Torah Portion Bo – Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

They baked the dough which they had brought out of Egypt into cakes of unleavened bread. For it had not become leavened, since they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. – Exodus 12:39
Matzah is known as the bread of affliction. But what exactly is that affliction? Is it a reminder of the affliction of Egyptian slavery, or an ongoing affliction to the Jewish people who have to eat it?
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (obm) taught that having to eat matzah on Pesach was actually a punishment, or at the very least, a negative consequence of their not having been prepared to leave Egypt. Rabbi Wolf questioned if the Israelites knew that the final plague was coming, after which the Pharaoh would let them go, why were they not ready for when it happened? There was certainly enough time for the dough to rise that last night had they prepared it, but they waited until it was too late! Why did they not prepare bread for the journey ahead? According to Rabbi Wolf, they did not prepare provision for the journey out of Egypt because they did not believe it was actually going to happen! They had enough time, but they did not have enough hope! And because of their lack of hope, they, along with every generation to follow, were afflicted with the punishment of having to eat that dry, tasteless piece of cardboard we call matzah.
The problem with this, of course, is that many of us LIKE matzah! Matzah with cream cheese, fried matzah, matzah lasagna, matzah toffee, matzah farfel, matzah pizza, and of course those forever favorites, matzah balls! (I prefer floaters to sinkers.) And did I mention milk chocolate covered bread of affliction? Hardly a punishment!
But therein lies another important lesson. Looking back, we as a People have had an ability to take the bitter challenges with which God/history/tradition have afflicted us, and to morph them into opportunities to bring sweetness into our lives and our world. Whether in response to the woes of Jewish history or the personal pains we all face, our response has been one of hope and affirmation. We have focused, not on what was no more and could never be again, but on what remained and could never be taken away. Ours has been and remains an imaginative response, using the creative artistry we have developed through the years to respond to the Torah’s call to “choose life!”
The Jew lives with hope! As I have written before, hope is not wishful thinking that blinds us to reality. Hope is the knowledge that whatever happens, we will have the means to cope with it in life-affirming ways. To paraphrase an old joke, when the next flood comes, we will simply learn to live and thrive under water.
They say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Jewish history and heritage says when life gives you matzah, cover it with chocolate!

Shabbat Vaeira: What God did to Pharaoh God does to us all

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.– Exodus 7:3

This verse, along with the many that follow which indicate that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, poses one of the most difficult conundrums faced by Jewish philosophy. If God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he would not let the Israelite slaves leave Egypt, was that not depriving Pharaoh of his free will? And if Pharaoh had no freedom of choice, how could he be held accountable for his actions?

Through the ages, there have been a number of different responses. We note that during the first five plagues, Torah records that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Only after Pharaoh has hardened his own heart so many times does God take over and keep it hard. In line with this, my rabbi, Fred Schwartz (z”l), citing Maimonides, taught that Pharaoh had made so many evil choices in the past that he himself had relinquished his own free will. “Most people commit evil; Pharaoh BECAME evil.” And if we understand “God” as representing human nature, then Erich Fromm’s words concur: “‘The more man’s heart hardens, the less freedom he has to change; the more he is determined by previous action…there comes a point of no return, when man’s heart has become so hardened… that he has lost the possibility of freedom.” (You Shall Be as Gods, 1966, p. 101)

This, I think, is the implication of the words of Pirkey Avot (4:2): “one mitzvah precipitates another mitzvah and one sin begets another sin.” The more that one performs a mitzvah, the more inclined one is to do it again. The more one commits a sin, the greater the possibility that one will sin again and again. Behavior shapes character. What we do defines who and what we are.

I learned another interpretation this week from one of this Shabbat’s B’nai Mitzvah, Madeline Lee. Paraphrasing Maddie’s d’var Torah, Pharaoh’s heart had become as hard and cold as ice. He remained unmoved by the suffering of the Israelites and was even indifferent to the suffering inflicted on his own people as a result of the stance he was taking. This is in line with another understanding which suggests that in hardening (or freezing) Pharaoh’s heart, God was in fact restoring Pharaoh’s free will. Having a hardened heart meant that he was strong enough to resist any coercion or even influence, human or divine. His decisions were freely made, even in the face of all that plagued him and his people.

My understanding of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is based on a slightly different understanding of what it means that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. I understand “hardened his heart” to mean “strengthened his resolve.” Pharaoh’s choices were freely made. He was able to hold on to his position as long as he did because God granted him strength, resolve, perseverance, determination, and perhaps even courage. These are things which emanate, not from the brain, but from the gut, or, if you will, from the soul. In this sense, God did not take away Pharaoh’s free will but in fact gave him the courage of conviction that enabled him to defy the will of God.

This is consistent with my belief that a Power beyond calls up from deep Within the resources of courage and resolve in each of us, resources we might not have known were there, that enable us to do what we freely choose to do. Holding on to one’s moral position, even in the face of fierce opposition, takes resolve, determination, and sometimes courage. Likewise, holding on to one’s hope, even in the face of that which would drain us of hope, takes resiliency, energy, and courage always.

But regardless of the choices we make, each of us has a gut-full/soul-full of strength, energy, determination, and courage from which to draw when facing the many challenges of life. These resources enable us to live out the courage of our convictions, regardless of what those convictions might be.


Ephraim, Menashe, and the Blessing of Children

One of the enduring and endearing customs in the Rossoff home is the blessing of the children at the Shabbat table. Growing up, I asked God’s blessings on our two daughters with the words “Yesimech Elohim k’Sarah, Rivka, Leah, v’Rachel – May God make you like Sarah and Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, who carried forth the life of our People.” I blessed our two sons with these words, “Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’cheMenasheh – May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe, who carried forth the life of our People.” Fran would conclude by reciting the Priestly Blessing over them.

While we are enjoying our empty nest years, there is a palpable void around our Shabbat table when none of our children is there. That is why the Shabbat of Thanksgiving was so very special to us, since, for the first time in a long time, our four children, now ages 25-30, bowed their heads and together received these blessings.

Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah – these are familiar names to us. We know their stories and appreciate the strength, courage, and family devotion with which we would hope our daughters would be imbued. But who were Ephraim and Menashe? And what was so special about them that Jacob/Israel would, in last week’s Torah portion, declare that these would be the two names through which all future sons of Israel would be blessed?

There are many answers to this question. Here are two:

Menashe and Ephraim were the two sons of Joseph. Born and raised in Egypt, they walked like Egyptians, talked like Egyptians, and dressed like Egyptians. But on the inside, they were Israelites! Menashe and Ephraim were the first Jews to be raised in two civilizations. They had Hebrew names, but because Hebrew was their second language, they were the first Jewish children who had to go to Hebrew School! They embraced two civilizations, and still went on to become two of the largest tribes of Israel, carrying forth the life of our People. And is this not what we want for our children as well, they who also live in two civilizations?

The other reason we pray that our sons be like the sons of Joseph is that they are the first prominent brothers in Genesis who don’t fight, the first in which no sibling rivalry is even hinted at, even though there is justification for jealousy between them.

Take a look at the sweep of Genesis and you will note the thread of sibling rivalry running from the first chapters until the last. Time after time, the younger is put before the older and time after time, the result is conflict and family strife. The “younger superseding the older” motif begins with Cain and Abel, picks up with Ishmael and Isaac, continues with Esau and Jacob, and then through to Joseph and his brothers.

Joseph’s sons, the older Menashe and the younger Ephraim, are the last siblings to come on the scene. In last week’s portion, their grandfather Jacob calls them before him for a deathbed blessing. Joseph positions them in front of Jacob so that his father’s right hand would be placed on Menashe’s head, giving him the stronger firstborn blessing. But Jacob purposely crosses his arms and places the right hand on Ephraim’s head, once again giving preference to the younger brother. That preference is enshrined and perpetuated with Jacob’s proclaiming the formula of future blessings, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe,” the younger coming before the older. Once again, the younger brother “wins.”

However, this time when the younger supersedes the older, it does not matter. This time, there is no sibling rivalry, no jealousy, and no family strife. That is why we want our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe – they are the first two brothers who don’t fight. Despite their inverted roles, they don’t see themselves as rivals. They harbor neither resentment nor jealousy. At the end of Genesis, Menashe and Ephraim bring the saga of sibling rivalry to a happy close and exemplify the words of the Psalmist: “Hiney mah tov – How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in peace.” And again, who would not want to see that kind of brotherly love among their sons?

Come to think of it, would we all not want our sons to have the strength, the devotion, the courage, and dedication to family of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah? Likewise, would we not like our daughters to have the sibling loyalty of Ephraim and Menashe?  I believe that deep down in the heart of just about every Jewish parent is the wish that his/her child(ren) live and thrive in two civilizations, as these two sons of Joseph did long ago, living meaningful Jewish lives in a non-Jewish world, carrying forth the life of our People!


Angels or Sheep?

Parashat Vayetzei – Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

As this portion begins, Jacob is fleeing home, running for his life from his brother Esau. He is going east to be with relatives he has never met. Never has he been so far from home. Never has he crossed over the borders of Canaan. Questions race through his head: “Will I ever see my parents again? Will I ever go home?”

With rocks for his pillow, Jacob lies down and falls asleep. He dreams of a sulam, a ladder or ramp, with angels going up and down, up and down. And at the top is Jacob’s ancestral God, who reassures him that God would always be with him wherever he went and would someday bring him home. Jacob names the place Beth El, the Home of God. Beth El represents the border between Jacob’s home and his exile, leaving behind his past and walking towards his future. Holding on to his dream, Jacob crosses over.

Jacob finds his cousin Rachel and is smitten. Deeply in love, he vows to work seven years in her father Laban’s flocks. But in the dark of the wedding tent, Laban substitutes Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Clearly, Laban is a less than savory character.* We first met him in an earlier portion when Abraham’s servant found Laban’s sister, Rebecca, as a possible wife for his master’s son. A “material man,” Laban sees only the wealth this stranger would bring if Rebecca were to marry the son of the rich man from Canaan. Laban has an agenda of his own.

Returning to this week’s parashah, Jacob vows to care for Laban’s sheep for another seven years in order to marry Rachel. He then works another six years to tend to and build up Laban’s flock, as well as his own. Throughout those 20 years, Laban cheats and exploits Jacob, but, with divine oversight, Jacob’s flocks flourish. Still, he is never at home working for his father-in-law, and begins to extricate himself and his family from Laban’s grip. He brings Leah and Rachel out to the field to explain why this is the time to leave their home. There, Jacob shares with them a dream he had just had. His dream was about sheep. In Jacob’s dream, the male sheep were going up upon the female sheep, resulting in more sheep.

According to some, it was this dream that tells Jacob it is time to leave. Thinking back to his dream 20 years earlier, he realizes how much his dreams have changed on the Laban side of the border. The dream at Beth El was very different than his latest dream, but the two dreams had one thing in common. In each dream, there was something or someone going up. In his youth, he dreamt of angels going up on a ladder that linked heaven and earth and reached all the way to God. Now, the only thing that is going up is mating sheep. Before, he was dreaming of angels. Now, he is dreaming of sheep. And if his dreams are so altered, it must be a reflection of how much of what was important in his life has changed and how much of who he had been was left behind. To be sure, Jacob worked hard to provide for his growing family, as parents must. But had he been so embedded in his father-in-law’s culture of avarice, so determined to accumulate his own wealth, that the materialism of those around him skewed his character to the point of invading his dreams? Was he so consumed with the material needs of the present that he let go of the dream at Beth El? Had he repressed or simply ignored the life of the spirit that was once was his? Now it was time to face his past and reclaim his angels. It was time for Jacob to return home.

And what of our dreams? Those of us who are, or have been, providers know that when others depend on us, our lives – even our dreams – are no longer entirely our own. And that can be true even when we are not providers. But are there parts of us we’ve left behind at our own Beth El? Are there parts of us, precious, inner parts that we have ignored because they were fanciful, imaginative, spiritual, and visionary but not “practical?” What is populating our dreams today, angels or sheep? As it was for Jacob, is it time for us to cross back over and return home?

*According to the Rabbis, Laban is the “Aramean” of whom we read in the Haggadah who tried to destroy our family.