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Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

Bo

PARSHAT BO
(5777)
REDEMPTION
“Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand. No leavened bread shall be eaten.” (Exodus 13:3)
In March I will be attending the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference in Washington D.C. It is probably the best conference I try to attend each year. 15,000 people will be inside the convention center representing a cross section of Americans, all seeking support for the state of Israel. Outside there will be demonstrators, calling for Israel to end the occupation, and for many of them, calling for Israel to simply disappear. Of course, these demonstrators will be Palestinians and their progressive supporters. But I know that there will also be numerous black hat rabbis out there, calling for an end to the state of Israel.
These rabbis represent Naturei Karta, Satmar, and other organizations who believe Israel has no right to exist. They believe that until the Messiah comes and brings about the age of redemption, Jews have no right to build a Jewish state in the holy land. Zionism, the movement to found a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, was a secular movement, built on the idea that the Jewish people should bring about their own redemption. They should not wait for God to redeem them. There were certainly many religious supporters of this Zionist Movement; one thinks of the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine Abraham Isaac Kook. But for at least some religious extremists, bringing redemption before God was ready is an affront to God.
Judaism is built on the idea that God is our redeemer. The Hebrew for redeemer is goel, for redemption is geulah. As Jews say every day in both their morning and evening prayers, God is Goel Yisrael, the Redeemer of Israel. We pray for geulah – redemption. The major theme of this week’s portion is redemption. At the beginning of the portion the Israelites are still slaves in Egypt. At the end of the portion, God has brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
The word goel has its roots in the laws of a man forced into slavery because of debts. His brother, or if there is no brother, other family members, must pay a ransom price and redeem him out of slavery. Indentured servitude, outlawed in the United States today, was common through much of history. Brothers had to redeem brothers. But when the entire people Israel were enslaved, God heard their cry and became their redeemer. And so, at least according to the view of some Jews, only God can be the redeemer. There is already a hint of this idea in the Passover Haggadah, which tells the story of Israel’s redemption. The Haggadah speaks of God but never mentions Moses. In the Haggadah God is the redeemer; we do not mention the human role in redemption at all.
Exactly eleven months after Passover we celebrate another holiday of redemption – Purim. We read the Megillah which tells the story of saving the Jews from the evil Haman. But this time God is not mentioned at all. Human beings, Mordecai and Esther, become the source of redemption. It as if God is saying to us, I will be your redeemer when it comes to leaving Egypt. But in the future you Israelites must redeem yourselves. Do not wait for me to redeem you. Move forward and take action. Redemption becomes a human activity.
Next week we will read about the Israelites trapped at the sea. Moses stood and prayed for God to take action, to redeem the people. God told Moses, enough prayer, take action. According to Jewish tradition, at that point Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah, jumped forward into the sea. When the sea reached up to his neck the water parted. Redemption begins with human action.
In our own time, the Jewish people decided to take redemption into their own hands. Jews from multiple backgrounds – Orthodox and secular, socialists and capitalists, traditionalists and revisionists, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, decided to rebuild a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine. They did not wait for God, but realized that humans must be the redeemers. Because of their actions, today we have the state of Israel. And as we say in our prayerbook, Israel is reishit tz’michat geulatenu – “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.”

PARSHAT BO
(5776)
EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT
“You shall explain to your son on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
This week’s portion introduces the laws of Passover, the annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt. And at the center of Passover is the seder, the formal ritualized meal built around the haggadah. The word “haggadah” is key; it means telling. The central goal of the seder is for parents to tell children the story of the exodus – we were slaves and now we are free.
This idea is so important that three times in this week’s portion it speaks of a father telling his son. (The Torah tends to use male language.) To make sure we get the point, the Torah mentions the law a fourth time in Deuteronomy. Why does the Torah need to repeat four times a single law, parents should tell the story to their children? The haggadah gives an answer. The Torah repeats it four times because there are four kinds of children. (Actually the traditional haggadah says “four sons”; in our egalitarian age we can include daughters.) Some children are wise and want to learn it all. Some children are rebellious and do not want to be there at all. Some children are simple and can only ask the most basic questions. Some children cannot ask any questions at all. And some children are each of these at some point in their lives.
What is the responsibility of a parent at the Passover seder? The haggadah teaches, lefi dato aviv m’lamdo – “according to his mind his father teaches him.” This teaches a powerful idea that most parents do not appreciate. Teaching is not generic. There is not one way to teach children. Every child is different and every child learns differently. If the central job of parenting is to teach one’s children, then one must teach in accordance with the kind of child one has. Or to quote the Bible (again using male language), “Teach a child according to his way, even when he grows up he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)
One of the problems facing schools and synagogues, all the institutions that teach children, is there is a sense that there is only one way to teach. The state of Florida, like most other states, has standardize testing that every child must pass to move up through the grades. The special needs of some children who cannot handle such testing are often ignored. I have seen a parent on the phone with Tallahassee trying to get a high school diploma for a child who passed all classes, but could not pass the standardized test. Schools are trying to do better, but still often ignore the very different learning styles of different children.
Even in synagogue, problems sometimes arise about individual children’s needs. In order to celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah in our synagogue, students must pass a certain curriculum and learn certain prayers. Our rules work fine for most children. But there are some children who cannot handle the pressure of such rules. Some parents give up trying to have a bar or bat mitzvah altogether. Fortunately, we have learned to make adjustments in order to take into account the different learning styles of different children.
This idea is much deeper than simply how children learn. Every child is unique. There is no generic way to parent every child. I have often counseled parents who are raising children with unusual or special needs. I tell them that they need to raise the child they have, not the child they wish they had. Often these children turn out to be truly wonderful gifts for their parents. And if parents are frustrated, perhaps it is worth remembering an old mystical idea. When children are sent into this world, they are sent to the parents who are most able to raise them into the kind of adults they are meant to be. It is worth remembering that you were meant to raise the children you have, at least according to the mystics.
This is a good time remember that not only is every child unique, every human being is unique. Even identical twins are different, based on different life experiences. Adults must be treated according to their way, who they are. The Talmud teaches how humans stamp coins and each one is exactly like every other one. But God stamps coins (makes humans) and each one is unique and different from every other one. Wisdom is the ability to see those differences in the human beings we encounter.

PARSHAT BO
(5775)
SEEING THE POOR
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, even the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses. Whosoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15)
This week’s portion is centered on the exodus from Egypt. It includes the many laws of the Passover seder. God commands the Israelites to prepare a roasted lamb as a special Passover offering, gather with families, and eat it together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. For seven days no regular bread may be eaten – only unleavened bread called matza. In fact, no leavened bread should be found in an Israelites household. Today traditional Jews carefully clean their homes before Passover to remove even the slightest trace of leavening.
Ask any Jewish child with a minimal Jewish education why we eat matza on Passover, and they will give the correct answer. We eat matza because we had to flee very quickly from Egypt. There was no time for the bread to rise. And so this flat bread that tastes like crackers, or sometimes like cardboard, is all we can eat during Passover. According to the Bible, for seven days all bread is forbidden. Outside of Israel Jews observe the Passover for eight days. I find that by the end of the eighth day I am craving a pizza. But as a Jew, I am commanded to never forget how quickly we had to flee from Egypt.
Now we turn to a fascinating insight. On the first two evenings of Passover we read from the Haggadah, retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt. At the beginning of the Haggadah, the first time we mention matza, there is no mention of bread not having time to rise. We uncover the matza and say words in Aramaic, the spoken language from Rabbinic times. Ha Lachma Anya – “this is the bread of affliction which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The meaning of the matza has changed. It is not the bread we ate when fleeing Egypt, but rather the bread of affliction we ate when we were slaves in Egypt. The bread reminds us of our poverty. To drive that point home, the Haggadah continues with the words, “All who are hungry come and eat.” The matza reminds us of how we were once hungry, with just this poor bread to eat. Now we must remember to feed others who are hungry.
I often speak about what I call the chutzpa of the Rabbis. In Judaism the Rabbis of the Talmudic period were willing to totally change the meaning of a Biblical verse or of a religious symbol. In the Torah matza is bread baked in a hurry. Now matza is bread eaten by poor people. We eat this unleavened bread to remind us that there are people who are poor. Bread is comfort food. A hot loaf of bread, a sandwich with sliced bread, a dinner roll, even the crust of a pizza, makes us feel sated. A big part of our obesity problem in this country is based on our love of bread. Living on matza alone would be a great way to lose weight. (Of course one must avoid all the Passover cakes.)
The rabbis are trying to remind us to always see the poor and the hungry among us. This is also a teaching in Deuteronomy, which contains an entire chapter about helping the poor. “The poor will always be amongst you.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) This chapter contains a number of laws about opening one’s hand to the poor, loaning money, cancelling debts, and in general helping the poor. Other places in the Torah contain laws about leaving the corner of one’s fields for the poor or allowing the poor to eat the gleanings. Rabbinic law contains a whole system of charity, known in Hebrew as tzedakah. The highest level of tzedakah is helping a poor person earn their own living through providing a loan or a job.
The poor among us are easily hidden. They live in different neighborhoods, go to different schools, and shop in different stores. They are “the other.” And it is easy to never see the other. That is why the Rabbis who wrote the Haggadah gave a new meaning to matza. It became lechem oni – “the bread of affliction”, the reminder that we were once poor slaves and we can never afford to turn our backs on the poor.

PARSHAT BO
(5774)
THE NEW MOON
“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2)
I am writing this on New Year’s Day, the first day of the solar year. Happy 2014. The solar year has twelve months, but long ago they ceased to be connected to lunar cycles. Religions tend to keep a lunar calendar; a new moon is a new month. Twelve lunar cycles last approximately 354 days, 11 days short of the 365 day solar year. The Moslem calendar keeps a purely lunar cycle; each year Ramadan is 11 days earlier in the solar cycle. Jews also keep a lunar calendar, but every few years they put in a thirteenth month. That keeps the lunar and solar calendars more or less in sync.
This portion is the first one that mentions the new moon. The month the Israelites left Egypt is counted as the first month of the year. (According to the current calendar, this is the month of Nissan.) This is the month in which we celebrate the festival of Passover. The portion speaks of the various laws of Passover. But it begins with the celebration of the new moon, known as Rosh Hodesh.
In Biblical times Rosh Hodesh was an important celebration. Not only were there special sacrifices, but families would have a festive meal to celebrate the new month. (1Samuel 20:18) Today, except for some minor changes in the liturgy at daily services, there is little recognition of the new moon in our calendar. There is a long tradition that it is a day of rest set aside for women. But only in the past few decades have women begun to celebrate the monthly cycle of the new moon.
Today many synagogues hold women’s study and prayer groups in honor of Rosh Hodesh. In Israel, each month at the Western Wall, the holiest spot in the world to Jews, a group of women have gathered in the women’s section wearing prayershawls, singing, and sometimes reading the Torah. This group, known as Women of the Wall, has sparked controversy, violence, and arrests, as ultra-Orthodox men and women have protested against women led ritual at what they consider their holy place. The government of Israel is trying to resolve the issue in a way that will respect the sensitivities of ultra-Orthodox worshippers and the desire of women, many of them Orthodox, to celebrate the new moon.
Where did this connection between the moon and women come from? Certainly many identify the monthly cycle of the moon with the monthly cycle of women’s bodies. There appears to be something more ancient and mystical going on here. To understand, I have to share a very old, wonderful midrash. (see Hullin 60b) In the beginning the moon was equal to the sun. The moon complained, “How can two kings wear one crown.” God replied to the moon, “You are right. Shrink.” God shrunk the moon, but God felt guilty for this action. The passage continues that each month on the new moon, we bring a sin offering for God’s action.
The mystics developed this message further. In the beginning both the moon and the sun gave off light. (This is not meant as a scientific but rather a spiritual understanding of reality.) But when God shrunk the moon, it could now only reflect the light of the sun. But one day in the future the moon will once again give off its own light. God will restore the equivalence of the moon and the sun. According to this mystical reading of the tale, the sun represents the masculine aspects of reality and the moon represents the feminine aspects of reality. At one point they were equal. However, through most of Jewish history, only male voices have been heard. The female voice was often silenced. The Talmud puts it explicitly, “Samuel said, the voice of a woman is lewdness.” (Berachot 24a)
Today the mystical prediction is coming true. The voice of women is being heard once again. In the Jewish world, women are becoming rabbis, cantors, professors of Jewish studies, and Torah scholars. Women are writing commentaries giving unique insights into the Torah. (See for example the books of Avivah Zornberg.) Rosh Hodesh is not only a women’s festival, but a chance to bask in the new light given off by the voices of women.

PARSHAT BO
(5773)
CHILDREN AND RELIGION
“And Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast for the Lord.”
(Exodus 10:9)
The great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh, or more properly between God and Pharaoh, continues. We have seen seven plagues, three are still to come before Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to go forth out of Egypt. Pharaoh is looking for a compromise, a way to save face and put an end to the confrontation. He will allow the elders to go. But the young, the children need to stay behind. Moses answers with the words, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters.” Children must be part of the exodus.
Whenever I read this portion I think about the former Soviet Union at the height of the persecution of Jews. There were synagogues in Russia that continued to hold Sabbath and festival services. But only the elders were allowed to attend them. The younger generation was kept away. Atheism was the official religion of the Soviet Union and anti-Semitism was the unofficial outlook of Soviet authorities. Religion would be allowed to die with the older generation.
One of the miracles of modern Jewish life is the young refused to stay away from religion. On important holidays, but particularly on Simchat Torah, young Jews began gathering in synagogues. They would stand outside and dance with the Torahs. Of ten they did not understand the rituals but it did not matter. They were young Jews who wanted to identify with their religion and their people. Eventually the Soviet Union opened its gates and many of these young Jews left for Israel, Europe, and the United States.
This brings me to a vital idea for today. Religion is not just for the old. Young people need religion and religious leaders must find ways to include young people. Often someone brings a baby or toddler to synagogue and then asks me, “Rabbi, is it okay? I cannot get him or her to sit still.” I always answer that children are welcome in our synagogue. Children need to feel that this is a second home; they need to grow up filled with the memories of the sights and sounds of religious worship. When they grow up the children may embrace religion or they may reject it. But at least they will grow up knowing it.
The brilliant scientist and articulate atheist Richard Dawkins has a very different view. He considers the religious training of children, whatever the faith, to be a form of child abuse. When asked about the abuse of children by clergy, he replied that all religious training is a form of abuse. Children need to grow up to become freethinkers, unburdened by superstition and false beliefs. If Dawkins had his way, children would be kept out of churches, synagogues, and mosques.
With all due respect to Dawkins’ brilliance as a scientist, I believe he is totally wrong. As children grow up, they are going to face times in their lives when they confront ethical dilemmas. They will need the guidance of religion. They are going to face times in their lives when they feel sadness and loss. They will need the consolation of religion. They are going to face times in their life of major decisions or life changes such as marriage or parenthood. They will need the wisdom and insights of religion. Children need religion and that need will become clear as they grow older.
I meet many parents today who decide to raise their children in no religion. Maybe they are unbelievers or agnostics who do not want to expose their children to something that they have trouble accepting. Sometimes they are mixed married couples who do not want to choose between two faiths. And often they are people who cannot make the financial commitment that religious education requires. Whatever the reason, I would urge parents to rethink their decision. Moses would not leave the children behind. Neither should we.

PARSHAT BO
(5771)

WITH OUR YOUNG AND WITH OUR OLD
“Moses said, We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds will we go; for we must hold a feast for the Lord.”
(Exodus 10:9)
Pharaoh knew that the plagues were getting worse. It was time to let the Israelites go from slavery to freedom. But Pharaoh was human; he needed to save face. He proposed a compromise. Let the elders go serve the Lord. But the children must stay behind. Moses would not accept Pharaoh’s face-saving compromise. He would go forth from Egypt with everybody, both the old and the young. Seniors and children are all part of the people Israel, all worthy of leaving Egypt.
This story always reminds me of religious life in the old Soviet Union, before it imploded. The Soviet authorities were willing to tolerate a certain amount of religion, as long as it was only for the elderly. Churches and synagogues were kept open for a diminishing congregation of seniors. But young people dare not go, particularly if they wanted to be successful in their careers. The official religion of the Soviet Union was atheism, and young people would be wise to heed that and stay away from houses of worship. The Soviet authorities were shocked when young Jews showed up by the thousands in synagogue on Simchat Torah. Religion does not die out that easily, even by modern Pharaohs.
In modern Europe there are different forces that are keeping young people away from religion. The European Union has a decidedly secular cast. There are beautiful cathedrals and churches, as well as historical synagogues in every major European city. But besides tourists, most of the attendees are elderly. There are strong cultural forces which have made Europe one of the most secular cultures in history. However, even in Europe there is some return to religion among the young, particularly among immigrants, and most noticeably among young Moslems.
America is different. It is far more religious than Europe. Perhaps it is the religious freedom here and the strict separation of church and state. Religion has to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. In America many churches and synagogues have been very successful at bringing in a younger generation. For other synagogues including our own, holding on to the young is a challenge.
When I came to our synagogue more than twenty years ago, I was deeply attracted by our outreach to the young. Our synagogue was originally founded by seniors in a retirement community. But they had the insight to build classrooms and a youth lounge, hire teachers, an education director, and youth advisors. Soon the synagogue was filled with children. They went through our programming – pre-school, religious school, bar/ bat mitzvah, youth group, and confirmation. Today I have the joy of officiating at many of their weddings. The seniors who established our synagogue are mostly gone, but their legacy lives on with a younger generation.
Today our mandate continues to create a synagogue “with our young and with our old.” But it is becoming more challenging. Jewish parents still want their children to learn about their heritage. But they also want them to play soccer and other sports, participate in dance and other arts, and be involved in countless after school activities. Many children spend times in two different homes, with divorced parents who often differ on the importance of religion. Often one of those parents is not Jewish. In addition, we are living in harsh financial times making synagogue involvement too expensive for some parents.
How do we attract a younger generation to our synagogue and to Jewish life? Like Moses, we cannot simply say that religion is for the old. We need the young. Moses knew that the youngsters were our future. Conservative Judaism is an aging movement. I do not have all the answers on how to attract a younger generation. But I know that we need to start asking the questions.

PARSHAT BO
(5770)

PLAGUES ON HAITI

“The Lord said to Moses, I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all.” (Exodus 11:1)

As I write these words, I heard that another large after shock hit Haiti. I was able to reach by telephone a former member of our congregation who moved to Port-au-Prince. Although a poor connection, I found out that she and her family are alright, although their home was destroyed. (I discovered that it is far more expensive to telephone Haiti than to telephone Israel.)
Meanwhile our congregation is collecting food and money for Food for the Poor, an organization able to transfer relief goods directly to Haiti. But the suffering is overwhelming. Watching the Haitian people, I can understand how the ancient Egyptians felt with plague after plague. For Egypt it was blood, frogs, lice, insects, etc. For Haitians it is earthquakes, hurricanes, poverty, violence, etc. Some must think that like ancient Egypt, what is happening on this troubled island nation is a punishment from God.
Where is God in these events? I seem to write on this topic every few years. After a tsunami kills thousands in Thailand, after hurricane Katrina destroys New Orleans, and after an earthquake levels Haiti, the question comes up – where is God? Why is God sending plagues on this poor nation?
To find an answer, we must turn to the story of Elijah the Prophet in the Bible. Elijah had a vision at Mt. Sinai of a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. Then he had a vision of an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then he had a vision of a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then Elijah heard a still small voice, and that was the voice of God. (I Kings 19:11-12)
God is not in these natural events, but in the still small voice we hear after the event. God is not in the earthquake. Rather God is in the people who pulled together to rescue survivors, bring aid, and give hope to other human beings. God is not in nature but in the voice of conscience.
The Rabbis of the Talmud asked the question, if a person steals wheat, why does the wheat not grow? Should the wheat punish the thief? The answer they give is that nature runs according to its own laws. Natural events are not punishments from God. On the contrary, they are part of the laws God set into motion to allow the universe to function and life to evolve. In fact, if not for earthquakes and other seismic activities, the earth would not have become fit for life.
Much of what we humans see as destructive in nature is part of the overall plan of creation. Genetic mutations can cause terrible diseases, but they also are the driving force behind evolution. Species struggle to survive and some lose out in the struggle, but those more fit become better adapted to the environment. Forest fires rage and burn out old trees and brush, opening the way for new plant life to grow. And earthquakes and volcanoes are part of the dynamics of the earth that allowed the reshuffling of the land and life to come forth.
The prophet Isaiah wrote long ago regarding God, “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil.” (Isaiah 45:7) Perhaps this was in reaction to the ancient Gnostic belief in two gods, a god of good and a god of evil. To Jews as well as Christians and Moslems, there is only one God responsible for the laws of nature. As Alfred Tennyson wrote regarding nature, it is “red in tooth and claw.”
But the still small voice says that we humans do not have to passively accept what nature doles out. We can perfect nature. We can create a world where people do not need to suffer and die because of seismic events. I pray, with God’s inspiration, we are starting to do that in Haiti.

PARSHAT BO
(5769)

DIFFICULT TIMES
“And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”
(Exodus 12:30)
I am sitting in a hotel room in Boston where I came to visit my oldest son. It is snowing outside so this is a perfect time to stay indoors, keep warm, and work on my weekly spiritual message. There is almost too much on my mind. Last night I went out to dinner with a number of family members who live in Boston. My cousin, a very successful banker, expressed his frustration not only with his particular industry but with the economy in general.
He spoke of the many layoffs at his bank and other banks as management tries to contain losses. But he shared how in the past, when there was an economic downturn, at least certain industries seemed to be immune. What is so painful is that this current downturn seems to be affecting every industry and every part of the economy. Every household is feeling the pinch. As he spoke, the verse that kept running through my mind was the one from this week’s portion, “There was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Talmud says that economic troubles are a kind of a death, the death of a dream. We are all affected.
Perhaps there is a slight comfort in the fact that we are all in this together. And at least we know we are not alone. At least we can strengthen one another. In my book The Ten Journeys of Life I shared a story. A woman goes to her rabbi and pours out her many troubles. “How will I ever survive?” The rabbi tells her that he wants her to go to all of her neighbors, borrow some flour, and bake a cake. The woman is surprised by this suggestion. Then the rabbi tells her, “There is one more rule. You can only borrow flour from those neighbors who have not known any pain or trouble in their household.” The woman follows the rabbi’s suggestion, going door to door trying to borrow flour. In the end, she discovers, there is not a single household that does not know pain and trouble. “There was not a house where there was not one dead.”
There is pain and trouble in the world. It afflicts us even during good times. Many of us suffer from illness and disease. Many of us have suffered deaths of those we love, often prematurely. Many of us have suffered pain in our relationships – divorce, estrangement, disappointment with our children, the loss of our dreams. And now almost everybody is affected by the economic downturn. Our homes and our pensions have lost value. Many of us have lost jobs, or have been unable to find work to begin with. It affects everyone. Perhaps there is at least a small bit of comfort that we are in this together.
There is another great lesson in this week’s portion. The portion tells the story of the great exodus from Egypt, the going forth from slavery to freedom. Mystics have always seen this story not as a particular historical event but as an ongoing process. Egypt is not simply a country; the Hebrew word Mitzraim means “a narrow place.” Going out from Egypt means going from a narrow place, a place where we are stuck, to a wider place, a place where we are free. Going out from Egypt means going from economic difficulties to economic prosperity. Of all the portions in the Torah, this is perhaps the most hopeful. Redemption is at hand. Difficult times will not last forever.
My cousin the banker has a brilliant mind. He is convinced that if we can only hold out for another year or two, things will begin to turn around. Economic downturns have always been followed by economic upswings. There will be sectors in the economy where new capital will make its way, new jobs will be created, and there will be new opportunities for those who are prepared. There is hope.
Of course, for those who take the Bible seriously, there is always hope. The Bible is the story of redemption, the going forth from that narrow place. As a watch the snow fall outside my window, I have to believe that the skies will clear up. As Jews will proclaim on Passover in just a few months, “We were slaves but now we are free.”

PARSHAT BO
(5768)

DESTRUCTIVE BEHAVIOR – PART 2

“That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.”
(Exodus 12:51)

This week we read of the great founding event in the history of Israel as a people – the exodus from Egypt (in Hebrew yitziat mitzraim). After the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally relents and lets the people go forth. Later Judaism saw this as more than a one time historical event. “In every generation a person should see himself as if he went forth from Egypt.” (Passover Haggada) What does it mean for us in our generation to relive the exodus?
Let me suggest an answer. Last week I spoke about destructive behavior. I wrote, “Some people seem hard wired for destructive behavior. Some people do the wrong thing over and over so often that the destructive behavior becomes part of their very nature.” Can such people change? We all have some area in our lives where we need to break away. The word mitzraim “Egypt” actually comes from a Hebrew root meaning “narrow place.” Perhaps we can say that our personal exodus is a breaking away from the narrow place that confines us, from the destructive behaviors that make our lives more difficult. The great message of the Torah is that it is possible to break out of the narrow place, to change our behavior.
How do we do it? The process of change is not easy. The longer we have been doing the wrong thing, the more it becomes ingrained in our very nature and the harder it is to change. But I have seen people who broke away from the narrow place after years of destructive behavior. I have seen people who gave up serious addictions to alcohol or drugs, long time irresponsible sexual behavior, uncontrolled anger or greed, and terrible relationships with family members. Change is possible.
In my recently re-released book The Ten Journeys of Life I speak about seven steps towards changing destructive behavior. In the book I call these “the seven R’s.” Let me summarize briefly these seven steps:
Recognition – Knowing intellectually that some behavior is wrong.
Responsibility – Accepting that we are responsible for our behavior.
Remorse – Feeling bad about that behavior.
Restitution – Apologizing and facing the consequences of our behavior.
Resolve – Making the decision to change.
Recovery – Turning to a Higher Power or God to help us to change behavior.
Repentence – As Maimonides defines it, facing the same temptation but being a changed person.
Each of these steps is difficult. It is easy to avoid recognizing our behavior as wrong – “What is the big deal; everybody is doing it.” It is easy to avoid responsibility – “I can’t help it; my short temper is in my genes.” We hear from the therapeutic community that remorse or guilt is unhealthy. We hear from the legal community that one should never admit guilt. (“I was not talking on the cell phone when my car rear-ended you.”) Resolve is difficult, that is why we do it over and over again. (“I am good at quitting smoking; I have done it a dozen times.”)
Regarding recovery, turning to God is never easy. Often we feel that God has abandoned us when our behavior is inappropriate. The truth is that God would no more abandon one of God’s children than we would abandon one of our children if we did not approve of their behavior. With our own children we always leave the door open for change. And so it is with God; the door is open when we are ready to walk through.
Finally, true repentance means that we are a changed person. Maimonides says that true repentance can only take place when we are put to the test – we have the same opportunity to do the same destructive behavior, but his time we are different. Finally, we have gone out of our own mitzraim, our own narrow place, from slavery to freedom. True repentance happens after we have relived the exodus in our own lives.

PARSHAT BO
(5766)

LOVE YOUR CHILDREN

“When in time to come, your son asks you saying, what does this mean, you shall say to him, it was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:14)

It was one of those television scenes I will never forget. Baby Richard, a four-year-old adopted boy, was removed from the home of the only parents he had even known and handed to a man who was a complete stranger. The little boy screamed and cried as the court mandate was fulfilled. The birth father had not given proper legal consent to the adoption, and now four years later he was asserting his legal rights. The television image was viscerally painful.
After taking custody of “his son” whom he had never met, the putative father was asked by the press, “Why are you doing this?” His answer reflects every thing that is wrong with how too many parents see their role. “I am doing it because I love my son.” He so loved his son that he was willing to destroy him.
In truth, he did not love his son; he loved himself. He was focused on his needs, not his son’s needs. How different the baby Richard story is from the story in the Bible of the two women fighting over the same baby. King Solomon proposed the baby be cut in half. The true mother cries out, “Give the baby to her, but do not harm my child.” How different also the baby Richard story is from the story we read two weeks ago of Moses’ mother placing her son in a basket and letting him float down the river. Odds are she would not see her own son again. But what was important was the child’s needs, not her needs.
Love begins when we focus on the child and his or her needs, not on ourselves and our needs. Love is always about what the other person needs and how we can meet those needs. But the area of life where meeting someone’s needs is most vital is when we raise children. Every child is unique. Our job as parents is to see our child’s uniqueness and focus on what we need to do to help that particular child succeed in life. There is no generic way to raise children. Or as King Solomon wisely taught us, ” Teach your son according to his way, even when he grows up he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) Every child has his or her own unique way.
This point is made in this week’s Torah portion. Three times the Torah teaches that a parent must teach a child the story of the exodus from Egypt. In case the point was not clearly made, the commandment is repeated a forth time in the book of Deuteronomy. Why does the same commandment to teach children appear four times? The Passover Haggada, which we use at the Seder or Passover meal, gives an answer. There are four unique kinds of children. We must design the telling of the story in a way that fits the particular kind of children we have. The Haggada teaches, “According to the child’s mind the father teaches.” But first the father must see the uniqueness of each child.
Every child is unique. Yesterday somebody told me how different their two children are from one another. “I can’t believe they came from the same gene pool.” The Kabbala teaches that children choose the parents best able to raise them. If one accepts such a mystical idea, from the very beginning the child’s soul picked parents able to prepare him or her for a unique mission. But to truly parent that child, the parents must first see that child.
Unfortunately, too many parents are focused on their own needs. They want naches from the kinder, children that will fill their dreams and their needs. We need to focus on our children’s needs and dreams, which can be very different from our own. Love begins when we focus on the other.
There was a man who went to his rabbi with a problem; his son’s behavior was out of control. The rabbi answered with a simple solution, “Love him more.” We must love our children. But first we need to see our children.

PARSHAT BO
(5764)

DARKNESS

“People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
(Exodus 10:23)

I recently listened to a motivational tape put out by the National Speakers Association, an organization to which I am a proud member. The members are people who speak for a living, and the tape was how to write and market your book. One insight hit home. Find a place to write besides your home or your office; there are too many interruptions. The tape recommended finding a public place, such as the local Starbucks. Having other people around somehow energizes us.
My ears perked up. The tape was talking to me. I wrote my books at Starbucks, at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop, sometimes even in the Food Court at the mall, but never at home or in my office. I find the flow of people coming and going inspires me. I know an author who rented a cabin in the woods in New Hampshire during the dead of winter to complete her book. I would last about an hour in such a cabin, and then begin to go out of my mind. I need people around me to succeed at my work, even total strangers.
Barbra Streisand sang in Funny Girl, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Most of us are such people. We need people. Certainly there are people who are loners, who function best separated from others. But most human beings need the interaction with other human beings in order to succeed, even if it is only the casual presence of people in a public place. To be alone, according to the Bible, is the only thing God said is not good.
We hear of children who grow up in orphanages, receiving minimum human interaction with their caregivers. Often such children suffer from what psychologists call a “failure to thrive.” On the other hand, the worst punishment given to incarcerated adults is to be put in solitary confinement. Cutting off people from contact with other people is a severe form of punishment, used in only extreme cases.
People need people. This human need for others is reflected in a wonderful passage in the Talmud about the first man. “Look how hard Adam had to work. If he wanted a meal he had to plant a seed, and then he had to harvest it, and then he had to winnow the chaff, and then he had to knead the dough and bake the bread. Whereas I can come to table and others have done all these things for me…. When Adam wanted to wear a garment, he had to cut the wool from the sheep, and then he had to wash it, and then he had to spin it and sew it. Whereas I go to the store, and all the work has been done for me my others.” (Berachot 58a).
This week we read the end of the ten plagues. The worst plague, of course, was the slaying of all the first born in Egypt. What was the second from the worst plague? It was plague number nine, the darkness that descended on Egypt for three days.
The darkness was not simply a lack of light. That could be solved by lighting lamps. Rather it was an inability for anyone to see or interact with any fellow human being for three days. It was as if a thick depression fell on everybody, leaving them entirely alone. People were cut off from people, as if they were in some kind of solitary confinement. There was a blackness of despair, of being entirely alone in the world.
People need people to function, to thrive, and to flourish. The rabbis of the Talmud taught, we can begin our morning prayers when there is enough light that we can recognize our neighbor’s face. Only when we begin to see each other are we ready to turn to God. Light is the joy of human beings face to face; darkness is the despair of human beings utterly alone.

PARSHAT BO
(5763)

FIRST BORN

“The Lord spoke further to Moses saying, Consecrate to Me every first born, man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.” (Exodus 13:1-2)

Each year on the day before Passover I skip my morning cup of coffee. I will not eat or drink until I attend services and participate in a study session finishing up a selection from the Talmud or another holy book. Then I will join a meal in honor of that moment. By doing so, I avoid the day long fast of the first born.
I am the oldest. And there is that deep knowledge that, had I been an Egyptian in ancient times, I would have fallen victim to the tenth plague. Since the exodus from Egypt, the first born of every family is consecrated to God. I would have had a pidyon haben, a ceremony redeeming the first born, except my mother was a bat kohen, the daughter of a priest.
Every year, from the year he was born until he went off to college, I brought my oldest child with me to the pre-Passover service for the first born. I do not know if he continues to go while away at college, but I certainly hope so. Sometimes when he is home, he reminds us how much stricter we were with him than his younger brother and sister. I admitted that as the first born, we made our share of mistakes with him. But I also reminded him of the sense of privilege at being first born.
I want to share some thoughts from my book God, Love, Sex, and Family about being the oldest child:
First born children are different from last born children, and middle children have their own particular issues. It is the first born who has the greatest displacement when younger children are born. He or she has gone from being the only to sharing mom and dad with another. Firstborns often feel rage and resentment towards younger siblings; they also often experience protective and paternal or maternal feelings. Most firstborns combine some combination of these traits.
Francine Klagsbrun in her book Mixed Blessings writes about a firstborn personality being overcautious and perfectionist. Growing up as the oldest of three boys, I see much of this theory in my own personality. By Torah law, the eldest son does have certain prerogatives. He inherits a double portion, even if he is born of an unloved wife. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17) Later Rabbinic law teaches that a younger sibling should honor an older one in a manner similar to the honoring of parents, particularly when the older sibling has taken a role in raising him or her. (Yoreh Deah 240:22.)
Klagsbrun writes about how later children feel a connection to earlier children; they never knew a world without an older brother or sister. They often behave in a manner similar to the relationship with parents, both imitating older siblings and trying to break away. Looking back at my own two younger broth¬ers during my early years, they often seemed to need me more than I needed them. Part of my own growth and maturity as an adult has been cultivating a relationship with my two younger brothers.
Obviously a child’s place in the birth order can affect that child in profound ways throughout life. Having said that, there is another powerful insight that comes out of the Biblical stories. Birth order is secondary to personal achievement.
One of the most recurrent themes in the Bible is a younger child overtaking or displacing an older one. God accepted the offering of Abel, the younger son, over Cain, the older. Isaac was chosen over his older brother Ishmael. When Rebekah was pregnant with Jacob and Esau, God told her “The older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) Joseph dreamt that all his older siblings would some day bow down to him, a dream that ultimately came true. Jacob blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe, favoring the younger over the older. (Genesis 48:19-20) Jacob reserved his most bountiful blessing for Judah, son number four. Moses, the second son, was chosen to lead the Israelites to freedom. Even David, chosen to be king to the surprise of his father, was the youngest of eight. (I Samuel 16:11-13)
The fact that this theme recurs over and over indicates that the Bible is trying to make an important point. Older children may have certain prerogatives and privileges based on birth. Younger children, however, can earn privileges through worthy deeds. Again to quote Klagsbrun, “The Bible may also be teaching a lesson in showing the triumph of younger over older siblings – nothing in this world is fixed or unchangeable; even the natural order can be reversed.” Biology, in regard to sibling relation¬ships, is not destiny.

PARSHAT BO
(5762)

SIGNS OF LOVE

“And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:16)

The newly released book Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul published a true story I wrote. It tells of how I convinced my mother to accept my decision to become a rabbi. The essence of the tale was an encounter with a little boy in a small town in South Dakota, and my teaching him to put on tefillin (the phylac¬teries or leather boxes containing Biblical verses that Jewish men traditionally wear on their arm and forehead during daily prayer.)
My mother was concerned that as a rabbi I would be more concerned with rituals than with people. Without repeating the details of the story, the tefillin became a symbol of my willing¬ness put the needs of people over the demands of the law. Tefillin in Judaism have always been a symbol of the love between God and the Jewish people. Too many Jews ignore this particular commandment. Often our nursery school children see me wearing tefillin and cry out, ARabbi, what=s that?@ I tell them that they will learn. In our synagogue we require every bar mitzvah boy (and those bat mitzvah girls who so choose) to own and learn to put on tefillin.
According to tradition, when the tefillin straps are wrapped around the finger, we recite the Biblical verse “I will betroth you to myself forever, I will betroth you to myself in righteous-ness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy, I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22) Like a wedding ring, tefillin are the Jewish symbol of love.
This week’s portion mentions tefillin for the first time. It also deals with another powerful symbol, the blood on the doors of the households of the Israelites. When the angel of death went through Egypt, it passed over the households with blood on the door. (Thus, the name of the festival at the center of this week’s portion – Passover.)
If these events had taken place today, I can picture families saying, “Why put blood on our door; it would make a mess. Who needs these old fashioned symbols anyway? We know we are Israelites in our hearts. What is important is what is in our hearts, not some external symbols!” Would their home be passed over? Today Jews do not put blood on our doors like they did in ancient Egypt. But we do put a mezuzah on each door, a small case containing Biblical passages, another symbol of our relationship to God.
Do we need such symbols? In our day it is very sophisti¬cated to say that we do not need symbols to express our love. Our feelings in our heart are what is important. The external signs, the tefillin, mezuzah, Shabbat candles, other ritual items are unnecessary. I remember once meetings with a bride and groom to plan their wedding, and I asked the bride if she had an engagement ring. Her groom said very firmly, “We love each other. We don’t need those external symbols.” When he left the room, the bride told me privately, “He may be right, but I wish he had bought me a ring.”
In truth, human beings need symbols. They need a physical way to express their love. Lovers need to bring each other flowers or cards, or even an occasional piece of jewelry. If we need such material ways to express our love for one another, how much more so do we require material ways to express our love towards God.

PARSHAT BO
(5761)

WE ARE REDEEMERS

“It came to pass that same day that the Lord did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts.” (Exodus 12:51)

This week we read the Torah’s biggest story. God’s redeems His people from Egypt. The Israelites go forth from slavery to freedom. In this portion we meet the God of history, the God who rescues his people. God opens His Ten Commandments with a reminder of this moment AI am the Lord your God Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt from the house of bondage.@ (Exodus 20:2)
This week’s portion describes the festival of Passover, the most observed holiday in the Jewish faith. Jews sit around the festive table at the Passover seder, eating various symbolic foods and retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt. Moses, the human hero of the tale, is mentioned only in passing. God is the redeemer.
God’s redemption of His people becomes the paradigm for all the great redemptions in history. The black slaves in the south used the story as inspiration that they too would find redemp¬tion. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted from the story in his vision of a new promised land. Oppressed Jews in the former Soviet Union found in the story the strength to dream of someday leaving Russia and going to Israel.. Jews throughout the world each and every morning pray to God for the ultimate redemption, calling out to Goel Yisrael B the Redeemer of Israel.
Nonetheless, as we read through the rest of the Bible, God seems to disappear from the picture. The heroes are David , Solomon, and the kings of Israel and Judah, Elijah, Elisha, and the various prophets. Later in the Bible we read the story of Esther, about the redemption of the people Israel from the vicious Haman. In this book, God is not mentioned at all. The redemption is entirely carried out by human beings.
Jews throughout the world celebrate the events of the book of Esther on Purim, which always falls exactly one month before Passover. The two redemptions are linked together in the Jewish calendar. But if the hero of the Passover redemption is God, the hero of the of Purim redemption is human beings. God has faded into the background. Humans have become responsible for their own redemption.
Perhaps this points towards an answer to one of the ques¬tions I have been most asked since I first became a rabbi. Where was God during the holocaust? Why did God not sweep down on the Nazis with ten plagues and lead His people out of war torn Europe? Why was there no crossing of the Red Sea to end World War II and stop the destruction of so many millions? What became of the ancient Biblical God of miracles?
Could it be that God has stepped back and allowed us humans to become our own redeemers. We cannot passively wait for God to save us. We must stand up to evil wherever we see it. We must rescue the oppressed wherever we find them. We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help the poor learn to support them¬selves, rescue captives, heal the sick, comfort the bereaved, and find ways to make this a better world.
Perhaps God has given us humans this responsibility. The events in Egypt were a paradigm for us. Now we must be God=s partners in redeeming the world.
One of the oldest stories says it so well. It was raining, the flood waters were raising, and a very pious man stood praying to God to rescue him. Someone came by in a car and said, “Let me take you to higher ground.” The man replied, “No, God will save me.” The waters grew higher and a boat came, “Let me save you.” The man replied, “No, God will save me.” Finally the waters were covering the roof. A helicopter came over and said, “Climb aboard.” The man replied, “No, God will save me.”
Alas, the man drowned. He went to heaven and poured out his heart before the Holy One. “I was always pious, I prayed, why did You let me drown.” God answered, “What do you want from me. I sent you a car, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter.”
This week we read of God as redeemer. God was merely showing us how. Now we are to become the redeemers.

PARSHAT BO
(5760)

EACH CHILD’S UNIQUENESS

“And you shall explain to your son on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
(Exodus 13:8)

This portion tells the great story of the exodus from Egypt. God brought His people forth from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. It is a moment God commands us to reenact each spring as we gather with our family around the table for the Passover seder. Central to the seder is the booklet we use, the haggada, a word that literally means “the telling.”
The main idea of Passover is telling our children the story of the exodus from Egypt. In fact, this portion commands us no less than three times to tell the story to our children. In case we missed the point, the commandment appears for a fourth time in the book of Deuteronomy. The Torah, which usually uses words sparingly, tells us four times to tell our children. Why?
The haggada itself provides an answer. There are four different kinds of children that sit around the table with us. There is the wise or involved child, the rebellious child (not necessarily wicked as many translations say, but certainly someone who would rather not be there), the simple child, and the child who is still too young to ask. We must tell the story in a way that each of these four children understand.
This simple law provides a profound insight into raising children. There is no such thing as a generic child, and no generic rules of childraising. Every child is unique, and brings his or her own particular needs, personality, strengths, weak-nesses, joys, and challenges.
We must teach our children, but teach in a way that recog¬nizes how each child is an individual. What worked for the older brother may not work for the younger sister. What worked for us when we were children may not work for our children. Or as King Solomon wisely taught us, ” Teach your son according to his way, even when he grows up he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) Every child his or her own unique way of learning about the world, learning the family history, learning values.
There is a classical Rabbinic Midrash (legend) about the brothers Jacob and Esau. They grew up in the same household, went to the same school, and yet when they grew up one gave off a beautiful fragrance and one gave off thorns. Jacob grew up to pursue the values of the Torah; Esau grew up to worship idols. How could these two boys, twins, grow up in the same household, and yet turn out so different?
Perhaps the answer is that they each needed a different kind of education. Perhaps Essau should have gone to a special school that handles boys with special needs. Generic learning is not enough.
We need to look at our own children and say, what makes each of them unique? How can we tell our story in a way that they will understand, learn it, and pass it down someday to their children? How will they learn the values that will make them successful adults? How will they succeed in their education, feel good about themselves, and find their own special path in life? This portion is teaching us to recognize the uniqueness of each of our children.