Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Speech at The UN for Interfaith Harmony Week on Building Bridges

There is something important that the spiritual needs to say to the political, and it begins with a story from the Book of Numbers. When the Israelites were very close to entering the Promised Land, the prophet Moses sent messengers to the surrounding nations to ask permission for the Israelites to pass through their lands. He promised that the Israelites would stay on the main road, that they would not eat their food or drink their water, and that if they did, that they would pay for them. Not one nation agreed, and a few of them attacked or threatened to attack. This story, seen through the lens of our understanding, actually provides the paradigm of a perfect world. If all the nations had cooperated, everyone would have benefited. They would have become allies and friends; there would have been trade and commerce, prosperity and enough resources for all. Instead there was death, destruction of crops and property, illness, privation, war, and loss of land.

This story gives us a glimpse of how the world is really supposed to work. When we cooperate and help each other, with kindness, compassion, generosity, and caring, there is more for everyone. It shows that there is not a finite amount of resources, but that through cooperation and friendship, there is enough for all. There is a miraculous component to all of this, and it’s been said that there is no religion at all without miracles. We know we share one earth. On a spiritual basis we share one life and one soul. This is our deeper reality. However, we humans also share a common problem: that we look separate from one another. Our 5 senses tell us where I end and where you begin. But there is a deeper reality: that we are all connected to each other and to the great Oneness of existence that some call God. As such, we are part of each other, all brothers and sisters for each other. If we could shake hands and exchange our protoplasm, our cell matter, in a spiritual handshake, we would understand this. There is truly no Us and no Them: only Us.

Since we are all One, the energies of giving to each other create more goodness and plenty in the system, activating the spiritual forces which allow all of us to be in the great cycle of giving and receiving. Similarly, should I harm you, it is like putting a knife into my own heart. The Chassidic masters in Judaism taught that blessings will flow to us as long as we don’t prevent those blessings from reaching us, by a failure to live out of the deeper reality that we are all One. We are already a part of each other. Our task is to shift our consciousness, our inner dialogue, away from purely linear and logical thinking, so that we can include the spiritual in our deliberations, and begin to live out of the truth that we are One. The bible says, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I always wish that it had added, because your neighbor IS yourself. The bridges between us already exist. It is up to us to realize this truth and to take concrete action to make these bridges real.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Higher Purpose

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Go for yourself. The portion relates God’s call to Abram, his going forth out of Mesopotamia to Canaan. It contains God’s promises that the land will be given to Abraham’s descendants, the birth of Ishmael, and the prophecy of the birth of Isaac, the covenant between God and Abram in which Abram and Sarai receive their new names, Abraham and Sarah, culminating in their promise to worship only God, and the rite of circumcision.

There is a wonderful account here (Gen. 15) of a prior covenant between God and Abram, before he becomes Abraham, called the covenant between the pieces. In a vision, God tells Abram that his reward will be very great. Abram responds that he has no children to inherit anything he receives and God reassures him that he will have offspring. The Eternal promises Abram the land of Canaan for the 3rd time, and Abram asks God how he will know that he’ll inherit it. God very tenderly proposes that they make a treaty just as if God were a real human person.

If we think of all the promises that God made to Abraham, from the beginning of this chapter, they include many material rewards: children and many descendants, prosperity, land, security in that God will bless those who bless Abram and curse those who curse him, and also fame. In verse 7 (15:7) God says, I am God who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.” All by itself, it is an unremarkable verse, but seen against the backdrop of the rest of the Torah, in which God says, I am God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, over 30 times, the verse speaks to us differently from it’s plain meaning.

It recalls a story I once read from a book I don’t have anymore. It went something like this: one day the lord of the manor summoned one of his workers to ask him to fetch water in a very large bucket and bring him the water. The worker took the bucket and tried to fill it, but the bucket had many small leaks and it was impossible to fulfill his master’s request. He filled it again and again, but in vain, the water would not remain in the bucket. The man brought the bucket back to his master in deep frustration and said, I tried and tried but could not bring you water in this bucket. The lord smiled kindly at him and said gently, I really didn’t want the water. What I wanted was to have the bucket cleaned.

This story gives us a peek into the relationship between God and Abram. God seems to offer Abram many material blessings, but really, God has other rewards in mind. God wants to take Abram out – out of his family, out of his native land, and out of himself, to discover a higher, more spiritual, holier self. We are all being taken out of one place and being led to another. Wherever we are now, God is leading us out of that place en route to our better selves, not always to a physical place, but sometimes that does occur: a place where new experiences, possibilities of change, and opportunities to be a blessing will be found. As it is said in the midrash: “I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. So shall the king desire your beauty (ib. 12), to make you glorious in the world. (Gen. 39:1,3)… this refers to Abraham, who united the whole world for us, like a person who sews a tear together.”

The midrash teaches us that this elevation is not done just for our enjoyment or to bless us alone. Our relationship with God is for a higher purpose, to unify the world and elevate all our relationships thereby. May we know that all that comes to us must serve that higher purpose, and that in addition, the Eternal Holy One is constantly trying to send us personal blessings along the way.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Life, Death, and the Evolution of Human Consciousness

There is an old Jewish story in the Midrash in which the question is asked, what has God been doing since creation was completed? The answer given is: God has been busy making marriages. Only marriages? someone asks, and the reply is given: Is there anything more difficult? (Numb. Rabbah 3:6) Yes, I think there is something much more difficult, requiring much more of God’s time and attention: it is bringing the world, bringing us, forward from where we are to where we need to be. We human beings are God’s big project.

The very first commandment in the Torah is: Be fruitful and multiply: p’ru u’r’vu. We can understand being fruitful in our lives as doing much more than having children. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says that carrying out this first commandment allows us to be able to discharge all the other commandments. This makes sense, and I think there is an additional reason for this commandment. Some of you have heard me speak about the evolution of human consciousness. I explain this to myself with the image of a beach. I am standing on a beach at the water’s edge looking at the horizon. Those born after me: the 12 year old Bar & Bat Mitzvah kids I teach who were born after me, are standing well into the water. They can see a farther horizon than the horizon I can see. Those born before me are standing up the beach. They can’t see as far as the horizon I can see. This image is also useful in that it helps me not to make others who hold different opinions wrong, as the reality they see is different from my reality. So one reason we are to be fruitful and multiply is to bring human consciousness forward.

Each one of us is born with talents and challenges in our personalities. There are things we are good at, things that we are not good at, things we like about ourselves and other things we dislike. There are things we are born knowing. Some people refer to children who seem to know things at an early age, as old souls. There are other things that may take us many years to learn. During my lifetime I may, through learning and my experiences, take a step or two into the water and see just a little farther than I did when I was born. If I am lucky and blessed I may be able to take an extra step or two. There are things I’ll never be able to see, that people 300 years from now will know just by being born at that time.

For example, in the 18th century, the great founder of chassidism called Baal Shem Tov thought he could hasten the coming of the Messiah by bringing all Jews into a state of goodness and purity. 300 years later, not only sages but all of us know that the time of peace and harmony can’t come about until all people on the earth, not just Jewish people, participate in this tremendous change.

The Torah reading for this morning begins by mentioning the death of Aaron’s two sons. God asks Moses to tell his brother Aaron, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest: Aaron “shall not come at all times into the sanctuary within the curtain in front of the ark cover so that he should not die.” Why is Aaron being cautioned? Perhaps it’s because his job was dangerous. In addition, I think it was so that Aaron could have the time to accomplish the soul work he was given to do in his personality. Aaron allowed the Israelites to build the Golden Calf, and God subsequently put Aaron in a highly structured and ritualized job to give him the opportunity to see that certain things are not acceptable – keeping the peace at any cost after having agreed, in the 10 Commandments, to abandon idol worship is not acceptable. He was to learn a certain kind of moral scrupulousness, a refinement of his integrity which was hard for him, just because he was such a people person with a need to be liked. Similarly, as in the Cain and Abel story, God did not destroy Cain for having killed Abel. God sent Cain off to learn, to give him the time to refine away the selfishness and hatred in his personality.

The Chassidic Masters taught there is nothing but God, which is expressed by the Apter Rebbe, Abraham Joshua Heschl of Apt, who said, “there is only the ever present of God knowing and understanding God’s self.” Earlier than that, a poet in 12th century France took similar ideas from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and wrote the piyut, the sacred poem I sang last night at the Kol Nidre service: Ki Hineh vachomer: Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are we in your hand.” In a sense, we are on a trip we didn’t plan with people we may not have selected, and with inner baggage we didn’t pack. No wonder we are often bewildered by life.

In today’s Torah reading the 19th Century sage Malbim called attention to the man described as a designated person, the one who was assigned the task of conducting the scapegoat to the wilderness. We too are designated people -- with a task – to accomplish the soul learning we were meant to do. And we experience two contradictory tugs at us: we yearn for union with the Divine, for a deep happiness and contentment: an improvement in our lives and in ourselves-- and -- we are often unwilling to change. Again we can visit Cain and Abel. God told Cain, “surely if you improve yourself you will be forgiven, but if you don’t, sin rests at the door, its desire is toward you yet you can conquer it.” The entire Torah exists to help us accomplish our soul tasks and to show and urge us how to treat each other better; to care more, to find happiness in service and kindness. Yom Kippur actually encourages us in this endeavor in two ways: by helping us to focus on the communal and also in the letting go of the ego-self, what the Chassidic sage S’fat Emet calls negating ourselves before God.

What would negating ourselves and caring more look like? We might have to strive to give up a certain kind of self-centeredness that comes from the way we appear to each other, as if we are all separate and discontinuous beings. We might have to give up that world view for the way the Torah tells us it really is, that there is a deeper connectedness to God and each other than can be seen or apprehended with our five senses. The world can only change for the better if WE go forward. It all depends on us. This puts life and death in a different light. The Torah intimates an afterlife in at least three separate places: where Abraham is buried in one place and it says “he was gathered to his people,” who were buried a thousand miles away, so that being gathered to his people has to mean his soul was gathered to his people. Also, when Rachel died the Torah says “her soul departed,” and in Deuteronomy it says, baruch atah b’voecha u’ varuch atah b’zetcha, blessed are you in our coming and blessed are you in your going out.

If there is an evolution of human consciousness, that can be observed, (which I spoke about from a spiritual perspective in my Rosh Hashanah sermon of September of 2011), and which the Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote about from a scholarly perspective in his 2011 book, published just after my sermon, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, proving that we are becoming kinder and gentler, then our soul learning is being passed on in some way to the next generations. This means that death can be seen as our giving back to the universe. Death is our gift to life. During our lifetime we are bringing the world forward. Then, in death, we release that soul learning to the Universe.

May we know that by being here on Yom Kippur and participating in this process of atonement, we are helping to accomplish our soul tasks. We are clay, and we are the hands of God, going forward, so the world can go forward toward the Oneness and harmony that existed before creation. May each of us know how vitally important we are in accomplishing the tasks we have been given and may each of us be greatly blessed for a healthy and good life of forward motion in this New Year!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Flowing in the Zone - Rosh Hashanah 2015

In the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Claremont University Graduate School psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about a phenomenon many athletes describe as being "in the Zone." This has been written about for more than 30 years. He described this “flow” as a state in which people “are completely absorbed in an activity, especially one which involves creativity. During this peak time they feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, un-selfconscious, and at the height of their abilities.” They often “lose track of time and external concerns or stimuli, feel connected to something greater than themselves, and report having their ability and attention challenged but not overwhelmed in the completion of a task.” He studied flow because he was curious about what makes people happy, and his research suggests that being in the Zone applies across cultures and activities. You may be thinking, what has this to do with Judaism?

The Torah begins, B’reisheet bara Elohim, which is translated, in the beginning of God’s creating. In these first 3 words of Torah there is motion. The undifferentiated God essence is already creating, even before we come into the story, before we have contact with or knowledge of the Divine. God whose name is the verb, 'being or existence' may not only be a thing, but may be understood as process, and even more, as a creating process. Rabbi Zalman Shacter Selomi, who passed away this year, said in his book Paradigm Shift, “God is a verb. He went on to say: “Our current understanding of process requires that we create an interactive, not passive or active form of verb. The flag does not wave in the wind the wind does not wave the flag. The flag and wind are inter-waving.” One of his protegees, Rabbi David Cooper, wrote a book with the title, God is a Verb.

The movement of creation is very familiar to us. We live it. We know there is motion all around us: the earth turns, the wind blows, the air vibrates, our hearts beat, and we breathe. We never stop moving and creating, thinking and feeling. God and the Universe are all about motion and flow. This may seem obvious, however the constant creative movement of God and all life has something important to teach us. My favorite sage, the 19th Century S’fat Emet taught that we have to prepare ourselves to be a vessel in which God’s essence, which he speaks of as Torah light, can be contained” This wonderful teaching from about 100 years ago still instructs and delights; yet it feels a little static 100 years later. If God is process and not thing, then surely we have to be a different kind of vessel, a vessel for flow, allowing God Goodness to be expressed through us; a prism allowing God’s light energy to shine through us.

The Talmud speaks about this motion, saying “Mercy is a wheel that turns” (Betza 16a). On Shabbat, in the Lecha Dodi prayer from the 16th Century, we sing “ki hi makor ha-b’racha,” that Shabbat is a flowing spring of blessings; and a famous Chassidic kabbalist of the mid 18th Century Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk, wrote about pipelines of blessings, or Shefa, which is flow. He said, “when we fall from our spiritual level lacking trust in our Creator, who is the true provider…we cause a blemish in the higher worlds…this disrupts the shefa. God then has to re-command or reconnect the flow of blessings anew, so that it can flow again" (Noam Elimelech, P. 201). This teaching is a slightly more modern approach, but perhaps we can go farther still.

Here is another understanding. Someone once said, people have been making money for thousands of years. Where did it all go? This quip tells us that having things and holding on to things is not the ideal state. Of course we need a place to live, we need food each day, loving friends and other relationships, a plan to provide for our elder years. However beyond the basic necessities, all else, such as: kindness, love, compassion, even money and possessions, are supposed to pass through us. Holding on to too much can stop the flow that is the natural order of things: life as it was meant to be. Looked at from a slightly different perspective, flow can also be about our ability to change and grow. It is easy for us to get stuck in who we think we are. The God-state of flow tells us that movement, becoming – is where we should always be. If we stop the flow of God’s goodness as it is expressed through our becoming, we prevent that goodness from being expressed in the world. Making a stoppage actually creates a lack of some kind. Anger and hatred, selfishness, hoarding, revenge, grudges, all the negative things mentioned in Kedoshim, the Holiness Code, Leviticus, Chapter 19, are a stopping of the flow, the God-ing to use a word that Rabbi Shacter Sheomi said. We are supposed to be agents of flow, allowing and helping all things to come through us as we ourselves are going forward in the flow. In this way we can be of help to each other and the whole world.

In the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, which will be read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, what is often missed is the amount of reassurance and help God gave to Abraham going into his test. God promised him numerous times that he would have many descendants, God told him twice that these descendants would come through Isaac. When Abraham asked if Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed if there were 10 righteous people there, God reassured him that God cares about and protects the righteous. And God kept every promise of prosperity, protection and offspring to Abraham. Going into the test, Abraham held the paradox, Isaac will have many descendants, on the one hand, and Kill Isaac on the other hand. They could not both be true. By giving Abraham this paradox, the Torah teaches us that God helps us with every choice, arranging the circumstances and guiding us so we can choose correctly, so that we keep moving forward, and keep growing in goodness.

How does one get to the zone? Of course it takes preparation. Athletes train for years to experience it occasionally. And it can be experienced spiritually too, but that also takes effort and much preparation, and patience. In a sense, living in the zone, sometimes, is our birthright. It is an unfathomable gift from the Divine. On the second day of creation God separated the physical universe from the spiritual universe. This is also what Maimonides taught. The Zone is not ordinarily accessible all the time, but by dint of our own energy and commitment, if one longs for a better way, we can live in the flow by being part of the flow, by living in consonance with its structure, by expressing it. Just like love, the spiritual currency of the universe, when we begin the flow of love, we have the possibility of experiencing its gifts. In this New Year, may we be agents of flow, clear prisms allowing God light to shine through us and helping us to move forward. May we be giving of ourselves, which is ultimately to ourselves. May we use our Energy not to withhold, but to keep it flowing, that goodness will flow to all those we touch and also out into the world.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Paradigm of a Perfect World

Originally published by T'Ruah, Rabbis for Human Rights

Chukat, from the Book of Numbers, describes Moses and the Israelites’ journey as they were nearing the Promised Land, and provides two starkly different visions. Moses sent emissaries, first to the King of Edom, then to the Canaanite King of Arad, and to Sihon, King of the Amorites. Moses made them this offer: “Let us pass, I pray you, through your country; we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, nor will we drink well water; we will go by the kings highway, we will not turn to the right nor to the left, until we have passed your borders… The people of Israel said to him, We will go by the highway; and if I and my cattle drink of your water, then I will pay for it; I will do you no injury, only pass through on foot.” (Num. 20:17, 19) Midrash Rabbah emphasizes the generosity of Israel’s offer: “Moses said to Edom: We have a well with us and we eat manna, yet, do not suppose that we shall give you only trouble. You will make a profit for yourself!’…God spoke to Moses in the same way: You shall purchase food of them for money ([Deut. II, 6] Numbers Rabbah XIX:15).

We are told that the Edomites, descendants of Esau, the Canaanites, the Amorites and also the people of King Og of Bashan attacked the Israelites, not permitting them to pass through their land. It is notable that the Torah begins this section by emphasizing the connection between Israel and Edom, saying that Israel was Edom’s “brother.” Right away we can place ourselves in this metaphor – we are all connected to each other, every person is our brother, our sister. But the King of Edom was either ruled by fear or resistant to change, or he couldn’t be bothered to help his figurative brother. He is all supposed self-interest, even when his people stand to benefit by making money selling food and water to the Israelites.

Had the Israelites been permitted to pass through these lands, everyone would have benefitted: the people of those nations would have made a profit. Both sides would have gained an ally and the Israelites would have reached their destination sooner, with fewer problems, and much more ease. Instead there was war. People died and crops were destroyed. The nations made the Israelites their enemies. Their cities were captured and because of these battles, there was destruction and privation.

These starkly contrasting possibilities provide a teaching: the Source of Life structured the world so that when we cooperate and help each other, there is enough for everyone. No one need experience any lack. This is the paradigm of a harmonious and perfect world. It is the world as it was designed to operate, a world of one-ness where we know of our connection to each other and to God. The Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschl of Apt wrote: “When we purify our thoughts and only allow spiritual thoughts of the Divine in our mind we connect…to the highest level of spiritual knowledge and we purify the breath that comes from the heart and connects it to the heavenly breath, the Divine understanding, which emanates holiness to all the spiritual worlds. And as we purify our voice we connect to the Divine Voice….And finally when we connect our speech, we complete God.” (The Heschl Tradition by Moshe A. Braun) When we are selfish - attacking and victimizing each other, trying to keep all the resources for ourselves, we create privation. The world is designed to work like an enormous and intricate machine with many different moving parts, each part working with the others in a finely balanced whole. When we cooperate, everyone benefits. The gears mesh and the world operates well. When we are each other’s adversaries, we all lose.

Coincidentally, just this week in the New York Times, this was illustrated by an article written by Jodi Rudoren. She reported that the Rand Corporation concluded that the Israeli and Palestinian economies would gain $183 Billion if there were a two peaceful states. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/08/world/middleeast/profit-as-an-incentive-for-israeli-palestinian-peace.html?_r=0

The more we figure out how to work with each other rather than against each other, the more we allow God’s blessings to flow to us. We can create scarcity or prosperity, and it is a conscious choice. May we respect and help each other, going with the way reality is structured and not against it; working together to create more blessings and prosperity for us all.

Jill Hausman is the Rabbi and also serves as Cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple in Manhattan. She has previously served as Cantor/Assistant Rabbi in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and has been a marine biologist, a singer, and actress. Her commentaries on the weekly Torah portion have been published by The Jewish Week in New York City.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Freedom to Serve

This week’s Torah portion is Va’eira, which means and He appeared. It begins with a repetition of God’s name, yud, hei, vav, hei. God then makes five magnificent promises to Moses, that we will be taken out of Egypt and given our own land. Moses doubts that he will be able to influence Pharaoh but God sends him with Aaron to begin the cycle of the ten plagues. Seven plagues occur in this portion. There is a well-known phrase that appears six times in the Torah, “Send out my people that they may serve me.” Sometimes it is translated, “Let my people go, that they may bring offerings.” (Ex. 7:16, 26; 8:16; 9:1, 13; 10:3) It’s important to realize that we were not just being let go. We were being freed for something: for service.

The Etz Chayim commentary also stresses this. The power struggle between Pharaoh and God was about who we would serve. It is said in the text that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but in the first few interactions, the Torah reports that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. How did he do this? By not being willing to cede any of his power. We know that God met power with power: Pharaoh’s use of his power came back at him like a boomerang, to mix cultural references. Moses knew that he himself had no power, and he became God’s servant. This is what God intended for the Israelites: to become God’s servants rather than Pharaoh’s, but Pharaoh believed we should serve him. By beginning the portion with God’s name, which means Being, Existence, God introduces to Moses only, and through him to us, the idea of universal moral law. God tells Moses to say, “Send out the people that they may serve me”; but perhaps we should read this, “Send out the people that they may serve me,” and not you. God wants Pharaoh, Moses, the Egyptians, and the Israelites all to realize that God is not only a higher and more powerful power, but that God is natural law and moral law. God is gravity, in the physical realm, and also goodness and freedom in the moral realm.

Pharaoh does not seem to grasp the principle of moral cause and effect, which the Torah teaches us near the end of Leviticus, where it says, “the same shall be done to you.” (Levit. 26:16) The Israelites’ God was such a threat to Egypt because God’s presence meant the end of the Absolute Monarchy and also a threat to immoral authority. We know that there are no chiefs in Judaism, only the rank and file. There are no rulers in Judaism, only servants. Had Pharaoh ceded his power to God, he would have become just another servant, a king no more.

An interesting detail is that Pharaoh asks Moses to speak to God for him. Pharaoh can’t have an honest relationship with God because Pharaoh is playing chess with power, manipulating and twisting the truth. He doesn’t understand the power he is trying to wield. God doesn’t want us freed in order to win. God wants our service to change the world.

Moses asks Pharaoh to let us go that we may bring offerings, only that doesn’t happen. We are the offerings; it is ourselves that God desires, for what Abraham Joshua Heschl called, moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. When Heschl walked with Martin Luther King and stood by him, they, and so many others, stood for God’s higher authority. In ancient Egypt it was a very special time in history, when God made plans to introduce the understanding of natural law and moral truth: that human power has limits because it must serve that which is greater than itself. If it benefits only a few, it is false, If it benefits the whole, it comes from the Divine.

When we exploit people and try to keep them down, taking away rights and opportunities, we use power dishonestly, twisting the truth. When we promote each other’s welfare, freedom, and prosperity, taking their plight as our own, we do God's work. May we serve the greater good as did Dr. King and those who he inspired to go with him. May we keep in mind that we are here for service: for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, to make this world a better place. Each of us has a role to play in the unfolding of goodness, in ourselves and in the world. May those who have served before us be our examples and may we work with God’s power in the universe, and not against it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Becoming Fully Human

This week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Book of Exodus, called Shemot, which means, names. It tells of the first instance of Anti-Semitism, of our persecution and enslavement in Egypt, of the birth of Moses, God’s call to Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses’ first encounters with Pharaoh. This week we also heard about the terrorist attack in France, in which 12 people were killed, not as an act of violence to avenge a murder, but for an insult: the ridiculing of Islam and the prophet Mohammed. A sentence in this week’s Torah portion comes to mind: Why do you strike your fellow?

Moses asked this in a famous incident the Torah describes this way: “…Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and saw their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day and behold, two Hebrew men were striving. He said to the wicked one, why do you strike your fellow? He replied who made you a man, a ruler, and a judge over us…” (Gen. 2:11-14) Moses, out of compassion for a fellow Israelite, kills an Egyptian taskmaster, who is beating a Hebrew man. The next day, Moses tries to break up a fight between two Israelite men. The question he asks, Why do you strike your fellow? is actually a cosmic question for us. Why do we kill each other? Why are we killing our fellows, our neighbors, the ones who are of ourselves and part of ourselves? The ones who are us?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on, “Who put you as a man, a ruler and a judge over us.” He says “These words reveal even at this early stage of our history, a trait that characterizes us to this day, one that lies at the root of all our flaws and our virtues as a nation. 600,000 men, or perhaps I should say, 6 million people, cannot muster the courage to defend their children against the minions of one non-Jewish tyrant; but not one of them will accept the authority of a fellow Jew…Of what intractable stuff must we have been then, before we entered the training course.” God, in the Torah, calls us stiff-necked five times. But is this just a Jewish trait, or is this the way we humans are?

Our personal egos are fragile and because of that, we puff them up and also make them rather rigid, disguising our soft, vulnerable inner core, making a shield to protect us from the world. This protection works against us, cutting us off from others. It disguises our negative qualities and lets us pretend to be better than we are.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk in a commentary on Shemot, said, “Man’s essential function is to uproot our negative character traits: hate jealously, vanity, lust, envy, and greed. These flaws must be rectified in order that we can rise to great spiritual heights with devekut, cleaving to God, may God be blessed.” (P. 117) We are presented with acts of terrorism which we think are something new: Radical Islam, but is it truly new? Isn’t it hate, jealousy, vanity, lust, envy, greed, and puffed up & rigid ego disguising our inadequacies? The list of flaws was written in the 19th Century, and words like them have been written thousands of years ago.

When we are stiff-necked we are fooling ourselves into believing that we are better than we really are, that we are living up to our professed values and ideals. An examination of our ability to project onto others reveals that we criticize in others what we can’t live within ourselves. Attacking the other then, is a judgment against ourselves. This portion begins by naming Jacob, the person who grew the most of anyone in the Torah, becoming Israel, the one who struggles with God, but also with himself, with his negative qualities. The problems of our society are within us. We can be truth tellers to ourselves, as well as in the greater human community. We can expose, as I like to say, the wolf in grandma’s new dress. We can acknowledge how thin is the veneer of civilization and how far we have to go to be the people we ourselves can look up to.

How far do we have to go to be able to respect ourselves? Moses’ question, why do your strike your fellow? can be answered by the statement: because we are ignorant of our oneness; because we still can’t be the people we want to be; because we still exhibit far too much hatred, jealousy, vanity, lust envy, greed and way too much ego; because we are not yet fully human. Moses asked his question in an attempt to draw out compassion from two people who had forgotten it. That is Moses’ name: drawing out. We can see ourselves in the two Israelites who Moses addressed, but also in Moses. The retort of the Israelite, “Who made you a man, a judge over us,” is another cosmic question. We are made human by the Divine; we are connected, and we are vulnerable and deeply afraid of showing it. But with compassion for others, acceptance of ourselves, and a little more truth, we can move away from needing such great defenses that we will even kill each other to feel better. We can become fully human, a man, a person who stands for truth, compassion, and justice.