Shabbat Shalom Everyone!
I am very honored to be able to give today’s drash – especially on a juicy Torah portion like Shemot. In today’s portion we span from the suffering of the Jews under the new Pharaoh, the early life of Moses, the death of a Pharaoh, the revelation of God to Moses, and the beginning of Moses going into Mitzrayim to ask for the freedom of his people. I was particularly struck by the revelation of God to Moses.
Let’s go ahead and read it together starting at Shemot 2 verse 24. The Pharaoh, who enslaved the Jews and ordered the mass killing of Hebrew Children, has died. The Jews are calling out for relief from their suffering:
2:24 G O D heard their moaning, and G O D remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G O D looked upon the Israelites, and G O D took notice of them.
3:1 Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Hored, the mountain of G O D. An angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the LORD saw the he had turned aside to look, G O D called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”
The word that jumps out at me the most in this portion is vayar (seeing or saw – from the root ra’ah). If we look at the Fox translation of the Torah, which Rabbi has said is a more “straight” translation of the words, the repetition of “see” becomes more apparent:
G O D hearkened to their moaning,
G O D called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and Yaakov,
G O D saw the Children of Israel,
G O D knew.
Now Moshe was shepherding the flock of Yitro his father-in-law,
priest of Midyan
He led the flock behind the wilderness -
and he came to the mountain of G O D, to Horev.
2: And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him
in the flame of a fire out of the midst of a bush.
here, the bush is burning with fire,
and the bush is not consumed!
3: Moshe said:
Now let me turn aside
that I may see this great sight --
why the bush does not burn up!
4: When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,
G O D called to him out of the midst of the bush,
Here I am.
I counted See and Saw 22 times in Shemot (I am not skilled enough in Hebrew to find all the other forms of ra’ah so I didn’t count those). While the amount of time this appears seem remarkable to me, I was taken in by the ordering of the words, especially around the burning bush. Remember our Rabbi’s statement that every word counts in the Torah – if something is repeated it is not a typo but intended.
First we have
G O D hearkened to their moaning,
G O D called-to-mind his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and Yaakov,
G O D saw the Children of Israel,
G O D knew.
God heard the Israelites, remembers, SEEs, and then God knows.
Then we have
And YHWH’s messenger was seen by him… He saw:
Then he thinks about what he sees and next
Now let me turn aside that I may see
When YHWH saw that he had turned aside to see,
G O D called to him
Here I am.
God comes to recognize Mose and Mose can respond to God with “Here I am”.
Let’s look back at the sentence “he saw: here the bush…”. The Torah feels the need to mention that he even saw the burning bush. Does this mean that other people had walked by, saw a lone bush burning in the wilderness, and just kept going? Wouldn’t we all stop and look at a bush burning out in the woods? Apparently there was something remarkable in Moses even stopping to look at the bush.
But it does not stop there, Moses stops and gives attention long enough to see that even though the bush is burning, it is not being consumed. He decides he will even give more of his attention to see how this can be happening.
It is at this point that we see God first notices Moses.
I want to digress a bit to talk about how different this is in the Torah. All throughout Beresheit (Genesis) we have God noticing people, coming to them in their dreams, wrestling with them, and talking directly to them. God chooses Noah because he is a good man. God comes to Abraham and tells him to leave his land, that he will have a son, or to bind his son. God comes to Rachel and tells her about the two nations in her womb. God speaks to Joseph through his dreams.
But here we see that God waits for Mose to direct his attention. Up to this point, the Torah makes no mention of Moses leading our people out of bondage, receiving the Torah, leading the people through the wilderness, and to the border of the promised land. God has not spoken to Moses’s parents, his siblings, the Pharaoh, or even Moses himself.
Even though an angel or God’s messenger appeared before Moses, the Torah still mentions that Moses looks. The messenger did not call out or draw attention to itself other than being there. Granted it was a burning bush, but still, unlike in Beresheit, it does not announce itself or call out to Moses.
We, as Jews, refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher. He teaches us in this portion that having the sensitivity to see the holy in everyday life, can bring us into God’s presence.
It appears that by Mose’s act of stopping and truly seeing, God notices him as being worthy of the tasks to come. By stopping and noticing a wild bush – not a tree, waterfall, a great flood – just a simple small bush that was on fire. Moses shows his ability to truly see.
As an aside I think this is what Buber was getting at with “I and thou” versus “I and it” – moving from observing and separateness to relations and togetherness. I would love to explore this more over kiddush (Shabbat lunch). But let’s return to using our vision for “knowing”
The Torah is not speaking of seeing as in “See Jane run, run Jane run”. I think our society tends to think of sight in this casual way, as something that just happens, not under our control. Advertising and media understand it’s power… people will see our ads or videos and want to consume or be stirred to action. But common understanding remains that we are unable to train our ability to look and intention in vision.
Our tradition says it is very much under our control – we have the ability to choose where we look and more importantly, what we give our attention. Just as we have Lo Lashon Hara (don’t let the evil inclination control your tongue), we also have Shmirat Einayim (guarding the eyes).
These laws definitely focus on not looking at things are harmful – people immodestly dressed, false idols, things which lead us to covet, or in general things that could lead us to violating a commandment or mitzvot. Just like we must make holy what we eat or what we say – Judaism calls on us to make holy what we see and give our attention.
Joshua Bell is probably one of the top violinists of our time. Concert tickets for his performances can go for hundreds of dollars. One of his video was truly eye opening – you can probably find it on Youtube. It was amazing, not because of what he did, but more because of what he showed.
He dressed in normal clothing, went to a DC subway station, put out his violin case, and started playing. I am sure you can guess what happened – some people stopped and gave money, few stopped for more than a minute or two, and almost everyone just kept on walking. They couldn’t see the lone burning bush in the wilderness.
With this in mind I want to reclaim my obligation and direct my vision. How about finding awe in the natural world, in God’s creation. If you know me this is no shock that this is where my mind first went. But, the seeing here is not just looking at it in scientific ways but more as forming and understanding a relationship. I wanted to push beyond my first thought.
Harder for me, was the idea of what I should work on giving less or no attention to. With Lashon Harah, it is easier for me to understand giving kind words and praise to other people, then it is to not engage in “evil tongue” in the broad interpretation of our scholars.
In this secular new year, I aim to work on finding things, that in addition to the natural world, are good for my vision. I want to work on seeing and thereby knowing the wonder and goodness God has given me. To use my the attention of my sight to create more relationships. But I will also work on understanding more of what I, me, with my own particular Hara, need to work on guarding my eyes against.
To bring this to a close, we need to give our attention to working on seeing that which is either not visible on the surface or to that which is right in front of us and miraculous but not noticed. This has to be an intentional act – it doesn’t “just happen”.
Without turning aside to actually see, God will remain hidden. To see God around us, to see the divine in front of us (the moss, the stream, the bird, the person… the burning bush) we need to put in the effort and attention to look for God
Shabbat Shalom everyone, again I am honored and blessed to be able to talk to you about my thoughts on our Parsha. Quick disclaimer, please understand that, for me, God does not have a gender but our language, unfortunately in this case, does. I would interchange she and her in my drash, but I am concerned that people will get distracted by my use of the words. Please excuse me only using he and him, it is a shortcut to not distract from my larger message.
While reading the passage trying to find something to talk about, I went through some of my usual suspects – different meaning of sacrifices, yada yada yada. But then on one particular reading I was really struck by the first three words – Vayikra el Moshe – and the English translations – God called to Moses.
This is not God said, which is how he talked to Avraham or Noah. What does it mean to call to someone? It is most often used in a loving way. There are times when we yell, speak, tell, or have other ways of talking to someone. I certainly yell, speak, tell, or lecture my kids. But when I call to my children – not only does it involve something loving, but it is usually a message I deliver in a softer tone. Our culture also uses calling when talking to a lover: “I called to my lover.” Even in our own liturgy we call to God when we need something. Here we have God calling to Moshe. Why might the roles be reversed, with God calling to Moshe?
If we take a quick look back to the previous book of the Torah, there is some setup for how we got here. There were some tough times between Adonai and the Israelites. The rough spot starts right from the beginning – bricks without straw. “Thanks for nothing” might best sum up the Israelites response to God’s help. There are many fights from there on, with both sides getting really angry. The Israelites become so lost in their relationship with God that they actually build the golden calf. Moses has to step in and stop God from destroying the Israelites. Then God lays out the deal; accept the Torah and you will be my people. One of my favorite midrashim is that God actually held the entire mountain of Sinai was over the Israelites to help “sweeten” the offer.
As Rabbi discussed last week, we end Exodus with the building of the Tabernacle – a place where God will dwell and talk with Israel. It was a community effort and it is the foundation needed for all that follows.
Calling for the building of the tabernacle is God realizing his relationship with humans has gotten really off track. He needs to be able to be closer and more involved with his children.
As our Rabbi has taught many times, the Torah is also a beautiful story about a loving relationship developing between Hashem and humans. As we look at the trajectory of the Torah, we see God getting more and more specific about rules. He has come to learn that humans are bad with ambiguity. When terms are left ambiguous, people fight with themselves and get themselves in trouble with God.
Vayikra is not only the name for this weeks parsha, it is the name for this whole book of the Torah. This whole book is God’s attempt to tell us how to love him. These clear rules give us a way to talk to God. They also give us a clear way to make things better when we don’t do what God has asked. Finally they also how to restore our bonds with people in our lives. We are given a set of rules to help us navigate all our relationships.
But why have the relationship be in terms of plant and animal sacrifice?
At the time he gave us the Torah, he needed to speak in acts the people would understand. The Israelites are herders, their life revolves around livestock and it is one the currency they use when making trades. The cultures around them were all making sacrifices to their Gods. They lived for generations among the Egyptians who also used animal sacrifice.
The dominant way for people of that time and region to talk to the divine was through animal sacrifice. Rather than God telling them “you will talk to me on my terms and in a language you don’t understand” he is meeting them where they are at. “You understand sacrifices, the animals are important to you, and I really want us to understand each other – this should be clear and familiar to you”.
Finally, God goes one step further and tells the Israelites, when you make sacrifices to me, make sure it is the first born or a good animal. Much of the Torah commentary I read about this suggest the main reason for this is to emphasize that the animal never truly belonged to the human in the first place.
All you had was because God gave it to you. By putting this issue in our face when we go to talk to God, he tries to help us insure our humbleness in the universe. For even the best herder with the largest flock and the finest sheep – it was all a gift from God. Even if you didn’t have a great flock you could still give your best animal or your best dove.
A quick aside, I absolutely love how God, in this parhsat, specifically recognizes economic differences among people. The sacrifices move from those with most economic wealth down to people with lesser means. He still gives them a way to talk to him. God has not set up a way of being loved that is only available to one class of people.
For me, naturally, I think of how would God make the language of love with us as moderns. Some of us raise chickens or bees but other than that, the language of husbandry and animal sacrifices are no longer a meaningful way for us to talk to God. Yes we have prayer and yes our tradition tells us that, given that we no longer have the Temple, prayer is a substitute for sacrifice.
I believe this parshat also calls on us to do more than pray. The words prayer and sacrifice are different and I think both can be valid ways to talk to God. God didn’t ask our ancestors to just do things with their mouths and their minds; sacrifice requires actions and giving up or forgoing something.
I want to take on the challenge coming out of today’s drash “What does it look like for us to use sacrifices to talk to God”?
Money seems a clear answer and we do have the rabbis talking about tithing, or taking 10% of our income for tzedkhah. But it feels to me that there could be other more meaningful ways.
I wracked my brain and the first thing that came to mind as an analogy was our Tequila club for kiddush. Perhaps we should take a shot off each bottle when we first open it and give it to God. Not sure how we would give it to God since we no longer have an altar (and even though the Rabbi is away, I still don’t think we could pour it on the bimah).
In the end I find myself to be stuck. I can think of things that are important to me that I could offer as a “sacrifice”:
- My ability to teach
- My time with my children
- My time with Angelina
- My video games
- My car
- My clothes
- And other things I am fortunate Hashem has given to me
But how should I sacrifice these things in a way to talk to God, to show love for God. For the Israelites in the desert, it was either burn the sacrifices on the altar or have them eaten by the priests.
What does that look like now? How much do I give – how many sheeps = 1 hour spent teaching kids to program for free?
The sacrifices had elaborate steps and instructions, there was a clear way to know the right way to do a sacrifice. What are the rituals making it different and special if I take an hour every month to do tzedkah with the kids or Angelina.
While I think these questions are too big for me to cover in working on a parshat I do think they are important and meaningful questions for me to work on. I don’t have Moses to act as the messenger to God. Instead, it is now left to me to figure this out and then try to live by it.
I think today’s parshat, as it sets up the whole book of Vayikra, can push us to think deeply about how God would call to each of us. How would Adonai ask us to sacrifice, to give some of that which is already a gift. How should we perform these acts to make them worthy of our loving conversation with Hashem. Todah Rabah and Shabbat Shalom.
I really wonder why there isn’t more outrage in my facebook feed about the lack of a trial in the Eric Garner case. My twitter feed, eventhough I try to keep that non-political, is full of discussion, yet on facebook there is a minor smattering. Is it facebook messing with the content of my feed or is it the general focus of my friends?
Either way – the situation right now is insane. I know there are good cops out there – we are not facing a situation where ALL cops are bad. And, cops do face real danger on the job. This is also not criticizing cops truly acting in self-defense when there life is in eminent danger. And I understand that sometimes that line is fuzzy.
I would also like to point out that race relations in this country have gotten better over time. Not perfect but better. We have reached a place where we can elect a dark skinned president. But just as one warm day in February does not mean spring is here, so to does this great progress mean we have moved past racism in this country.
That said, we can not continue to have a system where our justice system and policing is SO deadly, demoralizing, and biased against black people (well and probably hispanics as well but there is less public footage/outcry of that right now). This has to stop. This is outrageous.
This makes me sad and angry for my friends, their children, for black people I don’t know. Nobody in our country should have to live like this. Sure #AllLivesMatter, but right now we seem to have a problem in this country with understanding that we (our society as a whole) don’t act like #BlackLivesMatter. Until we start acting like #BlackLivesMatter then #AllLivesMatter is false.
This isn’t about breaking the law or not. Just because you break the law doesn’t mean you deserve to die. Breaking the law doesn’t mean your death is not worthy of trial. Breaking the law when you do it with your white friends means ALL of you should face the same penalty. When you commit the same offenses as white people you should expect the same treatment as white people – no more, no less. The death or torture of a black person when interacting with the police should get the same level of concern and prosecution as it does when it happens to a white person.
Sure bad things happen to white people by the police, but we are not even at the stage where we can look at police brutality as a whole. There is such a large body of evidence pointing gross injustice towards black people (and brown and probably low income) that we need to fix that first before we get to focus on the more general topic. There is a large gaping wound in our country and we need to stop the bleeding before we can start treating the more systemic problem.
The events on video and in the media have brought to light things which many of us have known for a long time. For me the hard part is figuring out which action is the most effective in bring about this change so badly needed.
For all you condemning the rioting – especially if you are white – STFU unless you are doing everything in your power to change the abuses first. Really, just be quiet and certainly don’t look to Dr. King as a way to justify your crappy point of view. I am going to quote from an excellent speech by Dr. King where he talks about how rioting is not the best way forward but eminently understandable when white america refuses to hear and change the situation in america.
“Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
excerpted from http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/
Like Chris Rock says, this is not a black problem, this is a white problem. As I saw written just recently, my white skin privilege is automatic, but sustaining a racist white privilege system is a choice. I need help in figuring out real and effective ways in dismantling this system.
Just wanted to talk a little about why I do Movember (on the last day of donations).
To be clear, here are some of the reasons I DON’T grow a mustache for Movember:
- To look macho
- To prove “what a man” I am because of my mustache
- To shame men who can’t really grow mustaches
- To scare my kids
When I went through cancer some of my hair fell out, some of it just stopped growing, and some just became really scraggly. I learned early on that my hair is not me. I also learned how much people actually judge you by your hair. As a man it was kinda’ easy to go out into the outside world without hair, but even still I would get looks or it would spark discussion. I think we, as a society, need to be more compassionate based on looks AND not scared.
Movember is a chance for me to reconnect to a different way of growing my hair which also helps me raise money for men’s mental health and cancers. It is also a chance for me to watch how people interact with me differently because of this caterpillar growing on my face. Given that I look like Danny Trejo from Machete with my ‘stache:
People on the street and new people I would meet would have a very interesting reaction to me. I was definitely more likely to have people do what I asked for and some were likely to look at me warily. I was still my usual friendly self with my goofy sense of humor and generally kind ways, but it didn’t matter. The look of my face with the mustache sent a definite signal. Next year, I think I am going to go even goofier on the mustache just to see what happens. Ok but enough of the serious talk.
Here are some reasons why I DO grow the mustache:
- I think it is really goofy and embarrassing to wear it. I actually think people should think they are giving me the money for making such a fool of myself. I mean really, growing hair on your face is not like running a marathon or walking long distances over 3 days – the only thing that makes it money worthy is that it is a social burden.
- It helps me give back to Men with mental health or cancer issues – two areas I have struggled with
- I get to make lots of jokes with my kids and friends about it.
- As all good Dads strive for – it gives me excellent weaponry to embarrass my children
So this is a long winded way of saying, in this season of spending, how about sending $10, $50, $200 towards a good cause!
There are two ways to give:
- You can go directly to my Movember page and donate there
- Buy your lovely lady friend (or yourself) a nice gift at Beklina.com and put movember in the offer tag – bam 10% goes to Movember!
Thanks in advance for all your support!
Just a little thought piece on some environmental news happening here in the Bay Area.
So on the Nerd for Nature group that I am a part of, someone posted this article with the subject “wtf”
Besides that title being so incredibly alarmist, it is articles like this that give environmentalists a bad name. If the author had taken the time and done some research, they would have found this piece:
This “clear cut” is actually a long term effort to get rid of some pretty nasty invasive plants. We, as humans, have done a pretty great job of screwing up ecosystems by introducing non-native species that can out-compete a lot of native species. For the plants I nominate English Ivy (in the picture above), and for the animals I nominate the Wild Boar, as my two poster children for the potential impact of invasives. English Ivy will grow at a phenomenal rate (killing trees and any herbaceous ground cover) and because of it’s underground runners, mowing it or trying to physical removal is an ongoing battle. Here, the Plant Conservation Alliance, talks about spraying Roundup and other herbicides as a means to control the plant.
Wild Boar do a tremendous amount of damage. I am not even going to talk about the crop damage they do because I consider that our fault for introducing them. But for native species, their rooting behavior and creation of wallows severely damages native plants and wetlands. Their voracious appetites are actually a very legitimate threat to several endangered newts and salamanders in the Central Sierras here in California. And since we did a nice job removing most of the top predators in California, there is almost no predatory pressure on them.
To be clear, these species are not to blame, but unfortunately through OUR actions, we have created a situation where we need to hunt and kill certain animals and spray toxic chemicals to eradicate certain plant species. Without these actions, native species, which I believe an inherent right to exist are at risk for extinction. I believe that having native plants and animals intact in an area is a public good and I am willing to pay (both time, money, and health wise) to ensure they are able to survive. I am not going to go to the edge case of mosquitoes and other native “nuisances” since I don’t think the world is an “either or” proposition.
Back to our situation here in the Bay.
I applaud Berkley for trying to get rid of their invasives. From personal experience, working on the IPANE project as the technical lead, I learned a lot about dealing with invasive plant species.
While I understand people’s concern about the Roundup and Woodchips application, it is probably the only effective way to prevent those trees from resprouting. They will NOT be broadly spraying the roundup but actually applying it directly to the tree stumps. This is a very targeted and much lower risk application. Spreading the woodchips will also probably do a great job of suppressing further growth of saplings and other invasives.
There are no half-way measures with invasives. Leaving “a few” around can have disastrous consequences, since these species are great at turning a few into many. You have to do as much as possible to eradicate it as you can. If you want an analogy, think about smallpox, getting only half of the cases eradicated doesn’t do much good – you either need to go all in or stay home.
In the Bay area, eucalypts are a huge problem. I cringe every time I see a grove of them and the same goes for acacia (I also dislike acacia because my middle offspring is allergic to it’s pollen). These plants out grow and out shade native tree saplings and ground cover. Like the second article says, they are a huge fire risk and very well adapted to grow back after the fire, thereby making it even harder to get native species back. If I had my way we would get rid of all the eucalyptus groves and acacia in Cali. and plant native species instead.
The first article is one of those articles that make we want to give up on people [/snark]. Seriously, it is ill-informed, anti-environmental, alarmist when it is not needed, conspiracy seeking, and just plain wrong. Figuring out the “right thing” in environmental issues is not always so simple as “save the trees” or “ban hunting”. To really understand these issues you have to spend more time thinking through all the implications and learning the science behind it.
So today is the Jewish holiday of Hoshanah Rabbah – Hoshanah means a plea – and in this case we are asking that all the great tragedies that could happen to us don’t happen and for a good year ahead. Since we were an agricultural people in a land of seasonal rainfall – we also ask for abundant rain. I am not sure if the original context is like a rain dance – thought to bring the rains – or it is a just a way of recognizing how much is out of our contol, especially life giving water.
Part of the ceremony is also beating willow branches until the leaves come off – the willow is chosen because it is such a water dependent tree. I went down the street this morning and cut about 2-300 willow branches so the adults at morning minyan and all children at religious school could have a chance to “beat the willow”. It was certainly a lot of fun. The added bonus for me was getting to hear California quail calling while I was cutting willow.
To recognize the importance of water in our lives I am giving $36 (double chai) to water.org. There are plenty of water organizations out there but I chose this one based up on its focus on all continents and a great Charity Navigator score. If you are Jewish why not think about giving some today (remember Tzedakah, Teshuvah, and Tefillah are all you really need [Justice, repentance, and prayer]). If you are not Jewish why not go ahead and give anyway. Pick an org that works to bring clean water to people or maybe works to keep our rivers and streams clean or maybe even the oceans protected.
Have a great Sunday and to my Jewish Readers – Chag Sameach, happy holidays!!
Here is my work blog post about my recent trip to Israel. Good times were had by all (or at least me)
Here are also some of my Israel pictures on SmugMug – not much time for travel but always nice to go to Jerusalem.