Friday, January 22, 2016

A white Shabbos, Blessings and our Obligation to Share - Parshot Vaera through Beshallach

I’m dreaming of a white Shabbos......

I have to admit, I love snowstorms and especially love blizzards – but only when everyone I know is safe and warm at home and the electricity doesn’t go out! It’s a time to catch up on some sleep, play board games with family, watch movies, and for me – continue in the ongoing process of organizing my house. Said project began at Sinai, the same time we received the Torah, so I figure it’s okay for it to be never ending:)

At January’s Shabbat services at the Olney Kehila I gave everyone there a charge, which was to read [skim] that week’s parsha Vaera (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) and envision themselves as Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, the Israelites and even God, as Moses asked Pharaoh to let our people go.  How did each character feel during this challenging and frightening time.  I likened the time to Halloween – where children go around shouting  “Trick or Treat!” The children expect candy and  don't really have the intention to pull a trick on anyone – at least not these days. I see Moses going to Pharaoh and saying “Trick or Treat!” – the treat being the exodus, the trick being the 10 plagues. Huge consequences. How much did Moses even know of the plagues were coming and the extent of the devastation?

In this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) we read the conclusion to the Trick or Treat tale started in Vaera. Pharaoh has finally had enough and the Israelites leave Egypt. Almost immediately, Pharaoh changes his mind and the Israelites find themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds. We know how it ends – the sea splits, the Israelites get through safely, and the Egyptians are vanquished as the sea closes in on them.  How did each of the characters feel at this moment – Moses as a new leader wondering how to save his people (before the sea opens), the Israelites feeling like they went from the frying pan into the fire, the sea anticipating God’s miracle, Pharaoh’s soldiers flying toward them on their horses,  Pharaoh himself in a rage after having lost his son in the 10th plague and now his slaves.... So much going on.

When the Israelites get to the other side of the Sea of Reeds they sing and rejoice in their safety and freedom.  They sang words familiar to us today – the prayer Mi Chamocha:

Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders!”

Outside our windows we see the snow coming down, quite steadily, eventually it will come down relentlessly. It reminds us of the hazards of nature (God’s creation) but also of how much we have to be thankful for (God’s gifts) – shelter, food, heat, family.

We must also, always, remember that there are those among us who do not share in our blessings. Those who are homeless or who live in substandard environments. If you are so moved, donate to Stepping Stones Shelter, the Red Cross and other organizations that help those less fortunate. And if you see anyone out in the cold with no place to go, call 240-777-4448 (Montgomery County).

If the Torah teaches us anything, it’s to be aware of our blessings and to share them when we can.

Stay safe and warm,
Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbah Arlene

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Remembering and knowing

This week’s Torah portion is Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1.

How do we grant eternal life to people in Judaism?

We do it by keeping our loved ones alive through memory, stories, actions and saying Kaddish.
In my family, we tell stories of those who have passed away so often it’s as if they are still alive.
My children have never met their great-great-grandparents on my side, but Bubbe and Zeyde are alive to them because of all the stories I tell. It’s important because these stories are their spiritual and ethical inheritance. We remember them.

So what happened with Joseph? We read in Exodus 1:8: “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Why didn’t this new ruler remember him? Didn’t Joseph do enough for Egypt during his 80 years in government to deserve to be remembered? He saved the Egyptians from the famine and acted as a negotiator between Pharaoh and farmer/tenants.

The scholar Rashi, interprets this verse to mean that that Pharaoh acted as if he did not know about Joseph. Pharaoh conveniently pretended that he didn’t know or remember Joseph and therefore would not have to be beholden to his descendants, to his people.

The commentator Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno presents a different interpretation. He felt that Pharaoh really did remember a Joseph from the history books. However, he said that “… it did not occur to anyone to associate the Hebrews of his time with the family of Joseph who had been so highly esteemed.” So Joseph was remembered but his family affiliations were not. And even if they had been remembered, Sforno continues that “… the idea that the present day Hebrews deserved special consideration on account of their illustrious forbearers did not occur to anyone observing the way these Hebrews behaved at that time.” This last statement posits that even if Joseph had been remembered, no one would connect him with current day Hebrews because his people were not living up to his legacy.

What follows, then, is that Joseph may indeed have been remembered but he was not known.
What is the difference? To remember someone means to “to have or keep an image or idea in your mind of (something or someone from the past).” (Miriam-Webster). The Hebrew word for this type of remembering is zachor. The Hebrew word used in this verse is yada, to know. In certain situations, we can interpret yada to mean remember, as some will do in this verse.

But yada means so much more. It means to know someone intimately, as in a lover, or to know all the intimate relevant details about someone. Pharaoh and his court may have known of Joseph, may even have remembered him — but either as Rashi claimed, pretended that they didn’t know him, or as in the Sforno interpretation, didn’t know the intimate details of Joseph’s life. They didn’t know that he had been a Hebrew.

Joseph may not have been properly known to Pharaoh all those years later, but he was known to his people. He is still known to us today.

Perhaps one message from this verse is that not only must we continue to remember those who have gone before, but also we must do them the honor of continuing to live up to the standards that were set by them and by living a life worth being remembered and known for eternity.

Questions for discussion:
Can you think of anyone else in the Tanach who we learn just enough about to remember him or her, but whom we do not feel that we have enough information to truly know who he or she was?

What do you want people to remember and know you for after you are gone?

This appeared in Washington Jewish Week.