Bo-Sh’mot/Exodus 10.1-13.16 Summary and Commentary through a Social Justice and Reflective Lens

Bo, the third parshah of Sh'mot and the fifteenth of the Torah, presents the final three signs from the Eternal: locust, touchable darkness, and death of the firstborn. Several themes emerge in this reading: the magnificence and unquestionable power of the Eternal; our need to remember our experiences in Egypt (enslavement, being strangers, Divine wonders, and redemption); and our obligation to recall the stories with one another and our children. We leave Egypt, with all its constraints and misery and unprepared for the ways in which those miseries and constraints live within us. We leave with flocks, herds, and personal possessions; items borrowed from or asked of our Egyptian neighbors; and as a gam ereiv rav, a mixed multitude. Our exiting Egypt is the event from which this book takes its English title, Exodus (Latin: Exodos). The Eternal tells Moshe "Go (bo) to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants... to display my signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your (children) and your (children's children) that I mocked the Egyptians... that you may know I am יהוה (The Eternal)." (10.1-2) The Eternal chooses to warn Pharaoh of the next devastating sign. The statement makes clear that all of the displays of the Eternal's magnificent power is as much for us – to experience, witness, and to be awed by so that we may recall and tell the story with each other and to future generations – as it is for the Egyptians. Moshe tells Pharaoh that locust will cover the land, devouring the remnant of any remaining greenery. Still Pharaoh resists. The news alarms Pharaoh's courtiers. They plead with him to consider their plight. Pharaoh recalls Moshe and Aharon, and attempts to negotiate with Moshe to only take the important men, and fails. Moshe retorts: "We will all go, regardless of social station... our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds." Pharaoh rejects that idea. (10.3-11) The Eternal drives an east wind[1], gathering it and moving it until the locusts arrive in Egypt. The horrid mass hides the land from view, eating up everything that was not destroyed by the previous swarms, thunder, fire, and hail. Nothing green was left anywhere in Pharaoh's Egypt. Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon. He acts contrite, saying what needs to be said to have "this death removed" from him. Moshe leaves without speaking to Pharaoh, and pleads to יהוה Who causes the wind to shift and come strongly from the west[2] to hurl all the locusts into the Sea of Reeds. Again, Pharaoh reneges (10.12-20) Without warning the Eternal brings a "darkness that can be touched" to Egypt that lasts for three days. In Goshen, we are sheltered from the storm of darkness with light in our skies and in our dwellings as it envelops the rest of the land. Three days of darkness can do a lot of harm to animals and plants as well as humans. Pharaoh tells Moshe and Aharon that all the people can go, but the livestock must stay. Moshe makes clear that not a hoof will remain. The Eternal stiffens Pharaoh's heart. Pharaoh dismisses Moshe and Aharon with an ominous warning that they will die, should they again see Pharaoh. Of course, they will see each other again, and death will have occurred since this parting. (10.21-29) This sweeping proclamation introduces an unexpected tension for us. Preceding the 10th sign, the Eternal instructs Moshe to prepare us to leave. Among the things we are to do is borrow from/ask of (וישאלו/v'yish'alu) our neighbors' objects of silver and gold. The Eternal has already assured us that our Egyptian neighbors will be inclined to give to us (3.22). The conversations we have with our neighbors give us the opportunity to hear the high regard many Egyptians have for Moshe. (11.2-3) We slaughter lambs and use the blood to bless/protect our homes; making a distinction between the deaths that will occur among the Egyptians and the Israelite lives within our homes. We pack and have a feast. Moshe warns Pharaoh that the Eternal plans to go among the Egyptians, killing all the firstborns "from Pharaoh. . . to the slave girl." Egypt's firstborn animals will also die. Moshe also tells Pharaoh that our families and our animals will be safe precisely because God wants him and us to know that God makes a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians. (11.4-8) This sweeping proclamation introduces an unexpected tension for us. The 10th wonder is the first that will more than inconvenience Pharaoh; he will lose his firstborn children. Why, however, are those who also suffer at the hands of Pharaoh being punished alongside Pharaoh? What did they do? Many of the peoples were also tricked into servitude. Others were sold into servitude as was our Yoseif. They work alongside us in construction and in the fields. Others have married (converted) into our families. We have adopted children and raised them as our own. Our proximity and empathy may well be why we will welcome those who want to join us as we leave. As the Eternal predicted, Pharaoh arises in the night "because there is a loud cry in Egypt." He joins the cry as his firstborn is dead. He summons Moshe and Aharon and demands that we leave immediately. And so, we leave, with the others ready to leave alongside us. Their losses have proven to them the power and compassion of The Eternal. We welcome them, as we always have welcomed those willing to take on our ways. Our new adventure begins. We are elated, and we will soon discover that we are completely under prepared. Shining Light on Our Time Our Jewish ancestors were elated to finally leave the external trappings of slavery with its humiliations, pains, constraints, and other miseries that limited and controlled the shape of their collective and individual worlds. They did not, and could not have, known or anticipated all the different ways in which they individually and collectively internalized constraints, generational trauma, or the spiritual and physical pains they suffered were also embodied. As they leave, I can imagine that many believed they were leaving ALL the sufferings and pains of Egypt behind. We, who have felt our people and, by extension, ourselves under attack – and/or more pointedly under attack – may be able to identify with our ancestors. When Donald Trump was inaugurated four years, I was stunned by the tone of his speech. “American carnage” was such a startling phrase as well as his assertion that “only he” – a man who had never held any kind of public office or any other position in support of the public good – could solve all our problems. For over 400 years, it has been stressful to be a Black person in our country. Yet, it became more stressful during the previous administration. It was as if White and other light skinned people, had lost their minds and had to call the police because we were barbecuing in parks, moving items into or out of our own homes, waiting for business associates at coffee houses or restaurants, being with our children who appeared to be White, sleeping in our dorm lounge, walking across a college campus – the list is way too long. Yet, I must mention the most famous incident: birdwatching in Central Park. That’s a long way of saying the election results were a relief. The lies about the outcome, and the long list of actions seeking to overturn the results, were stunning; culminating with the attack on the Capitol. Tuesday, January 19, as the sun was setting, our new President and Vice President honored the more than 400,000 people who have died from COVID19. It was my first time seeing Wilton Gregory - family friend,now Archbishop - since he came to Washington, DC. Eyes watering, we soaked in the comfort from the songs and prayers, then the beauty of lanterns as they were lit, and weeping - the beginning of release. More release came on Wednesday, mixed with the ache of not being able to be there in person with friends and family. I loved how the day changed. It was probably still chilly after that short flurry of snow. Yet, the sun was shining bright and fluffy white clouds dotted the sky. It caused me to recall two lines from Psalm 85: Lovingkindness and truth have met; righteousness and peace kissed. Truth from the land will flow; justice from heaven is seen. (11-12) There is much more work that needs to be done, including the work of holistic healing. In the coming weeks we will see how our ancestors struggled to be in relationship with what it means to be free and what it means to be in relationship to The Eternal. In many ways they are as children learning to be on their own. In other ways, they are adults setting about having a new life with new rules and customs. The Eternal will repeatedly be a compassionate parent and healer, and an impatient husband demanding a level of perfection that is not possible for human beings! Just as children approaching adulthood and new brides are challenged by the sudden changes in their circumstances, so too are these wonderfully flawed and loving families in their transformation to become a nation. This Week’s Lessons, Reflections, and Practices 1. Preparing for Change, Transformation: A question that sometimes arises is why the Israelites were not ready to leave Egypt, "nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves." (12.39) Afterall, the Eternal has been telling them for some time that their redemption was coming; and the time was finally "now." The experience, however, was that Pharaoh continued to change his mind. Though we are told what will happen in Egypt after our feast, and though most of us marked our doors, for many it could have been difficult to hope, dream, or anticipate that the next act would finally break Pharaoh. Our own experiences say that there was a spectrum of responses to the possibility of freedom arriving shortly. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about these phenomena in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” They are: complacency as a result weariness and/or hopelessness, complacency as a result of security and economic benefit, impatience for change, bitterness and hatred may erupt into violence, and contemporary frustration. Preparing is not the same as being ready. We prepare for rituals and ceremonies. The preparation readies us and does not tell us how we will feel about participating in the ritual or ceremony. We discover how we feel as we move through the transformative act and come to know what has transformed as we move with our new self. We may not be prepared for what arises and we can be ready to welcome it. Reflection A: Not all transformations are accomplished through rituals and ceremonies. Consider a few of the ways you have transformed. Pick one or two and, without judgement, uncover the path/process/experience that led to who you are now. Some of our transformations are the result of pain. What is the gift you have uncovered? Have you found it yet? When you are ready to look, it's waiting for you. Even Pharaoh, in the wake of disaster, asked for a blessing. 2. "...every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die...": One of the cosmological notions that has always stuck with me is the idea that the Eternal, in taking us as God's people, is learning what it means to be Elohim, an all-things-God to all-of creation. I believe that's what makes the death of all the firstborns "from Pharaoh. . . to the slave girl" so heartbreaking and unbearable. The lack of distinction between the mighty and the oppressed gives me and others pause. Aviva Zornberg offers a teaching from Rashi to explain that more gods are involved than just Pharaoh and the Egyptian pantheon. There are the gods of the non-Israelite prisoners and enslaved. If they were to go unscathed by the plague, they could claim that their gods were also powerful. By including all non-Israelites in the plague, the Sovereignty of יהוה is unmatched. Reflection B: Think about a time when you decided on a plan of action that had unintended, unfavorable consequences to people for whom you care. How did you handle the fallout? What, if any, relationships were you able to repair? What, if any, relationships remain broken? If you are unhappy with the brokenness that remains, who would you have to be to be a mender? Reflection C: Maybe you were among the unintended consequences of another's decision. How have you moved forward? What places within you, if any, still need healing? How can you tend to yourself and your desire to heal? Reflection D: Maybe you were part of a push for systemic change within an entity, institution, or governmental body that had consequences you did not expect or feared. How do you relate to your role in the change? What, if any, regrets do you have? How can you aid your need for healing? 3. Tell Your Children: Much is made in the Torah about remembering. In this parashah, we are given great detail about telling this story to our children. Reflection E: What other important stories do you have to share with your children? Others that you teach/mentor/love? Family stories/legends? Personal stories/legends? What is the past that you believe could serve them as they move into their lives? Endnotes: [1] Ruakh haqadim רוח הקדים (10.13), generally the hot, dry, withering wind known as…sirocco. This is the same wind that withers the stalks in Pharaohs dream (Genesis 41.6). JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus; Commentary by Nahum M. Sarna.
[2] Ruakh-yam רוח-ים (10.19), sea-wind, ibid. © Sabrina Sojourner 2021

Listening to the Heart

Beth El Montgomery County Sisterhood/Zhava Shabbat Resnik Memorial Lecturer, Shabbat Sh’mot Martin Luther King Weekend, January 16, 2021 Shabbat Shalom. I deeply appreciate the honor that has been bestowed on me by Sisterhood/Zahavah as your Resnik Memorial Lecturer. I send a special Shabbat Shalom to my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who are on Zoom. It’s been too long since I’ve seen each of you. We are a month shy of the last time I gave a public, in person talk. A woman who, in her own words was considerably older than me, pulled me aside and asked: Are you going to upset me? I laughed. She said: I don't know why you're laughing, I'm serious. I said: I'm laughing because I know you're serious and I also know that that's something God put on your heart. So, you probably should be prepared to be upset. She looked me in the eye. After a few moments she sighed, and said: I don't know who you are, but I guess I need to be like Bette Davis and be prepared for a bumpy ride. As she walked away, I was debating as to whether or not to correct her when she said: And don't bother correcting me I know what I'm saying. We both laughed. Chances are you’ve already noticed a voice making commentary as I speak. Over the last 10 months, many of us who were not previously acquainted, have become acquainted with a new aspect of ourselves: that voice in our head. If it hasn’t done so already, it’s quite possible that you will hear that voice talking back at me or speaking badly about me, puzzling about what I’m saying, or something tame. It’s all okay if that happens. My invitation to you is to allow that part of your mind to say whatever it is it wants to say while you continue to listen to my voice. Love. Light. Redemption. Torah. That is the order of our morning service. There is a prayer at the end of the Amidah that is one of the few personal prayers in our liturgy. אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע, וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה, וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדֹּם, וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה. פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶֽךָ My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Help me ignore those who would slander me. Let me be humble before all. Open my heart to your Torah. Most of us don't read it or read it so quickly we really don't take it in. Yet, I see it is our guide for how we are to be with each other and in the world with others. Here’s my paraphrase: · I bring my best self to all efforts, especially my generosity, lovingkindness, compassion, and sense of justice, regardless of the behavior of others. · I will be as honest with others as I am with myself. · I will note my assumptions, assessments, and opinions, yet not hold them as true. · I will listen to the feelings that arise in me as I listen to another, and allow compassion, above all, to guide my response. · I will remember I have nothing to prove and will allow the process to stretch me and those traveling with me. I use this paraphrase as guidance for many of my discussions, mediations, and my own brand of trainings. When I'm working with non-Jewish groups I don't reference the Amidah. I just give them the plain text. I'm sure several of you have noticed that these are personal statements as opposed to group statements, and that’s intentional. Over the years I've realized that group groundings only work if everybody in the group adheres to them. If one person breaks with the guidance then everybody feels like they have permission to break with the guidance. These personal statements make it clear that each of us is responsible for our behavior, including our response to another’s behavior we judge as bad. If I break that guidance, with the wisdom in the room to aid me, I have the opportunity to see my offense, differently and what is needed for repair. My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. So here's the deal: there's really no way for me to tell you about Training The Heart To Listen in the 6 minutes that remain of my time. So, I’m inviting you into a couple of very truncated exercises to give you a taste of it. Exercise One: What is your vision of the perfect world that is blissfully awaiting the day the Mashiakh arrives? Allow whatever feelings or visions to arise. I’m going to snap my fingers you have seven seconds to bring that vision, those feelings to mind. (snap) (snap) Exercise Two: Who do you need to be in order to bring about a world blissfully awaiting the Mashiakh? Again seven seconds. (snap) (snap) I have no doubt that was frustrating, and since we are not in the room together, it’s a little hard to debrief. So, I’m going to share my responses. I dream a world in which every human being is able to live happy, healthy, and productive lives doing exactly what they feel called to do. There is no poverty, no hunger, no designed class of have nots. Plenty of water, food, education, income, friendships, family… We are free to worship in the open without fear. The list goes on… Who do I need to be to bring about such a world? I need to be in relationship to, and unafraid of, my feelings; own that I am a child of the Holy One, Blessed be the One, as I own that I am the child of my earthly parents. I need to be patient, especially when I don’t want to be, and strive to always be kind because I don’t know another’s battles. Most importantly, I never know in the moment, and rarely know later, when my kindness makes an important difference for someone. As Maya Angelou said, people may not remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. The question remains, who are you? Who do you need to be to aid us in creating the time of awaiting the arrival of the Mashiakh? What do you have to give up to be, or grow into being, that person, now? What do you have to learn to be, or grow into being, that person, now? Regardless of age, it’s not too late. Are you ready to grapple with being both a victim of White Supremacy with its displays of anti-Semitism and an accomplice of it as someone who considers themselves not racist, but may not actively Anti-racist? This past Thursday, Professor Susannah Heschel was one of the panelists for a discussion titled "Civil Rights to Anti-Racist." She shared that it disturbs her how many Jews like the picture of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King. She doesn’t want you to like it. She wants you to be challenged by it. Rabbi Heschel said: Racist people forfeit the right to worship God. Dr. Heschel said she wants Jewish communities and synagogues to grapple with what it means to worship our God in a racist country. Light. Love. Redemption. Torah. The ideologies and beliefs that stormed our Capitol, and abetted the storming of the capitol, are after us who are not White Christian. As for the Jews who were there, I’m still grabbling with that. “Those of you who have studied Sh’mot may already understand that Pharaoh, the human God leader of Egypt, is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and other caste systems. Each has its hierarchy of isms. Each entity within such systems yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure it faces. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence. “Over the next few weeks as we move through Sh’mot, we will…be reminded, that the journey to true freedom is not easy; that we must do internal as well as collective work…it is precisely because freedom takes work that we must persist in the work it requires. Our choices are mostly not either/or. They are mostly both/and or yes/and. I believe the more we embrace paradox, we will see possibilities and imagine solutions which were previously unavailable to us. Or, were available but seemed too fantastical for serious consideration. The limit to the success of our ideas will always be our willingness to be stopped by our own or another’s ‘no.’”[1] Light. Love. Redemption. Torah. In Va-eira, The Eternal says: “I will take you to Me as my people, and to you I will be Elohim. You will know that I am The Eternal your God[2].” Torah, and the rest of the Tanakh, is at minimum our spiritual history. In the name of Rabbi Me’or Einayim, I say we are each other’s Torah. The Torah tells us that 600,000 Jewish souls left Egypt (Yes, there are problems with that number and stay with me.) He goes on to say that each of us Jews living today contains a portion of one of those original Jewish souls. And, just like the Torah scroll itself, if one of us is missing the community is not complete. What if we decided our communal relationships are more important than being “right?” That everybody has a right to feel welcomed and embraced by the community, and that the community is obligated to embrace and welcome everybody? Can people go too far in terms of what they say or how they behave? Absolutely! That’s why we have redemption. Love. Light. Redemption. Torah. Torah. Redemption. Light. Love. יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך, אדוני, צורי וגואלי. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, be acceptable unto you. Adonai, my Rock, my Rock and my Redeemer. Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. Shabbat Shalom! Endnotes:
[1] “Va-eira Summary and Commentary”
[2] My translation. © Sabrina Sojourner 2021

Va-eira Summary and Commentary through a Social Justice and Reflective Lens

Va-eira (and I appeared) is Sh'mot's second parashah and the Torah’s fourteenth. The Eternal continues to cultivate an intimate relationship with Moshe and to grow him into the leader needed for God's plan to redeem us. The Eternal reintroduces the Godself to Moshe as El Shaddai with the previously known Hebrew signature: יהוה, and states that the name was not known to our ancestors. El Shaddai is used in Breisheet/Genesis (17.1-8 and 35.11-12). Within the context of Sh’mot, The Eternal interacts differently with Moshe and, eventually, us. The Eternal’s first appearance in Sh’mot is within fire (3.2-7). We will follow a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The God of Breisheet walked among our ancestors, came to them in person, and through dreams. We will know this God through amazing feats that will be celebrated and honored for generations; as a God who is quite distant and very near. It seems that the knowledge unknown to our ancestors was the tremendous power of the Eternal. יהוה is the name The Eternal instructs Moshe to use with us to identify God as the one of our ancestors; to assure us that God knows our suffering, and will redeem us. The Eternal shares the essential nature of God, and restates "I will take you as My people, and I will be Elohim to you..." (6.7). The intimacy of the Hebrew is missed by the translation, accurate as it is. The Eternal is “taking” us as God’s people the way a man “takes a wife.” The Eternal presents a binding relationship. Moshe responds with fear and anxiety. The Eternal reiterates the mission and re-enlists Aharon's assistance. The text, on behalf of The Eternal, provides an expanded genealogy of the tribe of Leivi, naming Am'ram and Yokheved as the parents of Aharon, Mir’yam and Moshe. Yokheved is the first person named in the Torah whose name includes a shortened name for God. Yo is short for Yah, and Yokheved (יוכבד) means Yah is glorified or Yah’s Glory. The primary purpose of the genealogy appears to be establishing Aharon and Moshe as part of the Levite line and the ones chosen by The Eternal to bring us out of Egypt. We are also introduced to Aharon’s wife, Elisheva, and their sons: Nadav, Avihu, El’azar, and Itamar. We are told the El’azar is married to one of Putiel’s daughters (she is not named), and she bore Pin’khas. Putiel is an Egyptian name, which means that Pin’khas is of mixed heritage. The Eternal tells Moshe that God "will place you in the role of God to Pharaoh." (7.1) On the surface, it seems to be an extraordinary claim. It makes sense, though, for the Divine representative of The Eternal to have a status equal in stature to that of Pharaoh who believes he is a god. The Eternal also speaks of hardening/stiffening Pharaoh's heart, which is more complicated than it seems. The Eternal is not hardening Pharaoh’s heart on every refusal. This will be a contest of wills (The Eternal and Pharaoh) as well as theocracy (The Eternal and the Egyptian Pantheon) that leads to our liberation. Ten times Pharaoh will get caught in his own stubbornness and ten times The Eternal will intensify his stubbornness.[2] Moshe and Aharon follow The Eternal's instruction and go to Pharaoh. Aharon throws down his rod and it becomes a serpent. Pharaoh's magicians also cast their rods and they, too, become serpents. Then Aharon's serpent eats the magicians' serpent rods. Pharaoh's heart stiffens, just as said it would. (7.10-13) At the next visit, Aharon raises his staff and turns the waters of the Nile to blood. Pharaoh's magicians are also able to duplicate this act. So, Pharaoh ignores the bloody water, returning to the palace. (7.22) A week later, the brothers are instructed to return to Pharaoh and warn him, "If you refuse to let (my people) go, I will plague your whole country with frogs." This, too the sorcerers are able to duplicate. So, Pharaoh's heart stiffens. Sometime later, Pharaoh summons Moshe and Aharon, asking them to plead with יהוה to remove the frogs. “I will let you go to sacrifice to יהוה.” Moshe speaks eloquently to Pharaoh, inviting him to name the time for the frogs to end. “Tomorrow,” says Pharaoh. The next day the frogs die in place: the palace, the homes, the courtyards, the fields and the waters. When Pharaoh sees there is relief, he becomes stubborn. (8.4-11) Next, The Eternal instructs Moshe to tell Aharon to hold “his rod and strike the dust of the earth.” Aharon does so, and all the dust of the land turns into lice that attack humans and beasts. This phenomenon the magicians cannot reproduce. They tell Pharaoh, "This is the finger of Elohim!" Pharaoh's heart stiffens. (8.12-15) It is poignant to be reading of a leader who cares nothing for his people, including the members of his court. Swarms of insects are the next affliction. When the swarms hit, Pharaoh has people check to see what is happening in Goshen. Spies report no swarms. Pharaoh attempts a compromise, telling Moshe and Aharon that we can stay in the land (Mitzrayim) and sacrifice to The Eternal. Moshe declines. He argues there are cultural differences that may offend Egyptians (and it's not the true Divine goal!). Pharaoh appears to relent, and again, reneges, once he experiences relief. (8.17-28) The sixth wonder is soot. Moshe throws it into the air. It turns into a burning dust that causes inflammation on human skin. The magicians are so afflicted, they are unable to even try to match The Eternal's action. This time The Eternal stiffens Pharaoh's heart. (9.8-12) The Eternal decides to warn Pharaoh and his court of the seventh plague: thunder and hail and fire. Pharaoh pays no heed, but some of his court decide to protect their families, workers, and animals. The destruction is devastating upon what has already been devastated. Once again Pharaoh pleads for relief. Once again, upon experiencing relief, Pharaoh's heart stiffens. (9.12-35) Shining Light on Our Time I’m writing on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 and feel moved to speak of current events. Possibly like many of you, a week ago today I was in shock as I watched the Capitol buildings become overrun by a mob. It was even more stunning to realize that my eyes were not betraying me as I watched Capitol Police Officers remove barricades and/or open doors to allow marauders into the buildings. I worked on Capitol Hill for several years as a staff person and as a lobbyist. I couldn’t understand how the very people who are charged with protecting the Capitol were abetting traitors. How could the Capitol Police be so underprepared that they hadn’t anticipated the disruption and the need for some people to be on notice?! I thought about the Members of Congress and their staff as well as the others experiencing their workplace threatened by people intent on mischief and unknown nefarious acts. I saw another group chase a Black Capitol Police Captain up several flights of stairs. What I did not know, and was later told, is that when he got to the top of the 5th set of stairs, there were three more CP officers – all White. The observer reported a hesitancy in all of them. Something was said and they turned around together to handle the mob. It is poignant to be reading of a leader who cares nothing for his people, including the members of his court. Pharaoh summons and dismisses Moshe and Aharon, according to his needs. He will say or do anything to get relief from the discomfort he experiences. Once he has relief, his word means nothing. Those of you who have studied Sh’mot may already understand that Pharaoh, the human God leader of Egypt, is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and other caste systems. Each has its hierarchy of isms. Each entity within such systems yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure it faces. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence. Many people, including President-Elect Biden – and perhaps you, are saying “This is not our country!” What a world that would be! If only that were true. The history of this destructive force is as old as our country. We are a country that tried and failed to enslave Indigenous people, then stole people from Africa to enslave them. Then later, we raided the treasuries of nation-states and tribal communities, and the national resources of the lands. Once the importation of slaves ended, the Senate created rules which allowed the slave holding states to defeat all attempts to end slavery. After our Civil War, those same rules allowed Southern States to beat back Civil Rights legislation, until 1964. (In between, Indigenous people were forced off their lands to control desired resources, Black Americans lost all rights gained after the Civil War, extrajudicial killings were so commonplace that lynching postcards were considered souvenirs, signage throughout the South and Southwest clarified who was welcome, and much, much more.) It wasn’t long before appealing to White grievance became a tiring-strategy of the Republican party, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a tiring-strategy of the Democratic party! To heal our country is to own our collective and individual complexity. My point for Mr. President-Elect and you, my dear reader, is that healing can only truly occur if we do the hard work of holding “yes, and…” instead of “either/or.” To heal our country is to own our collective and individual complexity. We need to commit to having a democracy that leaves no one behind: NOT ONE PERSON. As long as any collection of individuals or a group are on their own to remain targets of hate and discrimination, we will not be a free and safe society. As long as there is a plurality of people on whose labor we depend and want to pay the least, we will never know true economic security or realize the drag that assumed poverty has on our economy. Over the next few weeks as we move through Sh’mot/Exodus, we will see, and therefore be reminded, that the journey to true freedom is not easy; that we must do internal as well as collective work. Yet, it is precisely because freedom takes work that we must persist in the work it requires. I believe the more we embrace “yes, and…” we will see possibilities and imagine solutions which were previously unavailable to us. Or, were available but seemed too fantastical for serious consideration. The limit to the success of our ideas will always be our willingness to be stopped by our own or another’s “no.” Shabbat Shalom This Week's Lessons, Reflections, and Practices The Big Picture: For many years, I thought the genealogies were interesting and lacked depth because they rarely mentioned women and early translations only “begot” sons, instead of translating b'nai as sons and daughters as in more recent translations. In the last few years I've come to understand them as bridges and/or telescopes. The genealogy in Va-era serves both purposes. The text wants us to see the context that holds Moshe, Aharon, and Mir'yam. Though it says, "These are the heads of their fathers' houses," it focuses on R'uvein, Shim’on, and Leivi, the three eldest sons of Yisrael. The three appear to stand for some of what is needed for personal and national transformation. R'uvein was demoted by Yisrael on the latter's deathbed due to Yaakov’s judgment of his past behavior, and R'uvein also showed courageous vulnerability to save Bin'yamin. (Breisheet 44.18-34) Rising to the occasion, despite or because of one's imperfections, is required throughout our lives to move forward with integrity. Shim’on and Leivi’s violent anger is cursed by Yaakov (they killed all the men of Shekhem), but he does not curse them. (Breisheet 49.5-7) Anger is an important emotion, and it cannot lead; something that Moshe will have to learn much, much later. Making a distinction between a person and troublesome behavior is important in nurturing transformation. No human being is dispensable. Practice 1: Think about those who have parented you. What are the traits and values that you admire? Find problematic? How, if at all, does either occur in you or others in your family? What, if anything, within yourself would you like to transform? Anger: (Shared with permission) As a friend's mom was dying, family dynamics created an opportunity for her and her son to discuss anger and its history in her and her son's family of origin and each of their current families. Among the discoveries was the independent and parallel steps they each had taken to gain peace within themselves, to relate differently to their anger, so that they could relate differently to themselves and the world. "The biggest discovery for me was that we both started with being kinder to ourselves. It was a fascinating and healing conversation for both of us." Practice 2: If you are interested in examining your relationship to anger, contemplate your feelings about anger, including how you experience it within you, and how you receive and perceive it in another; others. What, if any, are the ways you are unkind to yourself? What would it mean if you were kinder to yourself? How does anger serve you? How does anger take from you? If you are someone who avoids anger, how is that working for you? Consider how anger occurred/occurs within your family of origin, adoption, fostering, or choice. What can you glean from the reflection about your relationship to anger? Note: This practice is a journey, not a destination. It's best not to do it all at once. If you are comfortable, invite someone you trust to journey with you. Claiming One's Voice; Agency: I know it's scary to claim one's voice. In claiming my voice, I claim my agency. In claiming my agency, I make myself visible to others, some of whom may see my visibility as an intrusion or threat. Claiming his voice is the first lesson Moshe must learn to be the person, the leader The Eternal sees and needs him to be. Moshe's protestations about his speech indicate that he fumbles with words. That can come across as stuttering. It is also an indication that someone doesn't trust what they have to say, or that they don't trust that what they have to say will be heard. Confident that The Eternal has Pharaoh's attention due to the frogs, Moshe—without instruction—allows Pharaoh to set the time for the frogs' departure. The Eternal honors Moshe's deal. (8.5-7) After swarms of insects overrun the palace, Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aharon to say they can sacrifice to The Eternal within the land. Again, without instruction, Moshe rejects Pharaohs proposal and warns Pharaoh not to act deceitfully with his counter proposal. (8.21-25) Moshe has claimed his voice and improved his ability to communicate. Practice 3: What is your relationship to your agency? Do you own it and take it for granted? If that has always been so, what allows, permits you to be able to do so? If owning your agency is something you had to learn, have you found a place of ease with it? Are you still approaching agency as a struggle? If you were able to guide someone to agency, how would you approach it? If you are guiding one or more people to agency, what are you learning about yourself? Practice 4: If you are someone struggling to claim or reclaim your voice, what is one of the stories (Haggadot) you have created regarding your lack of agency? In reviewing your Haggadah, what are the internal constrictions or narrow places (Mitzrayim) to which your story points? What are the resources you have, or need, to aid you in transforming your Haggadah or Haggadot? Tell all Pharaohs[3]: As stated above, Pharaoh is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and its resulting hierarchy of isms. Each entity yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence. Practice 5: Think about the systems in which you operate. When it comes to others' pleading for relief and others' hardening to protect systems and status quo, who are you? How do you use your voice; your agency? If you are among those pleading, what is your experience with another's hardening? How do you maintain your humanity? How are you managing the situation(s)? Practice 6: How and/or what are you being called to contribute? Who do you have to be to contribute that gift? What story would you have to give up? What learnings would you have to take on? From whom or where would you learn? [1] The original version of this commentary appeared on the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s website in 5780/2020.
[2] Women’s Torah Commentary, page 337.
[3] Louis Armstrong’s version of “Let My People Go.” © Sabrina Sojourner 2021

Parashat Sh’mot: Summary and Commentary through a Social Justice and Reflective Lens

Sh'mot (names) is the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus and its first parashah, the 13th parashah of the Torah. The first paragraph names Yisrael/Ya'akov and his sons who came down to Egypt; Yoseif, who preceded them; and their deaths; thus, creating a preface for Sh'mot and connecting its unfolding to the conclusion of Breisheet. While it then shifts to an explosion of life, this also references the end of Vay’chi, which mentions that we thrive in Goshen[1]. We are fertile, prolific. We multiply and greatly increase our numbers. Though we are still a small minority, we are perceived as filling the land. Generations after our ancestors' arrival in Egypt and Yoseif’s death, a "new king" arises to power who seems to choose not to know of Yoseif’s connection to Egyptian history. The king/Pharaoh is not named. The text reports that he feels threatened by our numbers, telling his advisors that our people might join with an enemy army and turn against the Egyptians. His solution is to force us into mandatory unpaid labor for large public work projects, such as building cities for troops (garrison cities) and to care for crops and farm animals. Men mostly work construction, while women and men work the endless fields and herded animals. Though the hard work is deeply taxing, it does not slow our birth rate. So, the king decrees that our boy babies are to be killed at birth, but girls may live. This plan is thwarted by the two midwives he instructed, Shif'rah and Puah. They use Pharaoh's biases against us to hide what they are doing. They report to him that we, Hebrew women, are more vigorous than Egyptian women, giving birth before the midwife arrives and returning with the baby to the field. Perhaps because their names are Semitic, some rabbis promote the theory that the women are Yokheved and Mir'yam in disguise. That theory is not supported by the text. They are non-Hebrew women who, with fear and awe of our God, tend to Hebrew women. Their willingness literally and figuratively to midwife our nation into being is rewarded by The Eternal (l.21). Legend has it that not a single child born under their care was lame, blind, or blemished in any way. They were privileged to become the ancestors of priests, Levites, kings, and princes[2]. Despite Pharaoh's decrees, a Levite man and woman, Amram and Yokheved[1], have a third child, a boy. They keep his birth secret for three months. After that, Yokheved carefully constructs a teivah, a small ark, for him, and places it among some reeds near a bank of the Nile. His sister, Mir'yam[3], stays within eye shot to see what will happen. Pharaoh's daughter, named Bat'yah (daughter of Yah) by the rabbis[4], comes with her attendants to bathe in the Nile close to where the baby is hidden. She hears the crying infant, opens the basket, and knows it is a Hebrew child. Her knowledge does not undermine her kindness. Mir'yam appears and asks Bat'yah if she would like a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby. Bat'yah agrees. Mir'yam fetches Yokheved who is hired by Bat'yah to be a wet-nurse and raise Bat'yah's child. Though the text does not yet name her, it is significant that Yokheved receives wages for nursing her/Bat'yah's child. It signals that Bat'yah values the service she is to provide as a wet-nurse and protector of her child. The child is returned after his third birthday, and Bat'yah names him Moshe. Though the text provides a Hebrew basis for the name, it is Egyptian and means gave birth[5], perhaps pointing to the role Moshe will play in our transformation from a collection of families to a nation. (2.5-10) Older, Moshe ventures away from the palace to see how his people are doing. He kills an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew and hides the body in the sand. The next day he finds two Hebrews fighting each other. When he questions them about their behavior, he discovers that the murder is known and flees Egypt. He comes to rest at a well in Mid'yan. As with Breisheet, wells and water will be symbols throughout the Book of Sh’mot/Exodus. Seven women arrive at the well with their father's flock and are harassed by the other shepherds. Moshe defends them and helps them water their sheep. When they arrive home earlier than usual, they tell their father, R'ueil—the high priest of Mid'yan—about Moshe's actions. He instructs them to find Moshe and bring him back to their home to break bread. Moshe accepts R'ueil's hospitality and accepts Tziporah, one of his daughters, as his wife. Many years later in Egypt, the Pharaoh dies. Yet, our hard work continues. We sigh, possibly in grief, possibly because we know that his death will not change our fate. That causes us to sink deeper into despair. Then moaning begins. First, here and there a few voices. It doesn't take long for all of us to be crushed by reality, and we moan; collectively aching for something different, something we used to know. Unbeknown to us, that aching collective moan reaches The Eternal, causing God to remember God's covenant with Avraham, Yitz'khak, and Ya'akov. The Eternal plans our rescue. Who, though, can be the right person for the Divine mission? While Torah makes it seem that it was ordained, how did The Eternal know that Moshe was truly ready? Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 2.2 tells us that there was a moment when Moshe was tending Yitro/R’ueil’s herd, and a young lamb bolted. Moshe followed the lamb until he found it at a body of water, drinking. Moshe allowed the lamb to drink its fill, then carried it back to the rest of the herd. The compassion and care Moshe showed for the lamb, and his ability to remain aware of his surroundings to get back to the rest of the flock, are what allowed The Eternal to be confident of God's choice. On another occasion, Moshe is tending his father-in-law's flock at Khoreiv, “the mountain of God,” when an angel of יהוה appears to Moshe in a blazing fire out of a bush. Moshe gazes at the bush engulfed in flames and not burning. He draws closer to marvel at this wonder. Only then, does The Eternal call to Moshe from out of the bush. The Eternal instructs Moshe not to come closer, and to take his sandals off because he is standing on "holy ground." The Eternal proceeds to introduce the Godself as the God of our patriarchs. The Eternal tells Moshe that God knows that God's people are suffering in Egypt and is ready to rescue them; bringing them out of Egypt to a spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Immediately, The Eternal employs Moshe as God's representative to Pharaoh. (3. I -10) Moshe's first objection is that he's not up to the task (“Who am I . . . ?”). The Eternal assures Moshe that God will be with him as he goes to Pharaoh and the people with a sign that God is with him. “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this Mountain.” Moshe's second objection is that his kinfolk will not believe him. He asks for the Eternal's name. אהיה אשר אהיה" (Eh'yeh-Asher-Eh'yeh)" is the answer, though this name appears nowhere else in Torah. Rooted in the Hebrew verb "to be (היה)", for me this Name shouts: Existence! I Am That/Who/Which Is (Unfolding). Upon his third objection, The Eternal gives Moshe personal experience with God's power: Moshe's rod becomes a snake. His hand becomes diseased and is healed. Water turns to blood. These events will repeat in the next few chapters. Moshe fourth objection is that he is tongue-tied. The Eternal, again, counters by commissioning Aharon to join Moshe in confronting Pharaoh. Only then does Moshe accept his fate. Clearly this is where The Eternal sees something in Moshe that he does not see in himself. What experience do you have on either end of this scenario? With Yitro's blessing, Moshe gathers his family and returns to Egypt. While on their way, one night it seems that The Eternal seeks to "kill him." The ambiguity as to who is at risk is examined at length in the classical commentaries, although ultimately there are only three answers as to whom him may be. Tziporah circumcises her son, assumed to be Ger'shom, halting the attack. (4.24-26) Moshe and Aharon meet on The Eternal's mountain. Moshe shares with Aharon everything that was said and happened with God. Only then do they go before the "elders of the B'nei Yisrael." Aharon repeats Moshe's story, and performs signs for the people. Convinced that The Eternal has finally taken note of our plight, we bow in relief and with gratitude. (4.27-31) Moshe and Aharon next visit Pharaoh, presenting The Eternal's demands for our release. Pharaoh, who has no knowledge of יהוה, denies the request and makes our construction work harder, forcing us to hunt for straw yet still make the same number of bricks. This upsets us and our overseers, who seek and fail to change Pharaoh's mind. Disheartened, we blame Moshe and Aharon for our increased labor. Moshe is also disheartened, and seeks The Eternal to plead for our relief. In doing so, Moshe also expresses his despair for the mission he's been given. The Eternal seeks to comfort Moshe, assuring him that the effort has just begun; the effort will yield the promised results. This also foreshadows the next three parshiyot. This Week's Lessons, Reflections, and Practices The importance of a person's name: We often take for granted that women are not named in the Torah, to the point it is notable when non-main-character females are named. After listing the males of the first generations, Shif'rah and Puah are the first to be named. (The king does not need to be named because he is king/pharaoh). As midwives who fear/awe our God, they protect the boy babies and facilitate a future for our people. Pharaoh's daughter is not named. Yet, without her willingness to openly ignore her father's decree, Moshe may have stayed in the river, or worse. Are there people in your life whom you take for granted? Do you know their names? How often do you address them by name? How often do you thank them? Are you one of the nameless or named that others, including family or other intimates, take for granted? Reflection and Practice for those who need to notice: This week, notice who does what for you and/or how their doing facilitates your purpose(s). What is the narrow place (Mitzrayim) or story (Haggadah) you have constructed for yourself that makes it okay to take without acknowledgement? While our immediate thoughts go to family and possibly friends, there are also all kinds of service people, co-workers, neighbors, and strangers who facilitate our needs and/or works. Notice, and when you are ready, thank. Reflection and Practice for those who ought to be noticed: If you are someone who does a lot for others, yet rarely gets acknowledgment or appreciation from people that matter, how do you feel about that? What, if anything, are you getting (or hope to get) out of allowing yourself to be taken for granted? What is the narrow place (Mitzrayim) or story (Haggadah) you have constructed for yourself that makes it okay? How do you feel about where you are? What, if anything, do you want to do to change your story and your circumstances? What agency do you seek for yourself? Additional Reflection: When it comes to whom and what you notice, has your gaze changed over the last year? If so, how and what difference is it making in your life? Holding Paradox: The image of the bush ablaze and not consumed has always fascinated me, despite the cheap rendering in the movie. It is, by definition, a paradox. The desire and ability to hold the paradoxical (both and) instead of holding the binary/directional (either or) thinking can be quite challenging for many people. In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that I can hold paradox." I have discovered that my willingness to hold paradox especially paradoxes that make me uncomfortable — is a gateway to peace and, sometimes, healing. My willingness to say yes to both and leads me to accept life exactly as it's presenting itself in this moment, allowing the stress and tension inside me to cease. Reflection and Practice: What are the paradoxes that keep vexing you? You may want to start with a simple one such as a habit or trait of someone you dearly love that has not changed — no matter what has previously been said or done. Assuming the habit or trait is NOT something destructive to the person, you, or others (if it is, and you have not done so, get professional help), how can you change in relationship to it? Start by examining the meaning you give the habit or trait, the origins of that meaning, and whether or not you really believe that meaning. Go deep, as if you were unrooting a weed without tools. Once you’ve uncovered the root pull it out and unexamined what you have. How can you reframe or change the meaning so that you can live with the feeling that you don't like feeling when that habit or trait shows up, with a goal of dissipating and/or transforming the feeling you feel? When you are ready, try a bigger/more difficult paradox. In the shadow of being seen: It is amazing that The Eternal does not take "no" for an answer from Moshe. The midrash makes it clear that The Eternal saw something in Moshe that he did not see in himself. He is being asked to take on a major leadership role with absolutely no experience of any kind, including very little life experience. How absolutely terrifying! Reflection: A. Think about a time when someone recognized something in you that you did not see, or were not ready to see in yourself. Relive the conversation. Feel, as best you can, what you felt then and name the feelings that you may have not been able to name then. What thoughts are moving through you? How do you feel about what you decided? How does that decision or that situation show up, now? What, if anything, needs to be acknowledged, owned, or healed? B. The next question is especially for those who may have been or feel they were exploited in such a situation: If the offer made was one you wanted and it came with unsavory strings, how did you handle the situation? How do you now feel about how you handled it? Have you resolved all that happened in a way that allows you to feel good about yourself? If there's something left to resolve, how do you want to tend to it? In any reflection, if you find yourself with regrets, come back to the present and see yourself now with the blessings you have. Own those blessings and the lesson(s) you learned. See the influence on who you are now and are still becoming. If there is still regret, forgive yourself and be very kind to yourself as you learn to live into the forgiveness. Breaking open despair: Life is amazing, and suffering is an inescapable part of being alive. One of Frankel's teachings is “that any time we allow a narrow part of the self, rather than the whole of our being, to become our sole focus, we enter a state of mitzrayim[6]." She shares a teaching from Midrash Tanchuma that describes the gradual relinquishment of power and freedom by the Hebrews that was a slow seduction into servitude. Initially, they had volunteered to work alongside Pharaoh and others on his several civic projects. After doing the work on a volunteer basis, all were tricked into continued servitude. One of the ways that redemption, transformation, or change become possible is through tears. We accept the miserable circumstances in which we find ourselves. We accept our broken heartedness. We accept loss. With acceptance the dam breaks and we sink into despair, embracing and fighting our misery. The collective acceptance of the miserable state of our lives under Pharaoh (oppression and enslavement) and recognizing that his death would not change our circumstances leads to the powerful collective moan that reaches The Eternal. Having broken open our individual and collective despair, the Israelites/we create the possibility of redemption/transformation. I recently had a friend confess he feared that grief was becoming a constant companion. I shared with him that I know that grief is a constant companion. He asked, "How can you live that way?" I answered, "I know my heart, my being, to be a guest house[7] for all I experience. So, I feel what I feel and encourage myself to have meals with dear friends, especially on unexpectedly warm days by the water, and to partake of other simple joys." Reflection: What is your relationship to your grief and/or sadness? What are the simple joys that keep you allow to keep you company alongside your grief and/or sadness? [1]Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb; The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus. Image/Doubleday, New York et. al. 1999.
[2]Frankel, Ellen; The Five books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on Torah, HarperSanFrancisco 1998.
[3]Identified, Sh'mot 6.20.
[4]Leviticus Rabbah 1.30.
[5]Eskenazi, Rabbi Dr, Tamara Cohn and Weiss, Ph.D., Rabbi Andrea L.; The Torah: A Women's Torah Commentary, pg. 312.
[6]Frankel, Estelle; Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness. Shambhala, Boston & London 2003.
[7]Concept inspired by the Rumi poem "Guest House" This work is based on commentary created for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in 5780.

Vayigash Sh'mot / Approaching Sh’mot

In the Summer of 2019, I was approached by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to be one of five women commentators on the Torah for 5780. I was thrilled to learn that I was specifically asked to comment on Sh’mot/Exodus. The stories and themes of Sh'mot are some of the best-known stories in English literature and continue to inspire oppressed and distressed people around the world. Yet, most people approach the text focusing on what has already been said with an emphasis on grandeur of spectacle for us as a people — which is important, and not the full story. A few years ago, I began to break down some of the metaphors and explore what it means to view the supernatural occurrences as signs and wonders, instead of the more common plague narrative, thereby deeply claiming "What does this all mean to me?" As I moved into this journey, I was reminded of Estelle Frankel's book, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Shambhala 2003). Along the way, I will be sharing her insights and those of other teachers/healers, as well as my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. Sh’mot has a lot to say about what it means to experience oppression; what it means to claim our humanity in the face of oppression; what is required to ready oneself and one’s people for freedom; what it means to be free; and that freedom is not as simple or easy as it may seem. Of course the opposite of this is what it looks like to struggle with responsibility and the seduction of routine. The metaphors and allegories are rich with life lessons, including the psychological and spiritual journeys with trauma, loss, change, transformation, celebration, and liberation. I invite you to join me in mining these well-known stories to uncover hidden gems of personal meaning, which may aid us in transforming our individual stories within the varied collection of Jewish lives and experiences. I deeply appreciate the opportunity and support I received from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to deepen my connection to this text and to explore the lessons I knew and did not know are here, waiting to be shared in our real lives. I especially want to thank Rabbi Jonathan Slater who gave me the space to hold the fresh grief of my Mom’s death and deep desire to explore a text I deeply love. The metaphors and allegories are rich with life lessons... The Bridge from Breisheet
Our first creation story is different from many other creation stories in that it starts with the creation of the whole universe, then this particular place we’ve come to call Earth. We move with The Eternal from chaos to continuous separation and distinction. Once we humans are created, we are given responsibility to oversee and preserve The Eternal’s creation (Breisheet/Genesis 1.28). The family stories are a new distinction, filled with all kinds of very human emotions that lead to the selling of Yoseif into Egypt... The Eternal becomes deeply disappointed with humans as our worse tendencies emerge. The Eternal decides to destroy humans, and enlists the assistance of Noakh (Noah). At his birth, his father Lemekh as he names him, prophesies: This one will provide us relief from our work and the toil of our hands (Breisheet/Genesis 5.29). Mishna Tanchuma says Noakh invented plows, scythes, and all kinds of tools that were helpful to humanity. In various midrashim, he is reported as being kind despite the ridicule he faced as a child and as a man, which is why The Eternal thought him to be righteous. After the Flood, when the Teivah/Ark reaches land, Noakh exits and is stunned by the devastation. As The Eternal is deciding not to destroy humanity again, Rebbe Nachman of Breslav says that Noakh in his shock speaks: Master of Compassion, what have you done? To which The Eternal responds: Foolish shepherd, where was your compassion when I told you my plans? There are ten generations from the exile of the Garden of Eden to Noakh and ten generations from Noakh to Avram. I imagine that the stories shared to this point in the Breisheet are among those passed down through the ten generations that lead to Avram, who will become Avraham. This story, though not among what we have read points to the internal legacy that reaches Avram. The story of Avraham and Sarah, Hagar, Yish’mael, and Yitz’khak leads to the Yaakov and Yoseif stories. The family stories are a new distinction, filled with all kinds of very human emotions that lead to the selling of Yoseif into Egypt, where he develops his own relationship to The Eternal and uses his God guided wisdom to save his family and bring a region through a devastating drought and famine. Sh’mot begins roughly 400 years after the family has settled in a very fertile area near the Nile river called Goshen near the garrison cities of Ramseis and Pitom. From this point forward, B’nei Yis’rael, moves toward becoming a nation and a people. Sh’mot is the story of our transformation. As for process, I mostly use transliterated Hebrew instead of the traditional anglicization of names for people and places. I will summarize and provide commentary of the narrative or content of each parshah, followed by reflections and, when possible suggestions for practices. Summaries will be in first person plural. I look forward to your thoughts, experiences, and feedback. Comments are welcome and encouraged. Sabrina Sojourner
Shaliakh Tzibur
24, Tevet, 57

The Endless Reservoir

This week’s parshah is Tol’dot (25.19-28.), the sixth parashah of Breisheet/Genesis and the Torah. It begins with וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק These are the (stories, generations) of Yitz’khak… (25.19). The primary reason seems to be to clarify that Yitz’khak is also Avraham’s son. The first 18 verses of Chapter 25 are the end of parashah Chayei Sarah. It begins with Avraham’s marriage to K’turah,[2] the births of the sons she bore him, and their descendants; Avraham’s death and his burial by both his sons Yitz’khak and Yishmael; and Yishmael’s progeny. In this parashah we get the largest glimpse into Yitz’khak’s nature. In the rabbinic imagination, Yitz’khak is our passive patriarch. A closer reading of Tol’dot tells a different story. Riv’kah has trouble conceiving. Yitz’khak and Riv’kah both pray for children, to no avail. Yitz’khak makes a special plea on behalf of his beloved, and soon she becomes pregnant. However, her pregnancy is not easy. The children struggle within her and she goes to inquire of the Eternal. The Eternal answers that Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger. (25.23) Riv’kah gives birth to twin boys: a red and hairy boy who is named Eisav, and a second son, born clutching his brother's heel, is named Yaakov. Eisav becomes a skillful hunter and outdoorsman. Yaakov stays in the family camp. Yitz’khak favors Eisav, while Riv’kah favors Yaakov. One day, Eisav returns home from the field hungry and pleads with Yaakov to give him some of the stew he is cooking. Yaakov bargains with Eisav to give him, Yaakov, his birthright as firstborn in exchange for a portion of the stew. Eisav protests, but accepts the barter. A famine comes to Canaan, and Yitz’khak takes his family to Egypt via G’rar. When he arrives there, The Eternal tells him not to go to Egypt. The Eternal also tells Yitz’khak that he will receive all the blessings promised to Avraham. When the townsmen inquire regarding his wife, Yitz’khak tells them that Riv’kah is his sister, fearing that he might be killed in order for them to take Riv’kah. She is brought to king Avimelekh. He eventually catches Riv’kah and Yitz’khak playing/flirting with each other. He figures out what’s going on and reprimands Yitz’khak. Yet, Avimelekh also decrees that no one touches either of them. Yitz’khak remains in G’rar. He sows crops, and miraculously harvests a hundred times more than a field's normal yield. Yitz’khak thrives, and his neighbors grow jealous. With the blessing of The Eternal, Yitz’khak leaves Avimelekh and begins the process of restoring his father’s wells that were filled with earth by the people of G’rar after Avraham’s death. Avraham’s long journey with a large household could only have been supported through a system of wells. Each of the wells was named to establish his rights. The best known is Beer Sheva, or B’er Sheva, meaning Seven Wells or something similar. Conventional thinking says that Yitz’khak restores and reestablishes the names given by Avraham to certify his rights. Practical as it is, I see a deeper meaning. Yitz’khak’s men dig another well and it reveals mayim chayim, living waters, the most precious water. The G’rar Valley shepherds claim the water is theirs, and Yitz’khak names it hab’eir Eseik, the well of quarrel. He and his men dig another well, and its ownership is also contested. Yitz’khak names it Sit’nah, hostility. Yitz’khak moves on and another well is dug. When there is no contention, he names it R’khovot, spaciousness or expansion. This quality is reinforced by his statement, Now the Eternal has granted us ample space to increase in the land. (26.22) From there, Yitz’khak goes to B’eir Sheva. As we assess our transition from the current administration to the next, from months of disease and death to the hope of a different future with vaccines, I’ve been wondering what are the wells that need to be dug out within our country and our human family. What is the rubble, the stoppages that need to be removed so we may see how we are connected through the deep broad well of our Common Humanity and our common history with all its beauty and magnificence as well as its deep scars/pain and disappointment? Clearing Avraham’s wells, removing whatever pebbles, sticks, and stones that clogged them, was a means of healing for Yitz’khak. Restoring the names metaphorically restored his relationship to Avraham. From a place of wholeness, he can experience the living waters and the Source of Living Waters. When Yitz’khak is confronted by the G’rar Valley shepherds, he names the quarrelsome and hostile experiences and leaves them behind. In moving past the quarrels and the hostility, without being either, he draws on deeper resources to find spaciousness and Divine Blessing. The Source of Living Waters, M’kor Mayim Chayim, is an Endless Reservoir that is always with us and is the Source of our Common Humanity. We can protect ourselves from those who hate us and want us dead without ourselves becoming haters and killers. We are required to remember that each person is made in the Divine Image (1.16) and that The Eternal, our God, has a covenant with all humanity (8.21-22). With that in mind, disagreeing with me ought not be the basis by which someone becomes my enemy. It takes deep listening to meet hostility with compassion. Many times, my approach changes the tone of the conversation. The few times it doesn’t, I name what I am experiencing. I share what I think I’m hearing: quarrelsomeness, hostility, fear, longing for connection. In doing so, I am attempting to create openings to move the conversation. Experiencing none, I can leave all, including myself, in peace: no vengeance, no condemnation. When I am able to do so, I am walking the path of Yitz’khak and I find soothing spaciousness in M’kor Mayim Chayim, Source of Living Waters, because I leave my distant cousin with the blessing of peace as I leave with peace. I know many of you, dear readers, are tired, experiencing anxiety regarding how big the workload is, and possibly terrified by the amount of hate there is in our country, and around the world. I feel the need to let you know you are not alone. It’s also important to know that the workload has always been huge, and “hate” rarely disappears. In the specific context of our country, it’s over 400 years old. By enhancing our spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical tools, we can transform ourselves. In transforming ourselves, we have the potential to transform those around us and those we encounter. They then have the potential to transform others, setting in motion the possibility that they will transform others who will transform others who… So, I invite you to rest. Renew and recharge yourself with love and compassion. Take what you need from this teaching, and continue your part of the work to transform yourself so that you influence the transformation of others, our country, and the world. Yitz’khak was far from passive. He just took another path. I hope to see you on one of these or another path. Shabbat Shalom. Sabrina Sojourner is the founder of Training the Heart to Listen and the Co-founder of Khazbar Institute. [1] A portion of this commentary originally appeared in Washington Jewish Week, November 7, 2018
[2] For the first time, I noted that K’turah and Hagar, and perhaps some other unnamed women, are referred to as Avraham’s “concubines.” That it’s plural refutes the notion that K’turah is Hagar. They are clearly two different women whose sons are treated generously and differently from Yitz’khak, the son of his wife Sarah. © Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2020

Avinu Malkeinu for This Time

Avinu Malkeinu, open our hearts so that we will see all the things we have been unwilling to see, and grow in humility and compassion. Avinu Malkeinu, remove cynicism from our hearts that we may experience and move through despair and hopeless to be the person You are calling us to be. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural racism, personal racism, and bigotry, including in our Jewish Institutions. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural sexism, personal sexism, and bigotry, including in our Jewish Institutions. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural heterosexism, personal heterosexism, and bigotry, including in our Jewish Institutions. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural ableism, personal ableism, and bigotry, including in our Jewish Institutions. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural ageism, personal ageism, and bigotry, including in our Jewish Institutions. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be a contribution to efforts to end structural anti-Semitism, personal anti-Semitism, and bigotry. Avinu Malkeinu, inspire us to be compassionate to those with whom we disagree. May we see their humanity, even when they fail to see ours. Avinu Malkeinu, move us to own our humanity wherein we live what You have taught us all our lives: we are all Your creations. Avinu Malkeinu, let us not rest comfortably in the words of these prayers, waiting for You to first act on us. We must act on ourselves. Published by Ritual Well: © Sabrina Sojourner 2020

Waiting for Angels, Signs, or Messengers

Breisheet/Genesis Commentary 21.1-34: The Torah portion for Rosh HaShanah in the Reform community is commonly called the Akedah, also known as the biding of Yitz’khak/Isaac. However, in the Islamic tradition, it is Yishmael, not Yitz’khak who is bound at Mount Moriah. Tradition says that God asks Avraham to take his son to Mt. Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. The next morning, Avraham rises early and with his son and a couple of servants he begins their journey to Moriah. All of us know how the story ends: Avraham raises his hand and an angel calls to Avraham and points to ram that is to be used for the sacrifice. Meaning, Yitz’khak and Avraham are both spared, but differently. Depending upon how you look at it, there are at least four questions: was this a test for Avraham? Did he pass or did he fail? Is it possible that Avraham misheard the request the Eternal made of him? Totally separate and related is, why do we read this story on/for Rosh HaShanah, the birthday of the world? Of course, there are many answers. Not surprisingly, while most people believe that this was a test of Avraham, there is much debate about whether or not he passed the test. Of all the commentaries I’ve come across this is the one that I can live with: The story exemplifies the difference between belief and faith. Avraham had faith that the Eternal our God would not actually allow him to sacrifice his son. Meaning he hoped that God would not make him sacrifice his son, but he wasn’t certain. Why is this one of the stories we read on Rosh HaShanah? Because it is a reminder of the fragility of life, and because Yitz’khak’s life is spared. Nothing in life is guaranteed. When we go around believing we are entitled to this, that, and the other we set ourselves us for disappointment. Worse, we set ourselves up to be less than we can be because everything that happens is about us. This parashah also reinforces the concept that we are to pray as if everything depends on God and act as if everything depends on ourselves. We might pray to God to end all oppression. However, to actually end all oppression is on each of us. Each of us has a role to play in creating the world, the future we want for ourselves, our families, and others. Each of us is required to do our part with faith along the way that the Divine will send angels to appropriately intervene. Yet, we cannot assume that angels will show up, which is why we must do our best to bring our best selves to every situation we encounter because, in truth, we never know when we are the angel, the messenger, the Divine One is sending to save a life. L'Shanah Tovah v'Shabat Shalom!

Torah Scroll Love

I miss each and every Torah scroll I had the pleasure of Leyning Rolling Teaching from Carrying to each congregant to Touch Kiss Touch and kiss Over the course of a month Each month For years. My heart moves my eyes to Tear As I ponder the Torah scrolls Missing Its Humans Who Leyn Roll Teach from Carry them to congregants to Touch Kiss Touch and kiss Over the course of a month Each month For years. (c) Copyright Sabrina Sojourner 2020

How to Properly Count Jews

There is much superstition about counting Jews, largely due to the Torah and the general beliefs of ancient peoples: that census taking was a dangerous proposition. In addition to being the lead to tax adjustments, it could also be a prelude to military conscription for a war. These negative consequences needed to be mitigated with a ransom or other donation to one’s deity. That is why in Sh’mot/Exodus 30:13-16 the Eternal instructs Moshe to collect “expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the Tent of Meeting.” Everyone 20 years and older is to make a half shekel offering, rich and poor alike. B’mid’bar/Numbers is all about counting and who counts. The book is rife with strife and rebellion from the jealous husband who cannot make himself believe his faithful wife (5.11-31) to the righteous claim of the daughters of Tzelofekhad (26.1-27.11, 36.1-12) with violence in between. Any discussion of counting Jews is bound to be a fraught discussion, especially a counting that seeks to make a distinction without a difference and goes against Jewish teachings. Throughout the Torah and the Talmud there are lots of numbers. One of the most famous numbers is 600,000. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of studying with Rabbi Dena Weiss, Hadar’s Rosh Beit Midrash, and she introduced me to commentaries by Rabbi Me’or Einayim on Parashiyot Vayeitzei and Shelach. In the former, R. Einayim seeks to have us understand contradictions in Genesis 28. In verse 11, it says (Ya’akov) took from the stones of the place, while verse 17 says he took the stone. This is the Genesis narrative in which Ya’akov is running away and he comes a [certain] place and decides to sleep there. The rabbis imagine that Ya’akov took (12) the stones and placed them around his head and laid down to sleep. Rashi explains that the stones started arguing with one another to be the one upon which Ya’akov would rest his head. They ceased competing and decided to become one so that the “Tzaddik” (Ya’akov) will rest on all of them. R. Einayim says, "For, in truth, since Wisdom is drawn down from above, from the supernal source, the world of unity, and is extended to the world of separation from which emerge the roots of the souls of Israel… this is why there were twelve stones, because Wisdom is apportioned (separated out) to each tribe according to its root, as it is known that our Rabbis said that there were twelve stones corresponding to the tribes of Israel. But at their root they are one stone, as has been explained, and each one is drawn to the wisdom from the world of division." R. Einayim uses Rashi’s midrash to create a collective place in Judaism for all of us. In his commentary on Shelach, Rabbi explains that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (yes, that’s almost double the actual number) and that these 600,000 letters correspond with the same number of Jewish soul-roots now split among the roughly 15 million Jews currently on the planet. He goes on to say that: “…every person of Israel has a letter in the Torah. And the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are one. And that part of God that is inside a person is literally that letter from which comes the root of (one’s) soul… if one letter from the Sefer Torah is missing it is not complete…” R. Einayim reminds us that this concept of unity caused the rabbis to say that anyone who destroys one soul from Israel is like one who destroys an entire world. The opposite is also true. One who sustains one soul from Israel, it is as if they have sustained an entire world. (Both of these concepts have been expanded to speak about all human life.) R. Einayim deepens this connection by referencing the morning liturgy in which we say toward the beginning of the service, “I hereby accept upon myself the positive mitzvah of ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself [Leviticus 19.18].’” He concludes, “Because everything is one complete Unity just as the Torah is only called the Torah when all of the letters are joined together,” so Judaism is incomplete if one of us is missing. I’m sure many of you recognize that 600,000 is the same number used to describe the eiruv rav – the mixed multitude of “men” who left Egypt. Some biblical commentators blame the “eiruv rav” for the complaining and disobedience that occur throughout the Torah. In other words, they categorize some percentage as not being Israelites and never fully becoming part of the kahal, the community. Though several commentators go down fascinating routes to make their point, there is no textual support for that interpretation. The Torah makes it quite clear that we were all at Sinai. Regardless of what or who we were before revelation, after revelation we were all the Eternal’s people. I deeply appreciate R. Einayim’s teaching that each and every one of us Jews is needed to have a vibrant Judaism. It’s not a matter of age. It’s not a matter of gender. It’s not about the color of one’s skin. It’s not about disability. It’s not about how learned we are. Others may want to place stumbling blocks in our paths or erect other barriers to contain Judaism. Yet, Judaism by its nature is not limited because the Eternal is infinite. By seeking to block, diminish, contain, or constrain another’s Torah, one is blocking, diminishing, containing, and constraining a part of themselves and the sparks of the Eternal. I was fascinated by Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashersky’s excerpt from their chapter for the upcoming American Jewish Yearbook 2019, which they also edited. While it is not unusual to read an essay or an article in which the writers are completely blind to their biases, I could not believe that they were defending the very data that prompted the report, “Counting the Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color” which stated that “at least 12-15%” of American Jews are Jews of Color and critiqued previous population studies for data collection that kept the JOC population at 6%. Sheskin and Dashersky claim that the data in the above report is faulty and creates an overcount. They conclude: "[T]he percentage of Jews of Color is almost certainly closer to 6% nationally than to ‘at least 12%–15%;’ and this percentage has not increased significantly since 1990, although it is likely to do so in the future. Thus, responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin; and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color." Ari Y. Kelman’s critique of Sheskin and Dashersky explains why the data they reassert is not useful: "[I]nconsistencies are only the half of it; we could only find inconsistencies where there were questions about race and ethnicity. Further analysis revealed that only 41% of Jewish community studies (36 of 89) conducted since the year 2000 even included any questions about race and ethnicity in the first place (all of the studies, reports, survey instruments, and data are available on the Berman Jewish DataBank)." I cannot read into the hearts of Sheskin and Dashersky and why they felt the need to assert the dominance of Ashkenazim in American Judaism by means of numerically containing and minimizing Jews of Indigenous, African American, Chinese American, Ethiopian, Puerto Rican, Arab, Indian, Caribbean, Peruvian, African, Yemenite, Mizrahi, Sephardi, Persian, and Mixed Heritage. Some of us are Jews by Choice. Many of us have a long, unbroken lineage. We are the neighbors to be loved as you love yourself. (To learn about the origin of the term Jews of Color, click here.) We are not a newly invented inconvenience, for we have always been part of the Jewish people and there is no Judaism without us. We know who we are and that we belong. Furthermore, those who contest our belonging say much more about themselves than about our spiritual right to be safely welcomed into Jewish spaces, without hassle or harassment. This is especially important, now, as our Asian sisters and brothers are experiencing harassment by White America, because of our president’s insistence on calling COVID19 the “China Virus.” Our Black and African American brothers and sisters are in deep pain as more and more Black women and men are harassed and murdered by police. Latinx and Indigenous Jews receive the same unwanted police suspicion. Any one of us who “looks Muslim” can be harassed, if not murdered, for that resemblance. People of Color and all Jews are not safe by any measure in a White Supremacist system. Jews of Color especially need our spiritual communities to be a refuge from the madness of White Supremacy, including reviewing curricula for diversity of Jewish experiences and Jewish thought. As easily as anti-Semitism in the Jewish culture is discussed, so ought racism and White Supremacy be discussed, as well as the pain it causes all parts of our communities. There is no eliminating anti-Semitism without erasing all manifestations racism. White-skinned and White-identified Jews also need to examine their relationship to White Supremacy in particular and Whiteness broadly, including White privilege with a focus on how to use it to dismantle White Supremacy. It is good for all of us to understand the push by our White-skinned Jewish American ancestors for Jews to be seen as White. I invite you into this conversation realizing that it may be difficult. You do not have to do it alone. There are many reasons to know how many of us there are. So, if we want to count us Jews, we must do it with integrity to make sure we are counting each and every one of us as we are: a diverse and highly varied people who have many gifts for each other and the world. © Sabrina Sojourner 2020

Counting Omer 5780, Day 49:

Malkhut shebeMalkhut Foundation, Establishment, Essential; the Cosmological and Mystical Foundation upon which the Divine One created the universe within Foundation, Establishment, Essential; the Cosmological and Mystical Foundation upon which the Divine One created the universe. Quality: Living and Leading with Radical Oneness As I conclude this year’s Omer Journey, I know I’m in deeper relation with my personal Torah and its intersection with the Torah that glues us together as a people. Both continue to grow in relevance within me and strengthen my sense of connectedness to Life. Both continue to reveal to me the means of being with Life on Life's terms. The dance of the seven sephirot Khesed, G’vurah, Tiferet, Netzakh, Hod, Y’sod, and Malkhut that focus us during the Counting of the Omer are around us all the time every day, many times of day. This is the dance I willing dance wherever Life finds me. These radical qualities are everywhere, including inside brokenness, suffering, pain, loss, death… As I see it, this is the essence of living and leading with Radical Oneness. The Divine One is without beginning and without end and the circle runs through me and around me to each and every one, and each and every thing! Tonight, begins the last day of Omer and we are finishing our preparations to receive Torah. How are you relating to your sense of self? How are you relating to your personal Torah? Whether you read one or all of these postings, what has your experience opened? Closed? Drawn closer? Pushed away? What is the Torah you anticipate; seek to open within you and in the world? Rest well! See you on the The Holy One's Mountain - Sinai! Khorev! Prepare your senses! Prepare your senses! Blessings,

Counting Omer 5780, Day 48

Y’sod ShebeMalkhut Foundation, establishment, setting the foundation, fundamental; foundation upon with The Divine One created the universe within Foundation, Establishment, Essential; the Cosmological and Mystical Foundation upon which the Divine One created the universe. Quality: Living and leading with expanding mindfulness and comfort with unknowing There are three primary domains of personal knowledge: what we know, what we know we don’t know, and what we don’t know that we don’t know. The last one includes all the knowledge that is known and we do not know. As each of the first two domains grow, so does the third. The more we know, the more we know we do not know, and the more we realize (paraphrasing a song sung by Louis Armstrong) there is more to learn than we can ever know. The universe of unknowing is beyond our grasp – much like the Blessed One, Blessed be the One! Yet, true knowledge is not about information. True knowledge, foundational knowledge, is based on our human experiences; the ones we personally have experienced and the ones we have witnessed or heard first-hand, and the stories, the meaning we make of these experiences. The meaning we create of these experiences is the knowledge that opens or closes our hearts, our minds, our hands, and our motivations. This is the Torah that lives and grows within us. It is our internal guidance system. As we gain more knowledge of the world, we gain insights that may counter our meanings, potentially expand or write-over our meanings. How do you value your Torah? Yes, YOUR Torah! Rabbi Dena Weiss, Beit Rosh of Hadar, teaches in the name of Rabbi Me’or Einayim that each of us has a piece of the Eternal within us that is represented by a letter in the Torah. Since the Torah and the Eternal are One, we are also one with both. As with a Torah scroll if any one letter is missing, the Torah is incomplete. And so it is with us and Judaism. If anyone of us is turned away from Judaism, then Judaism is incomplete. I, again, ask: How do you value your Torah? How do you mind it and mine it? What deciphering are you ready to live; share with others? Are you prepared for the next leg of your journey; to expand and deepen your Torah? To experience Life with eyes open, heart open, mindfulness, and ready to engage in a relationship of unknowing? Here’s the secret: we cannot be prepared AND we can only be ready. True security arises when we know that it can all be gone in an unexpected instant and live as if the next moment and the next day and the year plus matter, because it all does. When we live into the security of insecurity (Radical Freedom), we create room for the unexpected whether good and or less than pleasant. We know it is all part of Life. We trust the journey of living and leading with expanding mindfulness and comfort with unknowing. The consummation is two days away: how are you feeling about the transformation that will unfold? Excited? Terrified? Bored? Blessings! Sabrina © Sabrina Sojourner 2020


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