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Monday, January 14, 2013


Dvar Torah For Parshat Shmot 5773.

I did my favorite New Year’s Eve thing by watching multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s 1960’s classic about the paranormal. As campy and antiquated as the show and its special effects are to our jaded 21st century eyes, it always manages to suck me in with its themes of uncanny mystery: the bizarre and unexplained phenomena we encounter, the possibility of extraterrestrials, and the folks like you and me caught, well, in the twilight zone, what Bruce Springsteen refers to as the death waltz between flesh and fantasy, between reality and the mind’s dream state. I am particularly drawn to ironic episodes like the one about the bookworm who is the lone survivor of a hydrogen bomb attack, who can now read undisturbed for the rest of his life, yet who then smashes his reading glasses accidentally; to chilling, moralistic episodes like the one about the woman in a brave-new-world autocratic society who is sentenced to total quarantine with others like who her who are hideously ugly. The only problem is that, in fact, she and her fellow lepers are actually beautiful, while the rest of that society looks like ducks who have survived gamma radiation; or my all-time favorite episode about beings from another planet who convince the earth that they wish only to serve Man. In the last scene, as the hero of the episode is getting on a space ship to their world, his assistant desperately tries to stop him, shouting, “Professor, don’t go with them! That book they gave us about serving Man? I finally translated it. It’s a cook book!”

I laugh at what Serling considered to be serious drama but I get chills from Serling’s razor sharp insightfulness about the twilight zones of the human mind and life’s mysteries. I also appreciate one other important feature of this great American TV show: most of Serling’s characters are completely alone. They may intermittently interact with other minor characters, but they are mostly caught in a vast wasteland of human loneliness and alienation in which they are the last people alive, or the only people to see what no one else sees, or even people who have died who think they are still alive. Madness, loneliness, alienation and death are the main staples of the Twilight Zone, and I feel almost like I’m watching a Franz Kafka novel remade as sci-fi when I watch the show. This perhaps is what continues to make it so popular. Serling tapped into some of our deepest terror about loneliness with fantastic tales and morality plays that take the sting out of our fear by entertaining us.

Of late, I have been thinking about Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, as a Twilight Zone character, one who at every turn is never quite sure who, where or how he is. Look at the details of his early life. After his birth, his mother has to hide him for three months from the Egyptian authorities who want him, and all the Israelite males, dead. She casts him off in a basket, where he floats down the Nile only to be saved by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter, who then adopts him, ironically enough with the help of his own mother who serves as his nurse maid. Moses is raised as Egyptian royalty, but is chased out of Egypt after he kills an Egyptian slave driver in defense of an Israelite and is threatened with exposure by another Israelite. He saves his future wife and her sisters from rough necks at a well in Midian, then they promptly forget to show him hospitality, something almost unthinkable in Middle Eastern culture. He meets a God he has presumably never known, Who self identifies as his ancestors’ God, and Who draws him in with an unconsumed burning bush, a special effect that Rod Serling would have loved. Best of all, as Moses sets out to save the Israelites, God seeks to kill him out of anger that either he or his son has not been circumcised. This is a bizarre scene that dabbles in the demonic and fuzzy worlds of magic and blood rituals. Moses himself tells us the readers that he is living in his own Twilight Zone: he names his first son Gershom, “For I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”

What are we to make of our ancient Twilight Zone character? What do we learn from him? Bible scholars tell us that Moses’ life follows a literary theme commonly known as the abandoned hero motif. Generally, the hero is abandoned by his royal father or mother for some less than savory reason, with one or both parents ordering a simple peasant to destroy him. The peasant refuses to do so, or in another version, the abandoned hero is found in infancy by a kind peasant who raises him as his or her own. Often, the abandoned hero find his way back and reveals himself to the parent in a showdown between good and evil. Yet, Professor Nahum Sarna reminds us in his commentary on Exodus that we should not take the parallels too far. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, is no powerful queen seeking to get rid of her son, she is an oppressed Israelite who seeks to save him from genocide by sending him off. Even her abandonment of Moses is done in a way to insure that someone will find him and save him: she hides him in the reeds on the shore of the Nile River. In a keen reversal of the conventional abandoned hero motif, the one who saves Moses is herself royalty, Pharaoh’s daughter who uses her position yet also risks her life to courageously defy her father’s decree.

However, what I find most enlightening about Moses as the abandoned hero is that however absurd and liminal his experiences may be, he is never truly alone. His mother sends him off on the Nile, but then sends his sister to watch out and intervene for him. Pharoah’s daughter saves his life in defiance of her father, then brings him to the royal household right under her father’s nose. The Torah tells us that when he grows up, Moses goes out to consider the plight of his enslaved people, a hint that even as adopted royalty he already knows that he belongs with them and to them. Jethro, Moses’ father in law, makes him part of his household, God calls him to lead his people out of slavery, and even his brother Aaron makes an appearance in the story to become Moses’ partner in the work of liberation. Moses lives through strange and frightening encounters that likely make him feel alone, but a whole cast of actors, human and divine, are either behind the scenes or out front, helping him to make his way in his complex life.

It is callous and simplistic to assert that no one is ever truly alone, for we know that this is not the case for some people. Their lives are painfully solitary due to homelessness, the deaths of loved ones, a horrible family situation, mental illness or other circumstances. Perhaps Moses the abandoned hero is not a tale about what is but what ought to be, from the perspective of the Torah. Individualism is not a Jewish ideal, and I can think of no one in Jewish legend who fares well living outside the matrix of community and mutual obligation. For Judaism there is nothing heroic about going it alone, so that even after we die, the community remains fully involved in bringing us respectfully to our final resting places and in helping our grieving loved ones. The Torah and Jewish tradition challenge us to receive community from others by recognizing that we do not have to be alone at the margins of life, and to create community for others by recognizing that we are not alone at the center of life. Yes, a person may feel utterly abandoned by life and by God when dealing with loss, illness, death, grief and loneliness: how could anyone not in such times? Moses’ story hands us our mandate to walk compassionately with that person and all who feel alone and keep them connected so that they do not fall into the twilight zone.


Dvar Torah For Parshat VaYehi, 5773.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum of Modern Art, something I have not had the chance to do for quite some time. My visit felt to me almost like a pilgrimage to these paintings that have had a tremendous impact on me and the world, such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Munch’s The Scream, and Wyeth’s Christina’s World. The huge vacation week crowd at the museum came from all over the world to view these iconic pieces, and given the manner in which everyone crowded around them with their ipads and iphones clicking away, one would have thought that we were paparazzi in Hollywood. I got caught up in the excitement as I clicked away on my iphone and furiously texted to my wife tongue-in-cheek messages like, “OMG, I’m like standing three feet away from Christina’s World!!!!!!!!,” complete with numerous exclamation points, as if I were a teenage girl meeting a celebrity.

As I always do when I look at it in photos, I was overwhelmed by the emotional power of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Its unnaturally oversized, swirling stars stand in direct contrast to the peaceful village sleeping below, conveying a deep sense of turbulence and energy. I had to pause to consider what that turbulence and energy are all about. Are they a reflection of Van Gogh’s inner emotional turbulence that was a well known feature of his tormented life? Are they Van Gogh’s way of expressing nature’s energetic movement underlying what appears to be a calm and ordered world? Are they both? Are they neither? The beauty of great art such as Van Gogh’s is that it lends itself to robust debate about and multiple interpretations of what that art is doing or saying.

In like fashion, great writing, particularly the spare prose of biblical stories, lends itself to many readings that encourage energetic debate and disagreement about what the stories are saying and what they are teaching us. When we Jews talk about midrash, creative rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, we refer not only to the multiplicity of possible meanings in a sacred text, but to the engaged, passionate debate of faithful Jews that teases out those meanings. The opening of Jacob’s death bed speech to his sons in chapter 48 of Genesis provides us with an excellent example of this process.

And Jacob called his sons and said, “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.”

This appears to be a straightforward verse introducing Jacob’s address to his children. However, looking at the verse closely in context raises some important questions. Throughout Genesis, we have never known Jacob to possess any kind of prophetic power that would lead him to offer his children or anyone visions concerning the future. Further, as should be evident from reading his addresses to his sons, many of Jacob’s supposed prophesies are either descriptions or harsh criticisms of past behaviors. Is Jacob perhaps explaining to his sons what he expects them to become based upon what he knows about them now? Finally, we would expect Jacob to preface his addresses with far more intimate and familiar language than he does. Why bid his sons farewell by forcing them to listen to impersonal speeches that can only leave some of them scratching their heads in confusion or deeply resentful of him?

The view of modern Bible scholarship is that Jacob’s entire speech is actually a retrojection, a reading back into earlier history of what the Bible’s authors already knew about the Israelite tribes in their own day. However historically accurate that reading may be, it fails to capture the poetry and imaginative potential inherent in this poignant scene. For that, we turn to the sages of the midrashic tradition who offer us three intriguing, imaginative views about what is happening here.
The first view is that, indeed, Jacob began to tell his sons not only about their futures but about the future of the Jewish people and the future of the world as well. He promised them that the holy Temple would be built in Jerusalem and that the great apocalyptic battle foretold in the book of Ezekiel would in fact take place, thus ushering in an era of lasting world peace. The second view is very different. Jacob promised his sons a prophecy of what would befall them in days to come, but at that moment just before death, his powers of prophecy utterly failed him, and he was unable to tell them anything. Thus, he switched to critical analyses of each son, both good and bad. The third view is that from the very beginning of the end Jacob had lost all power of prophetic vision, so much so that he openly expressed fear that his children would not carry on the spiritual legacy that he had built. At that moment that he expressed his fear, his sons, referring to him by his new name, Israel, reassured him with the words that we call the Shma: “Hear, O Israel our father, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Reassured, Jacob spoke to each son and then passed from this world.

Think of that poignant, fragile moment when Jacob is about to speak to his sons for the last time in his life as if it were a brilliant, suggestive painting eliciting from our sages these three different readings of its meaning: each one is reflective of a unique perspective on life and death. None of these readings need to be taken as literally true, though each one presents one piece of a greater truth about the human journey that is expressed with artistic and emotional sensitivity. Jacob is first seen idealistically as possessing great prophetic powers extending well beyond intimacy with his family: we could imagine that as an old man who has experienced life he could impart wisdom and insight that no younger man could. However, the wisdom and insight of old age soon enough give way to the terrible reality of the shutting down of one’s mental and emotional capacities. Jacob wants to tell his sons the future, but impending death shuts out his ability to do so. Left with unresolved emotional wounds and resentments for which he and his children are responsible, Jacob is reduced to this almost pathetic admission: “I am about to leave this life, and I cannot even feel secure that the good things I have imparted to you will be carried on by you. Even this much of our future I cannot predict.” At that moment, his sons reassure him that the future of his hopes, his dreams, his legacy, his mission, his God, are in their good hands. He needs no power of prophecy, for they are his power.

The desire to see into the future – to know how things will turn out for us, our descendants, our community, the world - is a human impulse that lingers just below the surface of daily human awareness. I suspect it emerges most poignantly when we realize that our lives are nearing an end and we will no longer have a say in the destinies of those who remain after we are gone. These teachings of our sages remind us that we are limited in our power to control the future when we are alive, and even more limited as we prepare for death. Yet we have one power that, while not perfect, can last well into the future beyond our time on earth. It is the power to raise children, build relationships with students, and influence neighbors, colleagues, and loved ones with our own exemplary, if howbeit imperfect lives and actions. In a twist on Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar, I refer to that power as the good that we do that lives on after us. It is this good which is our finest work of art, to which those whom we leave behind can respond: “You have helped us understand how to live in the present. Rest assured that we will be your future.”