Parshat Bo: Even God Makes a Mess of Things Sometimes

I was helping someone move into their new home this week.  They pre-warned me that I would be walking into a mess. Lots of boxes, lots of chaos, piles of things waiting to be organized.  I thought of my life and whether or not being in the midst of a mess bothers me. I decided…it depends.

I always have a mess in my car.  I consider my car a big purse on wheels.  If I were stranded somewhere for a while, I could exist on what is in my car – pillow, blanket, dental floss, lots of books and…yes…emergency popcorn.  It is a purposeful mess, in that I know where everything is and why it’s there. To others, it’s messy, to me it’s organized chaos. If you move anything around in my car, I won’t understand where and why you put ‘that thing’ where you did, so I will now be confused. Once, years ago, I got into my car one morning only to find it had been broken into.  Nothing was taken (I never leave valuables in my mess). How did I know it was broken into? The thieves left piles of things they had gone through searching for anything worthwhile. My stuff is never in piles – that’s how I knew. For neighbourhood statistics, I reported it to the police who kept asking if there was any damage to anything. I finally had to admit that the thieves left it neater than they found it.  Not my best moment.

When we encounter a mess, it is our inclination to tidy it or find ‘method to the madness’.  We don’t ever intend to create chaos. It’s actually really difficult to do.

Have you ever intentionally tried to make a mess?  I don’t mean have you ever ended up with a mess, but have you ever tried to make a mess?  Most often, a mess is the result of trying to do something else.  It’s easy to make a mess when you try to cook something, or when you’re trying to fix something.  I can’t actually think of a situation when the goal is to make a mess and nothing else. In fact, we usually ask people not to leave a mess behind them – our goal is anti-mess.

We come by this honestly, so much in Judaism is about ordering chaos. Whether it’s the beginning of Genesis, where God is ordering chaos, our prayer book, a Siddur (which translates as ‘Order’), or the Seder (‘the Order’) at Pesach, our model is to organize everything around us.  Even our texts are formatted on each page so there is order to the commentaries. We are never presented with disarray.

So, if everything is about ordering chaos, we come to this week’s Torah reading, parshat Bo, we read about the plagues God brings to Egypt, and we have to ask…what’s going on?  If the goal is to get us out of Egypt, surely God can do that in an instant without bothering anyone. Sitting on the wings of eagles comes to mind. In other words, why have plagues?

Maybe Egypt needs to be punished for what it did.  Except, God never mentions punishing Egypt as a goal when he enlists Moses to lead.  In fact, we are so bothered by the plagues that during the Seder we take wine out of our cups when we recite them because we are reducing our joy.  We are troubled by those plagues enough that we have to ask: why have them?

If we go back to the job God describes to Moses, we notice that there are two parts to it.  The first is the one we all know: get Israel out of Egypt. The second goal is the lesser known one: all of Egypt must know that God is God.  Basically, change Egypt’s world view. Get Pharaoh to acknowledge that he, in fact, is not a deity and they’ve had it wrong all along. When Moses insists to God that he doesn’t want the job, I believe he’s rejecting the second goal.  When you’re dealing with a powerful God, the first part of the task is easy. It’s when you’re dealing with people’s attitudes that the task becomes unimaginable. How can Moses possibly change Pharaoh’s mind?

And so God proceeds to undo creation in Egypt.  Each plague will remove another element of the creation of the world, and Egypt will be plunged back into primordial chaos.  For example, the first thing created in Genesis is light. It lasts for three days as a unique light of creation that the Sages describe as light that can be felt.  Undoing this light results in the plague of darkness in Egypt. The darkness lasts for three days and is described as a darkness that is heavy upon the person. It can be felt.  

But the most obvious example of God’s message is the last plague: the death of the first born.  The opposite of God creating the first person. The undoing of life. God breathed life into Adam and God will pass through Egypt taking the breath out of every first born.  

The message now becomes: only the God who created the universe would know how to undo it.  God is deliberately putting chaos back into Egypt with the goal of having them realize God is the One who created it all.  The plagues trouble us because they weren’t meant to speak to us and, in the end, they don’t.

Judaism is a model of order from chaos and organization from disarray, but not all of God’s messages are meant for us. The Torah always lets us know that God has relationships with all people and all beings.  How humbling to realize that the redemption from Egypt, the pivotal moment in creating the Jewish people, is framed with unique and monumental events that were never meant to speak to us.

Parshat Va’era: But Shoes Are Shoes…Aren’t They?

I spent some time this week focusing on the Mussar value of ‘Hakarat hatov’ – recognizing the good.  We often reduce it to the expression ‘thank you’ and file it under gratitude. Actually, to be honest, we often say ‘thank you’ and file it under ‘things I do when triggered by something that doesn’t have too much relevance or meaning anymore’.  In other words, things I say when I’m in automatic.

There is a foundational value in Judaism of recognizing the good, reframing ourselves to view things positively.  We are commanded to choose life, we are also told to do things from within a place of joy and, most obviously, we toast to life.  We are cautioned to stay away from the dark negative places both physically and mentally. Finding the darkness within us and others comes too naturally to us because, on a very base level, it keeps us safe.  If I expect the worst, then I am prepared for it, whereas if I expect the best, I could easily be blindsided and hurt.

So, in the first steps of recognizing the good, we are taught to say ‘thank you’.  But the nuances of thanking someone are huge when we recognize how it opens endless explorations of our perspective.

When I was potty training my kids, each of them reacted differently.  One of them chose to completely ignore the potty sitting in the middle of the room and defiantly chose to use the floor right next to it. The message was clear: ‘I can control this, but I will choose where and when’ – message quickly received.  Another of my kids explained to me that they know I want them to use the potty but they prefer their diaper (those are the exact words used as they felt they needed to explain to me why this is a doomed venture and I somehow don’t get it).  But one of my children thanked me each and every time. 

With this child, I would remind him of the potty as clearly as I could.  Often, that would take the shape of my saying ‘do you have to pee’ every few minutes and his answering “no, thank you.”  It was never just a yes or no answer, it was always followed with a ‘thank you’. I couldn’t tell if I should correct him because I wasn’t sure it was incorrect.  He somehow heard my question to him as an invitation, or maybe he heard my question as a consideration of him. I’m not sure, but without doubt his ‘thank you’ made me explore what my question meant.  Was I worried about having to clean up a mess next to the potty? Was I worried that he would never train and would somehow be marching down the aisle to his chuppah in a diaper? Was I worried that if he didn’t train by a certain age then I had failed as a mother?  Was I worried about him or me?

He gifted me the ‘thank you’ because he heard me inviting him to an action.  He heard that I had extended to him with consideration. His ‘thank you’ humbled me and I have never treated gratitude the same way since then.

This week’s parshah, Va’era, has Moses and Aaron in Egypt and the plagues begin.  But Moses is not the one to start the plagues, it is Aaron who turns the Nile into blood and it is Aaron who brings frogs from the Nile.  We know that when it comes to Torah, it is rare to see agreement in the commentaries, but in this instant there is agreement. Moses cannot harm the Nile, it must be Aaron.

While the Nile represented the instrument of death for the baby boys of Egypt, for Moses alone, it was a place of refuge and safety.  The Nile could have upturned the little ark Moses was floating in, but it did not. It kept him safe and brought him to the hands of Pharaoh’s daughter, the woman who would save him.  Moses cannot harm the Nile because he must show gratitude to its waters.

But is the Nile a living thing?  Must we show gratitude to inanimate objects? Interestingly, Judaism says we must.  There was a sage in the Talmud who would wrap his shoes carefully before discarding them.  When asked by his students why, he explained that those shoes kept his feet from harm for years and so he will treat them with respect to show his gratitude.  Of course, the shoes don’t know…but he does.

There was a rabbi who headed a yeshiva in Jerusalem in the 1980s.  His name was Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Gustman. He was the last ‘dayan’ (rabbinical judge) in Vilna before the Holocaust and when he fled, he hid in the forests.  Upon establishing his yeshiva after the war, he insisted that he, and only he, be the gardner of the grounds. Some students felt it was not respectful to have him fill that role and he answered, “my life was saved by the shelter of the bushes and the fruit of the trees”.  He said that he was expressing gratitude to the forest that sheltered him. The trees will never know…but he will.

So, Jewish environmentalism is not based on the logical argument not to poison the nest we live in.  That is an argument of self-interest. Jewish environmentalism sits on the idea of ‘Hakarat hatov’, gratitude.  We are forbidden to harm something that has treated us so well, that has fed us and sheltered us and quite literally given us the air we breath.  We are commanded to take care of the earth because it is how we say thank you.

And the Talmud takes it even further.  There is a verse in the book of Deuteronomy that commands us not to despise the Egyptian because we were a stranger in his land.  In other words, before Egypt enslaved us, we were welcomed in and fed during a famine. The Torah tells us we must not hate them, but the Talmud tells us we must never harm them.  Now it is not only about how we should feel but it is also about how we act toward them.  

Except, are we supposed to simply erase the sufferings and the torture of slavery?  Of course not. Human suffering is never to be ignored, but should the pain of it be perpetuated?  The Torah tells us to learn from our Egypt experience. Never treat the stranger badly, never turn away someone in need.  But our suffering in Egypt ended, we were brought to freedom and the Torah tells us we were paid before we left. In other words, learn what we need to learn from the suffering in order to create a positive future.  Carry the lesson forward, not the hatred.

The opportunities to ‘recognize the good’, the moments that slip by us and are then lost, but with a simple thought to gratitude, we could change so much.  Maybe the next time a guest thanks us for our hospitality, instead of automatically saying ‘you’re welcome’, we could stop ourselves and sincerely express, ‘thank you for your visit.’

Parshat Shmot: Sugar and Spice

This Shabbat we start reading the book of Shemot (Exodus).  And the first parshah takes us quickly into the land of women.

For any of the men reading this, be aware that I am venturing into female territory – discussing ‘womens’ things.  To refer to the sage advise of Bette Davis: fasten your seatbelts, boys, you’re in for a bumpy ride.

To begin, there are topics women discuss easily with each other and the moment these topics arise I witness men finding ways to leave the room.  When I was young, if my sister and I ever mentioned our periods, my brothers couldn’t get away fast enough. When my daughters likewise mentioned it, my sons would diplomatically excuse themselves and only come back into the room after checking if it was ‘safe’.

But for women, these kinds of topics are so much part of our reality, so frequently part of our mundane, that we forget not everyone around us shares these things.  When my oldest daughter began her cycles, I went through all the beautiful concepts of maturity and womanhood with her. Everything was perfect until she realized this would happen every month.  She was then pretty angry – it’s beautiful once in a while but what did I mean EVERY month?!? By the time my youngest daughter crossed that threshold she was so used to hearing about it from her sisters that she had no hesitation communicating why she was moody.  I had to put my foot down when she would curl into a ball, snap at her brothers and then exclaim: ‘Leave me alone, my ovaries are killing me!”

What is mundane and routine for one gender can be totally opaque to the other.  I remember the predicament of watching feminine hygiene commercials with my sons in the room.  They weren’t curious about what the products were for (they were quite young at the time) but they were livid that girls get something with ‘wings’ and they don’t.  In their minds their sisters get to be airborne with these things – why don’t they get to fly too?!

We all get to a point of accepting that some things will be natural to one gender and somewhat enigmatic to the other.

I raise all this because this week’s parshah talks about Israelite women giving birth in Egypt and the midwives who attend them.  Pharaoh has issued an edict for the midwives to kill all the baby boys. The midwives refuse. But why would Pharaoh command midwives to do his dirty work?  He has soldiers, he has unlimited ways to get the job done. The problem he faces is that while a conquered people will endure almost anything, they do it in the hopes that the future for their children will be better.  People will bear the burdens put upon them as long as they feel they can protect their children. If a tyrant targets the children, he is risking a revolt. Pharaoh is a brilliant tyrant, we see it again and again in text. He is instructing the midwives to kill the baby boys on the birthing stones so the mothers won’t know what they did. Present the baby as stillborn.

And here is where we delve into the world of women.  In the ancient world, women did not give birth lying on a bed. That would be silly, because then the women are pushing a baby laterally while gravity is pulling the baby downward.  Women would squat on stones that allowed gravity to help with the delivery. As any pregnant woman can tell you, there comes a point in the pregnancy when your can no longer see anything below your belly button.  Whatever is below that sight line is a blind spot. So, a woman giving birth in ancient Egypt cannot see the baby birthing. The midwife will narrate everything and then produce a baby…or not.

But these midwives, these women in charge of ushering life into the world, defy Pharaoh’s edict.  So he commands that the babies be ‘given’ to the Nile. Make it a religious sacrifice – anything but an open attack on the children.

Pharaoh is set up in the text as the destroyer, while the women are set up as the life givers and Egypt now represents a world of black and white. When Moses is born, he is a male rescued by women and named for Pharoah’s daughter.  He is the intersecting moment of black and white that produces the grey zone. It is only then that Israel can be redeemed.

Often times in today’s world, we crave the simplicity of black and white definitions.  We leave the room when we don’t want to hear the other opinion or entertain another point of view.  We might think we’re avoiding being uncomfortable, but maybe avoiding Egypt is worth a bit of discomfort

Letting Go of My ‘Do Over’

Parshat Vayichi introduces a question we’ve all asked at one time or another.  What if I had a chance for a ‘do over’ with something in my life? What if I could go back to a moment in the past and live it again so I could do it differently?

The parshah begins with Jacob on his deathbed.  We are told he has lived in Egypt for 17 years. It seems like one of those moments that the Torah gives us a detail for the sake of…giving us a detail.  Until you remember that Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. In other words, the time of Joseph’s youth, living in Jacob’s home, the time that went so wrong – that same amount of time was gifted back to Jacob in Egypt.  Could he make these last 17 years wonderful, to ‘do over’ the first 17 years?

But we see Jacob on his deathbed and we don’t see the wonderful father-son bond that he might have built with Joseph.  Jacob tells Joseph to bring his sons for a blessing but then doesn’t recognize those sons when he sees them. When Jacob crosses his hands to bless his grandsons, Joseph tries to correct him and Jacob assures him he knows what he’s doing.  There is no heartfelt hugging, no lamenting the years wasted, no tears are shed until that dreaded moment when Jacob slips away. Only after Jacob dies does Joseph break down in grief and you’re left to wonder if the grief is for the lives and opportunities that came and went without connection.

The ‘do over’ never works.  Jacob redid the 17 years without being able to change anything.  He still looks at Joseph and is reminded of his lost love, Rachel.  He so much as says so in his last moments. ‘Do overs’ don’t work because we are still the same people who made the choices we made, so the answer will never lie somewhere in a past event.  The key is not to go backwards but to go forwards.

Jacob tells Joseph he will adopt and bless Joseph’s sons: Ephraim and Menasheh.  It is in these last moments of his life that Jacob stops searching for Rachel in every family face and begins to look forward.  Joseph is the child who found his world outside of the family. Joseph succeeded in a foreign culture, married a foreign woman and raised foreign children…and he thrived.  Joseph is the child who stepped outside of his Judaism because he couldn’t find his place within. While there were moments in Jewish history when that reality would cause parents to disown their children, how interesting that the Torah does not represent that parental choice.  Jacob reaches out to the future and tells Joseph that his choice to live outside Judaism need not be extended to his children. Jacob adopts his grandchildren and blesses them with the balance of their two worlds. Their names represent Joseph’s two lives. Menashe is the eldest and his name means thanking God for forgetting the suffering of Jacob’s house.  Ephraim is the younger and his name means that God made Joseph fruitful in his new life. One name is negative while one name is positive. One represents the old world and one represents the new. One speaks of a Jewish struggle unresolved while the other speaks of embracing a foreign world of opportunities. Thank God Jacob crosses his arms when he blesses them.  He is becoming the conduit that will transfer the positive onto the negative and vice versa. He blesses them with finding the balance of their two worlds.

Jacob is the patriarch we question the most about his family life.  His partnering skills, having married two sisters while clearly preferring one, as well as his parenting skills, preferring Joseph so overtly, all make us question his judgment.  Yet, in his final moments, he owns all his shortcomings and finally looks to the future. Joseph’s Jewish dilemmas do not define how Jews should look at his children.

Today there are many challenges within the Jewish world.  Families are still thrown into turmoil when a child decides their life is more fulfilled outside of their Jewish roots.  Often, loved ones will reject the people involved, not only the choice they made. Future generations, future possibilities, everything closed forever because of the pain of the moment.  Hours spent wishing for a ‘do over’. But one of Jacob’s eternal strengths is to teach us that it’s never too late. Parenting is never about going back to do it again, it is always about looking at the next step and parenting moments will fill every breath we take, right up to the last one.  

The generations that unfold before us are filled with unique individuals who deserve offers of connection at every turn.  With all of our concerns about Jacob’s relationship judgment, we continue to bless our sons every Friday night as Jacob did.  Our hands rest on their heads and we pray that God should make them like Ephraim and like Menasheh.

We do the same thing with our daughters.   Hands on their heads, we pray that God should make them like Rachel and Leah.  But Leah was older and she was the first wife. Her name should come first. But, again, Leah lived a negative existence while Rachel was so cherished.  We reverse the names of the Matriarchs to bless our daughters with balance. May God help all our children find the balance in their worlds. We thank Jacob for showing us that the ‘do overs’ of our past actually lie in our future choices.

Parshat Vayigash: The Human Family Blood, Sweat & Tears

I was on vacation with my family for 10 days, together, 12 of us, in one house with one virus we all shared.  Like dominoes, one by one, each of us developed a cough, a fever, aches, pressure in the sinuses…and lousy moods.  Innocent questions of ‘how did you sleep’ were often met with variations of responses from ‘how do you think I slept’, to ‘what did you mean by that’.

We struggled to understand why medicines we can get on the shelf at home were only available by prescription where we were.  In moments of respite, we played games together in one room until someone started to cough at which point we all pulled our shirts over our mouths and noses.  People were sent into their rooms for the duration as others dreamed of bathing in hand sanitizer.  

In the midst of the roller coaster of vacation get-away and sickness overload, I heard someone ask a sibling why they were moody.  The question was posed as: isn’t blood thicker than water? And because we were all stuck in a house together and had already talked about anything interesting, and because…we are who we are… we argued about whether or not that phrase makes any sense.

If it’s a declaration of fact, then of course blood is thicker than water…big deal! (Amazing how being sick robs you of any sense of nuance or compassion).  But the phrase is used to indicate that family is more important than other things. How do blood and water mean that? We all agreed that ‘blood’ is family, but then how does ‘water’ mean everything else?

In my family there are history buffs and the historic phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than water’ was volunteered as a source.  Pooling the information people had, as well as a quick check on the internet (which, by the way, doesn’t know much about the phrase), here’s what we came up with:

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is an image of warfare. Those who spill blood together with you on the battlefield are more your family than your biological family – ‘water’ being the waters of the womb.  Your brothers-in-arms should come first.

OR

  1. The ‘blood of the covenant’ is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ.  When women would join a convent they were taught that the ‘blood’ of Jesus as redeemer is thicker than their biological families.  The church family should come first.

So, it actually never means that family should come before all else.  It clearly means the opposite!

Yet, there’s no question that it is ALWAYS used with the intention of saying that family should always come first.  But, in a way, it opens the possibility of defining families as those with whom we strike a covenant. It is not the womb alone that defines a family and the pull we feel toward it.

A friend of mine is adopted and she knew from her earliest memory that she was adopted.  Her parents put it to her that she was ‘chosen’. In fact, they explained to her that they felt bad for other families because other parents were stuck with what they got but her parents felt lucky because they got to choose her.  She was told that she was born of their hearts.

This idea of family by choice speaks clearly in this week’s parsha, Vayigash.  Jacob and his family have been brought to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. In fact, it is Pharaoh who commanded that they all come to Egypt.  Pharaoh is not unbiased in this matter. In essence, Pharaoh adopted Joseph when he renamed him, gave him a wife and a job as second in command.  Pharaoh has heard that Jacob, the biological father, is still alive. As the head of an empire family, Pharaoh knows ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.  Jacob must appear before him.

When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, they both realize they represent different families to Joseph.  Jacob is the family of birth, while Pharaoh is the family of choice. Why else did Joseph never send for his father in all the years of Egypt?  One of Pharaoh’s first questions of Jacob is to ask how old he is (in other words, how much longer do I have to worry about you). Jacob answers by saying ‘I’m old but I come from a line of people of longevity’, (I might be old now, but I’m not as old as I’m going to get – I’m not going anywhere fast).  Interesting response, since earlier Jacob stated that he only wants to live long enough to see Joseph, then he can die. Now, with Pharaoh in the picture, he suddenly indicates he’s got a lot of living to do.

There are many relationships in our lives and we build many families around us.  Some feel the commitment of blood should surpass all else while others feel the commitment of loyalty should define.  The Torah commands us to behave a certain way toward family, without stating that the family of birth is of preference to all others.  Family is a foundation from which we build more families and we define and navigate peace within our families – all of them.

As Pharaoh and Jacob stand facing each other, I can’t help but think each of them, in their own cultural language, is looking at the other and thinking ‘but blood is thicker than water’ and they’d both be right.