You’re walking through the desert and you’ve been walking forever. You are walking away from something you’re trying to forget. You’re not sure what you should be walking toward, but you do know you have to walk. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. Until you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?
Parashat Shemot is the beginning of the story of Exodus, and it includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moves toward the strange burning, God calls out to him. “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, Hineini, “Here I am.” Hineini is a statement of focused presence. I am here. I am listening. I am ready.
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I am, I am, I am, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” says God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”
Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, but somehow they came with you – their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.
God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knows the sufferings of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. According to Rashi, God demonstrates that God is with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.
“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God says. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.
“I will be with you,” God says. “I will be with you.” God doesn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God doesn’t tell Moses “This is your job – now deal with it.” God doesn’t shut Moses down when Moses admits to his own impostor syndrome – something so many of us are familiar with. “I will be with you” is validating and honest. God never tries to convince Moses that the exodus will be easy. Instead, God shows Moses that he will not be on this journey alone.
People often feel isolated when we face challenges, alone in our personal deserts, waiting for a bush to burn. I can talk with multiple people in the same week who are facing similar challenges, but they all think that they are the only one. It’s tough to combat feelings of loneliness because vulnerability is scary – our own and the vulnerability of others. Of course we are compelled to walk away from it all, to face the suffering of others by suffering alone.
This is why God’s promise, “I will be with you” is such a powerful and healing response. When we don’t actually know the outcome of a situation, “It’s all going to be ok” is hard to swallow, and “just stay positive” can feel like blame. Validation and acceptance create a safe space for real growth and change. “Yes, this is really hard. It feels impossible. And yet, here I am with you, and I will stay.” My friend Donovan likes to say “Your presence is the medicine.” When there’s not much to say to someone who is suffering, being present is enough. Presence means you’re not walking away. Presence says “Your pain is not taboo.” Presence says “You have not lost me, even if you feel like you have lost everything.” Presence says “Hineini,” Here I Am. I am listening. I am with you. Like Moses, most of us just need to know that we are not alone.
In honor of this parsha, and its arrival at a time of continued fear and uncertainty in the face of rising virus numbers, I encourage you to really listen to your friends and loved ones, to seek an understanding of their suffering. Listen to what your loved ones are saying and not saying, and check your assumptions when you’re about to offer advice. A simple “I will be with you,” may be more than enough. Suffering is hard, and isolation makes it harder. Your presence is the medicine. Only together can we do the work of healing.
On the Thursday before Rosh Hashana, I invited random people to share their hopes with me for two hours as I stood in the quad. I had two giant rolling corkboards with me, each with an invitation tacked to the top: Share a hope, wish, or intention for the new year. The school year just started, and the Jewish new year was about to begin. Anyone could participate in a way that was meaningful for them.
“Do you have any hopes to share?” I called out.
Many people did. Some people wrote specific hopes – such as passing pre-calc. Others were more general. Some hoped for good grades, better sleep, better work life balance. An end to COVID. Health. Happiness. Self-acceptance. One person wrote “Make life-long friends and live a great life to remember.” Two people took pictures of their hopes after they wrote them down. One man wrote that he wanted health for his brother – and the world. I don’t know this man or his brother, but we prayed together for his brother’s health, right there in the quad. I hope his brother is feeling better now.
Even those who couldn’t stop to answer my question smiled as they rushed by. Some people laughed as they were on their way to class, saying “No! I’ve got none left.” “Don’t worry about it,” I called after them. “You’re not the only one!” After awhile, I began including an additional offer: “If you don’t have any hope left, come absorb some of ours!” Hope, it turns out, can be contagious.
Like just about everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contagion. In the last 18 months, many of us have learned far more about contagious diseases than we’d ever planned to. We know how vulnerable we are. We know how easy it is to transmit, carry, and catch a disease that quite literally takes your breath away. We understand, in a way that we’ve never understood before, that what’s inside of me touches what’s inside of you. That the health of one person can change the health of the world. We truly are all inter-breathing. And while that’s terrifying in the face of a pandemic, it also reminds me how intimately connected we are – by our breath, by our bodies, by the Oneness of the world.
This intimacy means we have the power to infect one another, to spread both physical and spiritual diseases. But that’s not the only option. My friend and mentor, Lee Kravetz, who is a marriage and family therapist, science journalist, and author in the Bay Area, wrote a book about social contagion, the spreading of behaviors, thoughts and emotions: “Whether it’s mirroring someone’s posture or mimicking someone else’s speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment.”
Social contagion theory teaches us that behaviors are infectious. Emotions are viral. Even thoughts are catch-able. How we interact with individuals impacts not only how they interact with us – but also how they interact with others, with themselves, and with the world around them. We have the ability to influence others with something as minor as a smile, or eye contact, the colors we wear, the tone of our voice, the images we post on social media. And the most remarkable thing about them? Social contagion, like physical contagion, is often completely unconscious. We pick up on cues from the world around us all the time without even noticing what it was that shifted our mood or colored our experience. More important, I find, is that we are inadvertently influencing others’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, as well — and that includes positive cues, like hope, happiness, laughter, and benevolence. As we enter a new year – one in which we continue to fight another kind of contagion, I wonder what it would look like if we leaned into that power. How might we learn to spread the opposite of disease? Can we spread resilience instead? Or wonder? What would it look like to dedicate this year to spreading hope?
Jewish sources include many examples of social contagion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of them are stories in which social contagion spreads for the worst – even in biblical times, bad ideas quickly went viral. Consider the story of the golden calf in the book of Exodus. The Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai after many years of wandering in the desert, after God freed them from slavery. Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah from God, and said that he would return in 40 days. The first emotion to spread was uncertainty. According to medieval commentator, Rashi, there was some confusion about the timing – would Moses come back on the sixteenth of Tammuz or the seventeenth? Did those 40 days include the day that Moses went up the mountain? When would Moses return? The next emotion that went viral was fear. Commentators disagree about who started spreading it, but soon, just about everyone was terrified that Moses would not return, believing instead that that God abandoned them to die in the desert. Some commentators say that Satan – yes, contrary to popular belief, Satan does appear in Jewish texts, but that’s a dvar for another day – Satan exacerbated the situation by showing the people an image of Moses, dead on the mountain, that was so real, the Israelites could reach out and touch it.
Have you ever fallen into an anxiety spiral where the story in your head is more real than what’s in front of you? Did your fear come from a seed sewn by someone else? Many of us know what that feels like.
You know what happens next – even Aaron, Moses’s brother, participated in building and worshipping a golden calf, a false idol. When social contagion spreads, it’s hard not to get swept up in the current. But not everyone does. Even in the story of the golden calf, the Torah noted that women refused to give their jewelry to Aaron to be melted down for the calf’s construction. And according to a midrash (a story about the Torah, which I like to call “Torah fanfiction”), the tribe of Levites also did not give in. The midrash also says that Miriam’s son, Chur, denounced those who were spreading fear – and he paid for it with his life. The angry and terrified crowd murdered him for standing up for what he believed in. It’s hard and sometimes dangerous to share a dissenting view when a social contagion is spreading.
What about positive examples of social contagion from our tradition? Two took place at the Sea of Reeds, more commonly known as the Red Sea. A midrash teaches that when the Israelites stood before the Red Sea, with Pharaoh’s army behind them, one man took the first steps into the water. The man was given the name Nachshon, which comes from nachshol, “of the sea.” Nachshon faced the water, and the future, with bravery, and his courage was contagious. The others followed, and the sea split.
After the Israelites made it to the other side and the army drowned in the waters behind them, Moses and Miriam each began to sing the song of the sea. Rashi says that Miriam thought to pack her timbrel as they were leaving Egypt because she believed so strongly in the coming redemption. When they began to sing, others joined Moses and Miriam in this joyful prayer of thanks to God.This is an example of a social contagion that started with one voice, and spread to many. And it’s a contagion of gratitude that spans the generations. This prayer is among the oldest lines of poetic verse in the Torah and they’re part of our daily liturgy. Mi Chamocha, ba’eilim Adonai? Who is like You, among the mighty, Adonai?
A final moment to share, also from Exodus, takes place in the Torah portion we read the week after the incident with the golden calf. In Parshat Vayakhel, God tells the Israelites to build a mishkan, a sanctuary for God. “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for the Lord – gold, or silver, wool or linen, wood or oil, spices or stones, anything to make the Sanctuary more glorious for God,” said Moses. The Israelites, moved by their hearts, brought all kinds of golden objects, colorful wools, silver, copper, and acacia wood. They worked together to make the Sanctuary sacred for God. They eventually brought so many gifts that Moses had to ask them to stop. I love this contagion of giving. And I love the Israelites for how human they were. Of course they yearned deeply to give to the Holy One, to give so much that they had to be asked to stop – right after so many of them spread and gave in to the contagion of fear that led to the building of the golden calf.
I’m sure many of us can think of contemporary social contagions, both negative and positive. Today I’m going to consider just one example from this summer. When celebrated Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, decided to withdraw from the 2021 individual all-around competition to protect her mental health, her decision set a wave in motion. “I say put mental health first,” Biles said. “Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” We’re just going to sit with that for a moment. Such a powerful statement about what matters most. Afterward, although a few commentators accused Biles of being a “quitter,” Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health was generally widely praised and credited with starting a wider conversation about the role of mental health in sports. Other gymnasts relayed their own stories of struggle as a result of her sharing. Biles sent a message to all of us about the power of prioritizing health over performance. Before she withdrew from the competition, Twitter celebrated the gymnast’s excellence in her sport by creating a Simone Biles emoji that appeared whenever someone used the #SimoneBiles. After she withdrew, people continued to use that emoji, along with another hashtag: #mentalhealthfirst. Simone Biles taught us all that this is what excellence looks like.
The ideas we share, the emotions we express, the stories we tell ourselves and others, all have the power to spread. Will we spread fear and distrust this year, building more false idols? Or will we spread something different, building a sanctuary of healing with our words, our hopes, and our actions?
I want to clarify that I’m not encouraging anyone to spread toxic positivity – to “just be positive” in the face of suffering. Pretending that things are ok, when they’re not, is another form of idol worship at a time when the truth demands to be seen. Let’s be honest about the threats of our world, but let’s think about how we respond to them. One of my other mentors, Josh Feldman, says that “Our daily experiences are a laboratory for the invention of the future.” When we are in a lab, trying to create the next great invention, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. The data we collect from each experiment, even the failed ones, help us decide what to try next. We are not here to deny the darkness. We are not here to ignore the facts. We are here to decide what to do with them.
What if the Israelites had approached their fear with curiosity and honesty while Moses was on the mountain? “Wow,” one might have said to the other. “I’m really scared right now. I’m not sure when Moses is coming back and I’m having a hard time trusting that we will be safe in the future.” That’s a truth worth sharing. “I’m afraid too,” the other might have responded. “Thank you for telling me. I’m grateful to know I’m not alone.” Vulnerable sharing, supporting one another, and speaking from your own experience, are also contagious behaviors. That might have been a better response to the facts of their fear.
The new year has begun and there’s still a lot of darkness around us. From the ongoing uncertainty of the coronavirus contagion to the horrific effects of climate change, gun violence, and systemic oppression.The pandemic taught us that the health of one person can change the health of the world. Social contagion theory teaches, and our Torah shows us, that the hope, courage, voice, and generosity of one person can change the world too.
So I return to the question I posed at the beginning: What will you spread this year? How will you respond to the darkness? And how will you model what you want to see in your community when you show up as part of it?
Anne Lammott writes, “Sometimes hope is a radical act, sometimes a quietly merciful response, sometimes a second wind, or just an increased awareness of goodness and beauty.” This year, spreading hope, wonder, or resilience may be a small act of bravery for you, an attempt to plot a better course, even when you feel the current pulling in another direction. Maybe it feels like a radical act, taking a bold step into the sea of your uncertainty, like Nachshon, or bringing the timbrel with you, like Miriam, because some part of you believes redemption is possible. Maybe you’ll put your mental health first and inspire others to do the same, like Simone Biles. Maybe yours will be the voice that encourages others to join the song.
Two weeks ago, I stood on the quad and invited strangers to share their hopes with me. I’m going to conclude this part of our service by inviting you to do the same. What do you hope for this year? For yourself, for your community, and for the world – call it out.
Thank you everyone. May we carry these hopes in our hearts and into the world, and may we be blessed with the courage to bring them to life.
I ended this sermon with the song, “One Voice,” by the Wailin’ Jennys. I encourage you to listen to it now.
A reminder that when the Israelites became free, it didn’t happen all once. They left the narrow place behind and crossed the sea singing. Then they wandered in the desert. It was as if the narrowness came with them. They had to keep freeing and re-freeing themselves. It took a long time before they could embrace their new identities after generations of enslavement.
A reminder that as our world encounters a new freedom with access to vaccines, it won’t happen all at once. We will leave the confines of our homes and cross the thresholds of our doorsteps, entering new-old spaces we haven’t encountered in well over a year. Some of the narrowness will come with us. We will need to keep freeing and re-freeing ourselves. It will be a long time before we can embrace our lives again.
Consider this your invitation to go slowly, to be gentle. To remember what you’ve learned and celebrate every breath. To be hopeful and to find holiness in every “first” that feels like it really is the first time.
Shabbat Shalom, beloveds, and chag pesach sameach. Next year, may we truly be free.
Sometimes words bang on the doors of me, begging to be let out. Is it a striving desperation to make meaning out of madness? To tame an untamable experience by shaping it with narrative?
Several weeks ago, my classmates and I encountered Rebbe Nahman’s texts about The Void – and the silence within it. For many of my classmates, facing that silence led to more silence. But for me, it just made the words louder. I write constantly. Sometimes the words rush from my fingers faster than I can type them, an unstoppable flood pouring from the rock Moshe hit with his stick, when he couldn’t find words himself. It seems the harder it is to find the words, the more the words find me.
Chaim Bialik writes, “It is that very eternal darkness that is so fearsome – that darkness from the time of Creation…Every man is afraid of it and every man is drawn to it. With our very lips we construct barriers, words upon words and systems upon systems, and place them in front of the darkness to conceal it; but then our nails immediately begin to dig at those barriers, in an attempt to open the smallest of windows, the tiniest of cracks, through which we may gaze for a single moment at that which is on the other side.” Perhaps writing is one of my attempts to create a penimi from a maqqif (something I can grasp within that wish is ungraspable). A way to crack a hole in the darkness of the void. A way of finding God in a place that appears empty, so that I can chase the next void, and the one after that.
With that in mind, I share a list of things I created within the void of 2020 – rituals, poems, prayers, and videos. This is not a comprehensive list. I only included the creations I felt I could publish or name in this space or elsewhere. The list doesn’t include all of my school writing (one of my classes had weekly reflection assignments) and it doesn’t include every private ritual I created for people who needed them. It also doesn’t include the virtual programs I built. But it’s a start.
I’m grateful for all the words that found me in the emptiness, but I pray for a 2021 that is full – full of inspiration, full of healing, and full of hope. Blessings on your journey, beloveds. See you on the other side.
“Suffering breaks our hearts. But there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes and is sometimes thrown like a grenade at the source of its pain. Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”
I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Parker Palmer a lot lately. Yesterday was the 17th of Tammuz. Traditionally, this is a Jewish fast day commemorating the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. It also marks the beginning of the three-week mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av, the day when the first and second Temples were destroyed. These three weeks are known asBein ha’Metzarim, between the narrows. No Jewish marriages or other celebrations are allowed at this time, since the joy of these occasions conflicts with the mood of mourning.
The 17th of Tammuz also arrives 40 days after Shavuot. This is the day when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found that the Israelites had built a golden calf while he was receiving the Torah. Moses was furious and he shattered the tablets. He went back up the mountain, and the Israelites went back to…waiting. Waiting with their grief, their fear, and their brokenness, the shattered tablets laying before them.
We have been sitting in our own waiting place, Bein ha’Metzarim. By my count, it’s been 120 days since the quarantine started. Even if you are numb at this point, the emotions that surfaced at the start of COVID are still there, exacerbated by losses due to racial violence. Some days it might feel like you’re moving through molasses – there’s a fatigue you just can’t sleep off. Maybe you’ve snapped recently at someone who did nothing wrong, or there was a moment when a minor stumble felt like a disaster. All of it is grief – for the 135,000 who have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, for racial violence, for the special moments we’ve had to share on Zoom instead of in-person, and for all the plans we can’t fulfill. In progressive Jewish communities, we don’t often observe the three weeks or Tisha b’Av. However, as we wait at the foot of the mountain, sitting in our collective brokenness, and unsure of what comes next, it may be necessary to engage with this part of our tradition. And we should engage with it, as Parker Palmer has said, with a broken and supple heart.
The Talmud teaches that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai the second time, with new tablets, the Israelites kept the broken ones. They placed them, along with the new tablets, in the holy ark. Why? Because our ancestors knew brokenness and wholeness live side by side, in the ark and in our hearts. Some even taught that brokenness is not only natural – it’s necessary. The Kotzker Rebbe taught that “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” And in a Hasidic folk tale, a disciple asked a rebbe: “Why does Torah tell us to place the words of the V’ahavta upon our hearts instead of in our hearts?” The rebbe answered: “It is because our hearts are closed. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.” The Lurianic kabbalists taught that brokenness itself is holy: When God created the world, God tried to contain God’s light in vessels that shattered into millions of pieces. We each contain a spark of this Divine light, this symbol of God’s own brokenness.
The message from our tradition is clear: Our hearts have to break. We have to feel our grief. And we do not to have experience our brokenness alone. These three weeks are a time when we can grieve with community. When we are Bein ha-Metzarim, we are like the tablets in the holy ark. We are held in our brokenness, we are whole in our holiness, and we are healed when we hold the shattered pieces for those around us.
As we sit with the shattered tablets, as we wait in our brokenness, I want to bless each each of us with a heart that is supple – one that is open to our own suffering and to the suffering of others, so that the words of our prayers fall in, and so that we may we renewed again.
In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, brought an offering to God. Their offering was an “aish zarah,” a strange fire, which, the Torah says, God did not command them to bring. For reasons that are unclear in the Torah portion, “a fire went out from God and consumed them, and they died before God.” Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? The rabbis scrambled for reasons.
Medieval scholar, Rashi, said that Nadav and Avihu were punished for their father Aaron’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Other rabbis’ views were documented in Midrash Rabbah. One posited that Nadav and Avihu were killed because they were drunk, referring to a later verse stating that you should not drink at the tabernacle. Others thought Nadav and Avihu were killed because they entered the sanctuary without washing their hands and feet, or that they were killed because they didn’t have children. The root of the word “zarah,” strange, is “zoor,” which can also mean profane. In the same Torah portion, we are commanded to separate the sacred from the profane, a teaching that appears in our Havdalah blessings, when we separate Shabbat from the rest of the week. Some argued that God killed Nadav and Avihu because they brought this strange, profane fire into the tabernacle, into the realm of the sacred. The truth is that none of these reasons justify their deaths.
After Nadav and Avihu died, the Torah says, “veyidom Aharon.” And Aaron was silent. The word sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, which means “to draw near.” Aaron watched his sons make an offering, drawing near to God. And then he watched, helpless, as God burned them to death. For their father, there were no words. There were no answers, or reasons. Aaron, who spoke for Moses when Moses could not find his voice, became voiceless himself. Veyidom Aharon. Aaron was silent.
There are prayers that are spoken and some that are silent, but our Amidah, our private prayer to God is distinctive. It is whispered because it is based on the prayers of Hannah, who was infertile. Hannah ached so desperately for a child that she couldn’t voice her pleas to God. In Tosefta Brachot, the rabbis said, “Hannah spoke in her heart,” meaning that her lips moved, but sound did not escape them. Another kind of silence in the face of suffering.
Over the last month, we have seen suffering – this illness, a different kind of strange fire shared by those who draw near to each other. Over 33,000 people have died from coronavirus in the United States alone. We don’t know when it will end. We don’t know if it will come back. We refresh our Twitter feeds, reading articles with conflicting information. Sometimes, like the rabbis, we scramble for reasons when death seems reasonless. Other times, we cry out or we protest, looking for something or someone to blame. Sometimes we whisper in prayer, like Hannah. Other times, like Aaron, all we can muster is silence.
Why did God kill Nadav and Avihu? Why have so many people died from coronavirus? Why are we still being punished for drawing near to each other? How many of us, in the last month, have ignored that nagging voice inside – the one that dares to ask God why this happened?
In Brachot 7a, the rabbis ask: “What does God pray?” Their answer? God prays, “May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger.” Even God is horrified when God’s wrath outweighs God’s mercy. Even God is devastated by corpses in refrigerator vans, hospitals overwhelmed, and by God’s own inability to heal all who need healing.
Our Yom Kippur Torah portion takes place immediately after Nadav and Avihu are killed. And sometimes, when we approach God on Yom Kippur, I follow the lead of theologian, David Blumenthal, and I imagine that God asks for our forgiveness too. For those moments when God’s mercy did not outweigh God’s wrath. For Nadav and Avihu. For asking Abraham to sacrifice his son. For asking us to sacrifice our healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and others who are deemed “essential.” It’s a day for God to join us in grieving and atoning.
“For the wrong I have done before you by allowing my wrath to consume me,” God prays.
“And for the wrong I have done before you by allowing my fire to consume the innocent.
For the wrong I have done before you by separating sacred and profane
And for the wrong I have done before you because I should have known that everything is sacred.
Shema Yisrael, Listen, My children, My God-Strugglers, Pardon Me, Forgive Me, Atone Me,” God weeps.
I am shema-ing, I am hearing You. And like Aaron, all I can muster for now is silence. But dear God, Moses was beside Aaron in Aaron’s silence, and we will be in this silence together. God, You heard Hannah’s whispered prayer, and we will hear each other across the distance. We learned to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week, and now we separate from one another, not because any one of us is profane, but because every soul is sacred. When we are safe again, we will join hands, as well as voices. We will stay in the struggle with You, God. And we will sing.
How can we draw near in a moment when we are so far away from each other? In this week’s parsha, God shared a list of sacrifices for the Israelites to bring to the Mishkan, the holy sanctuary. Two weeks ago, when many of us began the quarantine, the Israelites built and worshiped a golden calf. Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, and they didn’t know when – or if – he was going to come back. In their fear, they built an idol they could touch, something they could connect with, physically. Something they thought they could trust to be there. Now, two weeks later, the Israelites have built a Mishkan instead. They were finally ready to sacrifice, ready to connect with the God they could not touch. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is “Korban,” which means “to draw near.” They Israelites drew near to the God Who could not be seen, but could be deeply felt.
In the last two weeks, we, too, have been building sanctuaries. Sanctuaries in our homes, sanctuaries online, sanctuaries with our voices raised in song and prayer. We have been alone, afraid, and uncertain. We cannot reach out to touch one another. But we, too, have drawn near in ways that can be be felt.
One of my teachers, Reb Eli Cohen, pointed out that one of the names for God is HaMakom, which means The Place. Maybe while we have been sheltering-in-place, we have also been sheltering-in-The Place, embraced by the nurturing Source that holds us all. In our evening liturgy, we sing Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha – asking God to spread over us a shelter of peace. Throughout these last two weeks, I’ve envisioned the lights from our screens, shining in our hands and on our desks all over the world. We cannot touch, but we have found ways to draw near to each other, to create sanctuaries, and to face our fears, embracing the Oneness that connects us all.
Shabbat Shalom, l’kulam. May it be a Shabbat of peace, wholeness, and healing, as we who are far away from one another draw near in every way we can.
You’re walking through the desert, and you’ve been walking forever. There is sand between your toes and there’s a pebble in your sandal that’s just large enough to be an annoyance, digging into your heel. You don’t stop to remove it because you are compelled, with a focus you’ve never felt before, to just keep walking. Nothing will stop you. You’ll never go back to Egypt. But then you see the light. The light of a thornbush on fire, burning but not consumed. Where is all the smoke?
This Friday, we read the the beginning of Exodus, which includes Moses’s first encounter with God, through a burning bush. When Moses moved toward the strange burning, God called out to him. “Moses, Moses!” Moses stopped running away. Hineini, he said. “Here I am.”
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
You have removed your shoes, the pebble lost in the sand now. Your heart is pounding in your head and the voice is pounding with it. I AM I AM I AM, it says. Hineini, you respond. I am, too.
“R’oh ra’iti,” said God: “I have truly seen.” This is a unique construction in Hebrew. “Ro’eh” means “I have seen,” but “R’oh ra’iti,” which repeats the verb “to see,” means “I have truly seen.” “I have truly seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt,” said God. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings.”
Their cry and their sufferings have enslaved you too. You tried to leave them behind, you tried to run away, but somehow they came with you — their voices, their faces twisted in sorrow. You tried to escape it, but memory makes escape impossible.
God was not enslaved by the Egyptians, and yet, God knew the pain of the Israelites just by seeing the affliction and hearing their sufferings. This is empathy: to know the suffering of others, whether or not you can personally relate. According to medieval scholar Rashi, God demonstrated that God was with the Israelites in their affliction by appearing in a thornbush, instead of a more innocuous plant or tree.
“The cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them,” God said. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.”
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
God, the God of my Ancestors, I am Here, but Who am I? I am the pebble in my sandal, I am trying to escape, I have been walking because I am afraid.
“I will be with you,” God said. “I will be with you.” God didn’t say “It will all be ok,” or “Don’t be ridiculous; of course you can do it.” God truly saw not only the Israelites’ suffering – God truly saw what Moses needed too. God didn’t tell Moses “This is your job — now deal with it.” God never tried to convince Moses that the exodus would be easy. Instead, God showed Moses that he would not be on this journey alone.
There’s no way they’ll believe you. You’re not sure if you believe you. But you’re beginning to wonder. What is the name of this Burning? What does this Light truly see in you?
“When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”
“Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God said. “I Will Be That I Will Be. Tell the Israelites ‘I Will Be’ has sent me.”
In Brachot 9b, the Gemara asks: Why did God tell Moses to tell the Israelites that “Ehyeh, I Will Be” has sent Moses? We just learned that “Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be That I Will Be” is God’s name. “I Will Be” and “I Will Be That I Will Be” are two different names. Why the change?
The Gemara says that “I Will Be That I Will Be” means “I was with you in this enslavement, and in this redemption, AND I will be with you in the enslavement of the kingdoms in the future.” Then, according to the Gemara, Moses actually advised God, becoming the leader that God knew him to be.
“Master of the Universe,” Moses said. “It is enough for them to endure. Let the future suffering be endured at its appointed time. There is no need to mention their future enslavement.”
You are not alone. They do not have to be alone. And they do not need to know that more suffering awaits them after this redemption.
God agreed with Moses and said to him: “Go and tell the children of Israel only that, “’Ehyeh: I Will Be‘ has sent me to you.”
You don’t know what’s coming next. But this Burning, the God of your ancestors, has r’oh ra’iti – has truly seen the suffering, has truly seen you, and has heard you. You will lead, and you will lead with this Light.
Just as God showed Moses true empathy, saying “I will be with you,” Moses taught God about empathy by pointing out that the Israelites couldn’t hear about future suffering. God guided Moses, truly saw Moses as a leader, told Moses he was not alone, and as a result, Moses was able to see himself as a leader, someone who could provide feedback on God’s communication plan.
Over the course of this parsha, with the Gemara for context, we watch Moses transform, through empathy, from a shepherd, running away from his problems in Egypt, to a leader who partnered with God to free the Israelites from Egypt. The Hebrew word for shepherd is pronounced “ro’eh,” but it’s spelled differently from the verb “to see.” Moses went from a ro’eh, shepherd to ro’eh, see-er.
God “ro’eh ra’iti,” truly saw the leadership in this shepherd, Moses. And God made sure that Moses didn’t have to free the Israelites alone. Once Moses saw himself as the leader that God knew him to be, Moses knew he couldn’t leave the Israelites alone either. And, finally, Moses ensured that God was not alone in the project of redemption.
I work with young leaders all the time and I’ve learned over and over again just how important it is to tell them what I see. Once I show them I have truly seen them – that believe in them and I remind them that they’re not alone, they rise to face the challenges of their work. Recently I’ve been grateful for friends and mentors in my own life who have shown me empathy as well – giving me the blessing of being truly seen, supported, and recognized for my own leadership. In seeing ourselves through the eyes of those who love and believe in us, we, like Moses, are able to fulfill our potential. And we, too, are able to partner with the Holy One in the work of creation, healing, and redemption.
When was the last time you had a difficult conversation? Maybe it was with a supervisor or a partner. Maybe it was with a family member. What was difficult about it? Did you prepare in advance? Did you try to avoid it? Were you able to move forward with your relationships in tact?
This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, opens with a difficult conversation. The word “vayigash” means “he approached,” and it refers to the moment when Judah approached his brother, Joseph, who had risen to power in Egypt. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Joseph’s jealous brothers, frustrated with his arrogance, cast Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father, Jacob, saying that a wild beast killed Joseph. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is a very dramatic story), Joseph became the governor of Egypt, almost as powerful as Pharaoh himself. At the moment of our Torah portion, it had been 22 years since the brothers had seen each other. Joseph recognized them, but the brothers had no idea that this governor of Egypt was the brother they threw into the pit. Joseph tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benjamin, of stealing a silver cup that Joseph planted in Benjamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Joseph threatened to enslave Benjamin.
That’s where the Torah portion begins – Judah, the oldest of the brothers, vayigash Joseph. He approached the governor of Egypt, a man far more powerful than he could ever hope to be, to have a difficult conversation.
Midrash Rabbah explores the meaning of vayigash in this context.
Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he approached” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle” (II Samuel 10:13).
Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he approached” implies a coming near for conciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua” (Joshua 14:6).
The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “It came to pass, at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached . . .” (I Kings, 18:36).
Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.
When you have approached a difficult conversation, maybe a conversation with someone more powerful than you, what did you bring into that conversation with you? Did you come ready to fight, like Rabbi Yehudah intoned? Were you prepared to conciliate, to offer a solution or make amends, as Rabbi Nechemiah suggested? Or did you draw near, with a heart full of hope, prepared to humble yourself as if in prayer, as the sages believed? Maybe you went in with an open mind, ready to respond in the moment, as Rabbi Eleazar said of Judah. See if you can put yourself back in that place. What was happening in your body? Were you anxious? Were you aware?
Judah approached Joseph with humility. He referred to himself as avdecha, “your servant” when he spoke. He told Joseph that Benjamin’s soul is connected to their father’s soul – in Hebrew: Nafsho Keshura beNafsho. The Aramaic translation of the Torah translates this passage as, “and his soul loved him as his own soul.” Jacob loved Benjamin so deeply that their souls were connected. Judah explained, “When my father sees the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought our father in grief to the grave. Please let me stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers. How will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”
Joseph saw that his brothers had grown. 22 years ago, when they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery, they had avoided a difficult conversation – in a way, they took the easy way out, instead of vayigash, approaching Joseph to talk to him about his arrogance. This moment is different. Instead of avoiding the conversation, throwing Benjamin into a metaphorical pit, or selling him into slavery in Egypt (echoing their treatment of Joseph), Judah showed that he cared for his father and brother. He offered a solution, and he pled not only for his father’s or brother’s lives; he used a prayer word, nefesh. He pled for his father’s and brother’s souls.
The reunion became a joyful one – Joseph revealed his identity, the brothers reconciled, they hugged, and kissed, and cried, and Joseph sent them home with a wealth of food, animals, clothes, and more. When the brothers told their father Jacob that Joseph was alive, “vatechi ruach Yakov avihem,” the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Ruach, or spirit, is another prayer word, like nefesh, soul. Jacob’s soul and spirit techi, came to life, after his sons’ reconciliation.
Judah approached a difficult conversation with a lot at stake. As Rabbi Eleazar said, “Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: “If it be war, I approach for war;” Judah put his own body on the line, like a soldier, offering himself into slavery. “If it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation;” Conciliation is a way of making amends. Judah offered his labor in return for the value of the silver goblet. “If it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat” (as in prayer). When Judah spoke about his brother’s and father’s souls, he approached Joseph from a place of prayer. Most importantly, Judah showed that he had changed – that he was not the same person who threw his brother, Joseph, into the pit and sold him into slavery, instead of having a difficult conversation. This time, Judah was prepared to engage body, mind, and soul to spare his brother and his father.
Next time you are facing a difficult conversation, consider the way you vayigash. You may not need to concede your body, mind, and soul – this is a pretty extreme example – but you will likely need to concede something. Throwing the problem into a pit only means it will show up again later, and it might be bigger and more powerful when it approaches again. In this coming week and in the secular new year, there will be many opportunities to choose an approach. May we be mindful of our choices, and may every conversation enliven our souls. Shabbat Shalom.