“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader (John Quincy Adams).”
Moshe and Aharon have emerged as the men who would lead the Jewish people to freedom. It is Moshe who encourages the people to not only believe in God and His promise of salvation, but to find the strength to believe in themselves. Yet, in the midst of this rousing narrative, the Torah interrupts and records a shortened genealogy for the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi. On the surface, the importance of this tribal family tree is to show us the familial greatness of Moshe and Aharon. Yet, interestingly enough, when we were introduced to Moshe in last week’s Parsha, the Torah does not mention the names of Moshe’s parents. The verse states: “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi (Shemos 2:1).” If the genealogy is so important that the Torah interrupts the narrative (in this week’s Parsha), why not convey complete familial information when we are first introduced to the future savior of the Jewish people?
To answer this question, we must look at the event that forever changed Moshe’s life. Moshe was out shepherding Yisro’s flocks when he saw the bush that burned but was not consumed. And it is there that God told Moshe:
“So now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt (Shemos 3:10).”
Moshe resisted. He didn’t feel worthy of such an assignment; after all, he was but a simple shepherd. Furthermore, he was not sure if the people were salvageable. Moshe turned to God and said:
“Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be),” and He said, “So shall you say to the children of Israel, ‘Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you (Shemos 3:13-14).'”
God is known by many names. Each Divine name is descriptive and highlights a specific Divine trait or attribute. Why would God identify Himself using such an ambiguous, non-descript name? The question is compounded in light of the fact that this will be His first “introduction” to the Jewish nation.
Rav Kalonymous Kalmish Shapiro (1889-1943), the Rebbe of Piacezna, in his moving work titled, Eish Kodesh explains that man often defines himself by his past and present actions. I view myself through the lens of my past accomplishments and failures. To take this a step further, I often view my future through the lens of my past and present realities. I assume that in many respects, my future will be a continuation of my past and present. God has the unique ability to see us not only for what we were or what we are – He has the ability to see us for who we can become. God says to Moshe, “When you look in the mirror all you see is a simple shepherd – I see the man who will become the greatest prophet the world will ever know. When you look at the people- you see a nation of embittered and broken souls – I see the men, women, and children who will say, Naaseh V’nishma (we will do and we will listen) at the foot of Mount Sinai. So, if the people ask you who has sent you, tell them, the God who believes you will be what you choose to be, the God who sees what you can become, the God who believes in you has sent me here to help you become a free nation.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I will be what I will be, is not simply a Divine name; it is the ultimate Divine hope and aspiration for each of us. This is to become the mantra of the Jewish nation. God wants each of us to know Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be – I will become what I choose to become. I determine the kind of person I will be and the nature of the life I will lead. I have the ability to create a future that is dramatically different than my past. I may not be able to control all the circumstances of my existence, but I can determine the quality, meaning, holiness, and direction of who and what I become. I will be what I choose to be.
Perhaps, this is why Moshe’s parents are not mentioned by name when we are first introduced to the future savior. Had the Torah told us that Moshe’s father was Amram, I might have thought that it was solely Amram’s influence which shaped Moshe. Moshe was the son of a great man, and it must have been that paternal greatness which influenced his spiritual maturation. Had the Torah related that Yocheved was Moshe’s mother, one might have thought that it was in the merit of having a mother who was the daughter of Levi and a selfless midwife to countless Jewish women that enabled Moshe to rise to such spiritual heights. But the truth is, as much as Moshe’s parents may have influenced and informed his maturation and growth, Moshe became the greatest prophet of all time because he made a conscious decision to become more. At first, he resisted his destiny, but ultimately, he embraced it. Moshe decided to actualize the Divine mandate of Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh; I will be what I choose to be. Moshe made the decision to be more, and that is why he became more.
There are many things in life we don’t get to choose. There are many circumstances which are imposed upon us as a result of external realities. But we do maintain the ability to make the most important life choice. We have the power and privilege to say Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh; I will be what I choose to be. Let us find the courage to choose wisely. (Reprinted from 5777)
We had all hoped that 2021 would be different. We hoped that the violence and discord which was so prominent last year would not follow us into this new one. But alas, infighting has reared its ugly head in the first weeks of this new year. It is over a week since the violent protest in our nation’s capital, and it still seems surreal. The images, the violence seem like scenes from a distant land. But yet, it was here, just an hour away. There has been much commentary and blame. But is there something to be learned? Is there a lesson? Or is this simply another dark chapter for our great nation? I would like to share some thoughts and insights as I grapple with these events.
Pharaoh was bent on destroying the Jewish people.
And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live (Exodus 1:22).”
I have often wondered – how can this happen? How can an advanced culture like the Egyptians take innocent babies and cast them into the Nile? The answer is tragically simple – dehumanization. The moment you can convince a nation that the Jew is not a person is the moment that anything becomes possible. Pharaoh had convinced his people that the Jew was a threat, would consume all of the wealth, collude with Egypt’s enemies, and lead an insurgency from within. He transformed us into beasts of burden – he made us into animals. In that moment, it was no longer human children being thrown into the Nile. We were animals, property who could be discarded with little regard. Throughout the generations this very same strategy has been employed. How did the Nazis murder 6,000,000 with gas, ovens, torture, and mass executions? By portraying the Jew as sub-human. When the Jew is dehumanized – anything is possible.
When I look around at our greater society, I am truly saddened by what I perceive as the dehumanization of the “other.” The other can be someone who does not agree with my political views. The other can be someone who does not share my opinions on race and religion. We talk about each other as fakes, thieves and deplorables (and many other names not fit for print). How did this happen? When did we lose our way? I believe the answer is quite simple – we have forgotten how to be nice.
This is not just in the political sphere. I have seen a difference in many daily interactions as well. Perhaps, people are more on edge with the pandemic and political turmoil, but I have found that people are faster to anger, accuse and attack in a heightened state of emotional volatility. Many of us have forgotten how to express our opinions, concerns, and points of view with respect.
There is no question that there is a trickle-down effect. President Trump has made name calling and public humiliation of others common place and acceptable. But let us be honest; everyone is doing it. The President must own the role his words and actions played in the violence which occurred. Unfortunately, as leader of the free world, the President has not modeled dignity, civility, tolerance, acceptance, and the ability to be nice. The reality is that we have not tried to seek out these attributes and cultivate them within ourselves either.
There is a real danger of dehumanization. When you dehumanize those who disagree with you, you can hit a police officer in the head with a fire extinguisher and end a precious life for absolutely no reason. When you dehumanize someone, you can turn on those who are charged to protect you. But it is not only the events of last week to which I refer. When we look at what happened in Portland, in New York City and at numerous other protests which turned violent and unruly, we have seen people turning on each other with sheer hatred. This is not our way.
If there is one thing I know, it is that there will be people who will be upset with my words. Some will say that I am not condemning President Trump’s actions in harsh enough terms. Some will say that I am simply lapping up what the media is feeding me. The time has come to stop assigning blame and for each of us to take responsibility to fix our great nation.
So, what we can do? I read an incredible opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this past week. Mr. Chip Roy, a Republican, represents Texas’ 21st Congressional District and wrote a column titled, “Why I’m Taking a Social-Media Sabbatical.”
I’m suspending indefinitely my use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. I’m doing so not to make a political statement, but in the hope that America can return to kitchen tables, churches, taverns, coffee shops, dance halls (it’s a Texas thing)—whatever it takes to look others in the eye and rebuild our communities and humanity … While social media has proved a useful vehicle for sharing information quickly, I have concluded that it does more harm than good to individuals and society alike. It tempts us to be reactive and feeds the worst of our human tendency to respond in anger rather than to stop and think before communicating. The result is more verbal combat and less deliberative thought—all with language we often wouldn’t use while looking someone in the eye. I have been guilty of this recently, and I haven’t always been proud of my language … Of all God’s earthly creations, man is the only one with rational speech, but we used to have a better way to communicate with each other. Let us dine together. Let us look each other in the eye. Let us sit down and talk again. Then, let us unite again as Americans.
Now I will admit, I am bit biased; I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account. I know that all of these platforms can be and are used for such incredible good. But imagine if we took a break from the toxicity of social media and started working on repairing relationships. I know that for some, this ask sounds like being asked to give up a limb – but I truly believe that there is great wisdom in Mr. Roy’s suggestion.
Another suggestion. The great sage Shammai is quoted in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers 1:15):
“Shammai said … receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”
The attribution of this idea to Shammai is very strange. Throughout the Talmud, Shammai is known as the more austere, strong, and rigid personality while Hillel is known for his more gentle, kind, and serene approach. Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau in his commentary explains that Shammai made this statement after realizing that his more rigid and sometimes caustic approach with people was flawed (see Shabbos 31a). You can’t accomplish much in this world if you can’t dialogue properly with the other. The great Chassidic master, Rav Yitzchak of Vorka (1779-1848) says, that the word “sever” which we translate as countenance (in the above-mentioned Mishna) can also be vocalized as “savar” which means to “hold an opinion.” The Rebbe explains that sometimes I may not like someone and perhaps, even for legitimate reasons, but when we encounter one another, the other should never feel my disdain. The Mishna teaches us, “receive every person in a way which makes him feel accepted and respected by you.” Sometimes, you have to use your poker-face to live in harmony with the other. The purists amongst might say that is disingenuous, but as I get older, I have begun to realize, the world has no room for purists. We live in complicated times, and our country has grown ever more turbulent – the time has come to be nice. We must work on this each and every day. Each day we encounter situations which cause us to become angry. How do we deal with our anger? Do we unleash upon the other who is evoking these feelings within us? Do we lash out with put-downs, insults, and personal attacks? When we perceive that an injustice has taken place, do we use this as an excuse to unleash pent up animalistic tendencies which manifest in violence, looting, and many others forms of egregious behavior? We are better than this. We have a legal system, and if you have a grievance, there is a mechanism to address it. We have the right to demonstrate and make our voices heard. But the moment you lift your hand against your brother or sister is the moment you lose your credibility, is the moment you no longer stand for a cause, is the moment you become an animal looking for prey.
I know that taking a social-media sabbatical and actively working to be nice are not the sole solutions for our country’s issues. But sometimes we look for big solutions to solve big problems, when in fact, we have to take small steps to make some progress. It would be wonderful to think that when President-Elect Biden takes the reigns next week, a wave of civility and comradery will sweep over our great nation – but we cannot engage in self-delusion. I pray that President-Elect Biden has the wisdom and courage to do what is right for this nation and all its citizens. But no man, even the President of the United States, can affect change all alone. The fabric of our nation has been torn, but it is not beyond repair. Let us do our small part and begin to create change.
Redemption had begun but it was a slow and long process. The fury of the plagues was unleashed on Egypt and yet, Pharaoh still refused to emancipate the Jewish nation.
The Lord said to Moses, “Stretch forth your hand heavenward, and hail will be upon the entire land of Egypt, upon man and upon beast and upon all the vegetation of the field in the land of Egypt.” So, Moses stretched forth his staff heavenward, and the Lord gave forth thunder and hail, and fire came down to the earth, and the Lord rained down hail upon the land of Egypt. And there was hail, and fire flaming within the hail, very heavy, the likes of which had never been throughout the entire land of Egypt since it had become a nation.” (Exodus 9:22-24)
Rashi explains that this was miraculous hail, “it was a miracle in a miracle, fire and water were mixed together. In order to fulfill the will of their Creator, they created peace between themselves.” Hail stones comprised of opposites, fire and water rained down on Egypt. Each plague contained a message for the Egyptians and the Jews. It was during this plague of barad (hail) that we learned the world is filled with different kinds of people. Every person has a place and every person has a purpose. The Egyptians felt that they had the right to subjugate and persecute the Jewish nation. They felt that their perceived superiority provided them with full autonomy and control over the Children of Abraham. They didn’t perceive what they were doing as evil, they understood it to be quite justifiable. The weak serve the strong, the few serve the many. The Egyptians were the master race and therefore, had every right to do what was needed to advance their own society even if it meant exploiting another nation.
Persecution and subjugation occur when one group feels a level of superiority over another. There are no two more opposite forces than fire and water. It would be easy for fire to feel superior to try to burn up or consume water. It would be just as easy for water to feel superior and try to extinguish fire. Yet, in this plague, both fire and water recognized the greatness and importance of the other and worked together to create something miraculous. In fact, they demonstrated that neither was more important, accepted their differences and worked togetherto sanctify the name of God.
“The Sages in Yavne were wont to say: I who learn Torah am God’s creature and my counterpart who engages in other labor is God’s creature. My work is in the city and his work is in the field. I rise early for my work and he rises early for his work. And just as he does not presume to perform my work, so I do not presume to perform his work. Lest you say: I engage in Torah study a lot, while he only engages in Torah study a little, so I am better than he, it has already been taught: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart towards Heaven.” (Tractate Berachos 17a)
It would be easy for the Torah scholar to feel superior to the farmer. After all the Torah scholar spends his days plumbing the depths of God’s Torah and ascending to lofty levels of holiness. His soul is filled with holiness, while the farmer’s hands are filled with dirt. The scholar tills the secrets of the Talmud while the farmer simply tills the soil. Yet, the great rabbis of yesteryear understood that despite our difference we are all important. Each of us has a place, each of us has a mission and if we work together, we advance the cause of holiness and spirituality.
Society has become fractured and polarized. Too often we live with the mantra, “if you don’t share my opinions you are worthless. If you don’t subscribe to my views, political affiliations, religious doctrines, societal outlooks, then you have no value in my eyes.” The world is filled with fire and water. The water spends so much time and energy trying to extinguish the fire and the fire expends so much energy trying to consume the water. In Egypt we saw how fire and water can coexist. We saw that there is room for respect even in the midst of disagreement. We saw how opposites can come together to work towards a common goal and yet still maintain their respective differences and unique identities. When water and fire stop trying to conquer each other and begin to work together, they bring salvation just a bit closer. Let us try to find ways to build bridges with the people who are fire and water within our lives and in doing so feel the redemptive embrace of our Creator.