Monthly archives "January 2016"

Parshat Bo, January 31, 2016

With the initial approach of El Nino, I lay awake in Los Angeles in mid-December listening to the howling of the wind. When I turned on the news, commentators were describing the strength and height of the waves on the North Pacific Coast and the floods breaking through dams in the Central United States. I spent the rest of the night reflecting on the enormous devastation that uncontrolled nature could predictably wreak. The possible damage from the warming temperatures that precede El Nino has long been expected – but too often unheeded. And then my mind travelled to Parshat Bo, the biblical portion (Exodus 10:1-11:10) in which the Divine hand invokes nature’s retribution for the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Hebrews from bondage. In this passage, some of the plagues have already been enacted, and the consequences for Egypt have been daunting. Those to come, each one more severe than the other, have already been foretold to the Pharaoh through the human agency of Moses and his brother, Aaron. Still, Pharaoh will not bend.

But now, as the Bible portrays, God will actually harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the severity of the punishment will be increased. Why? We contemporaries cannot help wondering if this is merely an ancient show of power (sometimes compared to God’s actions in the Book of Job), so that people will turn to God instead of the pagan deities of Egypt, foremost among them Pharaoh himself. As God clearly tells Moses, “I have hardened his [Pharaoh’s]heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons (which Jews have done ever since at Passover) how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Lord”(Exodus 10:1-2).

However, it is important to understand that the visitation of the next four plagues represent far more than a contest of power between the Eternal God of the Hebrews and the supreme power of the Pharaoh. What is remarkable is that the Pharaoh cannot bring himself to yield to God through these horrific experiences, even though he has been forewarned that even worse consequences are on their way. “[H]e shows disdain, anxiety, shrewdness, and even confesses to error…..[but only] when his own son is dead does  he give in, defeated both as a Pharaoh and a father,” writes Rabbi Gunther Plaut in The Torah, a Modern Commentary, p. 419).

For Plaut, the Pharaoh remains “an intelligible human being, acting as one would expect a man of his tradition and position to act. Later Jewish tradition depicted him as unusually evil, but this position does not conform with the biblical tale itself, which recounts the release of Israel as a drama of cosmic proportions occurring at the same time in the framework of expectable human behavior.”

In our contemporary society, many of us react to unpleasant realities in the same unthinking way, instead of adjusting our behavior to accommodate a new framework of knowledge.  Fortunately, at least part of he world seems to be coming to its senses, and, even as citizens are sandbagging their coastal or vulnerable homes in California, a climate control resolution (not yet a solution) has finally been agreed upon internationally. Still, there are those – many of them otherwise intelligent human beings — who will not yield to the possibility of human responsibility in aggravating, if not creating, a potential natural disaster:

In the mystical tradition of absorbing the Torah portions and applying their lessons to our own behavior – to applying them to our deepest selves, as Rabbi Mordecai Finley teaches — we can realize that each of us has an inner Pharaoh, with unconscious motivations that are part of being human beings, whether or not we hold the power that Pharaoh does. At least we hold power over ourselves, our behavior, and our decisions. Yet even as educated and normally compassionate human beings in a Western context, we may find it difficult to adjust to new knowledge, to necessary but unfamiliar ways of conducting our lives. In order to do so, we have to allow ourselves to feel. We cannot afford to let our hearts harden.

That is why I like Rabbi J.B. Sacks’ translation of the Hebrew word usually translated “harden” in Parshat Bo. The root of the word, however, is k-v-d, which can also be translated as “weighted,” he wrote in a D’var Torah (“Weighting One’s Heart, “AJRCA,  2013).) God weighted the callous Pharaoh’s heart, made him heavy-hearted, so that he could feel the ultimate punishment, so that he would feel the loss of his son as a human being and not just as a Pharaoh. “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived,’ elaborated the great Rabbi A.J. Heschel. “…Our certainty is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, 399).” Perhaps it was to make that point for all time that God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians.

Equally appealing to me is an alternate understanding of the Hebrew word, “Bo,” the title word of this parsha, . God addresses Moses with this simple, directive word, giving us an important clue as to the the intention of the parsha. In Hebrew, “Bo” can mean either “Come” or “Go.” In the JPS translation I own, it is rendered as “Go.” But the command to Moses is not the same as “Lech l’cha”, “Go forth,” the command given to his ancestor, Abraham. Later in the parsha, the Pharaoh’s imperative to Moses and Aaron and their followers is “L’chu,” meaning “GO!” in the plural. So, in my opinion, the “Bo” that opens the parsha is best translated as “Come!” It suggests a compassionate God extending a hand to Moses, a connector between God and mankind.  “Come with me! You are not alone. I will be at your side in facing this challenge.” Even though Moses was apparently 80 years old and well experienced in the world at the time he confronted the Pharaoh, he was initially reluctant to undertake the task. it’s nice to have a helping hand at any age.

As this 21st century progresses, may God hold out his hand to all of us, young and old alike, helping us to face with courage – and surmounting together – the challenges of the future.

With a celebrated background that spans the arts, and the author of several books, Rabbi Corinne Copnick graduated from AJRCA in 2016. She celebrated her 80th birthday in January as she serves as Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise to South America. In Los Angeles, she is currently sought after as a Guest Speaker and initiated a popular Jewish study group called Beit Kulam. In March, she will serve on a panel exploring the needs of Interfaith Families and their relationship to the Jewish community.

Parshat Va’era, Jan. 9, 2016

My grandson, Joshua, has recently been occupied with writing his university application essays.  Josh is not only a brilliant, gifted student, he is also a good-natured fellow who extends himself to everyone. As part of a national high school debating society, he has been active in mock debates, in which he excels in debating different points of view and generally sharing his knowledge with his peers. However, in his college applications, perhaps he took his natural good will a little too far. He ended his essays by wishing good luck to his fellow applicants and expressed the hope that they would all get places in these very competitive colleges. You see, Joshua is a mensch.

“Josh,” I said to my grandson, the mensch, ”This is not a “shake your hand and may the best fellow win” situation. You are competing for a place in one of the top universities in this country. And you have to be very, very good  — better than most — to be considered.”

Then I thought better of what I was saying. What a shame it is that we teach our young people to work in teams, to share their knowledge with one another – especially in the Jewish world where we ideally study in pairs, chevruta —  and in general, we teach our youngsters that cooperative behavior is best. But then when they get out into the world, they find that competitive behavior is the rule whether they undertake studies, business activities, or a profession. So while humility, modesty is indeed a Jewish value – indeed, all our lives we try to find a balance between humility and ego –but being humble on your college

So what does all this have to do with our Torah portion today, Va-era (Exodus 6:1- 9:35)? When God asks Moses to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt, Moses reacts very modestly, very humbly indeed, maybe too humbly according to Rabbi Beth Kalisch in her recent article, “How Humble Is Too Humble?” (Union of Reform Judaism, “Shemot,” Jan. 2, 2016). Moses does not feel worthy of the task – and he makes excuses. Even the Israelites don’t listen to him, so how will Pharaoh? He has a speech impediment, he says – “See, I am of impeded speech,; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:30) Most likely he stammers.  Maybe he is fearful. In any case, he clearly does not feel that he’s the best choice as a communicator.

So God directs his brother Aaron, who by contrast has the gift of a more fluent tongue, to help Moses communicate God’s message to the unfeeling, powerful ruler of Egypt. Moses will represent God’s word, and Aaron will be his prophet. For the rest of the text of Va’era, God addresses both Moses and Aaron, and they carry out his will together. It’s probably a very good idea, because Moses is already 80 years old at this time of crisis, and Aaron is 83.

Yes, we are being taught a lesson here: People do have to help one another in order to accomplish a goal, to work together for best effect, at any age. We all have different talents, and where one person may be lacking, someone else can compensate. Va-era is a wonderful demonstration of team leadership. And while humility, as I learned in my very first year of rabbinic school is definitely a valuable attribute, somehow we have to find the strength to carry out the task demanded of us.

During World War II, I was only a little girl. Yet I remember that “Keep calm and carry-on” was the British watchword during the blitz.  No matter what the circumstances, people were exhorted to keep a stiff upper lip and get on with the job.

In effect, I think this is what Rabbi Kalisch is saying  — this is what we all have to do in difficult times: we have to steel ourselves and find resources within ourselves that we didn’t know we had, and get the job done and, in the case of this parsha, Va-iera, and for Jews generally, in God’s service.

The difficulty with getting on with the job is also remembering to be a mensch. If only Pharaoh had agreed to be a mensch and release the Jewish slaves, he would not have been subjected to the sequential divine afflictions that God heaped upon Pharaoh and his people. But strangely, according to the English translation of the text, God deliberately did not allow Pharaoh to be a mensch. God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart.

In fact, what has troubled many commentators about this sequence is why God says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. Then, in Bo, the next parsha, God tells Moses that indeed he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. A done deal. Why? we ask. Is it so that God can show that he is much stronger than Pharaoh, who also believes himself divine, that God is stronger that any magicians the pagan Pharaoh can muster. So does God really harden Pharaoh’s heart to put on a demonstration of God’s far greater powers, to show that God is supreme? Apparently so. As God explains in the text: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst” (Exodus 7:3-6).

Various contemporary rabbis have offered explanations of why God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, for example, likes to apply the lessons of the Torah to our own selves, to our own inner consciousness. We all have an inner Pharaoh, he teaches, and for our consciousness to ascend, we first have to taste the bitterness of the depths. According to this view, Pharaoh’s consciousness was blocked, so it was the Divine will for Pharaoh to taste the bitterness of his deep grief before he could rise to be become a better human being, for his consciousness to be liberated.  This, of course, is a psycho-spiritual way of interpreting the parsha, one favored by Aviva Zornberg.

And over the years, there has been a good deal of creative controversy over the years about the true meaning of the word “hardens” as it concerns Pharaoh’s heart. Some commentators think that “harden” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew text, that there are more subtle nuances. For example, [as Rabbi Charles Briskin explains] in his book The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that “three different[Hebrew] verbs are used in the story…Hisquah, ‘to harden’, hizeq, ‘to toughen,’…and kaved, literally ‘to be heavy’…. The force of all three idioms is to be stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible” (NY: W.W. Norton and Company), 2004, 345.

Personally, I really like Rabbi J.B. Sack’s interpretation of the word “harden,” based on the root of kaved (k-v-d). (“Weighting One’s Heart,” AJRCA website, 2013). A better translation than “harden”, Sacks says, would be “weight.” God weights Pharaoh’s heart, makes it heavy, so that he can feel the enormity of the plagues inflicted on his people. When we are heavy-hearted, we feel pain, we are sad, we grieve. Only when Pharaoh’s own son is killed, does he feel the pain of personal loss, and understands what his own decrees have inflicted on others.

Of course, Pharaoh never had to write college application essays. He came to his ruling position by inheritance, by royal privilege, and he had total authority. He never had to think about whether the best man should ideally win. But finally he too had to come to grips with God’s superior power. In the life and death instance Pharaoh’s decrees represented, God could not be modest. He had to show the strength of his divine power to the max.  Sadly, there are times when we must fight to win.

Only when his own son was a casualty of this divine intervention, did Pharaoh finally release his iron grip, at least temporarily, on the Hebrews slaves. At least temporarily, he became a mensch. And when the Hebrew slaves led by Moses and Aaron left Egypt as free people, our great Jewish liberation theology — the wonderful values that my grandson espouses, the freeing of our collective consciousness to become, not slaves, but the best people we can be – those values came into being.

Some Contemporary Thoughts on Shmita

Every seven years, we are supposed to give the land a break and let it rest. And so the Sabbath year, the seventh year (shviit)– also called the Sabbatical year (which took place last year in 5775) – is the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the Land of Israel, and still observed in varying degrees in contemporary Judaism. It is called Shmita in Hebrew (literally, it means “release”), but it doesn’t apply outside of Israel. Until recent times it couldn’t, because in most other countries until recent times, Jews were not allowed to own land.

During shmita, the land is left to fallow, and all agricultural activity, including plowing, planting, pruning and harvesting is forbidden by Jewish law, called halakha. Other cultivation techniques (such as watering, fertilizing, weeding, spraying, trimming, and mowing) may be performed as a preventative measure only, not to improve the growth of trees or other plants.

Additionally, any fruits of any kind which grow of their own accord are deemed ownerless (hefker) and may be picked by anyone. So, seven years from now, anyone will be free to come and pick my oranges and lemons and kumquat. My family actually called a volunteer service last year to come and pick as many as they wanted and donate them to a homeless shelter. But their ladders weren’t high enough to get the ones at the top. Fortunately, there was a second crop. So there were a lot more for anyone who wanted them. (As far as my family is concerned, anyone who needs them can have them any year.)

Chapter 25 in the Book of Leviticus promises bountiful harvests to those who observe the shmita, and describes its observance as a test of religious faith. Although it is mentioned in numerous places in the Bible (Exodus 23: 10-11; Leviticus 25: 1-7; 20-22; Deuteronomy 15: 1-6; Jeremiah 34:13-14; Nehemiah 10:31; 2 Chronicles 36:20-21; and 2 Kings 19:20-30), we do not know the extent to which shmita was observed in biblical times. We do know that people were exhorted to produce double in the sixth year so that there would be enough for the seventh year.

In modern times, shmita’s observance is voluntary in the State of Israel. The first shmita in the modern state of Israel was 1951 (5712), and the last shmita year began on the Jewish New Year in 2014, extending through most of the calendar year 2015.

It has definitely stimulated the growth of hydroponics, and with accelerated cultural interest in eco-culture in many countries, interest has also grown in the ancient biblical principles of shmita.  As a matter of fact, there is a whole book called Zeraim in the Mishna, the first part of the Talmud (a commentary on the Torah), which is devoted to agricultural principles. For example, you’re supposed to use onions to separate crops because the onion’s roots go straight down and so form a natural boundary.

Sometimes observing shmita is actually good for business. In Israel, since grapes grow naturally, many Israeli wine-makers process and bottle their grapes in separate batches of shmita wine and give them away to purchasers of their non-shmita wine during the year of shmita.

There is one area of shmita which is problematic today. All debts, except those of foreigners, are supposed to be remitted. In biblical times, all Hebrew slaves were to be set free. The forgiveness of debts is hard to implement in a modern state – lenders become reluctant to lend –, and so a variety of laws, which are really legal fictions, have been set up to deal with the sale, consumption and disposal of shmita produce in a modern state. It still has to be worked out.

In the 50th year (that is right after 7 years times 7) – called Yovel in Hebrew and translated as Jubilee in Latin, all land is supposed to revert to its original owner.  The idea is to have a redistribution of wealth in society every 50 years. However, as far as we know, this idealistic idea has never been carried out. Traditionally, the Jubilee year will be recognized once again when representatives of all 12 tribes have returned, and the majority of Jews live in Israel. In the meantime, we can all have a glass of complementary wine together – and celebrate a beautiful idea, revolutionary in its time!

On the Wing of a Coin and a Prayer

Did you know that the traditional Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, includes a prayer for rain as a central tenet of the Amida, the standing prayer which religious Jews say three times daily. “Grant dew and rain as a blessing,” Jews recite in the winter until Passover, the rainy season in Israel. Then, in the warmer months, they pray, “Grant blessing on the face of the earth, and from its goodness satisfy us, blessing our year as the best of years. Blessed are You, Lord, who blesses the years.”

And so the tradition grew up of celebrating the trees that, dependent on rainfall to be productive, give us fruit. Beginning at sunset on the evening of January 24 and continuing through January 24th is the Festival of the Trees, popularly referred to in North America as the Birthday of the Trees. It is a very joyful festival, representing God’s grace to the earth – ADAMA (remember, ADAM, created from the earth, was the first human being). So human beings and what is brought forth from the earth are connected in the Hebrew language.

Tu b’shevat, which means the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat, and this year is in the Hebrew year 5776, is first referred to in the late Second Temple period (515 BCE to 20 CE) when it was the cut-off date for levying the tithe on the produce of fruit trees.

According to some readings of Jewish law, fruit that ripens in the first three years that a tree gives fruit is considered orlah. This means that it is not kosher and thus not acceptable for Jewish people to eat. Tu b’shevat marks the “new year” or “birthday of trees.” Fruit that ripens in the third year on or after the 15th day of Shevat is kosher. Traditionally, the fruit that ripened in the fourth year was taken to the temple as a tithe (a form of taxation). This is now paid symbolically using coins. Only in the fifth year, you were allowed to keep and eat the fruit of your tree.

BUT if you planted a tree on the very day of Tu b ‘shevat, you could eat the fruit in the fourth year of its ripening. It was better than clipping a coupon because if you planted it even a day later, nope, the tax went to the Temple. You had to wait until the fifth year to eat your fruit.

In the 1600s CE, some Jewish people who didn’t have any land on which to plant trees any longer began to hold a symbolic seder, a meal, on Tu B’Shevat. The meal would consist of different types (15 varieties) of fruit and nuts, each of which had a specific spiritual meaning. Over the years, the custom fell away.

Then in the 1930s, Jewish Zionists who fled from horrific persecution to Israel – Eretz Yisrael means the land of Israel — revived this custom. And, in the effort to make the land, which had deteriorated into rocks and marsh, and desert, in an effort to make the desert bloom, they planted trees on Tu b’shevat.

When I was a little girl, it was usual for Jewish families in Canada to place a little blue and white box on the dinner table. Into this little box, we placed our coins every Sabbath to support the planting of trees in Israel. When I got married in 1958, my in-laws bought a hundred trees for me, and a hundred trees for my husband. It still gives me satisfaction to think that, in 2016, my trees are part of a forest in the Promised Land.