Archive for January, 2015


Nobody noticed when the plague of darkness descended.  Some say that the world was too distracted.  Some say it was already too dark – who could really tell the difference?  Some news commentators refused to believe in the darkness.  They switched on the electric lights in their news studios and broadcast reports about how the darkness was not real.  “How can you say there is darkness,” they stated, “when all you have to do is turn on a light?”  Some columnists wrote editorials saying that the alleged darkness was just another invention of those perpetrating the myth of climate change.  Indeed, many saw no change in the world.  All seemed to go on as usual, so why all the fuss about darkness?  Yet, others insisted the darkness was real, that it was pervasive; that it was the largest tragedy humanity had ever suffered.

Some argued over the cause of the darkness.  Why did it happen?  Was it some kind of punishment?  When did it begin?  Republicans said it was when President Obama was elected. They claimed the darkness was a Muslim socialist plot to deceive the country, cloaking it in darkness to mask a government takeover by a Sharia dominated cabal.  Democrats said it was when Ronald Reagan was elected.  They claimed that the elevation of a “B” grade actor to the presidency degraded the office.  “How can the former star of ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ be qualified to lead the country?” they asked.  Democrats believed the country was lulled to sleep by a theatrical presidency only to wake up in a darkness of corporate dominance.  The only interchange between Republicans and Democrats was to call each other blithering idiots.

Then there were religious leaders.  Many, from all denominations, became very introspective, wondering if they had contributed to the darkness.  Some believed they had not spoken out enough about issues of injustice or of racism.  Some felt they might have misrepresented the word of God.  Some wondered if they had worried too much about the finances of their church or synagogue and not enough about the soul of their congregation.  There were other clergy, however, who saw the darkness as God’s wrath, brought upon people because of false beliefs.  Some believed the darkness started because too much of the world had come to accept same sex marriage.  Others believed it was God’s revenge for those scientists who taught evolution, casting doubt on the creation of the world as depicted in the first chapter of Genesis.  Televangelists used the darkness to raise even more money, convincing their viewers that contributions to their ministry was the only way to lift the darkness.  Even though it wasn’t, people believed and sent money anyway.

In Europe, radical Muslims attacked newspapers and magazines, proclaiming that these publications’ insults to the prophet had ignited God’s anger.  They trumpeted their actions as carrying out the will of Allah against infidels.  Other Muslims blamed the darkness on their terrorist co-religionists; crying out against the coopting of Islam for violent ends.  European government officials were divided on the darkness.  Some thought the darkness came from allowing too many immigrants not from Europe.  Some thought the darkness came from the degraded conditions many immigrants had to endure.  Some blamed the darkness on the economic problems of the European Union.  Dozens of theories were debated, but everyone agreed on one thing – that at least some of the blame for the darkness must be the Jews.  As a result, synagogues were attacked, Jewish owned stores were looted.  Governments issued condemnations but few people cared or listened.  The victims were, after all, only Jews.

Palestinian Arabs blamed the darkness on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.  Israelis blamed the darkness on Arab anti-Semitism.  Terrorist attacks were launched.  Reprisals were made.  Israelis and Palestinians died.  Leaders on each side kept asserting that their reason for the darkness was the only one that was correct and there could be no peace until the other side accepted their version as fact.  The only result was more death.

African Americans blamed the darkness on police brutality.  Police blamed it on the increased risk to their lives demonstrated by targeted killings of police officers.  Tensions increased.  Civil rights spokesmen and police advocates yelled in protest.  No one listened.  Nothing changed.

The NRA said the darkness occurred because people were being prevented from purchasing more guns.  Gun control advocates said the darkness came because there were too many guns.  School shootings happened.  Anyone expressing sadness over the victims was condemned by the NRA as using the shooting for political purposes.  Liberals pushed for more gun control.  Despite the fact that more of the shooters were disturbed students, no one bothered to do anything to improve the schools, to help the students.  The only real concern about schools was to increase test scores.

Blogs were posted.  Editorials were written.   The more thoughtful the piece, the more vile the comments posted by the readers, who only wanted to see who agreed with their own perspective.  Anyone disagreeing was called a liberal fool or a redneck yokel.

While here and there were some glimmers of light, the darkness did not lift.

We learn in Exodus chapter 10, vayahi choshech afeilah bechol eretz Mitzraim.  There are a number of ways to translate choshech afeilah.  One is a “thick darkness.”  Another is a “dark misery.”  Whichever way we translate it, we then learn lo ra’u ish et achiv v’lo kamu ish mitachtav, “no man could see his brother and no man could rise from his place.”  Where did this darkness come from?  Rabbi Yehuda said from the secret places in heaven.  Rabbi Nechemia said from the depths of hell.  Cassuto points out that this plague came without any warning.  Moses just lifted his staff and it happened.

What exactly was this dark misery?  Perhaps we might understand it best if we make a slight adjustment to the Hebrew.  Instead of reading lo ra’u ish et achiv, “no man could see his brother,” perhaps we should read as lo ra’u ish k’ achiv, “no man could see AS a brother.”  The darkness might be each person’s inability to see the person across from him as a brother or sister.  We default to seeing them through a label, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, black or white – the number of labels is infinite.  Instead we sit in our own place, unable to move – unable to rise up and see the light of God in the person across from us.

We are also told that the Israelites had light in their settlements.  What kind of light was that?  Psalm 97 says, Or zarua latzadik ulyishrei lev simcha, “Light is sown for the righteous and gladness for the upright of heart.” Mystics teach this light is the light created at the beginning of creation.  It has been sown throughout creation for us to find, so that we can rise up in the time of darkness.  If we can find the light of the righteous, and lift ourselves out of blindness, perhaps we can then end the plague of darkness.

Kein yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.

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How do we fare when called upon to face unpleasant truths? How do we manage that call to take on a difficult task that seems to have no end? How do we rate on the empathy scale? This is the essence of what Moses is facing at the theophany at the burning bush in this week’s Torah portion.

Exodus 3:6 says, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” That raises a theological question. If Judaism teaches God has no physical form, what was Moses afraid to look at? Cassuto points out that the Torah is careful not to imply a physical form, just that Moses knew God was presenting some kind of vision, and Moses was afraid to look at it. However, Moses does listen very attentively. So he is receptive to hearing God’s message, but is clearly missing something. Moses will accept the mission, but we can say he does so somewhat “blindly.”

Malbim takes the analysis of Moses hiding his face a bit further. By hiding his face, Moses shows he is not ready for a complete relationship with God. Malbim says that the Hebrew verb meihabit is not seeing so much as giving full concentration on something. Hiding his face is really Moses retreating into the material world, not able to spiritually and intellectually comprehend God. The material world is kind of his safety net. He hears God’s commands. On some levels he understands what is being demanded of him. But he is not ready for what eventually will be “knowing God panim el panim (face to face).” It is very important to note the intellectual component of the human/God relationship implied by Malbim. Meeting God “face to face” is intellectually as well as spiritually demanding.

Did Moses act properly by hiding his face? Sages who argue he did not say God would have shown him what was above and what was below – the secrets of existence (see Exodus Rabbah). Malbim’s commentary seems to agree with this by adding Moses was not ready for ultimate truth. Ba’al Haturim, however, takes a slightly different tack. He says that had Moses looked into God’s presence at the bush and asked for relief of the Israelites’ suffering, the exile would have been ended right then. Israel would have been freed. Thus we can ask, what is it Ba’al Haturim thinks Moses would have seen had he not hidden his face, that is, if he had tried to look at God face to face?

If we extend Ba’al Haturim’s reasoning, God would have shown Moses the full extent of Israel’s suffering in Egypt. If we combine the comments of Cassuto, Malbim and Ba’al Haturim, we might construct this scenario. Moses had seen the suffering of an individual Israelite, which led him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster. Moses is listening to what God is trying to convey, but is not yet ready to grasp the enormity of Israel’s suffering. Moses is not yet ready to perceive truth from God’s perspective – an intellectual and spiritual experience that is beyond him at the time of the call to his mission. Moses is just human. Trying to understand the full scale of human suffering and ultimate truth is a tall order. But Moses DOES listen, so he begins a path to lead the Israelites and finally know God “face to face.”

Now we consider this week’s tragedy in Paris, the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Muslim terrorists. Are we going to turn our faces from truths, about humanity, about suffering, about the perversion of religion, and even about relationship to God? Are we going to retreat into our material world and hide from truth? Are we going to take the hard road of even trying to understand how and why what happens in Paris affects all of us? I love this analysis in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/blame-for-charlie-hebdo-murders

The writer (George Packer) identifies some important questions. First, how much are these murders based in the tenets of Islam? It is silly to deny that the Muslim world is going through a very dangerous time of increased radicalism, resulting in violent acts. It is also silly to deny that too many Muslims have some degree of sympathy with the motives behind these attacks, along with the violence perpetrated by ISIS and by organizations such as Hamas against Israel. All religious groups have abhorrent members.

For Jews, an example is Baruch Goldstein, who massacred Muslims during prayer in 1994.   How do Jews react to violence like Goldstein’s by other Jews? Even most Jews who take a hardline view of Israel/Palestinian issues condemned Goldstein’s violence. The Jewish community is so small (13 million worldwide) that we are sensitive to the repercussions of Jewish violence. Every military action by Israel spawns intense debate in the Jewish world over its appropriateness. The sheer size of the Muslim world (1.5 billion) creates the probability of more violent perpetrators as well as sympathizers. Unfortunately these voices get the dominant attention.

Yet, it would be a grave mistake to characterize all of Islam by the murders in Paris. Many, many Muslims feel revulsion over murders done in the name of Islam. Their sympathies are completely with the families of the victims. So the truth about the Muslim world is complex and hard for people to grasp, because it requires holding seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time. It is true that Islam is experiencing troubling convulsions. The existence of Muslim groups obsessed with violence is a reality. Muslim anti-Semitism is also very real. These are the same kinds of convulsions experienced at points in Christian history – say during the Crusades, the times of the Inquisition, or when some Christians gave religious justifications for the existence of the KKK. It seems to be Islam’s turn in history to wrestle with with excessively violent trends and radicalism. At the same time we have to realize that hundreds of millions of Muslims want nothing to do with these violent movements. They DO speak out, but often the media ignores th0se voices who do not fit the preferred narrative of the moment. I, for one, admire my Muslim friends who are speaking out, and I sympathize with their frustration over what they see as a hijacking of their religion for nefarious purposes.

A second problem is in understanding what is at stake by attacks on journalists. It is completely wrong to blame the victim by saying Charlie Hebdo was stupid for printing offensive materials. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression. The inability of any religious group to accept satire or criticism shows a lack of maturity by that group – witness the annual nonsense about the “war on Christmas” by some Christian groups in the United States. Perpetrating murder in response to satire, however, is beyond immaturity. It is inhumane and criminal. Whatever one might think of Charlie Hebdo, all of us are victims of the crime because it is an attack on the basic principle of freedom of expression.

We need to see ourselves potentially on both sides of this equation. The potential for violence exists in all humans. It might be Muslims perpetrating today, but they are not the first religion to take their turn at inhumanity, at murder in reaction to a perceived wrong. No one’s history is untainted. In addition, we need to see ourselves in the victims. No one lives in a vacuum. The world today is small. We need to understand that an attack on freedom in France is an attack on our freedom

God’s call to Moses at the bush is not about forcing a religious ideology upon the Egyptians. It is not about violent coercion of any kind. It is a call to lead a group of people to freedom, to alleviate suffering. When we hear the pain and suffering of others, we are starting to perceive God’s voice. If we look at the truth of how humans act – the good and the bad – we have taken a step on the path to know God. Ultimately there can be no hiding of our faces. If we look into the vision God provides, if we really understand what we are being shown, then, when we dare to look at God face to face – we will find our own face staring back at us.

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