Hello? Who’s Calling, Please? Getting God’s Message and Returning the Call

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא

Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

When I was a young boy, I would occasionally answer the phone when my parents were out of the house and I was in the care of my older brothers. I would listen to the caller and promise the person that I’d tell my mom or dad that they called. It will come as no surprise that by the time I could give my mom or dad the message, if I actually remembered to give them the message, I had often long forgotten who it was who had called. Also, no surprise, my parents weren’t happy with me in those moments.

Their solution to the problem was to train me always to answer the phone: “Hello. Who’s calling, please?” While this didn’t guarantee that I would remember to tell my parents who had called, I almost always got a name from the caller that I could then potentially pass along to them at the first opportunity.

Knowing who was calling was no small matter. If it was someone I knew, I would usually remember to tell my parents. If it was someone important that I knew, the certainty was even greater. And if it was someone I’d never heard of before, no matter how important they were, well, forget about it. The name of the caller that I shared with my parents elicited a parallel response from them; the urgency of their return call was a measure of how important the caller was to my parents in that given moment.

This brings us to Moses’s early encounters with God in the Book of Exodus. It was in Chapter 3, that Moses happened upon God’s presence in the burning bush and that God informed Moses that he must gather up the elders of the Israelites, go with them to Pharaoh and demand that Pharaoh free “My people” (Ex. 3:12). Unsure of how the “people” would respond to Moses’s actions on God’s behalf, Moses asks God essentially, “Who’s calling, please?” Or, in more adult parlance, “Who may I tell them is calling?” (3:13). God responds: “’Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’  Say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh’ sent me to you.'”

Of course, God realizes that the name “Ehyeh” alone wasn’t going to ring a bell with the Israelites. Thus, God clarifies: Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you (3:15).

However, Moses appears to forget God’s instruction. Moses and Aaron went straight to Pharaoh without the elders to demand Israel’s freedom. Incensed at their demand, Pharaoh makes life even more miserable for the Israelite slaves, who, in turn, wish upon Moses a divine punishment. Even then, Moses doesn’t reveal the name of the Caller to his Israelite accusers; instead, he returns to God and complains that things are only getting worse.

This brings us to this week’s reading where God again tells Moses to tell the Israelites “who is calling.” But there’s a difference in God’s message this time around. God no longer tells Moses to introduce God as “Ehyeh.” Maybe God realizes that name didn’t mean enough to Moses to make an impression on him, let alone on the Israelites.

In order to ensure that God’s message is heard by Moses and will move his followers to have faith in Moses God now says to Moses:

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (6:3-7)

God’s clearer, more familiar self-introduction here is “I am the Lord of your ancestors. In honor of the covenant I made with them, I will free you from bondage.” While this message ought to move the Israelites to follow Moses’s lead, it doesn’t. Despite that Moses gathers the Israelites and repeats supposedly verbatim what God had said, the Israelites in their misery still ignore him. No wonder, then, that God tells Moses and Aaron to go it alone, without the elders of Israel, to face off with Pharaoh.

According to my childhood experience, though, if Moses gave the Israelites the message that God had expected him to relay to the Israelites, the Israelites should have responded accordingly. Just like my parents would have said upon receiving a message, “Thank you for telling me. I’ll call the person back right now,” so, too, the Israelites should have thanked Moses and vowed to follow him.

Why didn’t the Israelites receive God’s message about their imminent salvation in this way? The answer is simple: they were too distracted by their own suffering to hear what Moses was telling them. Their pain interfered with their ability to comprehend that a trusted source of redemption, God, had arranged for Moses to lead them to freedom. This response is entirely consistent with modern neuroscientific research that shows that stress produces physical changes in the brain that impedes one’s ability to process and learn new information. Had the Israelites been more at ease in their situation, unfettered by the shackles of slavery, they would have been able to hear, to receive, the message that Moses was delivering. In the absence of such comfort, however, they could only hear noise and try to block it out.

Blocking out God’s voice was not something Moses would have done. To be sure, one of the reasons why God chose Moses as his messenger was that Moses had the wherewithal to notice God’s presence in the burning bush. Had Moses been hyper-focused on the sheep he was herding or fearful of an immediate threat to his life, he wouldn’t have paid much attention to an ordinary brush fire. Moses was able to be truly present to all of reality and, therefore, was uniquely able to discern God’s presence where others couldn’t. Moses didn’t yet know “who was calling” when he turned toward the bush; yet, because he was in a state of readiness, he paid attention and heard God’s voice for the first time.

How ready are we for these kinds of moments of transcendence? Are we like Moses or like the Israelite slaves? Do we notice God when God is near? Do we take God’s “call” when the phone rings? Do we respond to God’s message when it is right in front of us? Or do we dismiss, even reject, God’s message? Are we so self-involved or fearful or stressed that we shut out the reality of God’s presence? If you’re like me, you’ll identify more with the latter questions than with the former. If you’re like me, you’ll see yourself as more Israelite slave than Moses. This is not good.

Herein lies the challenge of the opening chapters of Exodus: how can we be more like Moses, attuned to God’s presence, ready to enter into relationship with the Divine? How do we take ourselves out of those narrow places, those mitzrayim, those Egypts, that inhibit our thinking and allow us to imagine a world in which all people are free and connected through the web of Godliness? How can we make ourselves ready to answer God’s call when it comes?

I don’t have all the answers, nor do I wish to offer any. Instead, I leave you with the questions and invite you to discover your own way forward. I’ve given you the message and trust you’ll use the phone book of experience to find your own guide. Good luck.

From the Moment of Liberation, A Life of Watching

Parashat Bo / פרשת בא
Torah Portion: Exodus 10:1 – 13:16

Our reading this week, Parashat Bo, marks the end of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. We read about the final three plagues that God brings upon Pharaoh and his people: locusts, darkness and death of Egypt’s firstborn children and cattle; it is this final plague that finally prompts Pharaoh to declare: “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you!” (Exodus 12:31). Though Pharaoh is caught by surprise by this final plague, the Israelites are well-prepared: they have marked their doorposts with the blood of the pascal lamb, the pesach offering, so the Angel of Death will pass over their homes. When they finally get the word from Pharaoh to depart, only their bread hasn’t risen; they, on the other hand, are up and ready to go.

This night of terror and liberation is referred to as “leyl shimorim,” “a night of watching” in our reading:

Leyl shimorim hu ladonai l’hotziam me-eretz mitrayim. Hu ha-laila hazeh ladonai shimorim l’chol bnai yisrael l’dorotam.

It was a night of watching of God to take them out of the Land of Egypt. That very night was to God one of watching for all the Children of Israel (Ex. 12:42).

Why does the Torah employ this term “leyl shimorim” to the night of Israel’s liberation? Whose watching is it: Israel’s or God’s? What exactly is God or Israel watching out for? As with most questions arising from a close reading of Torah, there is more than one answer. In fact, we learn here that the night of watching is both that of God and of the Israelites, each watching for something different.

On the face of it, it appears that the night of watching belongs to God. That’s the plain meaning of the Hebrew. God is watching over Israel, guarding and protecting God’s people. As the Angel of Death wreaks devastation upon the Egyptians, God checks the doorposts of the Israelites for the blood of the pesach offer, making sure that the Angel of Death stays far away from those homes. Thus, the leyl shimorim is one of God’s watching God’s own agent of destruction pass over the Israelites.

The medieval French commentator, Rashi, however, posits that the night of watching belongs to Israel. The Israelites had waited 430 years for this moment, so on this night they remain awake, eating their pesach offering with “loins girded and sandals on their feet” (Ex. 12:11). The Israelites eagerly anticipate God’s ultimate act of redemption. More accurately, they anticipate God becoming manifest through their own liberation.

On Passover, we are to emulate Israel’s readiness to be saved on that night of watching. The haggadah – the prayerbook we follow during the seder, the typically home-based evening meal and service – tells of five sages who stay up all night discussing the exodus from Egypt. As the sun begins to rise, their students interrupt their discussion and remind their teachers that the time to recite the morning prayers has arrived. The sages had become so engrossed in their learning that they lost track of time. Or, perhaps, they were reliving the night of watching experienced by their ancestors hundreds of years earlier, a night of anticipating Divine salvation. Perhaps they were modeling a vigilance that we should maintain all the time.

In our own day, not just during Passover but everyday, we are wise to put ourselves in the sandals of our biblical ancestors and to follow the lead of our rabbinic sages. Jewish religion aims to ingrain within us a readiness to behold God’s presence in our lives, to be aware of those moments of awe, majesty, and beauty that point to the One God, to witness God’s might. Judaism teaches that we are to say 100 blessings a day in part to keep us alert to God’s nearness.

Let ours be not a night of watching for a wondrous sign of God’s love, but a life of watching out for all kinds of manifestations of godliness in our lives, manifestations both magnificent and mundane. And may we do so with the faith that God continues to watch over us as God did for Israel during the night of our liberation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Pharaoh Wasn’t Good with Resolutions. Are You?

Parashat Vaera / פרשת וארא
Torah Portion: Exodus 6:2 – 9:35

Here it is, the second week of January, and some of us are still sticking to our New Year’s resolutions. Others of us, not so much. Two weeks into the year and some have been to the gym as they had planned — three times each week at 5:30 a.m, are still on their new diets — no fat, low carb, more veggies, and are being kinder to their loved ones — “That’s alright, Dear. Insurance will pay for a new car door.” Others, not so much.

It should come as no surprise that in the long run the “others,” the ones who fail to realize what they had resolved to do, far outnumber the “some,” the ones who actually succeed. The success rate after a year, in fact, is only about 8%, according to a study by the University of Scranton. (See: http://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics/. Surprisingly, the success rate after the first two weeks is actually 71%.)

Why such a high rate of failure over time? Here is one explanation, among many:

Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of “cultural procrastination,” an effort to reinvent oneself. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, he says. Pychyl argues that people aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate. (See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201012/why-new-years-resolutions-fail)

In other words, no matter how much we want to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, unless we’re ready to change the way we do things, it simply isn’t going to happen.

Take, for example, Pharaoh, the same Pharaoh that appears in our current series of weekly Torah readings, the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” enslaves the Hebrews, and not only refuses to let them ago upon Moses’ insistence but makes their lives increasingly miserable. It takes ten plagues from God before Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt. During four of these plagues he promised Moses that he would let the people go and then reneges once the plague is lifted, each time he becomes stubborn and his “heart hardens.” Even if throughout the first nine plagues Pharaoh had wanted to let the people and avoid future calamities, he just couldn’t shake the hardness from his heart and become a more conciliatory leader. He wasn’t ready to change his habits.

Early in the narrative, Pharaoh convinces himself that the signs from Moses’ God are no big deal. Twice, he sees that his own magicians can do the same “trick” as Moses: They can change water to blood and bring frogs up onto the land. (The magicians tried to replicate Moses’ feat with lice, the third plague, but they could not.) Why should Pharaoh change if what Moses is showing him isn’t all that unusual? Perhaps, Pharaoh thinks his behavior is normal and acceptable. Thus, when Pharaoh promises to free the people if Moses can make all the frogs go away, he has little incentive to follow through.

Over time the plagues get worse. After insects attack humans and cattle, after hail obliterates all living beings out in the open, including grass and trees, and after the darkness falls and immobilizes all the Egyptians, Pharaoh promises to let the people go if Moses makes the plagues go away, but time and again, he become stubborn. His heart hardens. Even mounting pressure from his own courtiers, who have come to fear the God of the Hebrews, can’t convince Pharaoh that change is necessary, that Egypt’s very survival depends on Pharaoh’s letting the Hebrews go.

That the Pharaoh of Exodus is wicked and evil is without question. But who’s to say that, during some of those later plagues when he said he would let the people go, he didn’t actually intend to make good on the promise? Isn’t it possible that at least during the plague of darkness Pharaoh sincerely resolved to soften his heart and let Israel go, but when it came time to fulfill the resolution, he simply couldn’t because he wasn’t ready to change?

Far from suggesting that any of us are evil like, I believe the Pharaoh can be an effective metaphor for our own intransigence.  Despite all we know about the good that will come about as a result of changing our habits, we still very often don’t take the steps necessary to effect that change and bring about that good. With Pharaoh, all the evidence says that letting Israel go from Egypt will lead to a termination of the terror befalling Egypt and an overall improvement of conditions for all concerned. Despite the evidence, though, Pharaoh won’t or can’t have a change of heart. In our lives, we can know for sure that changing the way we eat or exercise or relate to the people around us or any number of lifestyle changes will significantly improve our lives, perhaps even extend our lives. There is science to prove it. Yet, when faced with a choice, we opt for the status quo. We won’t or can’t change our habits, even though our situation may worsen.

There is no magic pill for producing the change we desire. For Pharaoh, change came only after seeing the death of his first born, and even then change came reluctantly. To be sure, Pharaoh actively sought to undo the change he had permitted. Even Moses takes on the role of liberator assigned to him by God after much protest. He wasn’t ready to become the new person God wanted him to be.

Though Moses is hardly a perfect role model for all matters, (for example, I wouldn’t look to Moses as an exemplar of anger management or work-life balance), Moses’s process of transforming himself into a leader, liberator, and law maker is instructive for us as we seek to fulfill our resolutions. What did Moses do that Pharaoh didn’t? He opened himself to encouragement and feedback. God didn’t acquiesce when Moses pushed back against the call to free his people, but rather kept helping Moses see how he could overcome the obstacles that Moses believed would prevent him from being the person God wanted him to be. Moses listened when God spoke. In addition, God provided Moses with a network and means to maximize Moses’s probabilities for success: Aaron, Miriam, Jethro, Joshua and others all came to Moses’s aid at crucial times to help him lead Israel through difficult times. Moses accepted the help from people he loved and trusted. Pharaoh, meanwhile, neither listened to his trusted advisors nor would he have accepted their help if offered.

As we continue reading about our redemption from bondage in Egypt, let us be mindful of the ways we’d like to feel freer in our own lives. Let us resolve to loosen the shackles of habits that keep us from experiencing optimal health or realizing our full potential. Resolving to change, after all, is a necessary first step. More importantly, though, let us muster the will to bring about that change. Rather than harden our hearts and dig in our heals, let us hear that call to change that propels us forward. Let us be our own liberators, our own Moses-es, allowing those around us to motivate us and support us in our work. Let us grow in faith, as did Moses, to know that we can overcome the odds and truly make a difference.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

What’s in Exodus? Lots!

Parashat Shemot / פרשת שמות
Torah Portion: Exodus 1:1 – 6:1 

This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Exodus or Shemot. The first five chapters of this epic tale tell of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the birth and rescue of Moses, the call from God to Moses to free the Israelites, Moses and Aaron’s initial confrontation with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh’s response to Moses and Aaron, which is to exact upon the Israelites even harsher, more oppressive measures. The reading ends, however, on this hopeful note: Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land'” (Exodus 6:1). We all know what happens next.

Shemot, whether the book or the parashah, presents much for us to ponder:

  • What can we learn about gratitude from this story? The Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) shows no hint of gratitude to Joseph for his critical role in helping Egypt survive a terrible famine years earlier. Moses, on the other hand, demonstrates deep gratitude for his lineage (2:11-13) and heeds God’s command to free his kin.
  • How remarkable are the heroines of the Exodus story who courageously defy Pharaoh through acts of civil disobedience! Two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, let Hebrew boys live, despite Pharaoh’s order to all the midwives to kill them at birth (1:15-17). Later, Moses’s place their 3-month old son in a sealed wicker basket and float him down the Nile, where, too, Pharaoh’s daughter acts heroically by recovering baby Moses from the river. Pharaoh’s daughter even heeds the advice of a Hebrew girl to summon a Hebrew woman to suckle the baby. Unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter, the girl and the woman are none other than Moses’s own sister and mother (2:1-10)!
  • Does it matter that biblical scholars long ago deduced that the story of the Exodus is more story than history, that there is no archeological record of someone named Moses nor of a trek by over a million Israelites through the wilderness, and that the story itself points more importantly to Israel’s growth as a nation with God at its center?

These are just a few aspects of the Exodus story that should cause us to stop and think. In fact, the questions that arise and the lessons that emerge through a close reading of this book are without number. In the weeks ahead, I will share just a handful of observations in an effort to shed light on certain parts of the story and to make help the story as a whole more meaningful for my readers.

This week, though, let me refer you to two essays and a collection of essays that address the three items I highlighted above: gratitude, civil disobedience, and historicity. I am sure you will find all these pieces interesting and informative:

Enjoy your learning and feel free to be in touch with comments and questions. I look forward exploring Exodus with you.