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.

Moses’s Concession: Too Little Too Late?

Devarim / פרשת דברים

Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

(I apologize in advance for any typos you find in this week’s article. I wrote this while riding as a passenger on our family road trip this summer.)

This week we begin reading the last of the Five Books of Moses, Deuteronomy or Devarim, which comprises Moses’s final speech, a peptalk of sorts, to the People of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. He reminds Israel of their trials and tribulations during their 40-year sojourn from Egypt to the banks of the Jordan River, highlights key commandments revealed by God along the way, and exhorts Israel to remain faithful to their covenant with God.

As Moses begins to address Israel’s fateful insistence on spying out Canaan and their subsequent lack of faith that they could succeed in conquering the land, Moses says:

We set out from Horeb and traveled the great and terrible wilderness that you saw, along the road to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God had commanded us. (Deuteronomy 1:19)

“The great and terrible wilderness?” What could Moses mean by this phrase and why would he include it here? I believe the answers to these questions present a lesson about leadership, in general, and Moses’s leadership, in particular.

According to Rashi, the French medieval commentator, the wilderness is termed terrible  because “in it were serpents as [thick as] beams and scorpions as [big as] bows” (Sifrei). Surely, though, that is only part of the reason. Indeed, while the wilderness would have been home to countless venomous, frightful creatures, nowhere in Torah do we hear people complaining to Moses that there are too many snakes and scorpions. Rather, the people feared both a lack of food and water and the threat of attack. Regardless of what Rashi speculates or what the Israelites themselves murmured about, the reality was that the wilderness was a dangerous, inhospitable place for much of Israel’s journey. Moses, therefore, is exhibiting what a high school teacher of mine once called “a firm grasp of the obvious.”

What’s remarkable about Moses’s observation is that heretofore Moses hadn’t acknowledged the harsh conditions in which Israel found themselves. All those times when the people complained about the paucity of food, water, and safety, Moses responded out of anger and frustration: “How dare you challenge God’s plan after all God has done for you!” Moses never empathized with his followers. As a consequence of his lack of compassion throughout the trek, Moses created a gulf between him and his followers that the people filled will animosity and resentment.

Had Moses once conceded, “I know life is hard for us now. We are in a strange, foreboding place. Of course, you are miserable,” just maybe the malcontents in his midst would have seen Moses as one of them, as someone who shares their suffering, as someone who “gets” them. Had Moses exhibited an ounce of empathy, perhaps the masses wouldn’t have pushed him so hard to produce water that he would strike a rock not once, but twice, insult the people in his charge, and forfeit his chance to enter the Holy Land with them.

Is Moses’s acknowledgement of the people’s hardship this late in the game worthless? Is it too little too late? He certainly can’t go back in time and become a different leader. He can’t now create a culture of compassion and cooperation that hadn’t existed previously. Nonetheless, Moses’s recognition of the harshness of the wilderness at this point does serve an important function. As Israel readies itself to cross the Jordan and take possession of the Promised Land, Moses reminds them of all they’ve overcome to reach this moment. “You made it through the wilderness with God’s help and your own determination. Have confidence that you can now complete the journey into the Land to which God has led you.” Coming from a person who hadn’t previously connected to the people he had been leading, this message would now embolden Israel to fulfill the next stage of its mission.

Leaders can learn from both Moses’s mistakes and his successes. Leaders can more easily lead when they connect on a personal level with their charges. Leaders can avoid accusations of indifference and aloofness by empathizing with their charges as they face “great and terrible” circumstances. At the same time, leaders can effectively motivate their communities by holding before them a mirror, by reminding them all they are capable of.

This week we see something that Moses did well, and we should give him due credit. Imagine, though, how different our nation’s story might have been had Moses shown the people of Israel such compassion earlier on in their journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Aronson

Running to Save the World

 Korachפרשת קורח

 Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment.” And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer, and put fire in it from the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly to the congregation, and make an atonement for them; for anger has come out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague had begun among the people; and he put on incense, and made an atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. And those who died in the plague were fourteen thousand and seven hundred, beside those who died about the matter of Korah. And Aaron returned to Moses to the door of the Tent of Meeting; and the plague was stopped.

Numbers 17: 9-15

At the heart of Parashat Korach stands an uprising against Moses and Aaron by two groups of rebels led by Korach, on one hand, and by Dathan and Abiram on the other. To show that G-d has, indeed, chosen Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites, G-d lets loose his wrath on the rebels first by creating a giant crator in the Earth that swallows up the main group of rebels, then by incinerating another group, and finally by causing a deadly plague to dessimate the entire congregation of Israel, who by now was “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron for having brought so much death upon them. The entire tragic drama bolsters the legitimact of Moses and Aaron as the rightful leaders of Israel and, in the hands of commentators from the rabbinic sages to modern scholars and theologians, comes to teach valuable lessons about the nature of holiness and what constitutes debate “for the sake of heaven.”

Though an argument can be made that the community’s gripes and Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron are reasonable given the circumstances, the Torah’s stance is clear: Moses, Aaron and the kohanim are the good guys; those who challenge them are the bad guys. Thus, I find Moses’ and Aaron’s responses to the plague that God that brings about to silence the congregation quite remarkable. Whereas Moses had previously argued with God not to obliterate Israel both when the Israelites created a golden calf to worship and when scouts instilled doubt in the minds of Israel that they would be able to conquer the land of Canaan and possess it, here Moses doesn’t engage God at all. Rather, Moses directly intervenes on behalf of the very community that threatens him. By commanding Aaron to enter into the midst of the community with a fire pan with incense, Moses wants to stop halt the plague and save hundreds of thousand of lives. He may be at wits’ end with those he is charged to lead, but he refuses to abandon them. Instead, he takes the moral high ro

Aaron follows Moses lead. He, too, hurries to save Israel. One moment, Moses tells him to “go quickly to the congregation. The next moment, Aaron runs “into the midst of the congregation.” By specifying that Aaron ran and not simply “went quickly” as Moses had bade him, we see Aaron’s eagerness, too, to do right by human kind.

After witnessing the death of 14,700 Israelites, Moses and Aaron could throw up their hands in resignation or hold themselves above Israel in self-righteousness. But that’s not what they do. They follow their consciences to save life, and by doing so, serve as role models for selfless courage. In our day and age, we need such role models.

As we scan the news this week, we read about countless scenes of horror that call us to emulate Moses and Aaron: a senseless act of hatred at a black church in Charleston; the advance of radical Islamists in the Syria and Iraq; acts of nature disrupting and taking life; and so many more. We have the same choicea that our biblical leaders had: Do we argue with God to stop the destruction? Do we close our eyes and simply accept what is happening? Do we bask in the satisfaction that all this is happening somewhere far from us? Or do we act?

Moses and Aaron could not revive the thousands of dead Israelites, but they could insert themselves into the world they saw under attack to try to stop the madness. I don’t believe most of us as individuals can stop racists, bigots and extremists from wreaking havoc. We certainly can’t prevent waters from rising over the banks of rivers and bayous and pushing families out of their homes. But we do have the power to speak out against hatred, to encourage our government to fight ISIS, to support victims of natural disasters as they occur. There’s much we can do if we would only heed the call of our conscience.

Prayer itself wasn’t enough for Moses and Aaron to truly make a difference in their world, nor was arguing with God. When it came time to make a difference, they ran quickly to the aid not of friends and allies but of those who wished them ill. So, too, must we seize this moment to run quickly to change our world for all those in it, whether friends or strangers, whether we like them or not.

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