Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Exodus:5 Project
Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. Exodus 11:5
I have had some pretty remarkable teachers in my life and, as the Hebrew saying goes, from each of my teachers have I gained insight. More often than not, what distinguished a great teacher from a good teacher (in my experience) was if I learned something more than information. The personal presence of the teacher contained as much value for me as the expertise – in fact, sometimes more.
Prof. J. Allen Hynek taught astronomy at Northwestern University when I was an undergrad. If you know his name, it may be because he became a reluctant expert in UFOs in the 1960s and 1970s, even having a cameo in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” But I took his course to fulfill a science requirement, and in the process I learned about awe. Quite close to retirement when I took the class he taught dozens of times, Dr. Hynek nonetheless exuded an innocent excitement about the cosmos. On the first day of the course, he illustrated his place in the universe by pacing off the relative size of the building blocks of the physical world, from galaxies to quarks. (Spoiler alert: we are about in the middle.) He then enthused about the privilege of being located at a spot on the continuum that enabled him to appreciate matter of exponential difference in size. And he continued to teach us for the next twelve weeks from the spot on the continuum he had imagined in that lecture hall.
Sylvia Boorstein is one of the most popular teachers of mindfulness in the English-speaking world. She has opened Buddhist practice to novices and deepened it for experienced practitioners for more than thirty years. I encountered her for the first time at an annual retreat I used to attend where she accomplished a remarkable feat: she kept a dozen rabbis quiet for two and a half hours a night, four nights in a row. Her self-effacing and enjoyable way of explaining mindfulness and introducing meditative practices showed me the road less traveled in my spiritual life. Seeing how mindfulness enhanced her ability to appreciate the people around her – including initial skeptics like me – showed me the road I needed to travel in my interpersonal life.
I have others I could name – public school teachers, political mentors, friends who opened their hearts to me and, of course, many of the remarkable rabbis I was privileged to learn from in seminary and in my continuing studies. I would add my family to that list as well.
But I have one teacher who never applied for the job, yet has held it for her entire life. That would be my first-born. Each of the three kids has enriched my life beyond measure, and my favorite among them is whomever I am thinking about at the moment. But every aspect of my parenthood gets test-driven on her first. And, thank God, she has been generous with her feedback.
I will not continue with specifics that descend into sappiness or self-disclosure. I will just say this: navigating fatherhood for the first time is much easier with a child who will present the necessary challenges with love, respect and independence. Our other two kids would certainly have been equal to the task, but they are, by happenstance, not the first-born.
I have attempted to comfort too many people who are bereft of their first-born. There is a quality of grief that, I think, cannot be imagined by those of us blessed not to experience it. Even those people who are estranged from or are in conflict with or, God help them, dislike their first-born have a visceral understanding that their place on the continuum of relationships and their mindfulness of others is shaped by the lessons learned from that unique relationship.
The death, God forbid, of any child is an unfathomable tragedy, no matter the cause, the age or the circumstance. It is not the way of the world we desire that parents bury their children. The death of a first-born inherently carries a second blow. Perhaps ironically, it is less because of who the child is and more because of what the child represents to everyone from Pharaoh upon his throne to the servant behind her millstone. It is a horrible price to pay for freedom. For anything.
I imagine the worst sound to emit from any human community was the cry that went up from every household in Egypt on the fateful night of liberation. In that midnight moment, past, present and future were erased. The continuum had dissolved. You cannot be mindful when you have lost your mind. Egypt became a land without the kind of learning necessary for renewing the generations.
Every child becomes his or her own person without losing the mirrored corner of their personality that reflects back the nurture of others. The wise parent will learn early to pay attention to that reflection and honor the lessons it shows.
The Exodus:5 Project
They shall cover the surface of the land, so that no one will be able to see the land. They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail; and they shall eat away all your trees that grow in the field. Exodus 10:5
Within the next couple of years, the Washington, DC area will be revisited by the local 17-year cicada invasion. If you have not experienced the phenomenon, you have not visited the alternative universe that nature provides on a cyclical basis. These harmless but spooky insects emerge from their gestation underground, shed their hard exterior and fly haphazardly seeking the fulfillment that is the purpose of their arrival.
Cicadas emerge every spring and into the summer. But the 17-year cicadas are especially prolific and spend a week or two flying in any empty space and landing on any available leaf or branch. During that time, any human being who ventures outside must be forewarned. The cicadas don’t care what is in their way.
My daughter described a car trip during this infestation as being like driving through a video game.
And then they die, mostly with a smile. But because of their sheer numbers, the carcasses are absolutely everywhere. The piles in the gutters may not be as deep as leaves raked from autumn yards, but they are ubiquitous. The telltale crunch is unmistakable and, well, gross. Lasting until a couple of good rainstorms wash them away, cicadas become the landscape.
Other such pervasive natural phenomena have their season. In DC, the early spring sees cars, windowsills and patio furniture covered with a mustard-yellow powder emitted by fertile trees. The fuzzy output of other trees can make a front yard look like a cotton field. And a Nor’easter in the winter can obscure every feature of the landscape in an undulating carpet of white.
We know what is under all of this stuff. It was there in years 1-16, in the middle of summer, in the dry days of early winter. But when they cover the surface of the land so that no one will be able to see the land, what is dependable and recognizable underneath disappears not just from sight, but also from consciousness. Crunch, achoo, brrr. It is what is on top that captures our attention and our reaction.
It seems to me that we are going through such a period of time in the political life of our country. The landscape is obscured by the detritus of phenomena that capture our attention and our reaction. The day-to-day functions of government, the necessary deliberations over sound policy and the difficult business of implementing law and policy seem unidentifiable because of the distraction of oversexed cicadas, irritating dumps of pollen and chilling blankets of precipitation. The landscape is still there; the processes are still in motion and the decisions made unnoticed are still being instigated.
I can understand how hard it is to ignore that top layer of concealment. It is quite literally in your face, provoking your discomfort and demanding your response. We are blinded by it, forced to remember the contours underneath instead of experiencing them. (And too often, our memories are less than accurate.) Unlike the stuff of nature, I can’t help wondering if it isn’t intentional to cast tantrums and tweets that obscure the questions that really need to be considered in our society.
My response to the cicadas and pollen is a broom, sweeping clean or near to it. My response to the snow is a shovel, valuable for other accumulations as well. I try to keep my eye on what is beneath the detritus so that I do not mistake the cover for the book.
But it is hard, I know. Especially when I worry that other plagues are down the road.
The Exodus:5 Project
God has fixed the time; tomorrow, God will do this thing in the land. Exodus 9:5
I am writing this message in the middle of the annual observance of Chanukkah (also known as Hanukkah, Chanukah, and חנכה. A traditional Jew will recite, somewhere between three and seven times a day, a declaration of Thanksgiving for the miracles that occurred “in those days at this time.” It is a reference to two of the kinds of measurements we use for time.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – commemorates something that occurred at a moment in the past. My birthday was in the 1950’s. My anniversary was in the mid-1970’s. The United States became a nation in 1776. Veterans Day began in 1918 when the First World War ended. Chanukkah happened 2182 years before this writing.
This holiday – like all holidays, communal and personal – occurs at a fixed time on the calendar. My birthday is during the summer. My anniversary is in late spring. The United States gains a year on July 4. Veterans Day happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Chanukkah happens at this time.
We live our lives in the constant intersection of the vertical and the horizontal. Every day is one of “those days.” (Some, I can attest, more than others!) And every time is “this time.” When we cycle back to the anniversary of an event – week, month, year – we will remember anything of significance in the new context of this time.
My home expression of Judaism – the Conservative movement – made a slight emendation to the prayers that upended the meaning of this marvelous phrase, “in those days at this time.” The editors of our prayer book added a single letter in Hebrew, a single word in English, between the two phrases, which now tells us that we offer thanks for miracles “in those days and at this time.” The phrase now seeks to serve dual purpose – to remember the past and to imagine the present. The two are unmoored from each other. You may have figured out that I don’t like it.
It relegates Chanukkah to the past and equates unrelated unlikely “deliverances” we might identify. Happy though I might be that a state election that concluded on the first night of the holiday this year saw the forces of light triumph over the forces of darkness, it does not have the staying power (or the theological imprimatur) to claim that God has fixed the time to do this thing in the land!
Moreover, it encourages the appropriation of religious traditions for self-serving purposes. That’s not to say that the significance of each candle cannot remind us of other values, but our Sages insisted that the lights of Chanukkah not be used for any purpose other than reminding us of the miracles in those days at this time. Attaching a different message is like using Memorial Day to sell mattresses.
I am just old-fashioned enough in my faith to seek to preserve the power of the original remembrance. The age we live in demands that I live my life as a multitasker – including theologically – but the words of this prayer of gratitude expect me to acknowledge a particular touchstone as unique in origin and timeless in inspiration. It is also true, in a different context, for my birthday, our anniversary, Independence Day and the day we acknowledge the service of our citizens to preserve our way of life. There is a difference between acknowledging that other things happened in those day or at this time – something that keeps us from seeing ourselves as the center of the universe – and acknowledging the meaning and significance that we can ascertain a sense of intention from the Source of all life in the intersection of those days and this time.
Whew. This is supposed to be one of the fun times! So get out there and have fun. Sing a little, spin a little, eat something fried. The price was paid 2000 years ago in those days, and this time is set aside to benefit from the investment!
The Exodus:5 Project
And Moses said to Pharaoh, “You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile? Exodus 8:5
Among the challenges I faced during my years as a pulpit rabbi were the occasional members of my community who attempted to exercise power and control over me. There were two basic kinds of folks who wanted to manipulate me. Some of them were exceptionally insecure and pushed hard against me in almost a dare to prove what they feared the most – that they were unworthy of affection or disliked for being inadequate. Others brought to our relationship some type of resentment against rabbis or of figures of authority in general.
Of course, from the time I was a mere wisp of a lad, mature beyond my years, I never took the bait and went head-to-head with my antagonists. Yeah, right. Even today, it is pretty easy to get a rise out of me (especially internally) by trying to diminish me. I don’t like it, and I don’t know anyone who does.
Over the years I have wrestled with the question of whether my indignation has more to do with justice or ego. It is a hard distinction to make. To the outsider, the behaviors I find objectionable – belittling, acting dismissively, misrepresenting or plain insulting – appear to justify my reactions. But the fact is, I prefer to be liked rather than disliked. My own insecurities and resentments past are unpacked when someone else puts his or hers on display.
There is an old military riff about the drill sergeant who tells his recruits that when he orders them to jump, he expects them to ask, “how high?” on the way up. I know how those recruits feel; I suspect you do as well.
But I wonder how to develop the presence of mind to turn insecurity and resentment back on the antagonist. Is there any worth in an attempt to change the dynamic in such an exchange to make someone who is insufferable more tolerable?
In this little exchange between Moses and Pharaoh, there is a clue. You can tell even without context that the confrontation is occurring over the second plague: frogs. Reading too quickly the lead-up to this verse may make you miss a certain comedy in Pharaoh’s belligerence; when Moses and Aaron produced a land-invasion of frogs, Pharaoh ordered his magicians to do the same. And they did. By challenging Moses’ power and authority, Pharaoh made things objectively worse.
And then in a remarkable show of bravado, he dared Moses to do something about the infestation. “If you (and your God) are so great,” he all but taunts, “see if you can get rid of these frogs.”
I can imagine how I would have responded. “You want me to clean up your mess?” I would likely reply at a certain volume. Depending on how worked up I was, I might also suggest an anatomically impossible act.
But the more effective tactic seems to be to ask, on the way up, “how high?” Moses capitulates, saying, “I’ll let you win this contest. And not only that, but at just what time shall I stop the frogs?”
Completely disarmed, Pharaoh responds with an early completion date: tomorrow. And Moses agrees. Pharaoh believes he has prevailed, though Moses walks away with a (soon-to-be-broken) promise of a concession. And just to put the exclamation point on his real victory, (spoiler alert), Moses stops the frogs literally dead in their tracks the next day. And they stink up the joint.
I hope I am getting better as I get older. There is less at stake these days, or maybe I understand how little there ever was at stake when insecurity or resentment are directed at me. I am most certainly not perfect. Because even if I could turn the contest effectively back on my antagonists, I would still want to slip a dead frog in someone’s bed.