Parshat Va’etchanan: If I Could Walk In Your Shoes I’d Have Bigger Feet

One of my daughters told me about a book club she recently organized.  She didn’t mean to organize it, it just ended up that way.  It wasn’t even her idea, it was the result of a friend telling her that isolation was getting to her and she couldn’t take any more virtual relationships —she needed “real.”  And so the idea of an actual book club, where people sit together (socially distanced) in one place (outside) and share thoughts on a book (since they are socially distanced, they will be sharing these thoughts with 4 neighbours who are also in their yards) was born.  

The idea was great, but within a few days, her friend told her she was having difficulty finding friends to bring.  All of her friends were busy reorganizing their lives, working from home, streaming media on their devices, too overwhelmed to commit to an actual meeting together once a month, or to pledge to finish reading the book.  My daughter (continuing to feel compassion for her friend who wants the “real” experience) found a friend who agreed to find more people. (She told me the second person she found is the sister of the first person since it was indeed a challenge to get someone to agree to an actual “real” obligation these days).  Soon, friends were finding friends and a book club was formed.  Everything went fine and just as they were getting ready to meet for the first time, one month away, the friend tells my daughter she’s not sure she can be there because she had to go to the United States for an important event and when she gets home she will have to self-isolate for 2 weeks.  My daughter reminded her that the book club has been organized for her.  The friend assured my daughter she could be there…virtually.  “Just plug in your laptop in the backyard and zoom me in,” said the friend.  

As my daughter was telling me this story I started laughing, at which point she told me that she’s not sure how she got into this position but she is now leading a book club (she didn’t want) with a friend, a ‘sister’ and multiples of people (she’d never met) hosting them in her backyard with a computer plugged in for all the neighbours to share in this “real” experience she suggested while trying to help a friend.  I couldn’t stop laughing, the only thought in my head was that this book club should come with only one rule: we never talk about book club (for anyone who’s seen the movie Fight Club, that rule will make sense —for anyone else —it’s a good movie if you’re looking for something to watch because you’re not currently in a book club.  If you’re in a book club, it’s also a good book).

Compassion and empathy for others can get all of us into a labyrinth of strategic planning and twists and turns that often lead us to places we never planned.  In fact, we often use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’ as if they are synonyms — they are not.  While Judaism acknowledges the nuances of difference with all of these terms, it doesn’t name them all, but it does show, by example, what the differences are.

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud of a rabbi who helps a colleague rise from his sickbed.  After a discussion on the advantages of suffering (which the sick person concludes isn’t worth the price), the rabbi extends his hand and leads his friend to health.  Soon after, another rabbi falls ill and the now recovered rabbi visits his sick friend.  They also explore the depths of suffering but now the sick rabbi is beginning to pull his friend into the realm of despair along with him.  His friend remembers how he was helped to health and so he asks the bedridden rabbi if there is value to this moment of suffering.  The sick rabbi responds that he doesn’t want this suffering and the friend extends his hand and leads his colleague to health.

Sympathy is when I feel bad for you, empathy is when I realize I have been in your place and I can help you.  The first is an emotion that churns within me, the second is my insight that leads me to act.  When we sympathize with each other, we can be pulled into the dark moments of those we are trying to help; when we empathize with each other, we can find ways out of the darkness together because one of us remembers the road out.

In this week’s parshah, Va’etchanan, Moses is pleading with God to be allowed to enter the land of Israel.  It is heartbreaking to hear his anguish and even more difficult to read that God has told Moses to stop asking for it —essentially telling Moses that this particular prayer will not be answered and it’s hurtful so the request must stop.  Sympathy for Moses will lead us further into our personal theological questions of our relationship with God.  It should lead us there.  But Moses goes on to teach empathy.

Moses immediately instructs Israel that they must always be kind to strangers because we must always remember we were strangers in Egypt (sympathy) and that God led us out of that predicament to freedom (empathy).  If I only feel compassion towards someone who is suffering, I have misunderstood the point of the full statement Moses made.  I have been the stranger, I have been the slave, I have been the victim who stands alone, so I can now recognize this predicament when I see it in someone else.  Because I have a model of how to be redeemed from that horror, I can extend my hand and lead the stranger out.  I am commanded to be empathetic toward someone and not to only feel sympathy for them.  Every time we are told we were strangers in Egypt, we are immediately told that God brought us out.  It is a full model of moving from sympathy to empathy.  It is the way things will change.

My daughter now leads a book club of strangers in her backyard.  I imagine them sitting together and sharing new perspectives, without the audio lag of an online portal.  It started with a friend reaching out to another friend and a way to share some new perspectives sitting with real people amidst a global pandemic.  The answer seemed simple: let’s read some books together.  

We’ve all had our moments lately where we are ‘done’ with Covid and not sure what to do.  We all sympathize with each other and think of the now popular government slogan to remember “we are all in this together”, which only reinforces that we are all sharing the predicament.  I think we’re ready to empathize with each other and find the insights to move from sharing the predicament to enjoying the next step.  I can’t help but think of a rabbi, two thousand years ago, who extended his hand to a colleague and said ‘I’ve been where you are, I can show you the way out.’

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.

Don’t Make Me Turn This Car Around

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  This morning I woke up a little more stiff than usual.  There’s snow on the ground, I thought, there’s pressure in the air.  Maybe I slept in a strange position or maybe I twisted awkwardly yesterday…

…or maybe it’s the result of waking up a day older.  In the words of that famous rock and roll visionary legend: ‘what a drag it is getting old.’

Actually, I believe that age is a state of mind (as the cliche goes).  Though I’m the first to admit that I believe this because I often forget how old everyone in my family is, so as age affects my memory, I opt to believe it’s a state of mind – and round I go.  

The movement forward, the aging process, the journey of a life.

In this week’s parshah, Lech Lecha, we are introduced to a journey that will seed covenant and begin the Jewish people.  God approaches Abraham to accompany God toward…? He is told they are moving toward a place God will show him, in other words, an unknown destiny.  That means he doesn’t know where he’s going, so he won’t know when he gets there – a journey of life.

Not once does Abraham ask ‘are we there yet’, as none of us would ask that question of our life journey, though we always try and imagine the next stage.  I remember being a little girl and getting so excited as every birthday approached because I was getting closer to being a grown up. I remember thinking that when I become a grown up, everything will make sense.  Grown ups have it all figured out and never feel confused. I couldn’t wait to join that club. The journey of life is realizing I’m still waiting to find that club and ultimately understanding that this elusive club doesn’t exist.

Hundreds of years ago, a Protestant minister wrote about his belief that children blame themselves for everything that goes wrong because they understand that the world is run by adults.  Everything wrong in the world must be the result of demons (thinks the child) and if the adults are responsible, then the adults are demons and the world is run by the devil. But, if the child blames themselves for all the problems, then the world, which is run by adults (who are now angels) is a safe place.  Children must blame themselves and think they are the sinful ones or they will never believe the world could be a safe place.

But we know the child is wrong, the world is a confusing and often painful place and it has been impacted tremendously by terrible people.

So it seems that the words of Mick Jagger ring sadly relevant – what a drag indeed.

But then a curious and quirky moment of Torah catches my attention.  

Sarah and Abraham are about to enter Egypt and they are both in their 80s.  Abraham worries that Sarah will be taken into Pharaoh’s harem because of her beauty.  In fact, she is indeed taken into the harem because of her beauty. We all pause and wonder if 80 years old means something different in those days.  What is the average age of the women in this harem?

And then I remember the cover of a newsmagazine I saw years ago.  It was the face of a woman in her 80s, her face, etched with wrinkles, looked like a roadmap of her life.  The headline indicated she was an African woman and considered the most beautiful woman in the region. The article discussed how beauty was defined by life experience and not youth.  In a second I understood that anyone would be honoured and flattered to be chosen by this woman as a partner since she had so much experience she could quickly discern who was an exceptional partner.  Beauty is in the gathering of experiences – the more wrinkles the more beautiful.

Of course Sarah would now be in the harem.  Imagine what the challenges of an uncharted relationship with God would do to her countenance, to her eyes.

The Torah unapologetically shows us that getting older is getting more beautiful because wisdom is beauty.

And so we read of their journey with God, with each other and with the people around them.  As Jews we are taught that everything begins with Lech Lecha, God approaching Abraham to take a journey.  Interestingly, we disconnect this parshah from what happened immediately before it. Abraham did not begin a journey, it is his father, Terach, who began the journey.  His father took the whole family and left the Chaldeans and began a journey of discovery. Then, in the midst of the journey, Terach died and the family stagnated. They dwelled in the place of his death and did not move forward.  That’s when God approaches Abraham and tells him he must journey forward. It is both a statement pulling toward movement as much as a statement objecting to stagnation.

It’s a parallel concept to Shabbat.  We are equally commanded to be productive for 6 days as we are commanded to refrain on Shabbat.  The positive and the negative balancing each other.

So when I wake up stiff in the morning and the words from Mick Jagger enter my mind, I stretch and get the blood flowing.  I remind myself that I can hum the tune and smile at the words, but getting old only gives me more insight to the new travels I will begin.

Abraham and Sarah dislodge themselves, late in their lives, and begin their journey from where Terach left off.  Every Jewish person inherits their own version of the ‘lech lecha’ journey, but we do not set our feet on a newly created road made just for us.  If we glance backward we will see the road has been paved behind us. Abraham and Sarah continue the journey begun by Terach.  

God has told them they must never stagnate as we learn that the journey of a life takes longer than a lifetime.