Thursday, January 25, 2018

Memories of the Wild

Many years ago my family and I camped out in the Negev desert. We drove into Makhtesh Katan, a geological formation dwarfed by Makhtesh Gadol and Makhtesh Ramon. These unique formations are typically translated as a Little Crater, Big Crater and Ramon Crater. The term crater, however, is inaccurate because these were not formed by the explosive force of a meteorite but instead by the slow, painstaking power of water.

Rivulets of water, some as small as a creek and others as large as a river, eroded the rock. Over millennia these maktheshim were formed. When one enters and draws close to the canyon’s walls one is struck by the beautiful and colorful layers of rock. These formations can only be found in the Negev and Sinai deserts.

We slept on the desert floor, each in our own sleeping bags. We attempted to create makeshift pillows from the desert rocks. I heard verses in the night. “He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head, and lay down in that place.” (Genesis 28)

The clear, night sky was awash with stars. “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down it.”

I awoke early and waited for the sun to peak out above the horizon and for its rays to gently find its way within the rock walls. I remained in my sleeping bag until the desert air began to warm. The desert is surprisingly cold in the evening. Until the sun begins to bake the earth one would think that it is cool, fall morning.

I smiled to myself when I looked at my family, huddled near each other, and arrayed as if they were colorful logs thrown on the desert floor. I lit the fire and began preparing our Turkish coffee. (Ok, to be honest, our guide actually did. But it sounds so much better to say I did it.) The sun was only beginning to peak over the canyon’s walls. Best to get dressed in the sleeping bag, I advised our children. The air is still chilly.

We ate our breakfast and packed up the jeep and set off toward our next destination. The guide spoke about Ein Avdat, an oasis, off in the distance.

After the Israelites hurriedly left Egypt they camped in 42 different places. This week we read, “They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness.” (Exodus 13)

Scholars suggest that Succoth was probably the site of the ancient city of Tjeku, the capital of the eighth province of Lower Egypt in the eastern part of the Nile delta. This region served as farm land for the Israelites and was the Egyptian gateway to and from Asia. It is apparently one day’s journey from the royal palace in Raamses.

And where is Etham? No one knows.

Isn’t it curious that the first place where the Israelites camped outside of Egypt, the very first place where they camped as free people, we no longer know its exact location?

It was at the edge of the wilderness.

Sleeping within the makhtesh it appeared as if we were making camp at the edge of the universe. The stars served as our companions.

Could I ever find that camping spot in Makhtesh Katan, that figures so prominently in my memories, again? No. I am certain I could not.

But I can always find that story.

Sometimes the memory of a place is even better than the place.

Our story begins at the edge of the wilderness.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Writing on Sand and Stone

Make up your mind Pharaoh. First you don’t want to let the people go. Then you decide to let them go. And then you change your mind again, and won’t let them go. Finally, you let them go. This back and forth is punctuated by the verse, “For I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” (Exodus 10) The Hebrew would be better translated as “I made his heart heavy” or perhaps “I weighed his heart down.”

What is the meaning of this unusual phrase? What does it mean to harden our hearts?

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Eliezer Hagar of Vizhnitz offers the following commentary. This phrase, he writes, hints at a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “A stone is heavy and the sand weighty; but a fool’s wrath is heavier than both.” The rebbe continues. It is hard to write on a rock, but after something is engraved on it, the writing will last forever. In the case of sand, on the other hand, one finds it easy to write whatever he wishes, but the writing can be erased in an instant.

The difference between the two is clear. Writing on a stone is like someone who finds it difficult to understand something, but once he understands it does not forget it. Writing on sand, on the other hand, can be compared to person who finds it easy to understand something, but soon forgets it. Pharaoh had both disadvantages. He found it hard to understand, and he forgets easily. Immediately after he said, “Let the people go,” he changed his mind and did not allow Israel to leave.

Typical of the Hasidic masters this negative notion of hardening the heart is transformed into one that has positive potential not only for Pharaoh, but for each and every one of us. Had Pharaoh heeded Moses’ words he would have learned a hard and difficult lesson. Pharaoh would have learned something that could be written on stone and would have left an imprint for a lifetime.

He would have taken to heart the lesson that you must never harden your heart to others. You must never harden your heart to their suffering.

At times our hearts are open. Other times they are closed.

Sometimes our hearts are weighed down by sorrow. And other times by pain. Sometimes our hearts are hardened by stubbornness. Other times by ideology.

To what do we harden our hearts? What weighs our hearts down? What stands in the way of learning lessons that will last a lifetime?

What do we write on sand?

What do we engrave on stone?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What Takes God So Long?

What takes God so long? After 400 years of slavery God responds to the Israelites’ suffering and says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant.” (Exodus 6) 400 years!

Why now? Why wait for the Israelites to suffer for so many years? Did the slavery become that much worse? Was God indifferent to their pain? Impossible! Still the question remains. Why did God wait so long?

Interestingly God’s response to the Israelites’ suffering mirrors Pharaoh’s daughter’s response to the infant Moses. In last week’s portion she hears the cries of Moses. “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2) My newfound hero, the unnamed Pharaoh’s daughter, is the first to show compassion to the Israelites.

Perhaps this is what God was waiting for. God waits for us.

There are other traditions that suggest as well that God waits for human beings to act before responding. The most famous of these is the story of Nachshon who according to legend jumps into the Sea of Reeds thereby prompting God’s involvement and concern. When the waters reach his neck and he is about to drown God splits the sea.

Others suggest that the messiah sits at the gates of Rome bandaging the sores and wounds of lepers. The messiah waits by performing compassionate acts. There he waits for God to send him to redeem the world. These traditions suggest that God is not the first to act but instead waits for our compassion. God’s concern is not in response to suffering but instead in response to our compassion.

In our Torah portion God appears to respond to Pharaoh’s daughter. Not only does she not have a name but she is also not Jewish. Moreover she is the daughter of the story’s arch enemy. The Rabbis ask why she would go to the Nile to bathe herself. She could have sent her slaves. The Talmud suggests that she opposed her father’s policies from the start and went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins.

It was there that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses thus leading to the redemption of an entire people. According to legend she also accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt. In that moment Pharaoh’s daughter left the trappings of the palace and forever pledged herself to the fate of the Jewish people.

Is it possible that her heart awakened God’s concern?

I still recall the few days of volunteering following Hurricane Sandy. We ventured to the South Shore to help a family tear out their water soaked dry wall and wood flooring. There we met other volunteers. One volunteer left a deep impression. He was a young man from Wisconsin who gave up his weeklong vacation. He drove here following Hurricane Sandy to help out. He slept most nights in his car. Here was a Christian man from the Midwest helping out Jewish New Yorkers.

Compassion comes from unexpected places. It often does not even bear a name.

Nonetheless my hope and prayer remains the same. May our compassionate acts stir God’s concern. May they awaken God’s compassionate heart.

And even if God fails to respond, the wounds will be bandaged and the homes repaired. And healing will reach into at least one heart.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Holocaust Hero's Newly Found Poem

Hannah Senesh is best known for her uncommon bravery. After moving to Israel in 1939, she volunteered to parachute into Nazi occupied territory in order to help rescue her fellow Hungarian Jews. She was quickly captured, mercilessly tortured and eventually killed.

Her poem, “A Walk to Caesarea” is familiar in Jewish circles. It is more commonly called, “My God, My God.” She writes:
My God, my God,
May these things never come to an end:
The sand and the sea, the rush of the waters,
The crash of the heavens, the prayer of people.
We often sing its melody as we stand on the beach and revel in the ocean’s waters. I recently heard its words as I looked out on the Mediterranean from Tel Aviv’s gentrified port. The poem’s meaning crystalized in my thoughts.  Senesh clearly intended the poem to point toward the Zionist attachment to the land of Israel.  It was this sand and this sea she was speaking about.  And yet more and more people see its meaning to be about the beauty of nature in general.

Perhaps that is the power of a poem....

This post continues on The Wisdom Daily.

Friday, January 5, 2018

What to be Named

Parents deliberate for months, and even years, the names they select for their children. For whom should they name their child? What if the baby is a girl? A boy? What should be the child’s Hebrew name? Do the origins of the name matter? What are the associations with the name?

Will the name influence their child’s future character?

The most significant book of the Torah begins in a similar fashion. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher…” (Exodus 1)

And yet the story of the most significant person in the Torah begins without naming a single person. Take note of how the Torah frames our hero Moses’ beginnings.
A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.

She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2)
No one is named in this entire story until its conclusion, and until Moses is grown. The Torah records no names for our actors until this brave young woman gives it to our hero, and the Torah’s central character. Moses is named not by his mother or even his father. Instead he is named by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine that! The daughter of the very man who sets in motion the need to hide Moses in a basket so that he will not be killed by Pharaoh’s henchman not only saves Moses but names him. (By the way Pharaoh is a title not a name. It is most akin to when we hear “The White House said…”)

The Book that begins with names and is in fact called in Hebrew “Shemot—Names” introduces its greatest hero with the words “A certain somebody from an important tribe married another certain somebody from the same community and then gave birth to a beautiful boy…” This is remarkable!

And so the question remains: why would the Torah that will later be called “The Five Books of Moses” introduce its hero in this way? Why would it want to make clear that his beginnings are not based on lineage?

It is because his story must instead be based on merit, on actions, and on his accomplishments. Moses’ name in fact suggests the first of many such actions. It comes from the Egyptian meaning “to draw out.” We have a hint of his most important accomplishment. He will become the man who draws the Israelites out of Egypt.

Our most important names are not those that are given to us by our parents. They are instead the names we earn.

Are we called compassionate? Are we named honored? Are we called generous? Are we named kind?

What is the name we strive to be called?