Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
This Shabbat, our Torah reading relates the unique, definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. The people (and the Midrash teaches us, every Jewish soul for all time) are gathered together in the middle of the wilderness to receive the Torah, God's most precious gift to our people.
The Torah is our foundation, it is the sacred text that establishes God's role in the world and God's relationship with our ancestors, the Israelites. The Torah preserves the core of our collective identity and provides us with infinite inspiration and guidance.
With all this in mind, I find a teaching from the early rabbinic compilation, the Mishnah (compiled by the end of the 1st century) to be perplexing:
"Rabbi Yossi says: 'be prepared to learn Torah, for it is not part of your natural inheritance . . . '" (Mishnah Avot 2:15)
Now I would have made the case that this week's Torah reading establishes for all time that the Torah is precisely, the inheritance of every generation of the Jewish people. What can Rabbi Yossi mean by his statement?
The best way to understand Rabbi Yossi's statement is to read both parts together: we need to learn Torah . . . why? because we haven't inherited it. Perhaps "inheriting Torah" in this context means inheriting qualities like our senses, intuition, intelligence, our emotional and spiritual lives.
Rabbi Yossi reinforces for us the centrality of Torah in our lives . . . Torah is as essential to our existence and character as our intelligence, our intuition, our senses and our emotional and spiritual lives. But unlike those qualities, we need to make the effort to integrate Torah into the fabric of our lives, it does not happen naturally like those other inherited qualities.
There is a beautiful tradition in which we stand as the revelation at Sinai is read from the Torah scroll each year on this Shabbat. Here is body language for acknowledging the wisdom of Rabbi Yossi's insight: we can't sit back and receive Torah passively, we need to stand, to step into revelation. We need to learn.
Parashat B'shallach Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Shabbat Shirah/Sabbath of Song
This week's parashah/Torah reading gives us the opportunity to relive one of our people's iconic moments . . . "y'tziyat mitzrayim," the Exodus from Egypt. On a daily basis, our liturgy brings us back to this moment which is the touchstone of God's love for the people of Israel. This is the moment that binds us to God for all time, for the God of Canaan "crossed international borders" in an unprecedented rescue mission to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
In the blessing we recite over wine every Friday evening, "y'tziyat mitzrayim," the Exodus, is evoked as the definitive example of God's love for Israel along with the gift of Shabbat.
This Shabbat should be a real love-fest. We should be gathered in the synagogue tonight and tomorrow morning, singing our hearts out to the God whose love brought us into existence as a people.
But it's not that easy, is it.
Some of us have a hard time feeling loved by God because of the challenges we are facing on a daily basis: illness, loss, fear. . . .
Some of us have a hard time loving God because we don't have a sense of Who we are meant to love. The imagery describing God in the prayer book and the Torah just don't connect with what goes on in our hearts and minds.
Some of us have a hard time feeling that we are part of a people. Our life experiences, our education, our background have not brought us to a place where we can walk into a synagogue and feel that we are among our own.
So, we have two choices.
We can relax into our disengagement. We can say to ourselves "that kind of passion and enthusiasm for God, for Judaism and for Jews is for others, but it's not for me or my family."
Or we can step into engagement. We can each say "I am not willing to hand Judaism over to others and have others define Judaism for me. This is my tradition, my God, my people. I'm going to figure out how to own it."
One of the most vibrant verses in this week's Torah reading is:
זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ "ze eili vanveihu, elohei avi v'arommenhu."
"This is my God and I will praise Him, the God of my father and I will raise Him up."
It is the layers of the connection that make this so compelling. The Israelite, redeemed from slavery, spared the drowning waters of the Sea of Reeds, not only feels that this is the personal, redeeming God, but is also the God of collective, inherited experience.
When we come together during this Shabbat Shirah . . . Sabbath of Song (referencing this Song at the Sea sung by the relieved, redeemed Israelites) we have the opportunity to reject disengagement and reach for that which is ours: our personal God who is also the God of our rightful heritage as Jews.
Parashat Vaera Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2-9:35
If I were to write a subtitle for this week's parashah / Torah reading, it would be: "This Isn't as Easy as It Looks."
We are familiar with the phenomenon of Moses's self-doubt: Three chapters ago, at the iconic moment at the burning bush, God described the mission that will shape the rest of Moses's life. Moses's immediate response was: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out the children of Israel from Egypt?" (Sh'mot/Exodus 3:11)
God's response is: "I will be with you." In other words, "don't worry, you've got the ultimate team leader to guide you, to inspire you. I've got your back."
And off Moses goes, back to Egypt.
At the opening of this week's Torah reading, God presents Moses with his first script. Tell the Israelites: "I am Adonay. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob . . . and I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan . . . and I shall take you to Me as a people, and I shall become your God, and you'll know that I am Adonay, your God, who is bringing you out from under Egypt's burdens. . . . " (6:3,4,7)
Do you know what happens when Moses delivers the message?
"...they did not listen to Moses. . ." (6:9) And although you'd think God would have followed the conversation, Moses reports back: Here, the children of Israel didn't listen to me, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?!" (6:12)
And sure enough, armed with a repertoire of wonders, besting Pharaoh's magicians trick for trick, Moses and Aaron present God's message:
"And Pharaoh's heart was strong, and he did not listen to them--as Adonay had spoken." (7:13)
In preparing Moses, and Aaron, for their leadership roles in this enterprise of extracting the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God has prepared the brothers for Pharaoh's resistance.
But, from the evidence of the text itself it seems as though the Israelite resistance to God's message is a surprise. We might assume that a bona fide message by a hand-picked messenger would carry a lot of weight. That has to be the ultimate confidence-booster for the person delivering the message. And yet, neither the Israelites, nor Pharaoh, listen to Moses.
Credibility is a tremendous issue when it comes to leadership. This week's Torah reading sheds light on a number of issues relating to leaders, their message and who listens to them.
We come to understand that even a human being armed with the greatest truth in the world feels self-doubt when the moment of standing in the spotlight arrives.
We come to understand that it is crucial to understand the reality of the people who are meant to take in the message.
We come to understand that it is much easier to dismiss a not-readily understood message than to stretch to understand it.
There should have been no greater natural alliance than that of Moses and the Israelites, joined together by their relationship to the God of their ancestors and bound to each other by the goal of leaving Egyptian slavery behind them.
Moses and God missed one crucial step: taking the time to build trust. God has a history with this people: "I am Adonay. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob . . . and I established My covenant with them, to give them the Land of Canaan . . . " but this generation does not know God the way Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did. Moses has no history with this people: he was removed from this community at birth and reappears to them speaking like an Egyptian noble. With 20/20 hindsight, it is easy for us to posit the missing step . . . taking time to build experiences together, learning to speak the same language, building a collective history.
Moses and God might have felt that they didn't have the luxury of time to build that trust . . . there was a small window of opportunity to get the plagues delivered and to redeem the people. The course of events would, of course, prove that Moses was a credible leader and the truth he delivered was indeed God's truth.
Those of us who react to a new message by shutting out the message . . . and the messenger . . . might look with some humility at our Israelite ancestors and choose to allow for the possibility that we are being delivered of a truth we had never considered before.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.