. God chose her to be a judge and to be a prophet from among many other people in part because of her serious devotion to Judaism. Before the battle, there was a time when the Jews prayed to idols and did not follow God’s commandments, but Devorah did not buckle underneath peer pressure. Rather, she stayed true to her beliefs and kept practicing Judaism.

I also feel dedicated to Judaism. I am fortunate to be able to attend a Jewish day school, celebrate all the Jewish holidays with my family, live in a kosher home, go to a great shul and be a part of a very special Jewish community. As I move to the next
period of my life, I hope to take on the roles of being a leader at school, at camp and in my community, just as Devorah did when she became the leader of the Israelites.

Devorah teaches us with her victory that we can do anything we put our minds to and succeed if we try hard enough. As I become a bat mitzvah, I am officially taking on the
responsibility that comes with being a Jewish adult.

Part of this responsibility is to be a leader and a role model for the Jewish people, which began with my bat mitzvah project. Like Miriam and Devorah, I love music. I arranged to play the guitar and sing at the Weinberg Center on Sunday nights during dinner, hopefully bringing some joy to the Weinberg residents. I hope to follow in the footsteps of Devorah and strive to set a good example in school, camp, athletics and extracurricular activities.

Can You Be Free and Torah-Observant?

Moses told Pharaoh that the G-d of the Jews said: “Let My people go, and they will worship Me.” While the Torah narrative is often portrayed as us leaving the bondage of Egypt to be free to do whatever we want, the truth is that the Torah asserts that “My people” were let go so that they “will worship Me.” We see this mentioned again in Leviticus 25:55: “For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your G-d.”

The Jewish people did not become free to do what they wanted but to a new type of servitude, namely the service of one G-d and the founding of the first monotheistic religion. Judaism does not consider it a value that people can do whatever they want. Jewish values advance the belief that every person has a mission to add G-dliness into the world. The Jew is charged with the mission to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6) by observing Torah and mitzvot, and the gentile is charged to create a just world by observing the seven Noahide laws given to all mankind by G-d. Every person should live a life of service, one that is purposeful and mission oriented.

It is when your life revolves around a G-d-focused purpose that you are free to be you and true to your core self. In the words of the Mishna (Avot 6:2), quoting Exodus 32:16, “‘And the tablets are the work of G-d, and the writing is G-d’s writing, engraved on the tablets.’ Read not ‘engraved’ (charut), but ‘liberty’ (chairut), for there is no free individual, except for him who occupies himself with Torah.”

We are accustomed to freedom meaning something similar to being free from an outside power over us, be that a Pharaoh or a G-d, free to give in to our instincts and free to do whatever we want without judgment. However, if that is how freedom is defined, America is no longer the land of the free once law and order are implemented. Anyone who follows the laws of the land in which they live is not truly free to do what they want, as some of what they want to do may not be legal.

Even the “free spirits” are limited. For example, an artist is limited by the size of the canvas, colors of the paints, brush sizes, paint texture and the need to practice.

If freedom is not freedom from an outside power, then it must be something else. Freedom means the ability to make a choice, to weigh the options and, based on the pros and cons, decide which way to go. In America, I am free to choose whether or not to steal. If I choose to steal,
I may suffer the consequences of the law, but that is my decision.

In the deepest sense, it is the ability to choose without being affected by our own self-destructive or negative instincts. Freedom is the ability to say yes and to say no to ourselves.

Some may ask where individuality is if we all practice the same laws.

The Torah and mitzvot are like the artists’ paints and canvas. The same colors of paint and the same size canvas can produce very different pictures. The same practicing of Torah and mitzvot can paint very different pictures, depending on whether the person is more academic, expressive or action focused. We will have similarities while maintaining our uniqueness.

As Herman Wouk writes in his book, “This is My G-d,” when talking about an encounter where a young girl was expressing her opinion that religion was all about conformity: “The burden of her tale was that Judaism meant ritualism and ritualism meant conformity, which was a great evil. The interesting thing was that my charming enlightener was dressed in garb as ceremonious as a bishop’s, from the correct wrinkles in her sweater sleeves to the prescribed smudge on her saddle shoes, and spoke her piece for autonomy in a vocabulary of the teens as rigid, as circumscribed and marked in intonation as any litany. Her gestures, her haircut, her paint were wholly stylized. … But this is all inevitable — there is nothing whatever wrong with it — human life cannot be formless. … We live by patterns, we move in comradeships, the sensible thing to do is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that — at least today — he will seem a mighty freakish nonconformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency and without fear, in the way that best honors one’s intelligence and one’s birth.”

Plagued by the Plagues

This week’s Torah portion  has always troubled me. The plagues, with their collective punishment caused by the sins of Pharaoh, always seemed unnecessarily cruel to the Egyptian people. Perhaps some of the Egyptians were complicit in Pharaoh’s enslavement scheme, but we can assume that the ordinary people were not. It is they who suffered the most from the plagues that upset the natural order and ruined their water, their crops, their skin, their general comfort and well-being.

These days, when we retell the story of the Exodus at our Passover Seder, our treatment of the plagues often ignores their seriousness. We sing silly songs about frogs in Pharaoh’s bed to entertain the children, and many use props and toys to imitate the strange use of natural phenomena for supernatural punishment. We are not the first to make light of the plagues, especially the plague of frogs. They are strange looking creatures and seem to invite levity.

Exodus 8:2 reads: “Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt.” There is a problem, however, with this translation. In the Hebrew text, the word for frog is in the singular: hatzfardeia, not the plural  hatzfardiim, as is used for the rest of the narrative. It literally says, “The  frog  came up and covered the land
of Egypt.”

Our sages found meaning in every variation in the text and did not ignore this one. Rabbi Akiva commented, “There was one frog, and it filled all the land of Egypt.” Imagine one giant, Godzilla-like frog, coming up out of the water and filling the entire land! Even though he lived at a time when people believed in dragons and sea monsters and mythological creatures, Akiva clearly saw the humor in his literal interpretation of the singular noun. Perhaps at the same time he was
suggesting that while the Egyptian magicians could also create frogs, only God could create this enormous monster,  the Frog that Covered Egypt!

Kidding aside, the plagues are still problematic. As we examine the story of the plagues, we come to my other major difficulty with this  parshah: the repeated assertion that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God announces this intention before Moses even goes to Pharaoh, saying to Moses, “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Eternal, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.”

Each plague brings more suffering, and every time we see Pharaoh about to give in and let the Israelites go, he changes his mind, ostensibly as God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” and prevents him from exercising whatever kernel of mercy he may have had inside of him. One cannot help but ask why: Why more plagues? Why not let Pharaoh relent early and avoid more suffering for the people? The reason stated in the text is so that God’s power may be known to the Egyptians.

The rabbis taught that Pharaoh was so wicked that he needed greater demonstrations of God’s power before he understood the consequences. After the plague of frogs, Pharaoh indicated to Moses and Aaron that if the plague was lifted he would let the people go. “But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn (literally, ‘he hardened his heart’) and would not heed them, as the Eternal had spoken” (Exodus 8:11). The Midrash tells us: “This is the way of the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their perversity.”

This interpretation assumes that Pharaoh acted with free will, that he made his own decisions to continue the enslavement. But God told Moses from the beginning that divine power would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Can we hold Pharaoh responsible for refusing to let the people go if God caused him to act that way? Far be it from me to defend Pharaoh, but he is in an impossible situation. He is
destined to play out this drama and pay an enormous price for his stubbornness.

We read this epic story of our liberation and we are left with gnawing questions. It would be much easier to tell the story in black and white, with clear good guys and bad guys, and no ambivalence. If God was going to liberate the Israelites with “signs and marvels,” did it have to be at the expense of others? The “extraordinary chastisements” fell upon the innocent Egyptians as well as the guilty. We can rationalize that they were all paying the price for benefiting from centuries of slavery, or we can simply accept that our present-day ideas of fairness may not work in hindsight. There are no easy answers. Every good story has layers of meaning. The questions and the struggle are all part of the process of wrestling with our sacred text.

Sleepless Nights, Enlightened Days

112114_jewishview-Rabbi-WeinrebCan you sleep at night? There is so much trouble in the world. Violence, wars large and small, natural disasters, disease. We all personally know many who are suffering at this very moment. Some are friends and acquaintances living in plain sight. Others are individuals in
the media, people whose pain we see portrayed daily on the evening news.

It is perfectly understandable to be unable to sleep at night. Yet, most of us do manage to sleep quite well. We all have developed a repertoire of defense mechanisms designed to enable us to keep these troubles from our consciousness. We have compartments in our minds into which we can deposit the suffering of others, somehow sealed and kept from immediate awareness.

But there are those among us who cannot sleep, for the pain of others keeps them awake. Their empathy is so great that the suffering of others is their own suffering and cannot be compartmentalized or even temporarily forgotten.

Indeed, rather than try to shield themselves from others’ travails, they seek out those others in order to witness their suffering. They do not stop with mere observation and compassion but actively attempt to alleviate the suffering they witness.

Such a person was Moses, to whom we are introduced in this week’s Torah portion.

Moses was raised in the very lap of luxury. He was reared as a prince in a royal palace, his foster mother the daughter of Pharaoh himself. He grew up in a protected environment in which he was able to remain unaware of, and could certainly ignore, the plight of his enslaved brothers.

But he chose to do otherwise. The very first self-initiated action of which we read in the account of Moses’ life is his inquiry into the condition of his enslaved kinsfolk: “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his brothers and witnessed their labors.” He did not have to go out; he could have remained in his protected royal quarters. He did not have to “witness.” He could have shut his eyes or used any of the methods we use to shield ourselves against seeing what we do not want to see.

But that was not Moses. In Rashi’s poignant phrase, “He gave over his eyes and his heart to suffer along with them.” He could not sleep.

We often wonder about what qualified Moses for the leadership role he was destined to attain. For that matter, more generally, we speculate as to what qualifies anyone for leadership.

Theories of the elements of good leadership abound. Stephen Covey has written a book on this very subject entitled “The Eighth Habit.” In it he offers a chart, briefly summarizing no less than 20 such theories, with a list of hundreds of books on the topic.

The “great man” theory contends that leaders are born to leadership because of their innate gifts. But Moses had innate handicaps that included a speech defect.

Other theories stress the motivations of leaders to lead. Moses insistently and consistently shunned the leadership role.

Still other theories stress the powers of persuasion and the gift of popularity. Neither characterized Moses. He had no apparent charisma, no formal leadership training, no career aspirations and no special vision other than the one shown to him by God.

Of all the theories on Covey’s comprehensive list, one seems to fit: the theory of “servant leadership,” a theory that implies that leaders primarily lead by serving others. The primary characteristics of such a leader include listening and empathy. These were demonstrated by Moses in his very first venture out of the royal palace.

The characteristics of such leadership also include a commitment to others’ growth. Moses’ leadership can be seen as a life-long process of commitment to others’ growth: to their freedom from slavery, to their spiritual conditions, to their ordinary needs and to their moral and ethical education.

Some of us strive to be leaders. Most of us are content to leave leadership to others yet strive to know God, to know our own souls and to benefit others in some small way.

The lesson of the life of Moses is that both the grand leadership that some of us seek and the more modest goals of all who are spiritually motivated can be achieved by “going out to our brothers and witnessing their condition.” It may cost us sleepless nights, but it will bring us enlightened days.

How Shall We Bless Those Who Come After Us?

According to Jewish tradition, on the eve of Shabbat and holidays, before reciting Kiddush, parents bless their children.

You can find these blessings in your siddur. There you will see that sons are blessed with these words: “May God inspire you to live like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Rashi teaches that the blessing for boys is based on Genesis 48:20 in this week’s parshah, when Jacob blesses his grandsons, the sons of Joseph.

There is no equivalent blessing for daughters in the Torah. But there is a blessing in the Book of Ruth that comes close: “May God make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel.” And so in many Jewish homes today, one or both parents offer this blessing to their daughters: “May God inspire you to live like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”

I remember the first time that I witnessed this ceremony. When we were graduate students in Israel, my wife, Terry, and I were invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of dear friends in Tel Aviv. I was spellbound as the father placed his hands on the heads of his children and spoke those blessings. At that moment, I felt a profound connection to my Jewish past and future, and to my family. I promised myself in that dining room that if we were fortunate enough to have our own children, I would offer those blessings to our offspring.

Beyond my own family, the most powerful moment that I have experienced with these blessings was in 1983 when Terry and I sat in the Moscow apartment of Itzik Kogan, one of the leaders of the refusenik movement in the former Soviet Union. We had flown to there to bring support to the women, men and children who were demanding the right to emigrate to Israel in order to lead full Jewish lives. Itzik placed his hands upon the heads of his children and offered roughly the same blessing as Jacob had pronounced. As he did so, this father was saying, in effect: “We will make whatever sacrifices we must in order to live freely
as Jews. We are determined that our children will live proudly in the Jewish state.”

Itzik never knew when the KGB, the Soviet secret police, might knock on his door and take him away for interrogation, or worse. The threat we face in North America is not such a knock on the door. But we do confront the real possibility that our children and grandchildren will not be Jewish.

If we want there to be Jews in North America a hundred years from now, we need to do everything we can to make Judaism joyful and relevant. One great way to do that is to place our hands on the heads of our children and grandchildren. With this blessing, we ask God to inspire them to perform acts of tikkun olam, and to experience the joy that flows from Shabbat and the wisdom that streams from study of Torah.

You don’t have to be a rabbi or a cantor to offer a blessing. You do it when you say the blessing over bread or over candles. You can make up your own blessing. But most of us probably don’t do it often enough, or at all, because we feel self-conscious or uncertain about what it means.

With his blessing, Jacob asked God to help him do what he could not do by himself. At the Shabbat table, we cannot take God’s place, but neither can God take the place of a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. Offering a blessing is an opportunity to be in a covenantal partnership with God.

Rabbi Laura Geller asks why we bless our sons in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh? Perhaps, she says, “because these are the first two siblings in the Bible who do not fight. With Ephraim and Manasseh, the family pathology that unfolds in the Book of Genesis, in which siblings struggle with each other, finally comes to an end. They teach us that we do not have to fight over blessings: There are enough of them to go around.”

That’s quite a nice thing to remember about those two fellows. What do we want our lives to teach those who come after us? After we have passed on, when those who knew us and loved us invoke our name, how would we like to be remembered? What values of ours do we hope will be passed down to the next generation? What are the things we have done that we hope will live on in the lives of those who follow us? What will be our immortality?

I wish for you the blessing of being part of a synagogue and Jewish community where we strengthen each other and the world around us.