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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Beshalach

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5777)
PHARAOH’S THERAPIST
“It was told the king of Egypt that the people fled; and the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants was turned against the people, and they said, why have we done this, that we have let Israel go from serving us?” (Exodus 14:5)
The following document was found near one of the pyramids and translated from the Egyptian Hieroglyphics:
I have been Pharaoh’s therapist and the only person he could talk to from the day Moses and Aaron first confronted him until the day he chased the Israelites to the sea and disappeared. I was with him the day he lost his first-born son, although I lost my own. Throughout it all I have tried to understand the man. He stood his ground against Moses and Aaron. As a result, he and his people had suffered through ten plagues. In the beginning, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but eventually God hardened his heart. In dealing with addicts I have learned, if someone does something wrong enough times it becomes second nature, as if it is part of their very being. Pharaoh tried to save face with a compromise. Let the elders go but leave the children behind. Let the people go but leave the cattle behind. But Moses would allow no compromise. Moses did not quit until Pharaoh was totally defeated. Moses demanded unconditional surrender.
Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave, but only after the most tragic plague of all. Every first born in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s own first born, was slain by the Angel of Death. Pharaoh was totally defeated. I am convinced that he had a personality disorder. He was the victim of his own pride and his own stubbornness. He was a man incapable of ever saying, I was wrong. Now he was a broken man, forced to let the Israelites flee.
Pharaoh did let the Israelites go, but then he changed his mind. He learned that the Israelites had fled and decided to pursue them. Even after everything else, he could not allow himself to be defeated. He had a personality that would not allow him ever to doubt his own actions. Pharaoh could never say he was sorry. In these final days I began to feel sorry for Pharaoh. He was a victim of his own pride.
Nonetheless, during our therapy sessions together a thought often entered my mind. Is it possible that Pharaoh was not totally to blame, that he was the victim of his own upbringing? Since he was a young boy he was told that he was god. He grew up in a country where Pharaoh was considered god. People bowed down to him. Everywhere he went people worshipped him. I remember the day when Moses met him by the Nile before the first plague, the plague of blood, Pharaoh admitted to me that he was by the water to meet his bodily needs. He would go early in the morning before people awoke so nobody could see that he was a human being like everyone else. Enough people tell you that you are god, and soon you believe you are a god.
If somebody is raised with a particular idea from childhood, and told something their entire life, does that idea become part of them? If people grow up from the earliest childhood hating another group of people – Israelites for example – can they ever break out of that pattern? Can we blame people for their attitudes when such attitudes have been driven in to them from early childhood? Nonetheless, as his therapist I tried to get Pharaoh to see the world differently, to recognize the humanity of another people, to see himself not as a god but as a human being like everyone else. In the end, Pharaoh, would not change. His upbringing had created a deep pride that allowed no compromise and a deep hatred for another people.
What can I learn from Pharaoh’s sad life, from his confrontation with Moses that brought so much destruction to his nation and his people. Perhaps the biggest lesson is that when we grow up with false ideas from our earliest childhood, we will go down the wrong path. If a person grows up thinking they are god, it affects them. And if a person grows up thinking that another people are inferior, it is very hard to change. Finally, false pride is a personality disorder. To be healthy, a person needs to be able to say perhaps I was wrong. When a person can never admit their mistakes, it can turn disastrous not just for them but for the people around them.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5776)
CONFRONTING EVIL
“Then the Lord said to Moses, Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua. I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14)
This is a portion filled with miracles, from the parting of the sea to delivery of manna from the sky. And yet the portion ends on a more serious note. Amalek attacks the Israelites from the rear, targeting the weakest and the stragglers. Israel goes to war with Amalek, but they can only prevail when Moses holds his hand in the air. Moses’ hand grows heavy, and his two comrades Aaron and Hur hold it up until Amalek is defeated. But Amalek is never completely defeated. A generation later, as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses warns the people to “Remember what Amalek did to you.” (Deuteronomy 25:17)
Amalek will become a powerful symbol of evil throughout Jewish history. In the portion from the Prophets that we read on the Shabbat before Purim, King Saul loses the kingship for sparing the life of the king of Amalek, Agag. Samuel says to Saul, “Because you rejected the Lord’s command, he has rejected you as king.” (I Samuel 15:25) The Reform Movement, deeply uncomfortable with this story of Saul and Agag, removed this particular haftarah reading from the Shabbat before Purim. I do not believe in removing an uncomfortable reading, but rather struggling with the meaning of that reading.
Why would the king of Israel be punished for being compassionate? It hardly seems in keeping with Jewish character. The Midrash contains the words, “Rabbi Elazar said, One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.” (Tanhuma Parshat Metzora 1) It was not simply that Saul saved the life of King Agag. Agag represents pure evil, and Saul allowed evil to survive.
Where did Amalek come from? The book of Genesis mentions Timna who becomes the concubine of Esau’s oldest son Eliphaz. Timna gave birth to Amalek. (Genesis 36:12) The Rabbi’s developed this story. Timna wished to convert and marry into the family of Jacob, but she was turned away. The closest she could come was to become the concubine, not even the wife, of Jacob’s nephew Esau’s son. Perhaps the Rabbis are trying to say that when the people Israel reject those who wish to convert, we create Amalek. Evil begins through rejection.
The commandment is to fight Amalek in each generation. Amalek is the symbol of evil, an evil that never seems to disappear. We defeat the evil of the Nazis, and the Gulag appears. We defeat the evil of the Gulag, and ISIS appears. One day we will defeat ISIS, but then someone else will appear. “In every generation they rise up to try to defeat us.” (Passover Haggadah). Amalek has become not a particular nation, but a symbol of the evil that never seems to go away.
Are things hopeless? Will evil last forever? Perhaps in order to answer that question, it is worthy to turn to the kabbalah or the Jewish mystical tradition. Many other traditions such as Gnosticism believed that there is evil in the world because it was the creation of an inferior god. Zoroastrianism believes in two gods, a good one and an evil one, who are at war with one another. These ancient ideas have crept into the modern world with talk of God and Satan, forces of good and evil.
Kabbalah totally rejects the idea that evil comes from a lesser god. God is the creator of everything, and God saw everything and said it is “very good.” Even the evil has the potential for goodness. Kabbalah gives the evil the name sitra ahra “the other side.” (Did Star Wars borrow the idea of “the dark side” from Jewish mysticism?) Kabbalah speculates where this sitra ahra came from. But they believe that it will one day be reabsorbed back into the creation. The evil will one day disappear and become part of the good creation once again.
Perhaps this is best symbolized by a classic Hassidic story. The founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, used to walk with the children through the woods to their classes each day. They would sing with joy. But a horrible monster began to harass them, and the Baal Shem Tov had to stop walking with the children. The Baal Shem Tov confronted the monster who was threatening him. He reached into the monster and pulled out his heart. Then he noticed a great miracle – the heart was producing tears. The heart of a monster, representing evil, was shedding tears of regret. Evil could be redeemed.
In each generation we must fight Amalek, fight the evil. But we must also know that one day the evil will shed tears, will be redeemed. The sitra ahra will be reabsorbed into the goodness of creation.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5775)
MIRACLES
“Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split.” (Exodus 14:21)
Let me begin with one of my favorite stories. A student comes up to the rebbe and asks, “how far are we from God?” The rebbe answers, “As far as east is from west.” “That far?” says the student. “At the equator it is 25000 miles.” “That far!” responds the rebbe. A second student comes up to the rebbe and asks, “how far are we from God?” The rebbe answers, “As far as east is from west.” “That close?” says the student, “I can be facing east and turn around to face west.” “That close!” responds the rebbe.
This story will be quite relevant to our discussion of miracles. Is God far away, separated from the world? We use the term “transcendent” to picture such a God. Or is God immediately present in the world? We use the term “immanent” to picture such a God. Is God transcendent or immanent?
This week we read about the miracle par excellence. The Israelites are trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the sea. God causes an east wind to come up, parting the sea, with the sides of the water standing like walls. We all remember Cecil B. DeMille’s image with Charlton Heston playing Moses. The laws of nature are broken and Israelites escape through the sea. When the Egyptians pursue the Israelites, the sea comes crashing back down drowning Pharaoh and his troops.
This is the classic image of a miracle. God created the laws of nature. But God is utterly transcendent, beyond nature, and nature is in God’s control. Now and again, at a time of God’s choosing, the laws of nature are suspended. To quote one Chabad rabbi, “But every now and again, God emerges from his hiding place and breaks through the self-imposed shackles of nature. The sea is split. A scientific rule is broken. Mother Nature is proven wrong. Perhaps, a child is cured from an incurable disease. Or our nation is saved from a seemingly hopeless situation. And it is through these supernatural events that we realize that nature too is merely a creation of God.” (Rabbi Israel Cotler on the Chabad webpage.)
However, there is a second point of view about miracles. The word “east wind” ruach kadim can also be translated “ancient wind.” The wind was not something new created by God at that particular moment. Rather it was around from the beginning of the world. The wind is part of nature itself. The Talmud speaks of a number of items that were created by God on the sixth day of creation on the eve of Shabbat. (See Avot 5:7) Many of these are what we later would call miracles. The Talmud is saying that miracles are actually just part of nature.
The person who expressed this view most strongly was the great philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. For his ideas, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at the age of 23. Spinoza wrote that people look for proof of God in the miracles that God performs, when God changes the laws of nature. When nature goes about its business according to is laws without interruption, people believe that God is absent. Spinoza teaches that it is the other way around. Nature itself is proof of God. In fact, for Spinoza, deus sive natura “nature is God.”
For Spinoza, God is not beyond nature but rather within nature. The laws of nature themselves are the miracles. It is an immanent view of God. Einstein, when asked if he believed in God, answered that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.” Miracles are totally natural events – natural events that point towards the presence of God. God does not need to reach down from some transcendent place and change nature around. Nature itself is built in such a way that miracles happen.
The Hebrew words for “miracle” is nes – literally “a banner.” As we read this week about the parting of the sea, may we see the banner, the miracle, which is nature.
PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5774)
THE MIRACLE AT THE SEA
“Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split.” (Exodus 14:21)
The image is one of the most powerful in the Bible. The Israelites are caught between the sea and the pursuing Egyptians. Moses prays to God and then holds his hand over the sea. A huge east wind miraculously appears blowing all night, parting the sea so that the dry ground opens up. The Israelites cross the sea, and when the Egyptians pursue them, the sea returns to its place. Pharaoh and his chariots are drowned in the sea. To actually see the image, rent Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
This is the classic example of God creating a miracle to save God’s people. The very laws of nature are suspended. Seas do not naturally part, forming walls with dry land in the center. To use a fancy Latin term, the parting of the sea was sui generis, a unique one-time event. We learn the laws of nature from events that repeat over and over, not from events that happen only once in history. It is as if God reaches down from heaven and changes the very laws created at the beginning of time. Most of us see a miracle as God changing nature.
However, there is another way to understand what happened at the sea. The Hebrew for “a strong east wind” is ruach kadim aza. The word kadim means “east.” But the great 19th century Hasidic commentator Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev pointed out that the word kadim also means “ancient.” It was an ancient wind, a wind that was around from the beginning of creation. According to this understanding, the miracle was not a new event created at that moment. It was not sui generis. Rather, the miracle was built into the very nature of creation. The parting of the sea happened naturally. God did not change the laws of nature; God used the laws of nature.
The time has come to rethink the nature of miracles. Miracles are not God reaching down from heaven and changing the laws of nature. The Talmud teaches that nature goes according to its own laws, laws established by God at the beginning of creation. (Avoda Zara 54b) A miracle is an absolutely natural event where we sense the hand of God. God is seen not by changing the laws of nature but actually within the laws of nature.
This was a thought shared by the great philosopher Spinoza almost four centuries ago. Spinoza wrote that most people say they believe in God because God reaches down and changes the laws of nature. In truth, it is the laws of nature themselves that reflect the will of God. For such thoughts, Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. He changed his name from the Hebrew Baruch to the Latin Benedict. Today many Jews, myself included, want to reclaim him for the Jewish community. When Albert Einstein was asked whether he believed in God, he replied that he believed in Spinoza’s God.
So what happened at the sea? Was it an east wind, a miraculous event created at that moment by God? Or was it an ancient wind, a natural event built into the nature of the universe? Each of us can decide. But I always liked a story that I heard attributed to Martin Buber. Two Israelites were arguing at the sea. One claimed that there was no miracle. “It was a particularly low tide that night and a particularly strong wind, so that the dry land appeared. And right after we crossed, the tide began to come in. The Egyptians with their heavy chariots became stuck in the mud and the waters covered them. It was all natural.” The other Israelites listened carefully and said, “You may be right, but I do not care. This is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my fathers and I will praise him. (Exodus 15:2)”
Let us find the hand of God not in changes of nature, but in the laws of nature themselves.
PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5773)
TRANSITIONS
“And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left.” (Exodus 14:22)
Greetings from the Maryland suburbs of Washington. As I write this, it is 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I am ready to fly back to Florida later in the afternoon. You may wonder what I am doing here. I brought my daughter up to a new job, a new home, and a new life in the same city as her fiancée. The transition was hard for both of us. But it was necessary.
As I was helping her settle in, I kept thinking of this week’s Torah reading. At the beginning of the portion the Israelites are encamped on one side of the Red Sea (or a better translation, the Sea of Reeds.) After passing through the divided sea, they are on the other side. The transition was hard. Almost immediately the Israelites start complaining that they want to go back. But there is no turning back; they can only go forward.
Life is a series of transitions. The Midrash teaches that “All beginnings are hard.” Yet life is a series of beginnings, of leaving one life moment and moving on to the next. We leave high school for college, then college for the world of work, then sometimes back to college. We move out of our parents’ home and then often move back in before moving out again. We move from one city to another, from one job to another. We move from being single to being in a relationship, then hopefully to being married, and then sometimes, back to being single again. We have children and then watch them grow up and leave home. We move from working to being retired, and then many of us decide to go back to work again. Life is a series of such movements.
People ask me if I am upset that my daughter is moving to another state. Of course I will miss her and plan to visit, and hope she will visit us. But I am not upset. I realize it is the way of the world. A healthy life involves transitions, sometimes happy ones and sometimes painful ones. But we need to look forward, not backward. For my daughter this is a wonderful move, even if it is frigid up here.
Those of you who have received my messages or heard my sermons over the years know that one of my favorite themes is the difference between the worldview of the ancient pagans and the worldview of the Bible. To the pagans life is a great circle. Whatever was will come back again. In an ultimate sense nothing ever changes. The pagans believed in the myth of the eternal return, everything is coming back again. The Israelites introduced a new worldview. Life is not a circle but a line moving forward. The story of Israel begins with God telling Abraham, “Go forth.” There is no looking back. (For a wonderful treatment of this idea I recommend Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.) Cahill describes the Biblical rejection of the pagan circle in favor of the line constantly moving forward.
Of course Cahill is talking about society as a whole. But what is true for society as a whole is also true for us as individuals. (Biologists use the phrase “phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny.” What happens in our individual lives is a recapitulation of what happens to humanity as a whole.) Life is a series of transitions. To live a healthy life is to embrace those transitions and move forward. Lot’s wife looked backwards and turned into a pillar of salt. Perhaps the moral of the story of Lot’s wife is that we must not look backwards but look forward on this wonderful journey we call life.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5771)

DEMONIZING THE OTHER
“Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.”
(Exodus 15:1)
This week we read of the parting of the sea, the triumphant crossing of the Israelites, and the drowning of Pharaoh and his Egyptians who pursued the Israelites. At the center of the portion is the Song of the Sea, beautifully chanted to a special melody. The Song has entered our liturgy, a daily part of the morning service. On Shabbat mornings it has become our custom to sing parts of the song out loud, using the melody I learned at Camp Ramah.
Recently I noticed a member of our synagogue would always walk out during this part of the service. I questioned him and he replied, “I have difficulty singing a song about drowning Egyptians.” His point is well-taken, although I am not going to change the liturgy. But it is important to remember that the Song of the Sea is not only about the rescue of the Israelites but the drowning of the Egyptians. They are also God’s children. In one of the most quoted passages from the Talmud, God’s angels start singing a song at the sea. God rebuked them, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you utter songs before me!” (Sanhedrin 39b)
There is a profound and important teaching in this passage. Even our enemies are God’s creatures, created in God’s image. Even those who may seek to harm us should be treated with basic human dignity. The Rabbis teach, “Who is strong? Whoever turns an enemy into a friend.” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 23) Many of our festivals from Passover to Hanukkah celebrate victories against the enemies of the Jewish people. But a careful study of the traditions of these festivals reflect an awareness that even those we defeated were children of God. The late Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir was not religious. But she expresses this sensitivity when she famously said, “I can forgive our enemies for killing our children, but I cannot forgive our enemies for making our children kill them.” The Egyptians then and the Palestinians now are God’s children.
I thought about this important teaching as I followed the tragic news this past week. A deranged young man in Tucson, AZ tried to assassinate Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Six people were killed including a young child, and the congresswoman and many others were severely injured. Giffords was shot in the head and her prognosis is still unclear. She is a practicing Jew and we have added her Hebrew name to our misheberach list. Our prayers go out to all the victims and their families of this horrible event.
This seems to be the work of one deeply disturbed young man. Nonetheless, many people have commented on whether the political rhetoric so prevalent today helped set him off. During the last election ugly language was used by both sides regarding political opponents. The line between disagreeing with someone and demonizing someone is very thin. Too many people crossed that line. And a person such as Jared Loughner may have been drawn into his tragic action by such rhetoric.
Perhaps it is worthy to take a moment and think about our enemies, and also to think about those with whom we have sharp disagreements. They too are God’s creatures. They are deserving of human dignity. We need to be careful about what we say and how we say it. We can fight for what we believe in, but always remember that even as we fight, those on the other side are also “God’s handiwork.”

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5770)

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

“As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord.” (Exodus 14:10)

I will admit that I am a big fan of the Fox television program 24. In fact, it is in its eighth season and I have not missed an episode. For those who do not follow the show, each season takes place in real time over a twenty-four hour period. Anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) has twenty-four hours to save the United States from some major threat.
The show is a master of suspense. Each week, right on the hour, Jack is left in some unbearable and hopeless predicament. And then the next week, thanks to the cleverness of the TV writers, he finds a way out, only to move into some new dangerous situation. It is mindless television, but I am a fan. And in a certain sense it does reflect real life.
People find themselves in impossible situations with what seems like no way out. We use the phrase that they are “caught between a rock and a hard place.” Those with more sophisticated vocabularies will use a phrase from an ancient Greek myth, “between Scylla and Charybdis,” two fabled sea-monsters who guarded the Strait of Messina. If a sailor moved far enough away to avoid one, the other threatened to eat him. The phrase refers to being trapped with no escape.
This week’s Torah reading is the classical Biblical view of no escape. Moses and the Israelites are trapped in an impossible situation. On one side are the pursuing Egyptians, ready to bring them back into slavery. On the other side is the Sea, usually translated the Sea of Reeds but formerly translated the Red Sea. Even Jack Bauer could not get out of that situation, unless he had some divine help.
We all know the story. The people complain bitterly to Moses. And Moses stands there praying to God. God says, enough prayer; it is time to take action. The people jump forward into the sea. According to the Rabbinic Midrash, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah jumped into the sea up to his neck. And the waters parted. The Egyptians pursued the Israelites and were drowned in the sea. Rescue only came when someone took action.
This idea of being trapped between a rock and a hard place is not simply an ancient Biblical story or Greek myth, nor is it simply part of television script. It is a real issue that many people face during their lives. People feel caught with no good choices. They may be trapped between family members who are making demands with no room for compromise. They may be trapped in a financial situation with seemingly no way out. They may be trapped in a career or job where they feel they cannot escape. People come to me for counseling, “Rabbi, what should I do when no choices are good.”
I try to be objective, thinking through the alternatives. “What are your choices? What would happen if you did this? And what would happen if you did that?” Sometimes talking with an objective party helps them formulate a plan. But often people tell me that every choice is impossible. They cannot do this and they cannot do that. They cannot stay at their job and they cannot quit their job. They cannot try to make peace with this family member and they cannot remain estranged from this family member. They cannot sell their house and they cannot remain in their house. They are caught between the pursuing Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds, between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
Sometimes the answer is to take no action, remain paralyzed, and whatever happens, happens. But in our Torah reading God says to Moses, stop praying. Leap in one direction. God says, “Go forward and I will meet you half way.” Perhaps the lesson is to move forward, and even when things seem hopeless, there is a way out.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5769)

MUSIC

“The Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said, I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
(Exodus 15:1)

This Shabbat has a special name in our tradition – Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song. The Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds (some say the Red Sea) and sing a song to the Lord. Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, takes a tambourine and pulls the women aside to sing their own song. According to the Talmud, even the angels of God started to sing a song, but God stopped them. “My children are drowning and you sing songs to me.” (Megillah 10b)
The haftarah, the prophetic section read this week also contains the song of Deborah, celebrating her victory against Israel’s enemy Sisera. Song and music is the theme of this Shabbat. Many synagogues including our own honor the cantor by giving him or her an aliya to the Torah this Shabbat. Some synagogues sponsor cantorial concerts this week (ours is a week from this Sunday.) It is the perfect time to think about music.
This week someone asked me – is permissible to play music at a funeral. The answer is that music is a sign of joy and therefore mourners avoid listening to music. Orthodox Jews will avoid going to any place where music is played for a full year after the funeral of a parent. Therefore in principle music ought to be forbidden. And yet, more and more people seem to have a need to celebrate the end of a life with music – whether singing, playing a recording, or as often is the case, having someone play an instrument. It is difficult to forbid this new innovation. Music seems to touch the soul in a place that words cannot reach.
In a similar way, instrumental music has traditionally been forbidden on the Sabbath. Part of the reason is because Jews are still mourning the loss of the great Temple in Jerusalem. In that Temple the use of musical instruments was a central part of worship, even on the Sabbath and festivals. So we mourn by not listening to instrumental music. In addition, there was a concern by the rabbis that a musical instrument might break and someone would be forced to fix it on the Sabbath. It is a classic sh’vut, a fence around the Torah.
Traditional Jews will not use musical instruments on the Sabbath or festivals. More liberal Jews say that music enhances the worship experience. In our own synagogue, after much debate, we have introduced a guitar, and occasionally a piano, at our Friday night worship service. I am well aware of those who are uncomfortable with the use of music. What helped convince me to permit it was the words from the Sabbath Psalm that is central in the Friday night liturgy: “It is good to thank You, O Lord, to sing praises to Your exalted name … To the sound of the ten-string lyre, with the voice of music and the harp.” (Psalms 92:2, 4)
I find the music not only beautifies the service but also touches a part of us spiritually in a way that simple words cannot. There is something about music that affects the human soul. I have been listening to a series of college lectures on mysticism in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem traditions. The professor is trying to explain to his college student audience what mysticism is. He compares the mystical experience to the musical experience of listening to Mozart. (Some may prefer the latest rap artist to Mozart, but the idea is the same.) It touches us in a profound way that is difficult to explain with mere words. There is a part of the human soul that is attuned to music; in the same way, at least for some individuals, there is a part of the human soul attuned to higher mystical experiences. Music changes us in a deep way.
Let us use this Sabbath not simply to praise God with music, but to celebrate the profound human experience of music.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5768)

RITUAL
“Mark that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no man leave his place on the seventh day.” (Exodus 17:29)
Often on Friday I go to our local bakery to buy hallah for Shabbat. Although the bakery is kosher, immediately the sales woman brings my fresh hallah over to the bread slicer to cut it into slices. I have to talk fast to stop her and let her know, “I need complete, unsliced hallahs.” She sometimes looks at me like I descended on the bakery from Mars. “You don’t want it sliced?!”
Tradition is that on Friday night and Saturday lunch we have two complete unsliced hallahs to say the blessing and begin the meal. The two hallahs represent the double portion of manna which God gave the Israelites in the wilderness on Friday. They received a double portion on Friday so they would not have to go out gathering the food on Shabbat. The same law teaches that we are to do no cooking or baking on the Sabbath; all the food we eat must be prepared before the Sabbath begins. Two hallahs is an important ritual that carries symbolic value to our children and any guests we may have at a Friday night dinner. It teaches respect for the Sabbath as a day of rest. Another ritual is keeping the hallah covered as we say the Kiddush blessing over the wine. The hallah should not be embarrassed that we chose to bless the wine first. And if we are worried about not embarrassing a couple of loaves of bread, how much more so should we worry about not embarrassing another human being.
For a practicing Jew, ritual is a deep and powerful part of life. Do I really believe that each of these rituals is God-given and unchanging? Does it really matter in some ultimate sense whether I bless two whole hallahs or two sliced hallahs on Friday night? No. But I also belief that traditional rituals have a timelessness that is the source of deep spirituality. Our Friday night rituals are being said by Jews throughout the world. They have been said, more or less in the same form, for thousands of years. When I perform these rituals I am linked to something greater than myself. And that is a key part of religion.
How do I explain these ideas to people who have no patience for traditional rituals? Imagine going to a Major League baseball game. Suppose the announcer says that there will no longer be a seventh inning stretch. It will be moved to the beginning of the sixth inning. And we will no longer sing “Take me out to the Ballgame.” Some other song will replace it. Would these changes really make a difference? In some ultimate sense, the answer is no. But somehow, for many of us, the baseball experience would be marred. (For those who are old enough, remember when the rules changed in the American League to allow a designated hitter to hit for the pitcher. It changed the strategy of the game. Many felt something powerful about baseball was marred by this change.)
Ritual resonates with us humans because it represents something powerful that goes beyond ourselves. We want ritual as part of our lives. There was a time when brides and grooms sought to experiment with new age, creative weddings. They wanted to be married barefoot, on the beach, or hike to the top of a mountain for their vows. Today I find brides and grooms want to return to ancient traditions and customs. More and more often at the weddings I perform, the bride wants to include the ancient mystical tradition of walking around the groom. (I do either three or seven circles; I prefer three because seven gives me a very dizzy bride.) There has been a clear return to the traditional forms and prayers.
Does that mean that rituals are forever set in stone and unchangeable? Of course not. Our Judaism is no longer built around animal sacrifices in an ancient Temple. We no longer swing a chicken over our head before Yom Kippur to take away our sins. We have modified rituals in our synagogue that we felt needed to be modified. For example, we now allow women to participate equally with men in the rituals of the synagogue such as Torah reading. The change was slow and controversial when we made it, but most of our members believe it was the right thing to do. We are still debating the wisdom of adding a musical instrument to our Sabbath prayer services. Change is difficult, especially with rituals that have been sanctified by generations of practice. Yet many of our members believe the music enhances the service.
Ritual is part of life. (Watch the variety of robes and cords worn by participants in a school graduation, for example. This apparel which goes back to the Middle Ages add to the solemnity and dignity of the occasion.) Religion also needs ritual to give it a sense of timelessness. Perhaps this is the reason why Reform Judaism is reintroducing many of the ancient Jewish rituals which they once abandoned.
I ask the bakery sales woman not to slice my hallah. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? It is a small way of linking me and my family with a story that goes all the way back to the exodus from Egypt.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5766)

APPRECIATION

“Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord.”
(Exodus 15:1)

The Midrash brings a wonderful insight which is quoted in the Conservative commentary Etz Hayim. “From the day that God created the world until this moment, no one had sung praises to God – not Adam after having been created, not Abraham after being delivered from the fiery furnace, not Isaac when he was spared the knife, or Jacob when he escaped from wrestling with an angel and from Esau. But when Israel came to the sea and it parted for them, then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. And God said, for this I have been waiting.” (Exodus Rabbah 23:4)
Can one really believe that God was waiting for our song of praise? Perhaps this is a classic case of what psychologists call transference. It is we humans who need praise, who constantly wait for words of appreciation. Perhaps we are anthropomorphizing God with a fundamental human need. We need to be noticed, thanked, and appreciated for what we do. We need the song of praise.
I recently spoke with a man who is the boss of a number of employees. One of his employees had complained that the boss never had a kind word for them. He never showed any appreciation for the work his employees do. His words were sad. “I pay them to work. My appreciation is the fact that they receive a paycheck from me. They are simply doing what I pay them to do.”
This man may be a wonderful businessman. But he is a lousy boss and is certainly not a good judge of human nature. A paycheck, as important as it is, is never enough. We need words and acts of appreciation. It reminds me of the woman who told me of her husband, “I don’t need to say I love him or appreciate how hard he works for our family. He knows how I feel.” Unless you say it occasionally, how does he know how you feel?
Deepak Chopra, the popular physician and spiritual teacher, has spoken about the three central ingredients in any healthy relationship. People need attention. People need affection. And people need appreciation. Attention – people must feel that they are noticed. Affection – people need to know that you care about them. And possibly most important, appreciation – people need to know that their actions make a difference in your life and that you thank them. There is a deep human need to have others appreciate what we do.
On the other hand, there is a deep human weakness to take others for granted. We see them do their job and cannot articulate the words, “Thank you.” After all, they are doing what they are paid to do. Or family members are doing what is expected of them; it is their job. How far would a simple thank you go, whether it is to family members who go out of their way for us or the supermarket clerk who adds up our groceries? Humans need that kind of appreciation.
Finally, maybe God does not literally need us to break into song. But certainly saying thank you to God helps give us a healthier view towards the universe. We are called Jews, from the tribe of Judah, the Hebrew tribe Yehudah. The term comes from the Hebrew word Todah meaning “thank you.” Our very name reflects the idea of appreciation. Perhaps we Jews were put into the world to teach the importance of appreciation.
We teach the children in our early childhood program a song entitled, “Thank you God.” Perhaps, before we can truly say thank you to God, we need to learn to say thank you to one another. As we sing the Song of the Sea, let us remember that appreciation is a fundamental human need.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5764)

THE WORLD OF ACTION

“The Lord said to Moses, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
(Exodus 14:15)

One factor that strongly influenced my decision to become a rabbi was a summer spent at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California (then called Brandeis Camp Institute.) It is a program for college students from a variety of backgrounds to explore Judaism. Our lecturer in resident was Dr. David Weiss from Jerusalem, a professor of bioimmunology and an Orthodox Jew who chose observance as an adult. Dr. Weiss and I continued to correspond for many years after that summer.
One lecture of Dr. Weiss’s in particular still stands out in my mind. He had us look at various cultures through history and search for a key word that would summarize the essence of that culture. For the ancient Greeks, the word was beauty. For the ancient Romans, the word was power. Looking at Christian culture through much of history, the word would probably be faith. Christianity stills speaks of justification through faith, although there are changes today, partially due to a return to Hebrew sources in Christianity. If we were to look at modern America, the key word would probably be rights. We Americans place a strong emphasis on rights talk.
What about Judaism? The key word according to Dr. Weiss in describing the essence of Judaism is action. Ultimately, we humans are judged by our actions. When the Israelites received the Torah, they said “We will do and we will understand.” The doing comes before the understanding. Action comes before faith. The Danish existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke about his Christianity as a “leap of faith.” In response, the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of a “leap of action.”
Perhaps one of the best examples of this leap of action takes place in this week’s portion. The Israelites were standing by the sea, pursued by the Egyptians. Moses stood their praying, when God spoke to Moses. Enough prayer, go forward already. There is a time for prayer and a time for action. According to a famous Midrash, one of the leading Israelites, Nachson ben Aminadav plunged into the sea. When the water was up to his neck, the sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross.
These past weeks I have been forced to deal with a number of tragic situations, people who died before their time leaving behind grieving loved ones. Certainly there is a time to ask why, to speak of faith and questions of God’s justice. But at the actual time of bereavement, it was not appropriate to speak theology. My main emphasis had to be, “What should we do? What action can we take?” Jewish tradition releases immediate family members from any prayer obligations before the funeral takes place. They should not be distracted from the actions necessary to make funeral plans. Concentrating on action first will allow family, friends, and loved ones to concentrate on faith later.
The Kabbala, the vast mystical tradition of Judaism, speaks of four worlds in which we humans live. The worlds are situated one inside another, like Russian nested dolls. What happens in the lower worlds affects what happens in the higher worlds. The lowest world is called Olam HaAsiya, literally The World of Action. It is the world most connected to the world of physical things, the material world in which we live. We act in this physical world, doing certain things and avoiding doing other things. Ultimately, our actions, our behavior, affects everything else, including our emotions, our intellect, and our faith. That is why our tradition calls for a leap of action.
There is a story of a group of freethinkers who get together to discuss intellectual topics, including mocking religious faith. They cannot understand why anyone would become a believer? Finally, one of them decides he will live in an Orthodox Jewish community for one year to try to find the answers to all of their questions. One year later the group comes together once again. They cannot wait to ask their friend what he learned from his year of Orthodox living. They see him dressed in the clothing of an Orthodox Jew. “Do you have the answers?” He calmly answers, “After a year of Orthodox living, I finally have the answers. The problem is, I do not remember any of the questions.”
Sometimes we need to take a plunge, make a leap of action. It may be when we are standing by the sea and danger is pursuing us. It may be when tragedy hits and we do not know what to do. Or it may be when we are spiritually seeking answers. The World of Action is the first world in which we live our lives. As Dr. Weiss taught me, this was the profound insight Judaism gave the world. The world still needs to hear it today.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5763)

EULOGY FOR PHARAOH

“The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horseman – Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.” (Exodus 14:28)

We are gathered to say goodbye to Pharaoh, King of Egypt. He has gone on to the next world to join his parents and his first born son, killed in the last great plague that struck Egypt. His body and those of his army have never been recovered; they remain at the bottom of the Sea of Reeds. But there is much we can learn from how Pharaoh lived his life.
First, Pharaoh left behind a great legacy of magnificent buildings. I surmise that people will be visiting the mighty pyramids thousands of years from now. Unfortunately, Pharaoh never realized that a man’s legacy is not a group of buildings, however majestic and beautiful. A man’s true legacy is how he treated other human beings. Here Pharaoh fell short.
Pharaoh could have been the man who freed the slaves. He could have been the man who stood before the entire world and said, no human being has the right to oppress or enslave another human being. We are to be servants of God, not servant to human masters. He had the opportunity not once but ten times. And here Pharaoh fell short. As a result, ten mighty and terrible plagues fell on his people and his land.
Why did Pharaoh refuse time after time to do the right thing? I can answer this in one word – pride. Pharaoh had too much pride. He never knew the words that someday would be taught in the book of Proverbs, “Pride comes before the fall.” (Proverbs 16:18) Now pride is not a bad thing. Without some self-pride, we would become doormats, allowing others to walk all over us. But pride must be mixed with humility, the ability to say, “I am sorry. I was wrong.” Maybe it was his upbringing in the lap of luxury. Maybe it was the fact that he was worshiped as a god by the Egyptians. Pharaoh could never admit that he was wrong.
Pharaoh received opportunity after opportunity to do the right thing, to let the slaves go free, to issue an emancipation proclamation. To do so would be to admit that he had been wrong. So he hardened his heart. Over and over he hardened his heart, until stubbornness and pride became a bad habit. Eventually it was almost as if the refusal to free the slaves was hardwired into his brain, as if God Himself had hardened his heart.
Pharaoh is perhaps the best example of the maxim that the evil inclination is at first like a mere spider web, but then becomes like a heavy rope. Pride and stubbornness prevented him from doing the thing his brain told him he should do. His pride became second nature. And so ten destructive plagues fell on Egypt. Pharaoh tried to come up with a compromise – send the elders and leave the youngsters. But deep in his heart Pharaoh must have known that there can be no compromise between slavery and freedom. And so the plagues continued. The last one brought the death of all the first born, including Pharaoh’s own first born son and his successor. Faced with overwhelming tragedy, Pharaoh finally broke and let the slaves go free.
Perhaps that would have been the end of the matter. Perhaps Pharaoh would have rethought his values and gone on to rule Egypt until ripe old age. But his pride would not allow him to loose. He was incapable of saying, “I was wrong, and Moses was right.” So he chased the Israelites right into the sea, and he and his entire army drowned.
So we gather to say goodbye to Pharaoh. What can we learn from his life? We can learn that pride may be important. But even more important is the ability, if I can use a cliché, “to swallow our pride.” If only Pharaoh could have let go of that stubborn pride, he would have been the first former tyrant to change his mind and free his slaves, he would have left a legacy far greater than any pyramids.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5762)

SURRENDER TO GOD; WRESTLE WITH GOD

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Why do you cry out to me, speak unto the children of Israel that they move forward.”
(Exodus 14:15)

There are two religious views of the world. One of the most prevalent is that human beings are to surrender to God, seeking serenity and acceptance when facing the divine decree. I have met religious Christians whom I admire for their faithful acceptance of God’s will when facing suffering. The very name Islam means “surrenders to God.” Certainly many Eastern religions teach a passivity towards the pain of this world, seeking instead an alternative reality.
Judaism also contains teachings regarding passivity and acceptance in the face of suffering. Religious school students learn the saying gam ze letova, “this too is for the good.” They tell the story of Rabbi Akiba who was denied a place to sleep in town and had to sleep in the woods with his ass, a rooster, and a lamp. A lion ate the ass, a weasel ate the rooster, a wind blew out the lamp. Then Akiba found out that troops had come by that night, and had the ass, rooster, or lamp been there, he would have been taken into captivity. Akiba taught, “Whatever the Holy One does is for the best.” (Berachot 60b) Serenity and acceptance are a basic part of religious faith.
Nonetheless, there is a second religious view which is clear from this portion. This view sees action rather than passivity, struggle rather than acceptance, “this is not acceptable” rather than “this too is for the good” as the basic religious outlook. It calls for a leap of action. The name Israel means “wrestles with God.”
I wrote in my new book The Ten Journeys of Life: The Israelites, fleeing Egypt, were trapped. The sea stood before them, the pursuing Egyptian army was behind them. Moses stood and prayed, until God finally said, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15). According to a classic rabbinic midrash, one of the princes of the people, Nachshon, the son of Aminadav, plunged into the sea. When the water was up to his neck, the sea parted. The Israelites were able to go forward to safety (Mechilta BeShalach 5).
This story is a cry for action in the face of adversity. Pushing forward, researching the problem, finding experts, doing are often the beginning of healing. I have counseled many people coping with difficult illness. The first step after the shock wears off is for them to become experts on their own medical conditions. I have seen people read books and articles, comb the Internet, contact research hospitals and medical experts, seek alternative cures. Often the activity energizes them.
Like Nachshon, when adversity hits we need to plunge forward into the sea. We need to struggle with God, not simply accept our fate.
I see countless examples in my day-to-day counseling of people who react to adversity with action. I think of the rabbi who was fired from a synagogue after many years serving his community. After an initial bout of depression, he started a successful and fulfilling business. Today he blesses the synagogue board who fired him. I think of the woman abandoned by her husband with two small children. She had never dreamed she would become a divorcée and single mom. Today she runs an active singles group and has a wonderful social life.
If God sent this adversity our way, we may wonder, why should we not passively accept it as God’s will? The answer is that the Bible does not advocate passivity. When God finished creating the world, He looked at it and said it is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Very good perhaps, but not yet perfect. Our job as humans is to perfect the world. The biblical creation story is really a call for action.
Of course, action is not always successful or even possible. There are times when we suffer losses for which there is no action, such as the death of a loved one. There are times when we hear our doctors say, “There is no more that we can do.” At these times, perhaps the best approach is Reinhold Niebuhr’s popular recovery prayer:
Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can,
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5761)

EVIL IN THE WORLD

“Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim.”
(Exodus 17:8)

This week the movie Hannibal opens, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs, which swept every major Academy Award. I sat through the first movie and if I can muster the courage, I will probably sit through the sequel. Anthony Hopkins is brilliant in this role of evil personified.
Evil is the theme of so much of our literature, both classic and contemporary. They are making a trilogy of the Lord of the Rings, my favorite books during my high school years. The theme of this classic work is good versus evil. From fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty to modern works such as Harry Potter, the presence of evil haunts the human imagination. How do we confront evil?
Unfortunately, we Jews have seen the face of evil in our history. We know what it is like to be victims not simply of a murderous rage, but of a cold, detached, scientific project to destroy us. We have confronted not just anger and fear, but a hatred so deep that it defies understanding. Evil exists in the world.
In Jewish tradition, Amalek has come to symbolize this evil. Amalek was a marauding nation that attacked Israel from the rear, killing the weakest and most vulnerable. In this week’s portion, the Israelites are victorious in their fight against Amalek. In Deuteronomy they are commanded never to forget what Amalek did, and to be vigilant in fighting Amalek. Jews have understood this as the command to fight evil.
In the book of Samuel, King Saul shows compassion towards Agag, the king of Amalek. He allows him to live. As a result, Saul is punished and loses his kingship. The message of the story is clear – do not let compassion deter you from fighting absolute evil. Haman, the vicious enemy of the Jews in the book of Esther, was a descendent of Amalek. When we Jews celebrate our victory over Haman on Purim, we literally show our contempt by blotting out his name with noisemakers.
However, there is something deeply troubling about all of this. Jewish tradition has always taught compassion towards one’s enemy. According to the Torah, if we see our enemy’s lost animal, we must return it. According to the midrash, the angels of God were reprimanded for singing praises when the Egyptians were drowning. “My children are drowning and you sing praises,” God cried. In so many of these weekly messages, I have spoken about remembering the humanity of our enemy.
Are we to return Amalek’s lost object? Do we cry when Amalek is drowning in the sea? Do we have compassion when confronted with absolute evil? Indeed, it is a deeply troubling question for all of us. Jews, who have been taught that every human being is created in God’s image, and who have seen the face of absolute evil, will find this particularly troubling. Do we see the humanity of a Hitler, a Himmler, and an Eichmann?
Allow me to struggle towards an answer. The Rabbis of the Talmud raised the question, are we obligated to honor a parent who is wicked? There is much debate over this issue in various Rabbinic sources. Some rabbis say yes, even such a parent deserves honor. Some say no, a wicked parent has lost their right to the honor.
One Rabbinic commentary gives a brilliant insight. Why was the parent wicked? Was this parent unable to control his or her appetites? Or was this parent truly cruel in the depths of his or her being? If the parent simply has an appetite out of control (the evil inclination), there may be room to honor them, or at least understand their behavior. They were not so much wicked as weak. But, if the parent was truly, deliberately cruel, there is no need to honor them.
There are people in this world who lack self-control, who let their appetites overtake them. We must surely stand up for our rights against such people. But we must also recognize their humanity.
However, like Hannibal in the movie, there are people in this world who are truly evil. The tale of Amalek is in the Torah to teach us, we must fight evil with all of our might. And we must pray for the day when, as the Psalmist taught, evil will perish from the earth. Amalek will be no more.

PARSHAT BESHALACH
(5760)

OUR SHARED HUMANITY

“I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
(Exodus 15:1)

Last week we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Few others have so eloquently taught that people must be judged not “by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character.” The message still needs to be heard today. This message is as ancient as the Torah.
The Talmud asks the question, why did God choose to form every human being from one man and one woman – Adam and Eve. It replies that nobody should ever say, my ancestors are better than your ancestors. Another midrash teaches that when God formed the first man, He used different colored earth from different corners of the world. Nonetheless, one of the most pervasive human failings is seeing others as inferior, different, not worthy of trust.
Why do people so hate other people, because they belong to a different race, a different religion, a different ethnic group, a different nation? This is one of the fundamental questions of human existence.
I have often wondered, how could the Nazis have spent the day gassing people, throwing their bodies into crematoria, taking babies out of the hands of their mothers and killing them, and then gone home at night to kiss their wives and children, listen to music, and read poetry? How could they be monsters by day and men by night?
Perhaps to understand, we ought to consider what we do when we find mice or some other vermin in our house. We call the exterminator to destroy them, and then go about our business without a second thought. That is how the Nazis looked at the Jews they were killing, as we would look at mice in our homes. They were able to blithely kill them, because for the Nazis, Jews had lost their humanity.
The Nazis did not strip Jews of their humanity all at once. It began with the Nuremberg laws, taking away fundamental rights of Jews to earn a living, employ non-Jews, live in certain neighborhoods, practice certain professions. Then came the requirement to wear yellow stars. Jews were forced to live in overcrowded ghettos, their movements limited. Step by step they stopped being human beings in the eyes of their Nazi tormentors. Once they lost their humanity, extermination was an easy step.
One of the most universal human traits is the denial of the humanity of other people. It may be Jews, or blacks, or native-Americans, or Kosovans, or Tutsis, or Hutus, or Hindus, or Moslems, or Japanese, or Chinese. It is a phenomenon found in every country of the world, in every age of human history. The holocaust was the denial of another’s humanity carried to an extreme. But the phenomenon is not new; it goes back to Pharaoh throwing the baby Hebrew boys into the Nile.
The Torah teaches, “Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) Most people love their family. It is easy to teach people to love their own neighbors, their own clan, their own type of people. One of the most difficult laws of the Bible is to teach people to love the stranger, the one who is different, the one of another race, religion, background.
Perhaps the most famous statement in Rabbinic literature is the passage in Megillah where the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, and the angels of God started to sing songs of praise. God reprimanded them, “My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise!” Even the Egyptians, the enslavers of Israel, were God’s children.