Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

Parshat Shemot: Balancing Seventy Voices

I, like so many others, am at home during Ontario’s provincial lockdown.  My home now consists of five people (some of our kids are back in the house from university).  Five people in one home, all adults, all family, all with shared history and family experiences.  This lockdown should be a breeze, I mean, how different could we all be?

Generally speaking, most things run smoothly, but that is after we went through designating spaces in the house.  The tv room can’t be the hobby room, because some of the hobbies are loud (one of us has a loom) and some hobbies involve relentless pounding noises (one of us has decided to learn how to tan leather), while others are trying to focus on playing chess.  We finally agreed that the news updates should only happen on the tv in the kitchen, because the big tv is in the family room which has been designated as Switzerland — neutral territory so no news allowed.  Making that decision was not easy, since it sparked a spirited debate on whether Switzerland was truly neutral, and is anything in the world truly neutral, either by politics or by nature.  Some of us volunteered to cook, while others volunteered to clean (we decided to head to the self-defined chore system), which worked…until the people cooking communicated they didn’t mean every time and every meal.  Likewise, we had not defined whether the cleaning group could enter someone’s private house space in order to clean, or is everyone responsible for their own personal space.  

The other day, my daughter walked into the room and asked if anyone had given any thought to dinner.  The cleaners and the cookers all looked at each other, and the room went silent.  We are trying to be so respectful of everyone we have actually stalemated ourselves in certain moments.

It took years of ongoing discussion to modify our family model as we’ve grown and changed, but the usual model isn’t working anymore because anything we enjoyed doing outside has now struggled to find its place inside.  We did not account for needing a political model that would address our home reality.  When the children were growing up, our house was a dictatorship — my husband and I were the decision makers.  Temper tantrums were waited out and never gained the upper hand (we both agreed we don’t negotiate with terrorists).  The kids were taught that their opinions would always be heard, but life experience would empower their view, so the more life experience, the more weight to the opinion.  But our little oligarchy lost much of its force each time another child attained ‘adulthood’, as well it should.  And now, we are five adults together in the house searching for a political model.

Together we have discussed the differences between republics and democracies (decided neither will truly work for us).  Then we watched the political struggles in the United States, and our discussions gained many layers.

As a Canadian, I am mindful that we have a parliamentary system and a multicultural view.  Although we are close neighbours to the United States, we are distinctly different.  I watched a mob attack the Capital building in Washington, and could only imagine how my American neighbour might feel.  I could only imagine the shock and the heartbreak.

But after watching all the news reports and the videos, I read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot, with different eyes.

The book of Shemot (Exodus) begins with a list of names of Jacob’s descendants who came to Egypt.  After the names of his sons, it tells us that seventy people had all come from Jacob, and had all descended to Egypt.  Over the years, I have looked at the commentaries and opinions on why we need that information, since it seems more appropriate to the book of Genesis –all the people listed are long dead.  Then I thought of my current household.

We are all one family but we are all distinct in every way.  The number ‘seventy’ in Judaism represents all peoples and all nations.  It reflects the totality of diversity contained under the common umbrella of humanity.  Jacob, the single patriarch, had produced a clan of total diversity, and then they all entered Egypt, a tyrannical empire.  It is of no great surprise that they are noticed and viewed as a threat.  It is not the people that are threatening, it is the model.

While the text is detailing the names of everyone (the book itself is called Shemot, which means “Names”), pharaoh will always remain without a name.  In fact, we are told the old pharaoh died and a new pharaoh arose, and we still don’t have a name for either one of them.  The Torah will always refer to the king as “pharaoh”, because this model of leadership does not value the distinct individual, and so no name is attached.  History will continue to perpetuate our understanding of that model through the development of the title.  The last pharaoh of ancient Egypt was Ptolemy XV Caesar (nicknamed Caesarian) who reigned with his mother, Cleopatra.  It is from his name, Caesar (named after Julius Caesar) that the title persists into the word Tsar (Czar) and Kaiser.  They are all words that track back to ‘Caesar’, which tracks to pharaoh.  

Interestingly, the Torah never gives Moses a title, we are always on a first name basis with him, but we never know pharaoh’s first name, only his title — two distinct models of leadership.  As the leadership model is forming with Moses, the model of the people is also forming.  All of Israel must learn how to retain their distinct voices while sharing a common vision of the future.  The Israelite slaves who leave Egypt will struggle with this their entire lives as they expect Moses to behave like a pharaoh and tell them what to do.  They never quite understand that without distinct and different opinions, we do not learn discourse or dialogue, and we cannot learn resolutions.  They always speak to Moses as a mob, and when we speak as a mob we return to Egypt.

There is a wonderful story from the village of Chelm, that Jewish place where the logic could be sideways but the insights are always there.  One night, a great fire is raging in the village.  The rabbi gathers everyone together for a blessing.  He addresses the village and says he will now lead them in a blessing of gratitude.  Everyone asks how he could possibly think of gratitude at this moment.  The rabbi responds that without the illumination from the fire, they could not see where the buckets are to put it out.

No one wants the fire, but when it happens, do we want to focus our eyes on the damage of the fire and blind ourselves by its glow? Perhaps the preferred choice would be to search for what it has shown us that we didn’t realize we should always have valued.

As I get ready for Shabbat, I listen to the sound of the loom, the silence of the chess game and the tv turned to the news in my kitchen.  The balance of a working political model is always delicate, and should never be underestimated.

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Parshat Vayeishev: I Will Send You a Little Candle

Happy Chanukah everyone!  The days are getting shorter, darkness is extending its hours, so what a blessing that we are filling our homes with increased light by adding a candle everyday.  

There’s a beautiful midrash that says Adam became depressed the first time he noticed the darkness increasing in the winter.  God assured him that such is the way of the world, and in the future his descendants would find ways to bring light to the darkness.  Adam was comforted with the knowledge of future possibilities.

I remember lighting Chanukah candles as a child and loving everything about them.  I would sing songs in rounds with my sister, while my brothers played the ‘how close can I put my finger to the fire’ game.  We would light the candles in birth order —oldest got the first candle, second candle was second oldest, etc.  I’m third in line so the third day of Chanukah was my special day.  Christmas was always around the same time, and I remember watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, and learning all the Christmas songs from TV.  I grew up enjoying Chanukah, and singing Christmas songs with my favourite cartoon characters.  I knew the difference between Chanukah and Christmas, and I knew Christmas was not part of my home, but I still appreciated seeing the neighbour’s beautiful lights, and singing along with the TV.  When I was a student in Israel, I loved Chanukah but felt disoriented by not seeing Christmas lights.  I didn’t realize how much they had become part of my world.  One year in Israel, I drove the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem because that road had Christmas lights.  I remember the feeling very well—I wasn’t feeling Christian at all, I was feeling Canadian.   A few days later I realized how much I missed snow.

Chanukah is always layered for Jews outside of Israel.  We have many other cultural realities that ground us even when we don’t realize it’s happening.  It’s easy to understand how one of the themes of Chanukah, in its original historical context, was for Judaism to question how much of Hellenism should we accept as an influence.  How much of the outside world should we let in?

Once we begin to peel the layers of Chanukah, the levels of meaning start speaking out.  There is a powerful connective moment between Chanukah and this week’s Torah reading that occurs in a tent, in ancient Israel, as we watch twins being born.

This week’s portion, Parshat Vayeishev, tells of Joseph’s sale into slavery and his odyssey in Egypt.  But sitting in the middle of the narrative is the story of Judah and Tamar.  Joseph’s brother, Judah, has locked his daughter-in-law, Tamar, into a quasi-marriage bind.  She was married to his son, who died, and she was subsequently married to his brother, who also died.  She must now marry the youngest brother in order to produce an heir.  These laws are the Levirate laws of marriage within the Torah.  However, Judah, her father-in-law, will not have her marry his last son, and now she can never marry anyone else.  Without question, this is an injustice that Judah is creating and perpetuating.  Tamar is caught in an endless bind and faces a future of loneliness from which she has no way out.  So, she plans and executes one of the most daring and innovative moments in all of Torah.

In order to produce the heir that will release her from this injustice, Tamar tricks Judah (her father-in-law) into cohabiting with her (she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat at the crossroads) — she conceives twins.  Amazing narrative so far, but the birth of the twins is what will grab our attention.

During the birth, the Torah states that one twin extended his hand outside the womb, and the midwife tied a red strand around his hand in order to know who was born first.  But that twin pulls his hand back into the womb, and now the second twin was fully born…first?  Who is the eldest?

The first twin stated intent and excitement to enter the world first, but changed his mind.  The second twin completed his birth first, but does that make him the eldest if the first twin already reached out of the womb?  If the first born is the one to engage in the service to God (ancient world rules), which twin would that be?  In today’s terms, who are they doing a ‘Pidyon haben’ for?  In the ancient world, who is the heir?  Most importantly, who is the next leader?!

Leadership in Judaism has gone through many changing models.  The ancient world dictated that the eldest should be the next leader, but although Abraham’s eldest was Ishmael, leadership went to Isaac, Abraham’s second born.  Isaac had twin boys, the eldest was Esau, but leadership went to Jacob, the younger brother.  Jacob then has many sons, the eldest of which is Reuben, but Jacob wants Joseph to be the leader, and the brothers revolt.  The outside culture is defining how leadership should transfer, but covenant is pushing against that, ultimately to break the influence.

Judah, the fourth eldest, will ultimately lead the brothers, and subsequently, the tribe of Judah will lead Israel.  The word ‘Judaism’ is a tribute to Judah as leader by merit, not birth order.

We continue to reject the foreign model as we look at Chanukah and the leaders of that moment.  Matityahu is the father who gathers his five sons together in the revolt against the Seleucid Empire and the influence of Hellenism.  When Matityahu is killed, it is Judah, his son, who takes over leadership.  Judah the Maccabee is not the eldest, he is third in line.  He has been designated leader based on his merit and his actions, not his birth order.

Tradition tells us that the confusing birth in Tamar’s tent speaks to our need to dismiss birth order as leadership.  We don’t physically know who was born first, since we’re not sure if a hand reaching into the world connotes emergence from the womb.  The second twin, the one who pushed past his brother, and his brother’s red string, is named Peretz (it means the one who burst out).  Peretz is an ancestor of Boaz, who will marry Ruth, who will give us David, who will give us the Messiah.  Tradition draws the roots of the Messiah back to Tamar, a woman who refused to ignore an injustice in the world, and took matters into her own hands.

Along with everything else Chanukah gives us, we should always remember that Judah the Maccabee earned his leadership, and led his followers to fight an evil empire.  Judah was not the oldest, he would not have lit the first candle of Chanukah, but he shows us, again, that every person shapes their place, and each one of us has the opportunity to burn brightly.

Rachael’s Centre is excited to invite you to Eight Illuminating Chanukah Insights – A sponsored shiur event – on Tuesday December 15th at 7:30pm ET. RSVP here.