Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“He [Moses] turned this way and that and saw there was no man, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12)

On March 13, 1964 on the streets of New York City, Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender was beaten and murdered. She cried out several times. According to newspaper reports at the time, 38 people heard her cries, but nobody called the police or tried to intervene. (More recently, questions have arisen about the accuracy of the newspaper accounts.) This was a sad example of what is called “the bystander effect.” People see evil, but they choose not to act. They assume that someone else will take responsibility. So, evil continues unabated.
Towards the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we see the opposite of the bystander effect. Moses, who had grown up to a life of privilege in the home of Pharaoh’s daughter, sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew man. According to the Torah, he looks around and sees there is no person to help. No person could mean that there is nobody around at all. But I prefer the explanation that there is no person willing to take action. There are bystanders but no one is willing to step forward and stop the beating. It was exactly what happened millennia later to poor Kitty Genovese. So, Moses takes action. Moses gets in trouble for his action in slaying the Egyptian taskmaster. It became known in Pharaoh’s household and Moses has to flee for his life.
The Ethics of the Fathers gives Rabban Gamliel’s clear admonition how we are to behave, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Avot 2:5). Of course, the Mishnah uses male language. But we can say it in a non-gendered way, “In a place where no one is willing to act, you should take action.” A similar idea is expressed by the Torah itself where Leviticus’s beautiful holiness code teaches, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16). Do not stand by when your fellow is in trouble.
Of course, taking action has consequences. Moses has to flee before Pharaoh. One thinks of the righteous gentiles who were willing to stand up to the Nazis, many of whom lost their lives. Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, has a special walkway with trees planted in honor of these righteous gentiles. Unfortunately, too many people were followers of the bystander effect, knowing what was happening but refusing to take action. As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
Fortunately, most of us do not live in a world where our lives are endangered if we take action. But the bystander effect is real. According to an article in Psychology Today, the more witnesses to evil, the more responsibility is diffused. Also, the article speaks of social influence. People do not act until they see how others around them act. As a result, too often nobody acts. To quote the article, “The intervention of bystanders is often the only reason why bullying and other crimes cease. The social and behavioral paralysis described by the bystander effect can be reduced with awareness and, in some cases, explicit training.”
Why did God choose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt? There are many possible answers. But perhaps one of the most important is that Moses was unwilling to be a bystander. When he saw evil, he stood up, even at the risk of his own well-being. The article in Psychology Today ends on a positive note. “If you are the victim, pick out one person in the crowd and make eye contact. People’s natural tendencies towards altruism may move them to help if given the chance.”
Sadly, we live in a world where evil seems to proliferate. Our job is to stand up to evil. In doing so, perhaps we can increase the amount of goodness in the world.

“His sister [Miriam] stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.” (Exodus 2:4)
In general, I observe Jewish rituals without major changes. But in recent years my wife and I have added something new to our Passover Seder. In addition to the traditional cup of wine for Elijah, we add a cup of water for Miriam. Miriam, Moses’ older sister, was one of several women who were heroines in the exodus from Egypt. That is the reason the Rabbis called her Miriam HaNeviah, “Miriam the Prophetess.”
The story of Miriam tells the power of Rabbinic Midrash to embellish the Biblical story. The Torah speaks of a man from the tribe of Levi taking a wife from the tribe of Levi and giving birth to baby Moses. But how could that be? Moses already had an older sister Miriam and an older brother Aaron. The Midrashic answer is that the man and woman had separated, and only afterwards came together to give birth to Moses.
Why did they come back together? The Midrash teaches that it was Miriam who convinced them. Pharaoh had declared that all Jewish males born should be cast into the Nile. Unwilling to risk giving birth, Moses’ parents separate. So do all the other Israelite couples. Then Miriam approaches her parents and convinces them that their behavior was mistaken.
According to the Midrash, Miriam tells her parents, “Pharaoh only decreed against the boys, you are decreeing against both boys and girls. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, but if you have no children your decree will not be overturned. Pharaoh’s decree is only in this world, but your decree is also for the World to Come.” Miriam’s passionate words convince her parents to come together. As a result, baby Moses is born.
Of course, we know the story. Moses’ mother hides the baby in a basket and places him in the Nile. The fate of her child is now in God’s hands. But the older sister Miriam takes action. She follows the basket down the river, sees when Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby, and convinces her to find a wet nurse for the baby. Miriam then arranges for Moses’ own mother to nurse the baby, as he grows up in Pharaoh’s household. Of course, as we know, Moses would lead the people from slavery to freedom.
Later the Midrash fills in other stories about Miriam. At the parting of the Sea, she takes the women with tambourines and leads them in their own song of the sea. Much later the Torah reports the death of Miriam. Immediately following her death, the people are without water. This would lead to the story of Moses striking the rock. What was the relationship between Miriam and water? According to the Midrash, she had a magical well that followed her through the wilderness providing water to the Israelites. Miriam’s well was one of the miracles made by God at the eve of creation.
We put a cup of water at our Seder to celebrate the role of Moses’ sister, and remember the role of all of the women responsible for the exodus. We bought a special cup to match our Elijah cup, with a picture of Miriam holding the tambourine. As we begin to read the story of the exodus from Egypt, perhaps it is worthy to remember the older sister who helped make it happen. She was truly a prophet, able to see the future of her actions.

“There arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8)
Pride, Greed. Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, Sloth. Although these have roots in the works of the ancient Greeks, particularly the ethics of Aristotle, the seven deadly sins became central to Christian theology. According to Christianity, humans are born sinful. These are the seven inclinations that lead humanity to sin.
Judaism does not have a doctrine of original sin. Instead, it teaches that humans are born with two inclinations, a yetzer hatov or good inclination, and a yetzer hara or evil inclination. But the fascinating insight of the Rabbinic tradition is that we should serve God with both our inclinations. (See Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:5.) In other words, even our evil inclination can be channeled towards the service of God. Each of the seven deadly sins, with proper self-control, can become a source for good. Let us briefly explore them one by one.
Pride – In this week’s portion we introduce a new Pharaoh, who is the victim of pride out of control. He exemplifies the verse, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall” (Proverbs 16:18). On the other hand, Moses known for his great humility confronts him over and over. But Pharoah in his pride will not back down, bringing destruction on Egypt. A foolish pride causes people to never admit they are wrong or say they are sorry. Such pride destroys families.
But is pride always bad? Jewish tradition teaches that a person should carry in his or her pocket two pieces of paper. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” But the other says, “I am little less than angels.” There are times when we become too proud and need to pull out the first piece of paper. But there are times when we feel too lowly and need to pull out the second piece. To accomplish things in the world, we need to have a sense of pride..
Greed and Lust – I have written in previous messages how Laban, father-in-law, could not control his desire for money. I have also written how King David could not control his sexual appetite. Nonetheless, we need a desire for money and a desire for sex if we are going to earn a living or raise a family. That is why the Rabbis tell the story of capturing the evil inclination. No one married, had children, or went to work. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)
Envy – Leah envies Rachel because she is the beloved of her husband Jacob. Rachel envies Leah because she has multiple children, while Rachel is infertile. The mutual envy causes conflicts between two sisters. That is why the Rabbis taught, “Who is rich? Whoever is happy with their lot.” (Avot 4:1) We should never desire what we do not have until we first appreciate what we do have.
Gluttony – There is a strange story in the Bible (I Samuel 14) about King Saul’s battle with the Philistines. He made his soldiers take a vow to abstain from all food until they were victorious in battle. Saul’s son Jonathan, unaware of the vow, tastes some honey which brightens his eyes. Food is important. The army is victorious, but in their ravenous hunger, they fall on the spoil and eat in a non-kosher way. Saul is convinced that God is punishing them for their gluttony, when the real culprit is Saul’s own son. Perhaps the lesson is the enjoyment of food has a role to play in living a good life.
Wrath – Wrath is anger out of control. This is evident when Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water and is punished by God. But controlled anger has a role to play, particularly in the face of injustice.
Sloth – Over the centuries, Jews have been accused of sloth for their refusal to work on the Sabbath. This continues today in a world where everything is open and available 24/7. One day of rest a week teaches the value of time, resting so we can become productive the other six days. That is why the Talmud teaches, “Rabbi Tarfon says, The day is short, the work is plentiful, the laborers are indolent, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent.” (Avot 2:15)

“There went a man of the house of Levi, and took for his wife a daughter of Levi.” (Exodus 2:1)
Let me begin with a true story. Thessaloniki, Greece once had a thriving Jewish community. At one point the port was even closed on Saturday. Then Hitler attacked Greece and destroyed most of the Jews. One family that survived the Greek Holocaust was the Bourla family. In 1961 they had a baby boy, who received the Hebrew name Yisrael Avraham, the English name Albert. Albert grew up and studied veterinary medicine in Greece.
Eventually he moved to the United States, married a Jewish woman named Miriam and raised two Jewish children. He switched careers to the pharmaceutical industry, worked his way up, and eventually became the head of global vaccines for Pfizer. Today Albert Bouria, this son of Holocaust survivors, is the CEO of Pfizer, the company that created the first COVID-19 vaccine. If all goes according to plan, Evelyn and I will receive shots of the Pfizer vaccine in a few hours.
Imagine if Albert’s parents, living in the ruins of the Holocaust, had said that it is too dangerous to bring children into the world. How can we risk subjecting a child to another Holocaust? I often hear that sentiment. With the threat of global warming, nuclear holocaust, and racial violence, how can we bring children into this world? My answer is that having children is an act of faith.
Nowhere is that point presented more clearly than in a famous Midrash about Miriam, based on this week’s portion (Sota 12a). The Torah said that a man from the house of Levi took a wife from the house of Levi and gave birth to baby. The baby was named Moses. But we know that Moses had an older sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron. According to the Midrash, when Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys should be drowned in the Nile, the man separated from his wife. At that point all the Israelite men separated from their wives. Better to bring no children into the world.
Miriam was a young girl when she challenged her parents. “Pharaoh only decreed against baby boys, but you have decreed against both boys and girls. Pharaoh only decreed against life in this world, but you have decreed against this world and the world to come. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, but your decree cannot be overturned.” Miriam convinced her parents to come back together, and Moses was born of that union. Miriam then followed Moses as he floated down the Nile in a basket, watched as Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him, and arranged Moses’ birth mother to become his wet nurse. For these actions she is called Miriam the Prophetess.
The Rabbis elaborated on the wonderful deeds of Miriam. She took the women aside after the crossing of the sea, playing a tambourine as she led them in song. While Moses taught the men Torah, Miriam taught the women Torah. Perhaps the most famous Midrash, she had a well to provide water for the people Israel in their journey through the desert. Today many Jews place a cup of water for Miriam alongside the cup of wine for Elijah at the Passover seder. But it was Miriam who convinced her parents to have a baby, even as Pharaoh threatened all the baby boys.
Having children during difficult times is a sign of hope in the future. Atlantic Magazine has an article this month on having babies during the current pandemic. The difficulties of childbirth are many, including finding healthcare in overcrowded hospitals and the effect of both the virus and the vaccine on pregnancy. The article contains words that reflect our Midrash. “Even in the darkest days of the pandemic, new life has found a way. But COVID-19 has made this most basic of human endeavors more fraught and more dangerous this year, everywhere the disease has touched.”
Our tradition teaches that having a baby during difficult times is an act of faith in the future. We never know if that baby will grow up to be a Moses, or an Albert Bouria.


“But the midwives feared God and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive.”  (Exodus 1:17)

It is a coincidence of the calendar that this year we read the beginning of the book of Exodus on the same weekend that we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.  King’s life reflects a theme found in the first chapter of Exodus, the importance of civil disobedience.  One is not obligated to obey an unjust law.

King wrote in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”  When governments pass laws that are cruel or that undermine human dignity, we are not obligated to obey such laws.  We ought to disobey such laws, in a non-violent way, but disobey them none-the-less.  Even if it means we must spend time in jail for disobeying such a law, we must disobey and accept the consequences of our actions.  This was the great lesson of Rosa Parks who refused to give up a seat in the front of a Montgomery bus.

Long before King, the great medieval Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote about the difference between natural law and positive law.  Natural law is the moral law we know through human reason and human experience.  Positive law includes all codes passed by government decree.  When a natural law clashes with a positive law, a law known by human reason clashes with a law passed by a government authority, the natural law always takes precedent.  As a Catholic, Aquinas believed we have a duty to disobey unjust laws.

In the nineteenth century Henry David Thoreau wrote a series of essays that became a book called Civil Disobedience.   Among the points Thoreau makes is that the protest must be against a particular law rather than law in general, one must be prepared to accept the consequences of such disobedience including jail time, and perhaps most important, one must be non-violent.  From Aquinas to Thoreau to King, civil disobedience became one of the great ideas in human intellectual history.  Governments do often pass laws that are immoral. And moral human beings have a duty to disobey them.

What is the root of this idea of civil disobedience?  It goes back to the Bible itself.  Pharaoh proclaims a law that all male Jewish babies must be killed, but female babies may be saved.  The two leading midwives Shifra and Puah refuse to obey Pharaoh’s cruel law.  When challenged by Pharaoh, the women claim that Hebrew women are strong and able to give birth without a midwife.  The women set a courageous example of refusing to obey an unjust law.  Later Pharaoh will try a different approach, casting all Hebrew male babies into the Nile to drown.  Moses’s mother Yocheved and sister Miriam refuse to obey the law, instead sending baby Moses down the Nile in a basket.  Later the Midrash will teach that Yocheved and Miriam are the same two women Shifra and Puah.  Perhaps, but I prefer to see them as separate women, multiplying the number of heroic women.

Our tradition says that one should always pray for the government.  I remember when I visited the former Soviet Union and went to synagogue Shabbat morning, we said a prayer for the government of the Soviet Union.  It was tradition, even if the government often acted in a brutal, immoral way.  Nonetheless, Russian Jews who practiced civil disobedience began a movement which led to many Jews eventually fleeing Soviet oppression.  We pray for the government, but we disobey unjust laws passed by that same government.

Sadly, from Pharaoh to the Jim Crow era in the deep South to the former Soviet Union to our own day, governments pass unjust laws.  Civil disobedience is the key to overturning such unjust laws.  Fortunately. in every generation, there are people who bravely disobey such laws and suffer the consequences.  May God continue to give such people the gift of courage.

“Pharaoh said, Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2)
A few weeks ago I saw the stage production of The King and I, one of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. Besides the beautiful music, it tells the true story from the 1860’s of Anna and the King of Siam. The is a proud ruler of his nation, who hires a feisty school teacher from Wales to teach his many children. The strength of the story is how the king and the school teacher finally learn to like and respect each other. The king is a proud man with many outdated beliefs, but as his chief wife sings, “Now and then he says something wonderful.”
Is pride bad? If the king were not a proud, occasionally stubborn man, the story would not work. If he were a meek man, not only would the story lose its power, but he probably could not stay in power. How fascinating to compare this story to another confrontation between a proud king and a challenging adversary. Pharaoh is a proud man, too proud. It takes ten terrible plagues which decimates his country before he finally swallows his pride, to use a cliché, and lets the Israelites go. Even then he changes his mind and pursues the Israelites. His pride is too strong for him to admit he is wrong and let the people go.
On the other hand, Moses who confronts Pharaoh is a humble man. The Torah considers him the humblest man alive. “The man Moses was very humble, more than any other men who were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). The humble man confronted the proud man, and in the end the humble man won. Perhaps there is something to the Biblical saying that “Pride comes before the fall” (based on Proverbs 16:18). There is a reason why Christianity considers pride one of the seven deadly sins (the others are envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth.)
The Rabbis identify excessive pride such as that of Pharaoh with the yetzer hara – the evil inclination. God brought the ten plagues on Egypt to finally break Pharaoh’s pride. Sadly, it was the Egyptian people who suffered along with Pharaoh. Controlling excessive pride is a fundamental Jewish value. For example, I often meet people who believe they are never wrong. They will never apologize. Even if they know they are wrong, their pride prevents them from ever admitting it or apologizing. Such people are impossible to deal with. Pride needs to be controlled.
But having said that, is pride necessarily all bad? Jewish tradition speaks about how the rabbis captured the evil inclination and put it in a barrel. They found that nobody went go to work, nobody married, and even no chicken laid an egg. They had to let the evil inclination go. We need the evil inclination including pride. The object is not to remove pride altogether but learn to get our pride under control. Even Freud recognized this. For Freud, the id is our inner drives and the id under control (Freud used the word sublimated) is how we accomplish anything. We need pride under control. The King and I works because the king of Siam is willing to swallow some of his pride at the urging of a Welch school teacher. But he admired Abraham Lincoln, a man with enough pride to save a divided nation.
People without pride allow people to step all over them. In Yiddish there is a word for someone like that, they become a shmatta, literally a rag. They lack any sense of self-worth, of seeing any importance in themselves. Modesty is a worthy value. Feeling you are a nothing, a mere rag, is destructive. We need pride, but pride under control. When we feel that we are a nothing, we need to remember that “God made us little less than angels” (Psalms 8:6). Too much pride destroyed Pharaoh, but not enough pride can destroy each of us. The trick is finding the balance.

“There arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
It is a time of new beginnings. We are beginning a new book of the Bible, telling the new story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. It is a new year, at least in the secular calendar. Even my synagogue is getting a new president and new officers and trustees. Many of us are using the new year to renew our lives. We make resolutions about eating healthier, getting more exercise, spending more time with our families, taking on a new skill, or perhaps writing that book that has always been inside us. But as Rabbi Ishmael famously said “all beginnings are difficult” (Mechilta de Rabbi Ishamel, HaHodesh 2).
Moses certainly learns the difficulties of the new task he is about to take on. That is why, when God tells him from a Burning Bush to approach Pharaoh and tell him, “let my people go,” Moses uses every excuse to try to avoid that task. He is slow of speech, the people will not believe him, they do not know who God is. But Moses has no choice. He must obey God and begin the task.
Moses does confront Pharaoh but immediately faces setbacks. And by the end of this week’s portion, Pharaoh has made the slaves work even harder. He will no longer give them straw, they must collect their own. The slaves are ready to rebel against Moses. Moses must have felt like a failure. The exodus story is beginning, and all beginnings are hard.
Moses had his failures. But perhaps the strength of Moses was that he did not allow those failures to discourage him. He kept going back to Pharaoh and trying again and again to let his people go. It took ten terrible plagues, but in the end Moses succeeded. He brought the people from slavery to freedom. Later Moses would then have to lead the people through the desert for forty years. He often came close to giving up, finding the people extremely difficult. But in the end, he brought the people within sight of the Promised Land. Perhaps the strength of Moses was that he did not give up.
Whenever we begin something new, whether it is a new job, a new relationship, or a new life style change, there will be setbacks and failures. It is vital not to give up. The British author Neil Gaiman famously wrote a piece called My New Year’s Wish at the beginning of 2012. It is worth quoting him at length. “I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”
All beginnings are hard. Moses begins an extremely hard project, but he persists until he succeeds. He makes mistakes and has setbacks. But he keeps going. As we begin this new year of 2018 I hope you will begin a new project, a new life style change, a new challenge. And I hope you will persist through setbacks and failures. The Rabbis said that “all beginnings are difficult.” But perhaps even more difficult is to not begin at all.

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)
I know what almost every rabbi in the country, if not the world, will be speaking about this week. They will quote the verse above about a new Pharaoh in Egypt who did not know Joseph. Then they will speak about a new president who did not know ________, fill in the blank.
Some rabbis will attack the president on his first day in office. He will be called a bigot and every other name under the sun. Already there are groups of rabbis calling for a boycott of the inauguration and demanding Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to refuse to give his blessing at the inauguration. Personally, I believe this is foolish. This is the president of the United States, and for Jews to boycott him shows a disrespect for the office. I am well aware of the saying “it is not the place who makes the man but the man who makes the place.” Nonetheless, boycott an inauguration of the president of the United States is, in my humble opinion, an insult to the office.
For every rabbi who is attacking President Trump, there is another rabbi who is praising him. Numerous rabbis have said that he will be a much better friend of Israel than the previous administration, that he will move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and that he will not put up with the constant United Nations attacks on Israel. I hope all of these things are true. It saddens me that in recent years support for Israel has become a partisan issue in the United States. I always thought that the United States supports Israel because of our shared values, and because Israel faces a true threat to its existence and legitimacy.
This past presidential election was different from any I remember. I had people in my congregation who were passionate in their hatred of Trump. Some people called on us to a sit shiva when he won the election. I had other people in my congregation who were passionate supporters of Trump. Some are planning to go to the inauguration. However one feels, Mr. Trump won the majority of electoral votes and will be inaugurated. He will be our president. And it is time to put the fighting and the insults behind us.
So what do I expect of the new president. I do not expect perfection. Even Moses, who we meet for the first time in this week’s portion, was far from perfect. Nor do I expect to agree with him on every issue. Decent people of good will do disagree. What I expect from the president is vision. The Bible teaches, “Where there is no vision a people perish” (Proverbs 29:18), I would like a carefully articulated statement about where he would like to see our nation go.
If Trump used me as his speech writer (he has not), here is part of what I would say. As Americans we can disagree on many policy issues. We can have different points of view on healthcare, immigration, fighting terrorism, dealing with Russia, and yes, Mideast peace. But as Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, white, black, Hispanic, or Asian, there is one issue on which we all agree. Every human being is born with a fundamental dignity. Because of that fundamental dignity, every human being has certain unalienable rights. This idea goes back to the beginning of the Enlightenment, to Thomas Jefferson, and before him John Locke. But the idea of human dignity goes back even farther, to the Bible itself, which teaches that humans are created in the image of God. In my mind, a presidential vision must begin with a declaration of human dignity. If this teaching can be his guidepost, I believe that the president will do a good job leading our nation.
Meanwhile, I can only follow the advice of the Rabbis in Pirkei Avot, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without its fear, people would swallow each other alive.” (Avot 3:2). I pray for the welfare of President Trump as he takes office this weekend. May he lead our country forward with dignity and wisdom. And may he begin to unite our deeply divided nation.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2)
In March I will be taking a group of teens to New York City for three days. One of the highlights of our annual tour is a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the huge complex of buildings on Broadway and 122 St. on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That is where I lived and studied to become a rabbi and where our hazzan studied to become a cantor. Over the gates of the building is the seminary logo with the words in Hebrew – hasnei ainenu uchal “the bush was not consumed.”
The verse comes from this week’s portion. Moses is living a happy, peaceful life as a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flocks. One day he spots a burning bush, a bush on fire but not consumed. He walks over to see this wonder, and hears the voice of God. He is to go back down to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, telling him to let the Israelites go from slavery. Moses is a most reluctant prophet; he finds every excuse he can to avoid going. But in the end, when God talks, people listen. Moses will go back down to Egypt and begin the great confrontation with Pharaoh. It all begins with a lowly bush that burned but was not consumed.
What is the meaning of this image? The Bible sees it as a miracle. All things that burn are consumed. In fact, all material things are eventually consumed. All material goods must eventually break down. Scientists call it entropy. If we assume, as many people do today, that everything in the universe is material, then everything will eventually be consumed. So what is the symbolism of a bush that is not consumed? Perhaps the Torah is trying to tell us that there are some things that have no material explanation, some things that are beyond the material. There are things in this world that are eternal and are never consumed.
I believe this message is what the Jewish Theological Seminary had in mind when it chose as its logo the verse “the bush was not consumed.” The Seminary is a center of Torah learning. Whatever happens on earth, the study of Torah will never stop. In fact the Rabbis, when in a rather mystical spirit, taught that the Torah existed before the universe was created, it will exist throughout history, and it will be there when the universe is no more. The seminary celebrates Torah scholarship which is eternal, which will never disappear.
What else exists that can never wear away? The frequent answer I hear is love. True love ought to be eternal, or at least so the poets say. The Biblical book Song of Songs teaches, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (Song of Songs 8:7) To quote a more modern source, there is the great Gershwin standard that George composed shortly before his death and Ira wrote the lyrics after George died, “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble. They’re only made of clay. But our love is here to stay.” At a time where so many marriages seem so fragile, if only these words could be true.
I believe that at the heart of any religious faith is the search for the eternal, what exists that will never be consumed. Jewish learning is certainly one such thing, as is true love. I believe there is something else that is eternal – the human soul. Too often I have visited someone in the hospital who is very sick. Perhaps their body is being ravaged by cancer or some other disease. I listen to them, and then I try to share a thought. “There is a part of you that the cancer cannot touch. Yes you have a body, and the body may be diseased. We pray for healing. But there is a part of you that goes beyond your body. You have a soul or a spirit. There is a part of you that is eternal.” I do not know if they words bring comfort, but I hope that they do.
Moses saw something that was eternal in a bush when he heard the voice of God telling him his mission. The Jewish Theological Seminary sees something eternal in the quest for learning. People find something eternal when they declare their undying love for one another. And each of us humans is made up of a material body, but something more, a spirit. We each have part of us that will not be consumed.

“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush. Moses, Moses, and he answered, Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)
This week we begin a new book of the Torah – Exodus – and we read about the great narrative that defined the people Israel. God chooses Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. It is an overwhelming task and Moses is a reluctant prophet. When God confronts him from a burning bush, Moses reaction is to send someone else. But Moses has been chosen and must fulfill God’s mission to him.
Imagine if Moses’ mission had been planned in a corporate boardroom rather than from a burning bush. Over the years I have sat through enough strategy and long term planning meetings of organizations to know how corporate leaders plan strategy. Many of them use what is often called a S.W.O.T. analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. What if a corporate look group of Israelite elders did such an analysis of Moses? Would they have chosen him?
Strengths – Perhaps Moses’ greatest strength is that he had no tolerance for evil. When an Egyptian taskmaster was beating an Israelite slave, Moses looked to see if anyone would come to the rescue. When there was “no man” to quote the Torah, Moses intervened himself. He did so in spite of the fact that he was a man of privilege, raised in the household of Pharaoh by Pharaoh’s daughter. Later he intervened to stop a fight between two Israelites. Then he intervened a third time to stop an attack on the daughters of the priest of Midian.
The man who must confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites from slavery must be a man with a passion for overcoming injustice. It does not matter if he is slow of speech. Even through countless setbacks and delays, he must see the evil and continue with his task.
Weaknesses – Moses greatest weakness is directly tied to his greatest strength. He is a man who has difficulty controlling his anger. Patience and tolerance of the people, particularly after they start complaining, are not in Moses’ nature. Eventually Moses will hit his limit of the people’s complaints. Rather than speak to a rock as God commands, he will strike the rock with his staff and rebuke the people. That will force the end of his leadership; another person will be chosen to bring the people to the land. The same part of Moses’ personality which has no patience for evil also has no patience for the complaining people. How often are our strengths and weaknesses mirror images of one another.
Opportunities – Opportunities come from the outside. In Moses’ case opportunity comes from a burning bush, which burns but is not consumed. Moses learns exactly what God wants him to do. Of course he is reluctant, turning down God several times. But when God gives someone a mission, it is their task to step forward and say, “Here I am.” This is true not just for Moses but for each of us. God gives us a mission, or perhaps several missions in life. Our job is to step forward. Clarity, knowing what is expected of us, what we were sent to this earth to accomplish, is perhaps our greatest opportunity in life. Moses was given that clarity.
Threats – If knowing his mission was Moses’ greatest opportunity, than ignoring his family was his greatest threat. The moment he begins his trip back to Egypt, he ignores his family responsibilities. He never circumcises his oldest son Gershom; his wife Tziporrah takes on that task. Later Tziporrah’s father would tell his son-in-law Moses that he had taken on too many responsibilities. He was ignoring his wife and two sons. Perhaps the reason that Moses’ two sons Gershom and Eliezer disappear from the story is that, without a strong fatherly presence, they are not as successful in life. Years of counseling families have convinced me that a strong family life is a vital ingredient for success in one’s mission.
So was Moses the right man for the job. He was far from perfect. He had anger problems and could ignore his family. But he had clarity of vision. And he had no patience for evil. These qualities made him the right man for the job. The people Israel left Egypt, received the Torah, and became the Jewish people because of this man Moses, who we call our greatest prophet.

“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them, they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)
Mention “civil disobedience” and many images come to mind: Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus; blacks attempting to integrate “white only” lunch counters; Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. writing from a Birmingham jail; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with King and proclaiming, “I am praying with my feet”; Mahatma Gandhi peacefully standing up to British colonialism in India. Each of these is an inspiring image to those who would stand up to unjust and immoral laws.
Nonetheless, the history of civil disobedience is far more ancient. It reaches back to this week’s portion, describing events under Pharaoh’s rule in ancient Egypt. Pharaoh orders all male babies born to the Israelite slaves to immediately be killed. Two midwives, Shifra and Puah, refuse to obey Pharaoh’s orders. When they are brought before Pharaoh and asked why they are disobedient, they tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are strong and have babies without midwives. The Bible sees these two midwives as God-fearing women.
Who were Shifra and Puah? The Rabbinic Midrash cannot imagine that two such important women were simply unknown heroines. They identify them with Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. But of course, this is not in the text. I prefer to see them as two ordinary women who were willing to risk everything to obey a higher authority. Perhaps they were two Israelite women who helped their fellow Israelites during the birthing process. Or even a better explanation, perhaps they were two Egyptian women who refused to follow the orders of their own political leader. This would be an outstanding example of civil disobedience.
It is worth looking in greater detail at the issue of civil disobedience. Most of us can agree that the government has the right to establish laws. It is part of social contract theory, where the government is established by the community through a social contract to prevent anarchy and violence from reigning. Such a social contract theory was developed by such Enlightenment thinkers as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. But the idea of government laws meant to keep the peace has roots in Rabbinic literature. Pirkei Avot teaches, “Rabbi Chanina, the chief of the priests said, pray for the welfare of the ruling power, since without the fear of them, humans would swallow one another alive.” (Avot 3:2) We need governments, and the laws that governments make.
Certainly it is proper that people obey the law. However, sometimes laws are unjust. Sometimes laws discriminate. And often evil policies take on the force of law, for example, slavery in the United States. There are higher laws that overrule government laws. Often we use the phrase “natural law” to refer to these higher laws, laws that we know by human reason. In fact, the great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas developed an entire theory of natural law that at times can overrule any government laws. Natural law is extremely influential in the Catholic Church, less so in Judaism. But Judaism still teaches that there are laws that we know by human reason, laws that reach all the way back to the covenant God made with Noah.
Civil disobedience means answering to a higher law, and refusing to obey an unjust law passed by a government. It means disobeying the law in a non-violent way. And as Gandhi and King both understood, it means being willing to suffer the consequences of that unjust law, even if it meant going to jail. The advocate of civil disobedience is willing to say, quoting a famous ad campaign, “we answer to a higher authority.”
The midwives of our story knew that murder is wrong. They knew that every human being, even the newborn male babies of a slave people, deserved to be treated with human dignity. These two women, about whom we know nothing, introduced civil disobedience to the world. Unjust and immoral laws will not be obeyed. If only everybody would follow their example.

“The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” (Exodus 2:23-24)
I saw the movie Les Miserables the day it opened and I loved it. I had long been a great fan of the musical, seeing it twice on the stage and listening to the complete concert album on my Ipod. But the movie version added a new dimension to the classic tale, based on Victor Hugo’s novel. What I liked is exactly what the critics disliked – the close-ups. On the stage the audience is naturally somewhat distant from the action. But on film, we can see the actors close up (critics said too close) making the story even more powerful.
A few people asked me whether there was any Jewish content to the movie. On the surface I would say “no.” Even Thenardier’s one line about a Jew in the stage play was left out of the movie. And yet I found a deep theme tied to this week’s Biblical portion, which begins the story of the Exodus. Can the fate of human beings change as the Bible teaches? Or are we bound by the past as the ancient pagans taught?
This disagreement became the central theme of the conflict between the two main characters of the show. Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman in the movie, represents a man tortured by his past. He has been imprisoned for nineteen years as a thief, and when on parole he flees. He tries and eventually succeeds in building a new life for himself. And in doing so, he becomes a changed man. He becomes a factory owner, the mayor of town, and then raises as his own the orphaned daughter of one of his factory workers Fantine (powerfully played by Anne Hathaway.)
Valjean’s nemesis is the French magistrate Javert, played in the movie by Russell Crowe. Javert pursues Valjean with the hope of bringing him back to jail. In his most stirring song, Stars, he speaks of the stars in the night sky as sentinels lighting the path we are to go. Stars are unchanging in the night. And to fall away from the proper path is to burn in flames. To Javert, like the ancient pagans, the stars never deviate or move from their place. Perhaps it was Aristotle who most famously wrote that the stars represent a world that is unchanging, as opposed to the world down on earth which is constantly in flux.
One of my favorite scenes in the show is the final confrontation between Valjean and Javert. Javert has already said to Valjean, “men like you can never change.” Valjean finally answers back to Javert, “You are wrong, and always have been wrong.” People can change. We are not like stars, set in our place and forever unchanging. People can and do change. (It was Galileo who first used a telescope to discover that even stars change. This is one of the reasons he was persecuted by the Church. But that is a different story.)
The clash between Javert and Valjean was exactly the clash between the ancient pagans and the Hebrew Bible. To Javert and the pagans, everything is fixed. Once a thief, always a thief. Once a slave, always a slave. Going from slavery to freedom was unheard of. The pagans believed in eternal return, whatever happened in the past will always come back again. On the other hand, to Valjean and the Hebrew Bible, redemption is possible. A thief can become an honest man. A slave can become free. The past does not dictate the future. There is no eternal return.
And so this movie musical which never mentions Jews or Judaism has the most Jewish of themes. It tells the story of the exodus, of change, of a man rebuilding himself as a new human being. This is precisely the message that the Hebrew Bible gave the world. Even today we all need to hear it. People can be transformed. And the world can be transformed.


“Come therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)
This week we begin a new book of the Bible – Exodus or in Hebrew, Shmot. And with this new book, we begin a new theme. Exodus tells the great story of redemption, the move from slavery to freedom. The story of the redemption from Egypt became the paradigmatic story of redemption throughout history. Jews in the Middle Ages told the story with dreams of being freed from the oppression and anti-Semitism of the ghetto. Blacks in the American south used the story to sing of freedom from slavery. They sang spirituals like “Go down Moses, down into Egypt land, tell ole Pharaoh, let my people go.” In our modern times, twelve step programs use the language of redemption to speak of moving from the slavery of addiction. The Exodus was not a onetime event, but a crucial story in understanding our humanity.
Who is responsible for this redemption? Of course the simple answer is God. According to our prayerbook, God is the Redeemer of Israel. On the Passover Seder we tell our children how God led us out from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Central to the Jewish faith is a belief in a God Who works within history, leading His people to redemption.
However, there is another question. Did God work alone? Or did God have partners in redemption? Humans are not passive; God used humans to act in a way that would lead to redemption. God calls to Moses from a burning bush to confront Pharaoh and let the Israelites go. But even Moses cannot work alone. His brother Aaron acts as his mouthpiece and speaks for him. Perhaps most fascinating is the role of the women in the redemption story. I have often taught that if it were not for six women in particular, we would still be slaves in Egypt. (Here is a great question for the Shabbat table – who were these six women? Email me if you want the answer.)
This brings me to the heart of the Exodus story – God uses human beings to bring about redemption. Certainly we see the role of God in the plagues and the parting of the sea, but much of the work is done by human beings. Later in history God will step back and let humans do all the redemptive work. (This is the theme of the book of Esther, where God disappears altogether and leaves the redemption to Mordecai and Esther.) At the center of the Jewish vision is that we humans are God’s partners in redeeming the world.
What about our sister religion Christianity. I say these words with a deep respect for my Christian friends and neighbors. But this is an area where our faiths part company. We are reading this portion on Christmas day, a powerful holiday for Christians in the Western tradition. (Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on a different day.) I love the music, lights, and mood of Christmas as much as anyone. But Christmas celebrates the birth of a man who Christians consider their redeemer.
From a Christian perspective, human beings are sinners. We are too depraved to bring about our redemption. We need the birth of someone who is both human and divine, someone who will act as the Messiah, to bring about that redemption. Humans cannot do it themselves. Jews do not celebrate Christmas because we take a very different view of humanity. Yes, we speak of the coming of the Messiah. But the Messiah will only come when we humans prepare the world for his coming. We have the power, the ability, and the responsibility to bring about the redemption.
In fact, some have suggested a very radical idea. Perhaps we humans are the Messiah. Perhaps each and every human being has a piece in the bringing about the coming of redemption. Perhaps the central question is not “when will redemption come,” but rather “what is my role in the ultimate coming of redemption?” Perhaps each of us must ask, “What part can I play in perfecting this world as a kingdom of God?


“There went a man of the house of Levi, and took for his wife a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a handsome child, she hid him three months.” (Exodus 2:1-2)

As we begin the exodus story, this is a perfect time to share one of my favorite Midrashim (Rabbinic interpretations). A man from the house of Levi (Amram) took a woman from the house of Levi (Yocheved) and gave birth to a son – Moses. Moses would become the savior of the Israelites. But something is missing from the story; what about the two older children Miriam and Aaron? Why is their birth not mentioned?
The Rabbis taught in the Midrash that Amram and Yocheved had the children earlier, but when Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys would be thrown into the Nile, they separated. They did not want to chance giving birth to a baby who would be murdered by Pharaoh. When they separated, all the other Israelite couples separated; no babies were born. It was a serious situation for the Hebrews.
The Midrash continues that Miriam approached her father and said, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed against the boys, you decreed against both boys and girls. Pharaoh decreed only in this world, you decreed in this world and the world to come. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, your decree (not having children at all) cannot be overturned. Miriam convinced her father to remarry her mother, and so Moses was born. (Sota 12a) In a certain sense, it was the older sister Miriam who was the savior of the Israelites.
The lesson of this wonderful Midrash is a profound one. When times are rough and everything appears hopeless, it is not proper to give up. It is vital to keep on living. Keep having babies and raising them, keep going to work, keep trying to find moments to enjoy life. I am always amazed how Jews in the ghettos, enduring the Nazi horror, somehow found a way to established classes and orchestras and theater groups. They were able to keep living even as death hovered over them. The 23rd Psalm teaches, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm for you are with me.” (Psalms 23:4) As terrible as the world seems now, we must walk on through the valley; we will arrive at the other end.
I often counsel people who feel hopeless about their lives. They are depressed; they have given up. The future seems bleak. It may be an illness or a financial crisis or family tension that gives them this sense of hopelessness. But they cannot keep moving; they feel frozen. Psychologists say one of the sure signs of clinical depression is the inability to get out of bed in the morning. When adversity hits, some of us stop in our tracks. We say “why bother,” “what’s the use,” “all is lost.” Therapists tell people suffering from such a sense of hopelessness to get out of bed, get dressed, and try to start the day. Find a way to keep moving.
This is the lesson of the beautiful Midrash about Miriam. No matter how hopeless everything seems, it is important to keep moving on. Do not stop having children or trying to raise them. Do not stop working or trying to find a job. Do not stop trying to rebuild broken relationships. Do not stop playing, listening to music, going to the theater, working out, and finding whatever joy life has to offer. As bleak as things seem, when we pick up and keep going we can find hope.
In my work I have seen true healing from hopeless situations. I have seen people turn their lives around and make a fresh start. I have seen people change their financial situation for the better. I have even seen people find a cure for terrible diseases, or if not a complete cure, at least a sense of purpose and hopefulness once again. The entire exodus story is a vision of going from slavery to freedom, from hopelessness to new hope. It is a story of moving on. And perhaps it all began with a simple story of a girl telling her parents, “Do not give up. Get back together and have a baby.” Perhaps she had an intuition that this baby would one day become the savior of her people.



“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them, they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

Saturday night I brought my Confirmation class (tenth graders) to the movies to see Valkyrie. Based on actual events, it tells the story of a courageous nearly-successful attempt on Hitler’s life. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Clause von Stauffenberg who was able to set off an explosion next to Hitler. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances shown in the movie, Hitler survived while Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators were captured and put to death. (I am not giving away any movie secrets here; it is a well-known historical fact that Hitler survived various assassination attempts including this one.)
What struck me and the teens who joined me was how a human being can have the courage to stand up and do the right thing, even when it means putting his or her life on the line. This is the theme of the portion we read this week, as we begin to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Several times various people stand up to injustice and evil, risking death to do try to do the right thing.
The first such act of courage is by the two midwives Shifrah and Puah. They refuse to obey Pharaoh’s orders to put to death every male Israelite child. It is unclear from the text whether these two women were Jewish or gentile, although the Midrash claims they were Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. But I prefer to see them as two anonymous women, probably Egyptians, who had a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong and who were prepared to do the right thing. It was history’s first act of civil disobedience.
Moses also proves himself in a moment of courage. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster brutally beating an Israelite slave. As the adopted grandson of Pharaoh he could have walked away from these events. But he could not stand by when he saw evil. “He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) When people found out about Moses’ action, he had to flee for his life.
Later, Moses and his brother Aaron would return and bravely stand before Pharaoh. They would speak in the name of God the famous words, “Let my people go.” Again it takes courage to stand up to evil, possibly putting one’s life on the line. Moses and Aaron become role models through history of people prepared to stand up and do the right thing. If you visit Yad VaShem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, there is a whole walkway in honor of the righteous gentiles who put their lives on the line to rescue Jews from the Nazis.
Why do the right thing? The great philosopher Immanuel Kant attempted to come up with a secular understanding of why people should take an ethical stand. He called his philosophy the categorical imperative. According to Kant, individuals have the freedom and autonomy to make a choice regarding their actions. When it comes to ethics a person should always follow this law: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” In other words, we should act only in a way that we wish to see everybody act. This is a philosophical attempt to restate the golden rule, which is at the root of every great religion.
Fortunately, most of us are not in a position where we have to decide whether to stand up to evil, whether to Pharaoh or Hitler. But most of us at some time in our lives must take an action that is unpopular, simply because we believe it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we need to make a choice, even if it means risking our livelihood or our friendships. Part of the inspiration of our faith is to stand up and do the right thing, even when it is difficult. At times like this, we can only pray that God will bless us with courage.


“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush, Moses! Moses! He answered, here I am.”
(Exodus 3:4)

The burning bush is at the center of this week’s reading. Moses had settled down to a comfortable life as a married man, a father, and a shepherd. Then he sees a bush which is burning but not consumed. God calls to Moses from the bush. Go before Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelites go. Moses finds every excuse not to go. Nobody will believe him. He stutters. There must be somebody more qualified. But Moses has received his call and he has no choice but to go forward. As the prophet Amos teaches, “My Lord God has spoken, who cannot prophecy” (Amos 3:8).
The events of this portion were not a one time occurrence. Each one of us sometime in our life experiences what Moses experienced. We feel a call. We hear a voice. It often resonates deep within our soul. There is something we must do with our lives, a mission we must begin. It may be something big – a journey to a far off place, a new career or business, a new relationship. It may be smaller – a project for a charitable cause, an article we must write, a new skill we must learn, a spiritual commitment to our faith. It may be major and life transforming – taking in a foster child or going back to college. Or it might be small – a new change in life style. But when we feel the call, we must respond.
Like Moses, we also come up with excuses. The excuse may be old fashioned sexual, racial, or ethnic stereotypes. “This is not a job for a woman.” “Men do not go into that profession.” “People of our kind do not pursue this kind of work.” (To my fellow Jews, I quote my colleague Rabbi Mark Zimmerman who spoke in our synagogue last Shabbat. “Jews can go into any profession they want, except perhaps being a professional football or basketball player. But they can own the team.”)
The excuse I hear most often from people who are reluctant to follow their calling is age. “When I was young I would have pursued my dream. But now I am too old.” I remember a letter a correspondent wrote to one of the advice columnists, perhaps Dear Abby. “When I was young I dreamed of being a doctor. But now I know that by the time I finish Medical School in four years I will be in my late forties.” Abby’s answer, “If you do not go to Medical School, how old will you be in four years?” Age does not matter. I realized this each week as I pursue my PhD studies. My fellow students could be my kids. Most of my professors are younger than me. But I am hardly the oldest student. There are some graduate students well into their senior years. I am convinced ongoing learning keeps them young.
Another excuse I hear for not following one’s calling is money. “I would love to pursue this dream, but how can I afford it?” It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. Somehow you must have the faith that if there is something you must pursue, something God wants you to do, God will make the resources available. More than once in the synagogue an idea has come to me for a project. But the project was not in our budget – how could I possibly afford it? Suddenly out of the blue a surprise donation came across my desk. “Rabbi, use this for a worthy project.” It is amazing how God provides when we least expect it. If that is true for our congregational life, it is also true for our personal lives. Perhaps there is a mentor, a sponsor, someone to help us accomplish what God put us in the world to do.
Over the years I have returned many times to the theme of our personal calling, our personal mission. We are not in this world by random chance. We are born into a particular family, into a particular time and place, with particular talents and inclinations, for a purpose. We may not experience anything quite as dramatic as a burning bush that is not consumed. But many of us, at various times in our lives, feel a deep inner calling. There is something we must accomplish while we are in this world. Like Moses, we can find excuses. But like Moses, in the end we must pursue our calling. When God calls to us from within the depths of our souls, we must answer with the words of the Bible, “Here I am.”



“Then Pharaoh charged all his people saying, every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
(Exodus 1:22)

I went to see Steven Spielberg’s newest movie Munich. In truth, I went in expecting to hate it. I found it more moving and less anti-Israel than I expected. But then, could the man who made Schindler’s List and who is a committed Jew really make an anti-Israel movie? I think the movie was much more about how violence creates the breakdown of civilization. It brought home through Spielberg’s storytelling and Tony Kushner’s writing talent the moral ambiguities of Israel’s fight against vicious enemies.
The movie begins with the murder of the eleven Israel athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972. Although it happened more than thirty years ago, I find the tragedy of that moment still fresh in my mind. The heart of the movie is a fictionalized account of what happened next, although “based on true events” according to the opening sequence. Golda Meir sends a team of agents led by Avner (played by Eric Bana) to avenge the deaths by murdering the Palestinians involved. What begins as a simple morality tale, vengeance against evil, turns much murkier as the story unfolds. Murder leads to murder, with double crosses and violence on both sides. Avner begins to doubt both the efficacy and morality of his mission. Without giving away the ending, I will say that his love of Israel is called into question.
Was Israel justified in murdering the agents who carried out the Munich massacre? One could ask the same question today. Is Israel justified in targeted assassinations against the terrorist leaders responsible for bombings of busses and cafes? For that matter, is the United States justified going after terrorist groups who planned the 9/11 attack on our soil? One could easily argue that all of these acts are justified, particularly if they prevent future terrorism. But what the movie tries to show is how quickly the veneer of civilization disappears as violence intensifies. Murder leads to murder in an ever escalating violence, and suddenly the lines between good and evil are not so black and white.
There is a thin veneer between civilization and anarchy. The morality which prevents humans from harming one another can be so swiftly destroyed. Here in my community of Fort Lauderdale we are dealing with a painful issue, an issue which made national news this week. Three teenage boys went on a rampage, beating up homeless men. Two men ended up in the hospital; one died. Fortunately the three boys were identified and arrested before they could commit more acts of evil. They are young people who bragged to their friends about their attacks on the homeless. Now they will likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. To these boys, the homeless ceased to be human. How quickly civilization breaks down? How easy is it for evil to boil to the surface?
History teaches that people are certainly capable of great evil. In last week’s Torah portion the Israelites were the honored guests in Egypt. In this week’s Torah portion, four generations later, the Egyptians order all Israelite newborn boys cast into the Nile. So it is in every generation. Suddenly evil appears, human beings murder other human beings, and the society spirals downwards into anarchy. What was true in ancient Egypt is equally true today.
How do we maintain our civilization when there is such potential for evil? I believe that is part of the role of religion. Religion, if practiced properly (and that is a big if), makes us better human beings. It teaches us to open our eyes to the other. In the movie, one of the Israeli assassin team shares the well-known classical Midrash from Jewish tradition. The Egyptians were drowning in the sea and the angels started singing. God reprimanded them. “My children are drowning and you sing praises.” Even the Egyptians are God’s children. The Midrash ends there, but in the movie it is not over. The Israeli assassin continues his own version of the Midrash. The angels argued back with God; when God’s children are as evil as the Egyptians, they deserve to drown.
The Egyptians treated us with great evil. Yet later the Torah would teach, “You shall not loathe an Egyptian; because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) We build civilization when we see the humanity of the other. Never is it more difficult than when the other is the enemy. And yet, God expects of us nothing less.


“God called to him out of the bush, Moses, Moses, and he answered, Here I am.”
(Exodus 3:4)

I finally was able to see the third installment of The Lord of the Rings at the movies, called The Return of the King. I have been a fan of J. R. R. Tokien’s great trilogy since I first read them as a teenager. It was a joy to see powerful film making as the story was transferred to the screen. (However, one caveat – if one is filming a three and a half hour movie, there ought to be an intermission in the middle for those of us who cannot sit that long.)
The story is one of the great myths of literature. A reluctant hero, in this case the Hobbit Frodo, is called away from his day to day peaceful life and sent on a difficult quest. He overcomes numerous obstacles, both external and internal, to successfully complete the quest – (in this case, to destroy the ring.) He is successful, but even in his success he is profoundly changed. He can never go back and live the life he once lived.
The story of Frodo the Hobbit and the ring is a classical myth. By myth, I do not mean something make believe. On the contrary, a myth teaches profound truths about the human condition. A myth may not be literally true, but it reflects a real human truth. A person is called on a quest, reluctantly leaves, faces great personal dangers, eventually succeeds, and is forever changed by the experience.
In a sense, this week’s portion is built around the same myth. (Again, a myth is not necessarily a falsehood. It may be literally true, but it always reflects human truths.) Moses was a very successful family man, married, working as a shepherd, raising two sons, far from his birthplace in Egypt, and seemingly satisfied with his life. One day he spotted a bush which burned but was not consumed. He approached the bush to see what a wonder it was. God called to him from the bush, sending him on a quest. He would appear before Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out of Egypt from slavery to freedom. Moses tried every argument to avoid the quest. He stuttered and could not speak, the people would not believe him. He begged God to send someone else. But when God sends you on a quest, it is difficult to say no.
Over the coming weeks, the fortunes of Moses will go up and down. Pharaoh responded to Moses’ plea by making the lives of the Israelite slaves even harsher. At times Moses despaired of ever completing his task. But in the end, he led the Israelites out of slavery to freedom, let them to Mt. Sinai, and became the great lawgiver. However, he was also profoundly changed by the experience. In a few weeks, we will read how Moses’ face gave off rays of light, so people could not look at him directly. He never became a family man again. (According to the Midrash, he actually separated from his wife, and he was never much of a father to his two sons. In fact, a few years ago I wrote a piece about Moses called The Anti-Family Man.) It is the same story as Frodo and the ring. This should not be surprising, for J.R.R. Tolkien was a deeply religious Christian, who saw his epic as reflecting truths about good and evil in the world.
There is something universal about this myth. Each of us is all called to a quest or mission in our lives. Often we have to leave what is familiar or comfortable to succeed at our particular mission. We face obstacles and setbacks, and are often discouraged. In the end, we succeed. However, the quest itself changes us in profound ways. We are never the same person we were before we began our mission.
Our particular quests may not be the material for great works of literature. We may not be called to destroy a ring of evil, or to lead a people from slavery to freedom. It may be something simpler, raising a particular child, starting a particular business, doing some act of goodness in the world, pursuing some God-given talent or gift. But in pursuing our particular quest, we come out changed. Perhaps that is the reason why this myth is so appealing. In the end, The Lord of the Rings is not about Frodo and the book of Exodus is not about Moses. Both are about us.



AHe turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.@ (Exodus 2:12)

Is there room for anger in the world? Recently I read a book review of a new book by a writer from one of the Eastern spiritual traditions. The book speaks of the importance of serenity and the evil of anger. The book offers a utopian view of a world with no anger.
The book reminds me of an ancient Rabbinic legend. The rabbis captured the evil inclination (our fundamental appetites, including our appetite for anger) and placed the inclination in a barrel. For three days nothing happened, no chicken even laid an egg. (Yoma 69a) We need our appetites, including our appetite for anger. This is clearly demonstrated in one of the most important scenes from this week=s Torah portion.
Moses walked out among his people, and came across an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave. Moses looked this way and that way, but saw nobody. In a moment of anger, Moses rose up and slew the Egyptian, hiding his body in the sand. The word went out of Moses= deed, and Moses was eventually forced to flee from Egypt.
The exact words of the Hebrew are that AMoses looked this way and that way, and saw that there was no man.@ People were around when these events took place. Egyptians were present, but saw nothing evil in an Egyptian beating an Israelite. After all, the Israelites were mere slaves. Israelites were around, but none had the courage to act. A wrong was being perpetrated, but nobody was willing to stand up for what was right. As Hillel so aptly taught, AIn a place where there is no man, strive to be a man.@ (Avot 2:5) (Note B By the word man, we are not talking about gender here, but the willingness to stand up and do the right thing.)
This was the moment when Moses proved his ability to lead the Israelites. He was not willing to tolerate oppression or injustice. Later he would stand up at the well to rescue Tziporrah and her sisters from intruders. Moses used his anger to stand up against evil. At the center of Moses vision for the Jewish people is the need to fight oppression wherever it is found.
What would happen if there was no anger in the world? People would see injustice and calmly go about their business. Serenity would rule. Nobody would work to end oppression, to fight for the underdog, to help those in need. People would see a bully harassing the weak, and calmly walk by. Nobody would stand up for justice, and the world would remain a place of evil.
God made anger for a purpose. Anger motivates us to fight injustice. Certainly anger must be controlled. Eventually out-of-control anger would lead to the downfall of Moses, when he cried out against the people and hit the rock with his staff. But controlled anger, anger directed towards fighting evil and oppression, is key to perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.
Perhaps this view of anger demonstrates something deeper, the difference between Jewish tradition and the popular Eastern spiritual traditions. Eastern traditions focus on escape from this world. (What does nirvana really mean?) The Jewish spiritual tradition concentrates on perfecting this world. In a tradition that concentrates on this world, there is room for controlled anger. It is the only way we humans will be motivated to fight injustice.



AThe midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.@ (Exodus 1:17)

A major news story broke here in Florida last week that even made national headlines. A local cemetery Menorah Gardens faced legal action for unlawfully removing bodies so that new bodies could be buried in the same places. Sometimes the bodies were buried on top of one another, and sometimes according to allegations, the remains were dumped in the woods.
At a cemetery were I have performed countless burials, it is hard to conceive of this disrespect to the living and the dead. Greed blinds the eye. I pray that if the accusations prove true, the cemetery and its corporate owners face the justice they deserve.
Having said that, an issue bothers me. Why would employees obey orders to dig up human remains and rebury or discard them? When someone gives an illegal or immoral order, one is permitted to disregard the order. And if that causes someone to put their job on the line, that is the consequence of being a decent, moral human being.
A man once came to me for counseling. He was an accountant who faced a dilemma at work. He was asked to keep two very different sets of books, one with accurate numbers, the other with numbers fixed to show government authorities. He said that by keeping the books this way, he was breaking the ethical demands of his profession and putting his own good name on the line. However, he also told me that the job paid well, he had a family to support, and accounting jobs were hard to come by. What should he do?
I told him that I understood his predicament. Then I said, AYou need to get up each morning, look in the mirror, and ask yourself, are you happy with whom you see? Can you face your children and see yourself as a role model?@ He told me Ano.@ AThen you need to quit and find another job.@
We are not obligated to follow our boss=s orders if they are illegal or immoral. Nor are we obligated to follow government orders if they go against a greater law. This was the great lesson of such teachers as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. There is an ultimate authority then demands our loyalty, and when some lesser authority makes demands that contradict the higher authority, the lesser authority must give way.
Civil disobedience is one of the lessons of the first chapter in Exodus. Shiphrah and Puah were two midwives who helped the birth of Hebrew babies. (It is unclear from the story whether they were Hebrews or Egyptians. The story is even more powerful if we assume they were Egyptians.) Pharaoh commanded them to kill all male babies born, and to allow only female babies to live. The women refused. When Pharaoh challenged them, they replied, ABecause the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.@ (Exodus 1:19) Pharaoh backed down from his order.
Not everyone who stands up to authority is allowed to survive. The Nazis killed anyone suspected of harboring or rescuing Jews. Nonetheless, on the walkway to Yad ve Shem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, there are rows and rows of trees planted for righteous gentiles who put their lives on the line to rescue Jews. Many of them were deeply religious Christians who felt that rescuing Jews was part of their faith.
To stand up to authority takes courage. Certainly it takes courage when one=s livelihood is on the line. And how much more so, it takes courage when one=s very life is on the line. Yet brave individuals from Biblical times until our own day have stood up to authority, whether their boss or the government, and refused to carry out an illegal order.
Where do people get the courage to put their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives on the line? To paraphrase the popular Hebrew National commercial, sometimes people need to say, AI answer to a Higher Authority.@



AAn angel of the Lord appeared to (Moses) in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.@
(Exodus 3:2)

I saw an enjoyable movie recently called Family Man. Nicolas Cage plays a very wealthy stock trader enjoying the good life of a single man in Manhattan. He has fine suits, an expensive car, a luxury apartment, and a string of one night stands. He is so obsessed with his career that he forces his entire staff to work on Christmas because a large merger is eminent.
Cage=s life is turned upside down when he wakes up in a parallel world. He has married his college sweetheart, is the father of two children, and is living a middle class life working in his father-in-law=s tire store. The trappings of the rich Manhattan life are as far away as the moon. One does not have to go to many movies to guess which life style Cage will choose in the end.
As I watched the movie, I thought about this week=s portion. It might be called Anti-Family Man. Moses is living the comfortable suburban life in Midian, far from the cultural center of Egypt. He is married, with a child and one on the way, and working in his father-in-law=s business as a shepherd. Moses= life is turned upset down when, in the middle of his shepherding duties, he comes across a burning bush. The bush burns but is not consumed.
God speaks to Moses out of the bush. He must leave Midian, go down to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses argues with God; he is absolutely content with the shepherding, suburban life style. But shepherding flocks is not Moses= calling. God had a mission for Moses back in Egypt, and when God calls, Moses must listen.
At first, Moses does take his family along on the return trip to Egypt. In fact, Moses= wife Tziporrah circumcises their son on the way. However, in the end, the family returns to Midian and Moses continues his mission alone. They are reunited much later. Family would never again be important to Moses. In fact, the midrash teaches that Moses separated from his wife. We hear absolutely nothing about Moses= two sons, and can assume that he was not an ongoing presence in their lives.
Those of you who read my messages on a regular basis know that finding our mission in life is one of my most important themes. God gives each of us a unique calling to perform during the days we live on this earth. Our calling may not come to us out of a bush like Moses. But it does burn within us and is not consumed.
Those of you who read my messages on a regular basis know that our commitment to family is one of my most important themes. My most recent book God, Love, Sex, and Family focused on this issue. Our spouse and our children desperately need our ongoing presence their lives.
This raises a difficult question. What if our commitment to family conflicts with our commitment to our life mission? How do we balance our unique calling to do God=s work in this world with our unique role as husband or wife, father or mother? What happens when family commitments prevent us from pursuing our dream? On the other hand, what happens when pursuing our dream causes us to neglect our family?
I am not looking for a facile answer. It is easy to say that on our death bed, we all wish we had spent more time with our family. (I often quote this.) However, I have met people with wonderful family lives who have told me on their death bed, they wish they had pursued some inner calling.
In the movie, Cage slowly falls in love with his family. However, he still dreams of moving to Wall Street and pursuing the career in finance. He is offered a job at his old Wall Street firm, but his wife does not want to give up her comfortable house in New Jersey to move to Manhattan, nor lose her husband to a three hour a day commute. In a beautiful scene, the wife played by Tea Leoni told her husband, if this career is what he wants, she will go with him As much as she loves her suburban life, she loves him more.
Can we support our family members as they pursue their individual callings? Can we say to our spouse, I believe in you? Perhaps that is the way to walk the tightrope between our life=s mission and our family. Moses could not walk that tightrope. Can we?



“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them, they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

There is a cute, although somewhat politically incorrect story. The mayor of a large town and his wife pull into a service station to fill up with gasoline. A man comes out to fill their tank who knew them both in high school. In fact, the mayor’s wife used to date him.
The mayor chides his wife. “Aren’t you glad you married me and not him, a mere gas station attendant?” The mayor’s wife looks back at her husband and says in a stern voice, “If I had married him instead of you, he would have been the mayor.”
This story of a woman’s responsibility for her husband’s success strikes us as somewhat dated in this age of feminism and egalitarianism. Today she would probably become the mayor herself. However, there is still a often unrecognized truth behind this story. Many men owe much of their professional success to their wives.
A classical Talmudic story speaks of the greatest rabbi of his generation, Akiba. For the first forty years of his life, he was an ignorant shepherd. His wife Rachel recognized Akiba’s potential and encouraged him to go off and learn. She worked to support their family while he studied, even selling her hair when finances became tight. Akiba was successful with his studies, and reentered his hometown followed by students and admirers. When his wife approached him, he pulled her to his side and said, “All that I am I owe to her.”
In contemporary society the story might have developed differently. Rachel would have dismissed her husband as an underachiever, divorced him, and gone on to become a rabbi herself. The image of the woman who steps back from her own career to help her husband succeed strikes us as somewhat old fashioned, if not downright sexist. We look at a couple as prominent as President Bill and Hillary Clinton and wonder why she gave up her lucrative law career to play a supporting role in her husband’s presidency. No wonder so many are cheering her on to enter politics herself.
Still, in this age of greater choices for women, there are some women who choose to focus on their husbands’ careers and play a key role in their husbands’ professional success. They are literally the power behind the throne.
The main actor in this week’s portion was Moses. Yet, there are at least six women behind the scenes who contribute to Moses’ success. Without these women, we would probably still be slaves in Egypt.
Two women, Shifra and Puah, refused to kill the Hebrew babies, defying the order of Pharaoh and placing their lives in danger. Moses’ mother Yocheved hid the baby in a basket and sacrified her own motherhood to save her son’s life. Moses’ sister Miriam followed the baby to make sure he was all right. According to a classical Midrash (Rabbinic legend), Miriam convinced her parents to come back together when they separated following Pharaoh’s decree.
Pharaoh’s daughter rescued baby Moses and raised him in her household. Later when Moses married, he became deathly ill for neglecting to circumcise his son. His wife Tziporah took a flint and performed the circumcision. Six women, and probably countless others, were the hidden heroines in the exodus story.
It is common to say that women in Biblical times were powerless, mere chattel in the hands of the their husbands or fathers. This week’s portion shows another side of the story. Often women are the true powers behind the throne. And so today, it is worth honoring the role of many women in the professional success of their husbands.