Saturday, January 31, 2009

Darkness on a Sunny Day:
A Bo’ ShulDrasha

On this bright Shabbat morning
I'd like to talk to you
about Darkness.

When God created heaven and earth,
at the very beginning of the תורה,
there was Darkness
on the face of the deep.

And when God was about to tell אברהם
that his children would be
“enslaved in a land not their own”
for 400 years,
אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָֿה גְֿדֹֿלָה
Fear and great Darkness
fell upon our first patriarch.

Generations later,
as the predicted oppression
and promised redemption
were winding up to their climax,
in our פרשה today,
swarms of locusts
like voracious clouds
blocked out the sky
and darkened the Egyptian landscape —
as if the eighth plague
were merely a hungry rehearsal
for the ninth.

Once again
פרעה reneged on his desperate deal
and refused to release the Israelites.

And so,
God instructed משה
to stretch his hand
out towards the heavens,
and Darkness
would descend on Egypt.
נְטֵה יָדְֿךָֿ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם
וִיהִי חֹשֶׁךְֿ עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ

That last phrase —
וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ —
has inspired speculation
for thousands of years.

The more naturalistic commentators
such as שמואל דוד לוצאטו
in 19th century Italy
understood וְיָמֵשׁ
to come from a root meaning ‘touch’
and explained that
the Egyptians had to grope their way
through the utter darkness
that no candle could counteract.

reading the verb the same way, ‘touch’
say that the plague of darkness
was so thick
that it was tangible.
Some of the great medieval commentators,
אבן־עזרא and ספורנו,
compare normal darkness —
the neutral absence of light —
to חשך מצרים,
which was a physical phenomenon;
not simply the lack of light, but some thing else.

Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston,
in “Moses, Man of the Mountain”,
her novelization of the life of משה
based on African-American traditions,
described חשך as a
“ crawling darkness
that had a life of its own.
It had body like the wind
and it heaved in motion
like the sea.”

It's easy to see
where this image of מכת חשך
as supernaturally-pea-soup-thick, lighthouse-fog darkness
came from —
in the very next verse after וְיָמֵשׁ חֹשֶׁךְֿ
we're told
that not only
did none of the Egyptians see each other
for the three days of the plague,
but that they also
would not —
or could not —
rise from their places.
They were unable to move.
As the מדרש puts it,
those who were sitting could not stand,
and those who were standing could not sit.
לְכָֿל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹֿתָֿם
all of the Israelites had light in their dwellings.

In the words of Sam Reinstein,
the Egyptians lost their freedom of movement.
בני ישראל had independent mobility,
while the Egyptians were confined like slaves.

The Egyptians groped blindly in the darkness
while the Israelites could see clearly.

Two late 19th early 20th century commentators,
ר' ברוך הלוי עפשטיין and ר' יעקב צבי מעקלענבורג
have a completely different take
on the plague of darkness.

It was not a thick fog
that fell from the sky
or a smothering paralysis
that afflicted פרעה and his people —
it was a thin skin
or cataract
that blinded each one of them
According to these two מפרשים,
חשך was a very personal plague.

At the Passover Seder
we quote Psalm 78,
and describe how God afflicted Egypt with
חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ
עֶבְֿרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה
מִשְׁלַחַתֿ מַלְאֲכֵֿי רָעִים
burning anger
wrath, rage and trouble
a delegation of messengers of misfortune.

ר' מעקלענבורג theorizes
that it was on the basis of this verse
that חכמת שלמה
the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ —
one of the lost Jewish writings
of the Second Temple Period —
describes the plague of darkness
unlike any other interpretation so far,
as anything but empty
of light or sound:

“...they were scattered under a dark veil of forgetfulness,
being horribly astonished,
and troubled with [strange] apparitions.”
“...noises [as of waters] falling down sounded about them,
and sad visions appeared unto them
with heavy countenances.”
“...there appeared unto them
a fire kindled of itself, very dreadful:
for being much terrified,
they thought the things which they saw
to be worse than the sight they saw not.”

Smothering, physical darkness.
Personal blindness.

Out of all these options,
what is this חשך?
How is it an appropriate punishment?
And how does it relate
to the irrational stubbornness
of the king of Egypt?

פרעה is trapped.
His country is battered
and broken.
This God of the Hebrews
is too powerful for him.
All משה is officially asking for
is a few days' vacation
so that בני ישראל
can celebrate a religious festival
in the wilderness.

But פרעה can't see the hand
in front of his face;
and he can't see tomorrow, either.

His world ran on slave power.
Asking him to release the Israelites
would be like asking us
to give up all electricity.

Who would build his storehouses?
Who would build his monuments?
Who would be the scapegoat,
the eternal ‘fifth column’
to blame for all of Egypt's misfortunes?

פרעה is blind to the value of freedom,
and unwilling to consider a new day.
He sees no future without slaves,
and so he sees nothing.

He is paralyzed by fear
and uncertainty,
unable to rise from his seat
because he is unable to take a stand.
He alternatively cowers in fear
before the power of God
and then hardens his own heart,
breaking all promises.
The smothering darkness
that rolls over him
manifests his own indecision.

And the “delegation of messengers of misfortune” —
the images,
the noises,
the nightmares
that filled the darkness
with monstrous apparitions
and horrid whispers?
We all fill the dark with mystery.
We imagine danger lurking
past the edge of every streetlight.

פרעה was afraid
of the unknown.

He was willing
to doom his country
to plague after plague
because he couldn't imagine
life without slavery.
His people could starve,
they could suffer and die,
as long as פרעה
didn't have to face a new and different tomorrow.
His world was being ripped apart around him,
and yet he was too scared to let go.

The תורה tells us
that while everything was dark for the Egyptians,
בני ישראל had light.

They saw the world around them,
and recognized that it was wrong.

They heard God's promise to their ancestors,
and knew that it was true.

They saw the road out of Egypt —
and although they didn't know
where it would take them,
or what would happen on the way,
they were willing to trust משה
and trust God
and imagine a future
in a Promised Land
better than the present.

It's a sunny day,
and the winter is half over.
ט"ו בשבט is just around the corner.
Soon it will be Spring,
and פסח will come,
and we'll be telling this story
all over again
at shul
and at home
with מצה and מרור.

פרעה was right about one thing —
no matter how bright the present is,
the future is uncertain
and therefore dark.
But with trust in God
and in each other,
we can meet that future
with open eyes,
and there will be light
for all of Israel
wherever we are.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Silver Lining / Chocolate Covered:
A Bo’ DvarTorah

By the beginning of this week's parasha, פרשת בֹּא, we've seen
seven plagues so far —
seven punishments
seven challenges
to the authority of the king of Egypt
and to the power of Egypt's gods.

And finally,
after the seventh plague —
after his land
is rocked
and shaken
by bombs of hail
falling from heaven,
it looks like פרעה
is finally
going to give in.

merely has to threaten
to bring the next plague,
the plague of ארבה,
and the image
of swarms of locusts
covering Egypt
like a voracious insectoid snowfall
sends פרעה's advisors
quaking in their sandals.

And they beg him,
הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַֿע כִּי אָבְֿדָֿה מִצְרָיִם!؟
“Don't you yet realize
that Egypt is lost?!”

So פרעה is about to give in
to God and משה's demands —
but when he finds out
that they want him
to release the entire Israelite community —
the old, the young, men, women,
and their animals too —
for this ‘religious festival’ in the wilderness —
he changes his mind
once again.
And פרעה threatens them in return,
warning the representatives of בני־ישראל
that if he ever were to let them go,
or kick them out,
רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶֿדֿ פְּנֵיכֶֿם
“be aware that רעה—”
seemingly ‘evil’,
“—is against you!”

רש"י, quoting a מדרש,
offers the possibility
that רעה is the name
of an ill-omened star
that heralds blood and death;
similarly, Cassuto,
extrapolating on another מדרש,
identifies רעה
with the Egyptian sun-god Ra —
as if פרעה's silver lining
in this horrific plague experience
is that even if
he will eventually need to give in,
he's confident
that out in the barren desert,
his divine burning sun
would have the last laugh.
So פרעה refuses,
and the locusts come.

They come on an east wind,
חֵילִי הַגָּדֿוֹל
‘God's great army’
as the prophet יואל would describe them
hundreds of years later,
enough ארבה to cover the land;
in thick swarms that cast darkness over Egypt
as if to foreshadow the next plague,
חֹשֶׁךְֿ itself.

And as predicted,
the locusts eat all the food —
all the fruit and all the grain,
anything which had been lucky enough
to survive the earlier onslaught of ברד.

פרעה is seized by a momentary attack of conscience,
admits his sin,
and God reverses the wind,
blowing the ארבה out of Egypt,
back where they came from.

Why does God do that?
Why sweep the locusts away?
Why not leave them there,
to cover מצרים in rotting, stinking piles
like the aftermath of the frogs?
If it was good enough for צפרדע, why is ארבה any different?

When I was in sixth grade,
my נביא teacher, [name withheld for internet purposes],
told us a story
that her father told her
about growing up a little boy in Yemen.

Whenever there was a locust swarm,
the locusts would eat all the food;
and the people, left with nothing else,
would eat the locusts.
They would hold large baskets
under the trees,
and hit the trunks with sticks —
and the lazy, satisfied locusts
would drop from the branches
into the baskets below.

In מדרש רבה,
רבי יוחנן explains similarly
that when the ארבה came to מצרים,
the Egyptians rejoiced —
there was nothing left to eat,
and so they were very happy
to eat the locusts.

They gathered them
into pots and barrels
to cook and pickle them for food.

And then God said,
‘No. What do you think you are doing?!
You may not eat my plague!
This is a punishment,
not a smorgasbord.
This is my army of retribution,
not a crunchy snack.’

And so,
even the locusts
in the cooking pots
and the pickling barrels
hopped up
and flew away
on the west wind.

Part of being human
is confronting adversity
and making the best
of bad situations.

But being human
is only worth it
if it means
being humane.

When the ארבה were swept away,
God was telling the Egyptians
that there is no silver lining to this dark cloud.
Don't look for it. You don't deserve it.
I won't let you have it.

There is only one way
to make the best
of this bad situation,
and you already know what it is —
שַׁלַּח אֶתֿ עַמִּי וְיַעַבֿדֻֿנִי
“release my nation
so that they may worship me”.

Letting the Egyptians eat the ארבה
would have softened the blow of the מכה,
but it wouldn't have solved
the underlying problem.

Eating the ארבה,
as the saying goes,
would have been treating the symptom,
not the disease —
and in the end,
it took מכת בכורות,
the most drastic kind of amputation
to heal the cruel, merciless disfigurement
in Egypt's soul.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

From my friend LS —
What blessing do you say when you see [President] Barack Obama?

עושה מעשה בראשית


I'll let the people who are much more excited than I am to write the long speeches. I'll just say that even if you didn't vote for him, this should be a pretty darn cool day in American history (although I understand if you'd prefer it were someone else).

This is for the many thousands gone.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

(Modern) Orthodox Survey

This is a question for Modern (/Centrist/etc.) Orthodox Jews:

How old were you when you realized that to many people in the Non-Modern Orthodox world, "Modern Orthodox" is not a subcategory within Orthodoxy, but is actually a separate, Non-'Torah-True' movement?

I finally realized this in my mid-20's, not that long after I realized that growing up Modern Orthodox, I had/have no idea what Non-Modern Orthodox communities' religious standards, lifestyles and cultural norms are. Sometimes it's still surprising, though.

Monday, January 12, 2009

JNF Rabbinic Solidarity Mission

Blogger's Comments:

This is awesome! The RCA and the IRF are co-sponsoring, working together for (as far as I know) the first time ever [and hopefully it won't be the last time]! Also, there are Non-Orthodox shuls sponsoring this solidarity trip of Orthodox rabbis! Look at the unity! Hopefully this Solidarity Mission to Israel will help create more solidarity among ‘Am Yisra’el as a whole, too.

It was also leaked to me that "Joe the Plumber" was asked to meet them in Israel and report on the mission... it was not leaked to me, however, whether he said ‘yes’. Just have to wait and see.

Update: They've got their own BLOG, too!

(it's a press release)

*For Immediate Release*

Jewish National Fund
Rabbinic Solidarity Mission Leaves for Israel

(New York) January 12, 2009 — As the world watches the People of Israel endure the hardships and anxiety of war, 19 Orthodox Rabbis from all over North America along with several lay leaders will lift off to study Torah with their brethren in the Yeshivah of Sderot adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Ten more American Rabbinic colleagues and 20 Israeli Tzohar Rabbis will join the group on the ground in Israel. Together, in addition to Sderot, they will be visiting Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva in Israel’s Negev region, and Jerusalem. They will visit wounded solders, bring clothing and supplies to school children, comfort grieving families and meet with Israeli political representatives.

According to the mission’s participants their aim is, “To comfort those who have put their lives on the line for the Jewish people and to show that American rabbis and Diaspora Jewry, though far from the difficulties of war, stand in solidarity with the Jewish nation and its defense forces, appreciate their sacrifices on all our behalf's, and pray for peace together with them.”
Due to the limited time rabbis have to be away from their congregations, especially on the Sabbath, the group will only be in Israel for two days, returning by the coming Sabbath to be together with their congregations and report on what they have seen and experienced.

The mission is sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and partnered with Rabbanei Tzohar of Israel. The Beer Sheva portion is sponsored by the Goodman Family Foundation.

The mission is co-sponsored by the Rabbinical Council of America, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Hadassah, Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund, Rabbi Josh Lookstein, The William and Sarah Siegel Foundation, Robert M. Beren Academy of Houston, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation (Chicago), United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston, Temple Sholom of Chicago, East Hill Synagogue (Englewood, NJ), Congregation Beth Yeshurun of Houston, Susan and Max Reichenthal, Anonymous for Jerusalem

Thursday, January 08, 2009

All You Jews Bloggers Look Alike

This past Shabbos, at the end of shul in the morning, I was folding my tallis and putting it back in its bag (permitted by R' Moshe Feinstein for those of us who don't like other people messing with our stuff! ahem), when a guy who had been sitting in the row behind me addressed me as follows:
“Excuse me, are you Rabbi Gil Student?”

Uh... no.