Lift Up Your Head

Parashat Bamidbar

What is the purpose of the census at the beginning of the book of Numbers, and why is so much detail placed on the encampment of the tribes of Israel around the Tabernacle?

This week’s Torah portion begins the biblical book of Numbers, named after the census taken at the beginning of the parasha.  The act of counting individuals seems quite trivial and without meaning.  In addition, the census seems to appear out of nowhere.  As such, what is the purpose of the census?  The Hebrew of the text provides an answer.  The literal translation of the phrase, “take a census – se’u et rosh” is “lift up the head.”  According to Chasidic thought, the purpose of the census was to reach out to the core of the Jewish soul.  When each person is counted, everyone is equal.  Each person counts as only one count.  No one is counted twice and nobody is skipped.  The census was meant to even the playing field and show equality and value of every single individual.  One life is not worth more than another.  Each person has purpose.

This idea of holiness is emphasized in the encampment of Israel around the Tabernacle.  The 13th Century Jewish sage, Ramban (Nachmanides), noticed clear parallels between the mitzvot surrounding the Tabernacle and the Revelation at Sinai.  As Sinai represented the place of God’s manifest presence, so too the Tabernacle represented God’s presence on earth.  And just as the people camped around the base of Mt. Sinai, so too did the tribes camp around the Tabernacle, symbolizing the centrality of God’s presence among the people of Israel.  During the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Jewish people entered into a profound covenant with God.  The symbolism between a Jewish wedding and the giving of the Torah further solidifies this understanding.

By making the Tabernacle central to the people of Israel, geographically and conceptually, it solidified the Jewish commitment to the centrality of Torah.  The centrality of Torah underscored the emphasis for the need of the Living Torah, dwelling in, through, and among the nation of Israel.  May we too recognize that same obligation to make God’s presence central to our lives, and may each of us never lose sight of our ultimate purpose.

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Mother’s Day: Giving Honor Where it’s Due

Dancing with my mom at our wedding in 2009.

Dancing with my mom at our wedding in 2009.

Today we recognizes moms …

Mother’s Day is obviously a day set aside to recognize and honor those who gave birth to us, nourished us, guided us, loved us, wiped our noses, and rubbed our backs when we were sick … it is “Yom HaEm”- the day we remember and honor our moms.

I realize some of you may not have a good relationship with your mothers, or may no longer have your mothers with you anymore (alayhen ha-shalom), but biblically, and ideally, the role of a mother is a vital and cherished role.

Judaism affords tremendous respect for the role of mothers and honoring one’s parents. For example, the Talmud teaches:

When Rabbi Yosef heard his mother enter the room he would say, “I must stand up, for the glory of God enters [with her] (Kiddushin 31a).

In another passage it states:

Rabbi Tarfon used to help his mother get in and out of bed by bending down and allowing her to use his back as a step ladder. R. Tarfon came and bragged about the honor he showed his mother at the Beit Midrash – the house of study. They said to him: ‘You have not yet reached half of the honor [that one should show his parents]’” (Kiddushin 31a)

(Nowadays, most people prefer to tell their mothers to get OFF their backs)

Not only does our tradition teach us about the honor we’re supposed to afford our mothers, but it also gives us a glimpse into the many roles a mother must play in the care of her family. I am not sure if anyone has ever noticed – but the women of the bible were hardly pushovers, or silent, dainty wallflowers – and many fundamentalists might be a little shocked at the roles women actually played in the Biblical text. The best example of this is the Woman of Valor – described in Proverbs 31, which we recite every Friday night at our Shabbat tables.

The Proverbs 31 women aptly describes the many roles mothers must perform on a daily basis – mother, wife, caretaker, investor, the one responsible for the household finances … this is a regular balebuste!

Again, according to the Talmud:

Rabbi Chelbo said:  ‘Always a man should be careful [regarding] the honor of his wife, because blessing is found in his house only because of his wife.’ (Bava Metzia 59a)

In the Bible, the imagery of mothers as nurturing providers whose sacrificial love for their children is so great is often applied to HaShem.

In Deuteronomy 32:18, for example, God chastises Israel, saying: “You have neglected the Rock who begot you, And forgot the God who gave birth to you.” This feminine imagery is even used in some of the names attributed to G0d, or concepts used in describing God, for example – El Shaddai, Shechinah, etc.

Yeshua also applies this motherly imagery to himself when beckoning to the Jewish people, calling out, “Jerusalem, Jerusale … how I have longed to gather you, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings …”

This motherly imagery is not meant to say anything about the gender of God, but rather about the character of God. That it is God who is the One who nourishes us, sustains us, comforts us, gives life to us, and loves us. And if we are supposed to be followers of HaShem, then this language should speak volumes about how we should also conduct our lives … as those who nurture, love, and comfort others. We must be those who give and speak life.

Zoo Carousel - June '13

Monique with our son.

Becoming a parent has taught me a lot about how difficult it is to be a parent, and how much honor our mothers really deserve. Not only has becoming a father given me a greater appreciation for my own mother, but it has given me a new appreciation for my wife … and what it took for her to become a mother … and how great of a mother she is to our son.

Mother’s Day is really about appreciating all the work and sacrifices the mothers in our lives make, and have made, on our behalf.

Therefore, do something special today for your mother, or for the mother of your children. Give her a call and send her flowers or a card. If your mother is no longer with us (may she rest in peace), then take a moment today to recite kaddish in her memory. You might even want to visit one of her favorite spots to recite kaddish there. If her gravesite is local, you might even want to drop by for a visit.

Lastly, consider the lessons your mother taught you. Was your mom an example of love? If so, how might you extend that love toward others? Was she an Eishet Chayil, a Woman of Valor? Then what lessons did she teach you to make you into a better YOU? Furthermore, how has your mother taught you to be self-sacrificial? There are so many lessons our mothers have taught us that we need to put into practice.

WHEN YOU CALL YOUR MOTHER TODAY (if you are able), tell her something specific that you appreciate about her, or a specific lesson you learned from her. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today! The Torah tells us to honor our fathers and mothers … and it all starts with picking up the phone.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful moms out there … we appreciate all you do!

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The Leper Scholar

Parashiot Tazria – Metzora

Our Torah portions this week discuss the malady of tzara’atI have previously discussed how tzara’at is not what we often think it is. Although it is common to understand these passages as dealing with an actual skin disease, Jewish tradition teaches that tzara’at is not leprosy at all, but a serious spiritual malady caused by Sinat Chinam – hatred without a reason.

Interestingly, there is a wealth of Jewish tradition that makes a connection between tzara’at and the Messiah.After all, the rabbis teach us that everything in the Torah concerns Mashiach. Therefore, the rabbis recognized that even within the spiritual malady of tzara’at were hidden signs of Mashiach:

This tradition of connecting tzara’at and Mashiach begins with a particular verse from last week’s parasha, in Leviticus 13:12-13:

יב וְאִם-פָּרוֹחַ תִּפְרַח הַצָּרַעַת בָּעוֹר וְכִסְּתָה הַצָּרַעַת אֵת כָּל-עוֹר הַנֶּגַע מֵרֹאשׁוֹ וְעַד-רַגְלָיו–לְכָל-מַרְאֵה עֵינֵי הַכֹּהֵן.

12 If the tzara’at breaks out all over the skin, so that, as far as the cohen can see, the person with tzara’at has sores everywhere on his body, from his head to his feet;

יג וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן וְהִנֵּה כִסְּתָה הַצָּרַעַת אֶת-כָּל-בְּשָׂרוֹ–וְטִהַר אֶת-הַנָּגַע: כֻּלּוֹ הָפַךְ לָבָן טָהוֹר הוּא.

13 then the cohen is to examine him, and if he sees that the tzara’at has covered his entire body, he is to pronounce the person with the sores as ritually pure – it has all turned white and he is clean.

Referring particularly to verse 13, the Talmud States (b. Sanhedrin 97a):

“The Son of David (Mashiach) will only come when every government becomes heretical.Rabah said, ‘Where do we see this in Scripture? From the verse “He has turned completely white, he is ritually pure.’”

Rashi further expands on this verse and notes, “Just as when the affliction has spread throughout the entire skin and the person is ritually pure, so too, when all the governments have become heretical, the redemption will come.”

Recognizing that the Messiah must be afflicted, and familiar with suffering, the rabbis went even further – and one of the ways they identified Mashiach in the Talmud is with the title, The Leper Scholar:

“The Rabbanan (rabbis) say that Mashiach’s name is The Leper Scholar of the House of Rabbi, for it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten and afflicted by G-d (b. Sanhedrin 98b).’”

The rabbis obviously recognized that this does not mean that Mashiach would literally be afflicted with tzara’at but that this was a metaphor.This connection between tzara’at and Mashiach is not unique to rabbinic literature. Rather, Yeshua himself is described in the Besorah as having compassion for the metzora (the person with tzara’at), and healing them:

“And it happened when he was in a certain city, a man covered with tzara’at saw Yeshua, and he fell on his face and implored him, saying, ‘L-rd, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’Then Yeshua put out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing, be healed.’And he commanded him to tell no one, ‘But go to the cohen and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moshe commanded (Luke 5:12-14).”

Those with tzara’at were healed, and their healings were part of the sign of his being the Mashiach. Yeshua taught that we must forgive, and not let Sinat Chinam eat away within us:

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25).

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

According to the sages, tzara’at is the physical effect of sin. It is a spiritual disease that must be kept in check. To specifically avoid tzara’at, we must avoid slander and baseless hatred. All of us have spiritual sores and wounds, which if left untreated, can fester into something much worse. That is why we must learn to forgive and let go of any kind of judgment and hatred we might have against another person. Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred will destroy us, but forgiveness and healing can set us free!

We must learn how to go before our great High Priest, Yeshua our Messiah (Hebrews 5), and let him inspect us.For through him, not only will we find healing and wholeness, but redemption as well.

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Passover, Elijah, and Shabbat HaGadol

Shabbat HaGadol

This week is Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that occurs at the beginning of the week in which Passover will be observed (Passover begins Monday evening). There are five special shabbatot leading up to Passover. Each special Shabbat has special readings that are read in addition to the weekly portion. The exception is Shabbat HaGadol. Instead of an additional reading from the Torah, Shabbat HaGadol is highlighted by only a special Haftarah reading from Malachi which concludes with the words:

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of HaShem” (Mal. 3:23).

Jewish tradition teaches us that Elijah is a messianic figure who will usher in Mashiach and the Messianic Age. This is purposely fitting at this season because Passover is our reliving and retelling of our redemption from Egypt. Both Jewish tradition and the New Testament portray Elijah as representing the coming of messianic redemption. That is why the figure of Elijah is so connected with Passover. Passover today commemorates our connection with not only our physical redemption from slavery, but our spiritual redemption as well.

The Besorah of Luke associates the personification of Elijah with John the Immerser:

“And it is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous; so as to make ready a people prepared for the L-rd” (Luke 1:17).

So John the Immerser was a partial fulfillment of this week’s special Haftarah reading from Malachi 3:23 in preparation for the incarnation and revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Yet, the role of Elijah is still not complete, for there is an expectation that Elijah himself will yet return ahead of our glorious Mashiach. This is the reason Elijah is referenced so often in Jewish tradition, especially during Passover. During the Seder there is a whole place setting (or in some homes, simply a cup) that is specifically set aside. It is left untouched in the messianic hope that each year we will open the door during our Passover festivities, and welcome in Elijah, who will in turn usher in the return of our Messiah.

Next week during the Seder, we will proclaim, “Eliyahu HaNavi … Come quickly and speedily with Messiah the Son of David.” As we sing those words this Passover, let us also remember the words associated with Shabbat HaGadol – “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the HaShem.”

May we all merit the return of Mashiach and see that day fulfilled speedily and soon!

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Humility and the Calling of HaShem

Parashat Vayikra

The very first word in the book of Leviticus is Vayikra – “He called”:

… וַיִּקְרָא אֶל-מֹשֶׁה 1 And HaShem called unto Moshe

Interestingly, the last letter of this word – the alef – is always written in a Torah scroll much smaller than all the other letters. The obvious question is, why?

G-d’s instructions to the prophet Bilaam in Numbers 23:16 begins with a similar word –   וַיִּקָּר (vayikar). The only difference is there is no alef. This word has two connotations: It can either mean ‘chance’ (mikreh) or it can also mean ‘spiritual contamination’ (as in 1 Sam. 20:26 – regarding Kings Saul & David). Therefore, the very first word in Leviticus, Vayikra, is spelled with a small alef so that it resembles the word G-d used when speaking to Bilaam.

But again … Why? What is the Torah trying to teach us?

The small alef is a lesson in humility. If you remember back to Numbers 23, Bilaam acted in arrogance. He was being paid to curse Israel, however, every time he tried, HaShem caused him to speak a blessing (for example the beautiful blessing of “Ma Tovu …”).

Moshe must be reminded that although he too hears from G-d, he must not act like the wicked Bilaam. He must act without interjecting his own ego and self-interests. There is even a tradition that it was Moshe himself – who in his humility, first wrote this word with the small alef – reminding himself not to get puffed up “like all the other letters.”

1 Corinthians 5:6-8 also speaks about being puffed up (“It takes only a little chametz to leaven a whole batch of dough”). The point is that even the smallest amount of pride, arrogance, or sin can quickly overtake everything that surrounds it.

Therefore the small letter alef in the very first word of Leviticus was meant to remind Moshe – and remind us – to be humble in following G-d’s instructions, because in the end it is not about us, or how great we think are in observing the mitzvot – but rather it is about HaShem who desires that our actions lead to holiness.

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Holy Cow!

redShabbat Parah

This week is a special Shabbat, called Shabbat Parah. It is named after the special supplemental reading, called the maftir, from Numbers 19 that describes the process for sacrificing the Red Heifer. This portion is always read before the beginning of the Jewish month of Nissan.

In biblical times, every person was required to bring a Korban Pesach, a Passover Sacrifice on the eve of Passover that was to be eaten during the Seder. However, only people who were ritually pure were able to partake of it. Therefore, right before the month of Nissan (the month in which Passover falls) a public announcement would be made that every person who had become impure must purify themselves, and be extremely careful not to become impure before Passover.

The parah aduma (red heifer) represents the quintessential chok (a divine decree without any seeming rationale). The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for purification. Through the death of a calf, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and those who served were purified and ritually cleansed to serve in the presence of G-d. The ashes were also used to purify someone who became ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

In Likutei Halachot, Rebbe Nachman explains why this special portion (Shabbat Parah) is read after Purim. In the course of our victory over Haman-Amalek, we become defiled through contact with death and evil, and need to be purified. The Sfat Emet further explains that tumat met (impurity from the dead) is a function of mortality, which entered the world as a result of the primordial sin of Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge. According to Rabbi Zvi Leshem, man’s desire to be all knowing like G-d, placing the value of knowledge over that of faith, led to his downfall, bringing death and impurity into the world. Ritual purity comes through the willingness to serve HaShem even in a reality permeated by doubts and confusion.

On this Shabbat Parah we focus on a cow. Although this does not make any sense to our rational minds in the modern age, there are significant reasons. For it is not about us, but about HaShem. The purpose of the red heifer is to to bring forth purification and life where there seems only death.

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Holiness, Justice and Reaching Out to Others

OutreachParashat Mishpatim

What can this week’s parasha, and the Torah as a whole, teach us about reaching out to others and drawing them close?

Our Torah portion begins:

Exodus 21:1

א  וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם.

1 These are the ordinances which you shall place before them.

The Torah then describes instructions for becoming a people of the covenant. But what does that mean exactly? To better understand, we’ll need to dig deeper into the Torah.

Justice as Holiness

Mishpatim is actually a continuation of last week’s parasha, Yitro. Therefore, we must go back to where Yitro leaves off … at the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The point is that the commandments of this week’s parasha are a continuation of those same mitzvot on Mt. Sinai. What, then, follows are primarily matters of justice:

  • The ethical treatment of slaves
  • Crimes of murder and kidnapping
  • Personal injuries
  • Damages through neglect or theft
  • Unfair business practices …

Such seemingly civil and tort matters are further mixed with commandments of social justice …

Exodus 22:20-23:

כ  וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

20 You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
21 You shall not afflict any widow, or orphan.
22 If you dare to cause them pain – for if they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry–
23 My wrath shall blaze, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives will be widows, and your children fatherless.

So, again, what is the purpose of these seemingly juxtaposed mitzvot? Mishpatim provides an important insight into Judaism, and into Biblical thought: To G-d, there is no separate realm between ritual and spiritual matters (unlike within Western thought which separates the two). All areas of life are intertwined and holiness potentially binds them together. According to the Torah, concern for justice is a concern for the Holy.

Holiness is not some mystical, esoteric state of being. Rather, it is a way of life and a pattern of action. To “do holiness” is to partner with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. For example: The Torah considers the treatment of strangers a matter of justice, and repeatedly calls us to stand up for the downtrodden. WHY?  Because every person is created b’tzelem Elohim – Created in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, We must recognize justice as essential to holiness. Before we can attain deeper levels of holiness within ourselves, we must be able to recognize holiness within others.

So what does this teach us about Outreach?

Bringing people into our community requires seeing the reflection of HaShem within them, and welcoming them into our community.

A Lesson from Avraham Avinu

One of the greatest examples of hospitality in the Torah is Avraham Avinu … our great Patriarch, Abraham.

Genesis 18:1-8 describes the story of “Abraham’s tent” and his welcoming of the three strangers. According to Jewish tradition, his tent was open on all sides, meaning it was open and welcoming to all. The rabbis are quick to point out that Avraham’s hospitality is not passive. He was looking for guests! And not only was he looking for guests … the Torah tells us that Avraham RAN to not only meet his guests … but he ran to meet their needs as well:

“(v. 2) On seeing them he ran from the door of this tent to meet them.”

“(v. 6) Avraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, three measures of the best flour. Knead it and make cakes!”

“(v. 7) Avraham ran to the herd, took a good, tender calf, and gave it to the servant who hurried to prepare it.”

According to the Talmud, hospitality is a great mitzvah. It is considered more important to show hospitality than to attend classes or to greet HaShem in prayer (b. Shabbat 127a).

A young person once visited the famous teacher known as the Chofetz Chaim. The guest had arrived at the synagogue just as Shabbat had begun after having been on the road for many long hours. He was hungry and very weak from having walked so far. After the service he was invited to the home of the Chofetz Chaim for Shabbos dinner, who noticed how weak and hungry his young guest was.

To the surprise of all his guests, the famous Chofetz Chaim skipped singing Shalom Aleichem (a prayer where we welcome the angels) and after quickly reciting Kiddush and HaMotzi began to eat.

“Why did you skip singing Shalom Aleichem,’ the young man asked his host. The Chofetz Chaim replied, “I could see that you were very weak and hungry. A hungry person should be fed as soon as possible. The angles can wait to be greeted.”

Yeshua’s Final Instructions

Yeshua commands us to “make talmidim” (Matttew 28:16-20). One of the roles of a talmid, according to Jewish thought, is to make other talmidim for their Rebbe.

In Luke’s version of this event, Yeshua tells his followers he is to begin in Jerusalem and then go out to the nations. They are to continue the work first among our own people.


Since 1973, Ahavat Zion Synagogue in Beverly Hills, CA, where I serve as the Senior Rabbi, has been a vibrant spiritual home for Jewish and intermarried followers of Yeshua. We are now celebrating our 40th Anniversary. In continuing that commitment, I feel it is vital at this season to step-up our efforts at attracting other like-minded individuals and families to our community. But we need new and creative ideas for how to reach out to,  and bring-in other Jewish and intermarried people.

I might not have all the answers for how to do that, but what I do know, is that it must begin with recognizing justice and the way we treat others as an extension of holiness. Like Avraham, we need to run to greet those we feel would be a welcome addition to our congregation and to our movement.

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What does God expect of us?

Parashat Yitro

This week’s Parasha tells us that “Moshe went up to G-d, and then HaShem called to him from the mountain.” This phrase begins the retelling of the powerful story of G-d giving the Torah to Israel, and of the experience we had as a people standing before the presence of HaShem.

This interesting point is made before G-d actually gives any of the mitzvot. That point is simply that G-d expects something from us. All the blessings, mitzvot, and covenants rely on action from our part. The Torah specifically tells us that Moshe went up to G-d, and then HaShem called down to him. The giving of the Torah rested on Moshe taking the faith initiative to seek out G-d. To climb up the mountain in an expectancy to encounter the manifest presence of the Divine. It was an action, an action of faith. That is what all of the mitzvot really are – lessons in faith. Or as one rabbi once put it, the 613 mitzvot are actually 613 different ways to connect to HaShem.

Moshe did his part, so that G-d could do G-d’s part. And the response was just as tremendous. Before we as a people even had an opportunity to hear all of the mitzvot, G-d required that we first make a choice, by faith, to follow in His ways before we even knew what would be expected. And by faith, we the Jewish people accepted the Torah before it was even given:

All the people answered as one, ‘Everything HaShem speaks, we will do (Ex. 19:8).’

Judaism teaches us that we are partners with G-d in bringing redemption into the world. Of course G-d could have done it without our help. However, the most exciting thing is that HaShem gives us the opportunity for Kiddush HaShem, to sanctify the Name of G-d in the earth. We have been given the ability to see the world through a different set of lenses. Instead of viewing everything as either “holy” or “secular,” our mission as Jews is to see things as “holy” and “not yet holy.” We can either see the world as mundane, or take simple everyday acts and elevate them to a level of holiness.

G-d gives us the privilege of partnering with Him in bringing redemption into the world. To do our part, so that G-d can do G-d’s part. G-d stands at the door and knocks (Re. 3:20). HaShem beckons us to be faithful to the mitzvot and faithful to the covenant. Through obedience to Torah, and the pursuit of G-d’s presence, it is possible to engage and change the world, and prepare the way for the coming of our righteous Mashiach Yeshua. Bimhera v’yamenu – May it be soon and in our days!

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The Road Less Traveled

Parashat Beshalach

Why does G-d lead the children of Israel to the sea, rather than guiding them down the well-worn highway?

Parashat Beshalach is unique in that it begins by telling us what G-d did NOT do.

G-d did not guide them to the highway that goes through the land of the Philistines, because it was close by – G-d thought that the people, upon seeing war, might change their minds and return to Egypt. Rather, G-d led the people by a roundabout route, through the desert by the Sea of Suf. -Exodus 13: 17- 18

Rather than guiding the Jewish people quickly down the well-traveled highway to present-day Gaza, G-d chose the less obvious route, leading to an eventual entry to the Land (forty years later) over the banks of the Jordan River. The text says that the children of Israel departed Egypt “fully armed,” and yet G-d led them away from battle. Why is this? It seems that before the people even began their journey out of Egypt, G-d already knew they lacked fortitude for the challenges ahead.

Much has been said about the generation of Jewish people that participated in the exodus from Egypt. Ibn Ezra discusses at length the “slave mentality” that left a generation of liberated slaves psychologically incapable of facing direct combat with their enemies. After all, it is this generation that later believes the bad report of the ten spies, and is prohibited from entering the Land as a result of their lack of faith in G-d’s promises. Later in this very parasha, these former slaves doubt G-d’s ability to meet their most basic needs – for protection from violence, water, and food – despite repeated miracles demonstrating G-d’s power.

Maimonides argues that G-d chose an indirect route in order to toughen the people and prepare them to enter the Land. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he says, “Ease destroys bravery while trouble and concern about food create strength. This strength that the Israelites gained was the ultimate good that came out of their wanderings in the wilderness.” (3:24) This would make sense, but for the fact that this generation of Jews never had the opportunity to exercise their supposed bravery. It was their children(who did not witness the miracles of Beshalach) who entered and conquered the Land.

It seems that G-d chose this route in order to demonstrate something fundamental about the way He works through the Jewish people and through history. It is not human ingenuity or warfare that produces redemption. Indeed, the people of Israel are given their freedom without the need to lift a single sword. It is G-d who turns the seabed into dry ground, who turns bitter water sweet, who rains manna and quail from heaven, and who routs the Amalekites’ attempt at blood sport. G-d admits that this choice has a didactic purpose when he explains to Moses that, “I will win glory for myself … and the Egyptians will realize at last that I am the LORD.” (14:4)

It often strikes the reader as a shame that the generation that witnessed awe-inspiring plagues and miracles struggled so vocally with their ability to rely on G-d for basic provisions. But it is not for our own satisfaction that the Torah itemizes their every complaint. Instead, the Torah reminds us that, regardless of our current position (whether it be characterized by relative affluence or relative deprivation), we remain dependent on G-d for our every need. Even those who are unburdened by a “slave mentality” are ultimately unable to accomplish anything of significance without G-d’s direct intervention. And that ultimately, G-d is working out His plan to redeem all creation through the trials and challenges faced by the Jewish people. By continually redeeming us, G-d tells the nations of the world that He is the LORD. Our highest calling as a people is not to toughen our own hides, but to place our trust in G-d. Paradoxically, it is through our uniquely vulnerable exercise of faith that G-d demonstrates His might.

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Responding to Calamity

Parashat Bo

Last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, introduced the first seven of the ten plagues. This week, Parashat Bo identifies the final three plagues and records the mitzvot concerning Passover.

Each of these plagues are devastating enough on their own, but added up together you can see why the result was the dramatic climax of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Each plague is a demonstration of HaShem’s might and omnipotence. And what most people miss in the story is that each plague carries its own unique message, as each plague was meant to bring a direct assault against a different Egyptian deity.

“… and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, I am HaShem (Exodus 12:12b).”

The Nile River in Egyptian mythology carries a sacred aura about it. It is the life source of the country. It alone represents life and sustenance in an otherwise dry and parched land. Blood is a symbol of death. Therefore the first plague represented a direct assault upon the Egyptian’s sole source of life.

The Egyptian deity, Heqet (or Isis), is often represented as a frog. She represents fertility and sustenance. As a result, the second plague of frogs was a direct assault against this specific deity, demonstrating that HaShem, the G-d of Israel, was more powerful than Heqet and that HaShem alone is the source of all life.

The ninth plague, darkness, was a demonstration against Egypt’s primary deity Amen-Re, who is often represented as the sun. Three days of darkness so thick it could be felt (Ex. 10:21) established that the G-d of Israel was even greater than Egypt’s primary deities.

So, you get the idea … each plague directly correlated with a particular deity or central tenet of Egyptian mythology. But the final plague – the death of the firstborn – was the most catastrophic. Pharaoh would not have let us go on his own. Sadly, it took ten deadly and disastrous plagues to get Pharaoh to let the Jewish people leave Egypt. Although the result of these plagues would be our exodus from tyranny, slavery, and oppression; we do not rejoice over the suffering of the Egyptians or the havoc brought upon them.

Wine is a symbol of joy. So during the Passover Seder, when we recall the ten plagues we deplete the wine in our cups by placing drops of wine onto our plate. When havoc is wrought upon any people – be they helpless victims or our enemies, we do not rejoice over their fate. Our tradition teaches us that their suffering decreases our own joy.

So although we do not rejoice over the fate of the Egyptian people, we do commemorate our redemption from Egypt. We also look forward to our ultimate redemption – when our Messiah, Yeshua, returns and ushers in the world to come. The Messianic Age will bring with it not only our redemption as a people, but a permanent end to oppression, disease, and the suffering of others.

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