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Graceful Consolation / Graceful Masculinity: Va’eira

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

 וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they did not listen to Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work.

Exodus 6:9

 

Although this parsha brings with it the good news of liberation, the Israelites are not positioned to hear it. They couldn’t be comforted because they could not imagine a reality different from the one they were currently experiencing. The struggle for freedom and equality must include breaking the limitations in our minds around what is possible. This process of introspection is an essential stage in alleviating the pain of the moment and moving towards a better future.

Rashi explains that the Israelites were not consoled by Moshe’s promises of redemption. In Hebrew, the word for consolation, נחם, is the same as “reconsider.” In the time of Noah, before the flood, Genesis 6:6, G-d reconsidered having made people and was pained. Rashi there explains that G-d was consoled in part that at least humanity’s destruction was limited to this world. Consolation involves a considering of different possibilities, and it is precisely this flexibility of thought that eluded Israel and left them comfort-less.

We are told, Eruvin 13b, that for several years the Houses of Hillel and Shammai argued whether it was better for humanity to have been created or not. Finally they concluded that “Better to not have been created than to have been created, but now that we have been created we should examine our deeds.” The rabbis understand this teaching both as a reminder that the world that G-d created, in the garden before the sin, was perfect and well worth it, and that our current world, the consequence of our mistakes, can be restored by working on ourselves and society.

Sometimes it is hard to hear that things will ever be different and ever get better. In general, the words we use to describe something are rarely as expansive as the experience itself, especially about things that haven’t happened yet. Perhaps this is why G-d uses four different expressions of redemption – והוצאתי,והצלתי,וגאלתי,ולקחתי. 

Aspiring for a better future helps us get there. Ruth was able to see and appreciate the good, despite the severe difficulties of her life as a penniless widow. She says to Boaz, “May I continue to find favor, חן, in your eyes because you have comforted me and you spoke to my heart.” (Ruth, 2:14). Ruth can hear Boaz’s words of comfort and be affected by them. She knows that a better future is possible. Indeed, the medresh on this verse comments that she isn’t to be seen as a maidservant, הָאֲמָהוֹת, but as a Matriarch, הָאִמָּהוֹת. The only difference is the point of perspective.

In this week’s Torah portion we are told about the birth of Pinchas, who in tradition is associated with Elijah the prophet, the bearer of the good news of the future. In the daily grace after meals, we pray:

הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יִשְׁלַח לָֽנוּ אֶת־אֵלִיָּֽהוּ הַנָּבִיא זָכוּר לַטּוֹב, וִיבַשֶּׂר־לָֽנוּ בְּשׂוֹרוֹת טוֹבוֹת יְשׁוּעוֹת וְנֶחָמוֹת

“The Merciful One will send us Elijah the prophet, who is remembered for good, who will announce to us good tidings, deliverances, and consolations.”

We acknowledge and welcome his presence at the Passover seder and even have a 5th cup for him as a recognition of the redemption that we still need to work towards. By doing so, we open ourselves up to comfort and to the possibility of redemption.

Our ancestors were enslaved for 210 years and were not able to envision a different existence. We have now been in exile for nearly 2000 years and we are still more connected to mourning the loss than we are to rebuilding what was lost. The reason for the Temple’s destruction, blatant hatred, seems to only be intensifying by the day. We must be able to look at this sad reality, at least in part, with an optimistic lens — so we can see that contained in this separation is a path towards reunification and true healing. 

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.

 

It’s Still About the Team: Re-building Leadership for Community Renewal

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

How can you build a community when the people have known nothing but hardship and slavery? Are promises of freedom and redemption enough? What does a people need to feel safe enough to step forward and begin something new?

These are timeless questions, from Moses’ struggle on behalf of the downtrodden Children of Israel until today, when communities around the globe are being rent apart by war and warlords. Syria and Central America may be half a world apart, but for the civilian populations, the result of a breakdown in the social order is the same – misery, desperation, and ultimately flight to places unknown in the hopes of finding a place to build a better life.

So too with the Children of Israel. They were enslaved for so long that when Moses brought God’s message of redemption they were unable to listen, because they experienced “shortness of spirit and cruel bondage.” Exodus 6:9

God’s promises to free the people, deliver them, redeem them, and take them into the land that God had promised to their forefathers, fell on deaf ears. They could not imagine building a new reality for themselves.

Even Moses was dispirited, and complained to God that the people wouldn’t listen to him, and moreover that he was “a man of impeded speech.”

Building something new takes courage, motivation, and the ability to stick with a task despite setbacks and impediments. Even the smallest projects require a concerted effort. To build a community? That takes many people working towards the same goal, each taking responsibility for their own part of the job, knowing that the disparate elements will come together to create a single whole. It takes leadership at all levels; one visionary alone cannot create a new reality without the support of others, both leaders and followers.

God knew that Moses was the right person for the job, but also knew that Moses couldn’t do it alone. So God built what today we would call a leadership team, consisting of God, Moses, and Aaron. And, according to modern feminist midrash, the team included Miriam, called niviyah, prophetess, when she led the women in song after the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Together, God and the three siblings were able to build up the peoples’ confidence until they were ready to leave Egypt. The ten plagues were more than a display of power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The plagues – which affected only the Egyptians and not the Children of Israel – were signs to the slaves that their cause was just, that their leaders had the strength and courage to help them build a new reality for themselves.

As we read the story of their flight from slavery to freedom, we know that there will be bumps in the road. Again and again, the peoples’ will fails them, and it will fall upon the shoulders of their leaders to ensure the success of their audacious venture. Although most of the time it is Moses who takes the brunt of their complaints, both Aaron and Miriam will have opportunities to step forward and help lead the people.

This is the genius of the leadership team that God built, and it offers a blueprint for today’s community-builders. Each of the siblings had different gifts. Moses had terrific leadership skills, but he couldn’t do it alone. He needed Aaron’s talents as a peace-maker and Miriam’s strengths as a nurturer.

As a pulpit rabbi, I quickly learned that I could not lead my congregation without the help and support of a strong group of lay leaders. Together, we have built a community that encourages its members – both long-time and newcomers – to step into leadership roles.

As our community grows and we build new lines of connection amongst ourselves, we keep in mind that building a community is an ongoing process, and requires a constant influx of new members, new ideas, and new leaders.

This does not mean that transitions are easy.  Change can be frightening. It takes strong leaders to help communities flourish and welcome new people, new ideas, new ways of viewing the world.  

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Today I believe that our nation is at a crossroads, floundering as our leaders refuse to understand the value of welcoming people who are different, and who have forgotten the stirring words of Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

Sadly, the people seeking refuge in our nation today are not being met with open arms. Instead, they are met by walls and barriers, both physical and psychological. They are trying to enter a country that has chosen to turn them away, to deny their humanity and treat them like vermin, not human beings.

People are flocking to our borders, seeking safety and the promise of a better life for themselves and their children. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, they are undertaking arduous, dangerous journeys to a place they have never seen.

The crimes against humanity that are being perpetuated by our own government are tearing down what America has striven to build. It represents an utter disregard for the promise that the builders of our nation made to themselves and to their descendants, that this would be a place where new ideas could take seed and the social experiment that is democracy could flourish.

The challenge is clear. Our task is to seek out and support leaders who are willing to rebuild that which is in danger of being destroyed. May we be blessed with the courage and strength to do so.

 

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By Rabbi Jennifer Singer. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.