To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Beshallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16).  This Sabbath is known as Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of the Song).  It refers to the central moment of thankfulness in which the Israelites, having crossed the sea escaping centuries of Egyptian bondage, acknowledge the blessings of their liberation (15:1-20).

This song of thanksgiving is preceded by dark moments:  the crisis of faith. The Israelites' initial flight from enslavement presents challenges of both body and soul.  Standing at the shore of the sea, their crisis is manifest in these utterances (14:12):  "Is not this the word that we spoke to you (Moses) in Egypt, saying, let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?  For it was better for us to serve the Egyptians than we should die in the wilderness."  When Moses calls upon them to have faith and "to see the salvation of Adonai" (14:13), the response of the Other speaks volumes about our inner struggles (14:15):  "why cry out to Me, speak to the children of Israel and go forward."

To overcome our doubts we may look for signs, hope for miracles, and desperately want to trust in a saving grace beyond ourselves.  But if we don't begin with a trust in our ability to deal with life's challenges then the trust in external salvation will be short-lived and not sustaining.

Recently, the evening news and morning papers offered visual testimony to a "leap into the waters:"  the annual New Year's Day ritual of people plunging into frigid waters in celebration.  The Torah makes it clear that the Israelites did not make a similar plunge, rather, they (14:22) "went into the  midst of the sea upon dry land and the waters were a wall on their right and left."

Rashi says that at the moment of their leap of faith not only did the waters of the sea divide, but all the waters of the world divided!  Their faith served as a message of liberation to all who were and are enslaved.  The commitment to faith begins with a trust that things can be different if we have the courage to believe that we can make changes in our lives.  The walls which seem to entrap us can be torn down, but only if we are willing not only to hope that things could be different, but also to work toward the healthier reality we envision.

Last summer, during a visit to Washington D.C., we went to Newseum (a museum dedicated to the history of the news).  It is an amazing place which I would highly recommend as part of any trip to the capital.  One section of the museum had five or six huge concrete slabs from the Berlin Wall surrounded by monitors showing videos of when the Wall was torn down.  That wall, which for so long kept families apart and symbolized the ideological enslavement of millions of individuals, was in the end just slabs of concrete and metal.  Yet before people had the courage to destroy it, before people allowed their inner faith to catapult them into action, the Berlin Wall seemed like a barrier which would never be torn down.

It is not only the physical barrier which all too often blocks us, but also our self-imposed obstacles as well.  We allow ourselves to remain locked in the familiar even when we feel trapped because we believe the wilderness of what lies beyond the known is too great a leap, too much out of our comfort zone.  When we refuse to "dig deeper," when we say of ourselves that we don't have the time, don't want to put in the effort, want to leave well enough alone, we are no different than our biblical ancestors who for so long did not want to risk the unknown.

Only when we trust ourselves enough to see our potential growth as more beneficial than what presently hems us in will we have the courage to make our leap of faith.  Only then will we be able to begin the journey on dry land.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion for this Shabbat is Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). The parsha continues the drama of the plagues with depictions of the eighth (locusts) and ninth (darkness, 10:1-29) and a warning about the impending tenth (death of the firstborn, 11:1-9), but then there is a sudden break in the narrative.

The emphasis shifts for most of the next chapter to the initial obligations regarding the celebration of Passover (12:1-28).  It is introduced by this calendar reference: "this month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (12:2)  A Yiddish expression captures the emotional weight of this verse perfectly-- "in mitten drenen."  In the midst of all that tension and turmoil, with the intensity of the plagues and the foreboding of the tenth plague soon at hand, the Torah injects the notion of a new year.  The break in the drama accentuates the uniqueness of the new year and serves to mark a change in how one is to experience his/her life.

As members of the global community, we all recently experienced "the first month of the year" as we ushered in 2014.  For the Jewish community it was the second New Year's celebration in the year 5774 and for those celebrating the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Horse will be acknowledged on January 31st.   What each of these calendar beginnings have in common is a shared sense of completing a cycle, of starting anew.  Yet our parsha offers an additional sense of awareness.

We are called upon see the exodus as not only a liberation from physical enslavement, but also an opportunity to understand our lives differently.  The geographic departure from Egypt is only Israel's penultimate moment of release.  The real sense of renewal, of reawakening, comes in the ability to see life differently:  to acknowledge its precious nature.

I once encountered a person who told me that he celebrated two birthdays each year.  The first, he said, celebrated the day he was born, but the second, which he and his family truly rejoiced in, was a few months later.  It turns out that a number of years ago, he suddenly became very ill.  Hospitalized in intensive care and isolation for many months, he made a miraculous recovery.  His second birthday is celebrated on the day he was released from the hospital.  He told me that the celebration is his way of acknowledging and giving thanks for the new year/renewed life with which he has been blessed.

While there are cyclical communal reminders in which each of us participates:  times which mark the transitions in life shared with others (birthdays, new year's celebrations, graduations, reunions, etc.), perhaps the real message of their significance/importance is how they potentially open us up to seeing our lives anew.

This is the reason, I believe, that the Torah portion interjects this section about Passover ritual "in mitten drenen."  All this will ultimately have no significance unless we allow it to transform how we see the world around us.  This will only be the "beginning of a new year" if we work on ways that we can make our lives different from how they were in this past year.  The date is only a marker; how we act is the realization of what can be new.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vaayra (Exodus 6:2-9:35).  In last week's parsha, which opens the Book of Exodus, we are introduced to the underlying theme of the entire second book of Torah:  the uniqueness of the Divine and our relationship to the One who is both Creator and Co-partner with that which is divinely created.

When Moses asks (3:13) how the Israelites are to understand (call by name) G-d, the Divine response is "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh," "I am that I am." But perhaps that may even more insightfully be rendered, "I will be who I will be."  We are called upon to understand our relationship with the Divine as an ever-evolving, dynamic experience.  It is not that G-d changes while we remain stagnant, but rather that as we grow and permit ourselves to explore the unique blessing within ourselves, we experience our relationship with the Other and with others in evolving ways.

A recent newspaper article described a transformative moment for a number of dancers, alumni of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, who were invited to return to the company for a special performance of the signature piece, "Revelations".  These individuals who had been Alvin Ailey stars when they were younger were now asked to perform again, in some cases, decades later.  Commenting on the challenge for these veteran performers, the Ailey artistic director said, "Maybe they might feel that they can't do it exactly the way they did, but maybe that's not the point.  The point is to be where they are."

The Divine response to Moses is perhaps a glimpse into what it means to be created in the Divine Image. We can be what we challenge ourselves to be.  We are not the Divine, but we have within us a spark which, if we nurture it, will permit us to explore the limitless potential with which we have been blessed.  A reflective adaptation of the morning prayer of thanks for the gift of our physical well-being offers this insight:

"my G-d, I thank you for my life, my body, and my soul; help me realize that I am something new, someone who never existed before, someone original and unique in the world. For if there had ever been someone like me, there would have been no need for me to exist."

The reflection presents us with a challenge which quite clearly is the tension with our parsha.  Pharaoh is poisoned by his own narcissism. Our uniqueness does not make us divine; it only permits us to utilize the gifts afforded to us to make ourselves and the world around us better than it presently is.  When Pharaoh deludes himself by perceiving that the wonders which are divinely manifest are no different than anything he and his magicians can conjure (7:19-23), then he has certainly "turned his back" (7:23) on the growth and potentiality which is the blessing of humanity.  This is idolatry:  a stagnancy of mind and heart, a presumption of grandeur which is arrogance.

I love the expression, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail."  When you believe that the world revolves around you, then you will do anything to sustain that delusion. You will, in essence, harden your heart and refuse to grow rather than challenging yourself to constantly look anew at life each and every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Vayyechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).  This is the last parsha in Genesis in which we see Jacob still attempting to justify his past mistakes (blessing Joseph's second-born son, Ephraim, over the firstborn, Manasseh, 48:8-20) rather than acknowledge his errors and rectify them for a subsequent generation.  Jacob models for us a tragic pattern of generational discord which in the Book of Exodus will be described as the sins of one generation, if left unaddressed and not resolved, being visited upon subsequent generations (Exodus 34:7).

In these concluding chapters, Jacob does have the opportunity to address with each of his sons the importance of personal redemption:  we are only locked into the ways we conduct our lives today if we are unwilling to confront our shortcomings and work to improve ourselves.  We may at times be "Jacob," but we do have within ourselves the ability to strive to be "Israel."

This could not be more starkly demonstrated than in the final moments of Jacob's life when he asks his sons to come together so that he may offer his "blessings" to them.  "Assemble yourselves, and hear, sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father." (49:2)  What a wonderful opportunity, and yet rather than offering a hopeful and encouraging message, a message of inspiration, a challenge to reach toward ideals, he pigeonholes them by observations which label them and limit them.

There have been numerous times in our reading of Genesis that we have seen the opportunity for a parent to bless a child. Yet sadly, we have often seen the parent confining the child to the child's present circumstances rather than encouraging a striving to find a deeper meaning and a more fulfilling sense of self.  Beyond the physical safety and well-being which a parent can provide a child in life, a parent is offered the rare gift of blessing:  the intangible offering of the heart to lift the spirit and determination of the next generation.

Traditionally, parents are called upon to bless their children as part of the welcoming of the Sabbath on Friday evening.  Invoking the generations of the patriarchs and matriarchs and their offspring, the blessing asks for peace, prosperity and well-being for the next generation.  Hidden within the liturgical formula of the prayer is the private and personal petition of every parent, unique to his/her dreams for the child/children being blessed.

I remember my mother, of blessed memory, once telling me that long after my brothers and I had gone off to our own life journeys, on each Friday evening as they welcomed the Shabbat, she and my father continued to offer their blessings on behalf of each of their children.  I think about that often, feel nurtured by the thought of my parents always hopeful for our well-being, growth and vitality.  Their modeling has served as a continual inspiration for me with my daughter, for no matter where her journey takes her, when we welcome the beginning of the Sabbath, I offer a blessing:  that blessing is both for her well-being and a thanks that I have been blessed with the opportunity to encourage her along her path.

Each of us has the chance to bless another:  a child, a grandchild, a spouse, a friend, a neighbor, a stranger.  First we must strive to raise ourselves above our self-imposed limitations which burden us, for only then can we hope and pray for the greatness within others that has yet to be realized.

We can bring blessing to the lives of others and by so doing encourage them to reach heights we ourselves may not yet have been able to attain.  And so, as we conclude the Book of Genesis we say, "chazak, chazak v'netchazek," "be strong, be strong and let us help to strengthen one another."

I will be taking a break from writing a D'var Torah next week.  Let me offer to each of you who take the time to read these weekly reflections the blessing of peace of mind, heart and body.  May we all find the blessing of well-being on our journeys.

Please look for the next reflections to reach you for the second portion in the Book of Exodus.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch