Tag Archives: Pharaoh

Transmitting Tradition

This appeared in today’s (1/19) Baltimore Jewish Times –

A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next.  This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs, and their struggle, in each generation, to bring children into the world.  The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult.  And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.

That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some four hundred years after Sarah and Abraham lived.  At the beginning of Parshat Bo Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt.  Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground.  “Go, worship the Lord your God!,” he says to Moses and Aaron.  But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an after thought.  “Who are the ones to go?”  Moses’ response is clear:  “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters…!”  And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise.  “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!”  (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).

So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone.  It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment.  Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness.  But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.

Of course we know the end of the story.  As the plagues rain down Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse, men, women, and children.  In this way Moses averts yet another crises in Jewish continuity.  There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus, and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren.  Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.

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Spiritual Multitasking

While most of Baltimore gears up for the Ravens in the playoffs, true baseball fans will tell you that it is now less than 2 months before pitchers and catchers report to begin the early spring training season.  One thing that will make that start especially interesting this year is the presence of a rookie player from Japan by the name of Shohei Otani who just signed with the LA Angels.  He is the rarest of rare breeds in modern baseball – a two way threat who can both pitch and hit.  At one time in baseball, and even in other sports, it was common to have “two way players.”  But today common wisdom dictates the opposite, and that it is not possible to do two things, and to do them both extremely well.  We will see if Otani can be the exception to that rule this year in Major League Baseball.

I will confess to you long before he throws his first pitch or hits his first home run that I do not have high hopes.  There is a classic talmudic statement that Rabbi Loeb used to quote all the time – tafasta meruba lo tafasta – if you grasp too much, you end up with nothing.  It seems to me that in today’s world specializing is the key.  The problem is we have trouble remembering that, particular in an age when we talk all the time about ‘multi-tasking.’  Multi tasking means that you are doing multiple things at the same time.  A harmless, or at least relatively harmless example is talking on the phone with someone while surfing the internet at the same time.  I suspect many in the room have done exactly that at one point or another, and if so I can almost guarantee you that while doing it you’ve missed something the person on the other end of the line said.

A much more dangerous, but unfortunately probably just as common example comes from texting and driving.  Current statistics suggest that over %60 of traffic accidents today are at least in part caused by the driver using a cell phone.  %60!!  Research in the field of psychology shows that in general multitasking impairs cognitive function.  When people multitask at work production goes down.  When students multitask while studying for an exam they don’t do as well.  It seems that the human mind works best when it focuses on one thing at a time, finishes with whatever that thing is, and then goes on to the next thing.

But as a rabbi I am more in the human soul business than the human mind business, and so I wonder – does spiritual multitasking have the same kind of negative impact on our souls that cognitive multitasking has on our minds?  And I would like to spend a few minutes with you thinking about that question this morning, and to begin investigating it by looking into something that happens in the story of Joseph that we’ve been reading the last few weeks, and that finally comes to its conclusion in this morning’s portion.

You’ll remember the narrative.  Joseph has become the most powerful person in Egypt next to Pharaoh, and the famine that he predicted by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams has come to pass.  And then fate seems to come in to play.  Joseph’s brothers, who betrayed him and sold him into slavery, come looking for food for their families.  And although Joseph recognizes them, they don’t know who he is.  This is his opportunity, the moment he has been waiting for!  He has his brothers in his power, and he can take his vengeance upon them.

Of course we know the end of the story.  What happens?  Ultimately he decides to forgive his brothers, and that leads to the moving reunion with all of the kissing and hugging that is the opening of this morning’s portion.  But the decision doesn’t seem easy for Joseph, and in fact he toys with his brothers, and is quite cruel to them, before finally deciding, in the end, to let go of the past and to move forward with mercy into the future.

Commonly commentators explain Joseph’s behavior as having to do with his emotional state.  He both loves his brothers and hates them.  He wants to be merciful, but at the very same time he wants revenge.  He is trying to forgive, but he is having a difficult time letting go of his anger over what happened.  And so he wavers back and forth, sometimes acting cruelly with them, and other times being merciful and kind.  But there is a curious scene in last week’s Torah portion that might explain Jacob’s behavior in another way.  The Torah tells us that at one point, when his brothers still didn’t know who he was, Joseph served them a meal.  And here is the odd way the Torah describes that meal:  וישימו לו לבדו  – they served him – Joseph – by himself – ולהם לבדם – then they served the brothers by themselves – ולמצרים האוכלים אתו לבדם – and then the Egyptians by themselves.

Picture this scene in your mind for a moment!  There are three rooms.  In one room Joseph’s brothers are eating their meal.  In another room the Egyptians in the household are eating their meal.  And then in a room in between, Joseph sits by himself, eating his meal alone.  Because he is an important Egyptian his brothers may not eat with him.  But as powerful as he is, the Egyptians won’t eat with him either, because they know he is a Hebrew, and according to the Torah the food of the Hebrews is not acceptable to Egyptians.  So he has to eat by himself.  To use a classic Yiddish expression, Joseph is nisht a hin un nisht a her – he is neither here nor there.  He is a little bit Egyptian and a little bit Hebrew, but because he is a little bit of both – because he is a spiritual multitasker – he ends up being neither.

And I think the reason he ends up reconciling with his brothers is because he comes off of that neither here nor there fence, and he chooses to be true to his roots and to understand himself as a Jew.  What is the very first thing he says to his brothers?  אני יוסף –  I am Joseph!  This could simply be revealing his identity to his brothers, but it could also be understood as  a moment when he fully embraces his identity as a Jew.

So maybe it is no coincidence we are reading Joseph’s story every year right around the time that Christmas comes along.  It is a time of year when we Jews can feel pulled by the culture that is all around us, and conflicted in terms of how we should relate to that culture.  Research is showing that more Jews are dabbling in Christmas.  If you will, they are spiritually multitasking.   Some are exchanging presents on December 25th, some are having parties on that day, some are putting up trees in their homes and decorating them.  And as Christmas itself  becomes more and more secular it becomes more and more enticing because it gets easier and easier to say ‘it isn’t a religious thing, it is just a nice time of year.’

Joseph sets a good example for us all.  We should not be sitting on the fence, we should not be a bit of this and a bit of that.  We should not be spiritual multitaskers.  We should be Jews.  Christmas is a wonderful day for our gentile brothers and sisters, but it is their day, not ours.  Let them celebrate it and God willing find true meaning in its message of peace and hope for a better world.  But let us remember that we have our own distinct and proud religious heritage, and our own beautiful spiritual realm in which to dwell.  May we find meaning in it this weekend, and every day of our lives –

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Filed under American Jewry, assimilation, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, Bible, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

Hardening Hearts

this the text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/16/16 –

There are certain ideas in the Torah that for whatever reason seem to capture people’s attention.  They come back to these ideas again and again, struggling to understand them, learn about them, or come to terms with them.  Perhaps the most obvious example in the Torah is the binding of Isaac story.  But as compelling as that story is, and as well as we know it, I am asked more often about another idea that appears in the narrative of the Exodus.  We find it both in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and in this week’s portion, called Bo.

We are all familiar with the story.  In the process of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God brings a series of how many plagues against the Egyptians? 10!  After each plague Pharaoh is on the verge of letting the people go, fearful that another plague will soon appear.  But each time, before he acts and frees the Israelites, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened”  or “strengthened” and therefore he decided not to let the people go.

What troubles people – what people ask me about each year when we read these stories – is that it seems to be God Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  God says as much in a conversation with Moses:  ואני אקשה את לב פרעה “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)  When I study the text with people, they often ask:  “How could God do that?  Why didn’t God allow Pharaoh to let the people go after the first plague?  It almost doesn’t seem fair, and in the end, the Egyptians paid for it as much as Pharaoh himself.”  In other words, how could a just God, Who created human beings with freedom of choice, not allow Pharaoh to make his own choice, repent, and let the people go?

As is so often the case the classical commentators struggle with the same issues that we modern readers do.  They offer a variety of explanations for this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  The medieval exegete Nachmanides cites two different explanations.  The first is that some sins are so destructive they  make repentance impossible.  In this case, Pharaoh was deliberately attempting to destroy the Israelites, and so God did not see fit to grant Pharaoh the free choice enjoyed by others.  Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was a way of ensuring Pharaoh’s punishment would match his crime.

The second explanation that Nachmanides offers is based on a close textual reading.  Although we commonly think that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues, when we pay careful attention to the text we discover that through the first five plagues God does not do any “heart hardening.”  Instead, Pharaoh seems to be the cause of his own troubles.  For example, after the plague of Arov, wild beasts, the Torah tells us: ויכבד פרעה את לבו – “Pharaoh hardened his own heart.”  So the sense from the first five plagues is that Pharaoh DID have free choice;  but each time, he chose wrongly.  Then by the sixth plague, Pharaoh’s free choice is taken away, and God does indeed begin to harden his heart.

This pattern is something we have probably all seen in our own lives.  A person who makes a series of poor choices, who continues to do the wrong thing time and again by choice, will eventually find themselves in a position where they can no longer choose.  They find themselves in a place where they are boxed in by the behavior they have enacted and the choices and mistakes they have made.  This is something that can happen not only in the lives of individuals, but also in families.

My guess would be we can all probably think of a family we know that struggles with some kind of deep division.  It might be a brother not talking to another brother or sister, it might be a child estranged from a parent, and sometimes it even extends so you’ll have an entire part of a family not communicating with another part of the family.  You may remember one of my favorite scenes from the Barry Levinson film Avalon.  There are two brothers at the heart of the film, Sam and Gabrielle.  It is Thanksgiving day, and Sam and the entire extended family are seated and waiting to eat.  But the Gabrielle and his wife are late.  The family waits and waits, and finally Same tells them to cut the turkey and begin the meal.  A short time later Gabrielle arrives.  He walks in, he sees them eating, and he is outraged.  “You cut the turkey without me!”  he yells again and again, and he storms out.  It is a hysterical scene, but it also cuts to the chase, because many of us have been there.  The question is, how did we get there in the first place?

Believe it or not, all too often the answer to that question is nobody knows.  There was a sleight at some point – the turkey was cut!  And then someone storms out.  The other feels insulted – how could my brother behave that way?  And then both wait for a phone call of apology.  And wait.  And wait some more.  When it doesn’t come, they get angrier, and they begin to remember older hurts and slights which lie just under the surface.  Then they happen to bump into each other at the bank, and both turn their backs, refusing to speak or even make eye contact.  And then the next thing, and the next.  And before you know it, because of a series of choices they made, one after the other, they no longer have a choice – their hearts are hardened.  Like Pharaoh they are boxed in and they can’t get out.  And by the time they get to the rabbi’s office – which they often do – the anger is too deep, the gap too wide, and the hurt too painful for anything to change.

Some of you may remember the author Steven Covey and his best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  That book was required reading when I was at the Seminary, and truth be told I don’t remember all that much from it.  But there was a chapter about personal change, in which the following quote appears:  “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

It seems to me the message is clear.  Every choice we make is important in our lives.  Each time we choose, the impact of our decision is not only found in the present – it also potentially carries into the future.  Every poor choice sets us back and makes it harder for us to become the people we are intended by God to be.  Every wise and noble choice moves us forward, and opens up future possibilities of goodness and meaning in our lives, in our families, and in our world.

May we remember that and act upon it every day –

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