Archive for January, 2023

You know of my family background, that I am a first American in my family who were all from Germany, getting to the USA as refugees, Mom in 1936, Dad in 1939.  The story I will use to start is not about them, but about a Jew from Vienna, Austria in 1939.  I told it in 2001, so some of you might remember it.  

         The Jew goes to a travel agent’s office and says he wants to buy a steamship ticket.

         “Where to?” the clerk asks.

         “Let me look at your globe, please.”

         The Jew starts to examine the globe.  Every time he suggests, a country the clerk raises an objection.  This included the United States, as they were only allowing few Jews to immigrate to here, as there were many people very against Jews.  There was basically no place for him to go, so he finally said, “Pardon me, do you have another globe?”

         Jewish history seems to bear out the pathos of this story.  The places that some Jews had gone to or had living, there were often times of prosperity and relative peace, but ultimately things turn out badly for the Jews.  There is no question that while I was growing up a lot was going well for us in this country.  A number of years ago I saw things were starting to change.  The biggest bad piece that shows how things have been changing happened in my last fall with this congregation, fall of 2018, the killing of 11 in the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh.  Over the past 4 years I have seen that there are more folks coming out with antisemitism.  Many of the parashahs in the Torah, including last week’s of Shemot and this week’s of Va’eira show history connected to antisemitism.  

         The Israelites had moved to Egypt when things got bad in their area while Joseph wasthe vizier.  But we read in the beginning of Exodus, that after Joseph and his brothers all passed, the Israelites did well.  They were free, fertile, and over the years grew to a large group.  A new Pharaoh, who did not know anything about Joseph, converted the Israelites to slaves.  This is an early example of how not only Jews, but many different folks (such as African Americans) were mistreated by a place they were living as the bulk of people decided they did not like or truly want them.  In our history we saw this happen in Germany – emancipation for Jews in 1812, yet at times still persecuted, at other times they grew and did very well until the Nazis took power in 1933.  

The key for us to learn from the Torah we should be paying attention to.  Yes, we are supposed to see how our difficult history is similar to so many other folk’s later history, but there is something even more we are supposed focus on.  The focus is what the real kind of action we should learn to do as Jews.  According to the Torah, God takes a particular position, and attitude. The importance of God for us is not a particular belief, but an inspiration to act a certain way.  Yes, there are commands from God in the Torah, but there are actions and attitudes we should be inspired to make part of our life.

Starting in Shemot, when Moses meets God for the first time as God wants him to be the human who would go to the Pharaoh to ask for the Israelites freedom to leave Egypt and return to their original home, the area that would become Judea and Israel. God had not been worshipped so much by the Israelites, yet they were asking God to get them out of slavery.  God cared deeply about getting them out of slavery, away from Egypt, and back to their homeland; far more than caring about being worshipped.  God knew there would need to be hard actions done to Egypt, because the Pharaoh would likely not be willing to let the Israelites have a more normal life and/or go back to their home.  This continues in this week’s parashah while Moses and Aaron meet a lot with the Pharaoh. 

God is really trying to teach us that there are sublimes we must have in our brains, not just for the benefit of our lives, but also that we can help benefit others who are suffering or struggling in their life.  The Torah shows us that God has the sublimes that we are supposed to work as best as we can as humans to have them as well.  These include humility, patience, gratitude, honor, and compassion.

Humility has us keep away from being arrogant.  We should not be overly proud, rude, or misbehaving to increase our stature.  This is not about being a nobody, but being the kind of person we should be.  If we are not only thinking about ourselves, we can start to understand other folks as well.  Humility should push us to help the people who truly need help.

When we want things in the world to improve it will likely not happen as quickly we would like.  We need patience.  Our upsetting with other individuals who do things we do not agree with, pushes us to become impatient.  As long as their activity is not illegal or not truly hurting other folks, we need to have patience on the way we approach and talk to them.  Perhaps most important is the patience for our own situation so we can give help to other people having agony.

Whether it is ourself who is suffering or another person who is suffering, we should feel gratitude for the goodness for the work that would push to remove the suffering.  Comparing ourselves to those who are different than us in opinions, or wealth, or health, or religion can often create bitterness in our minds.  Cultivating gratitude for most people would help to counter bitterness when we are overreacting.  Gratitude for our own lives would help us be willing to help those folks who are suffering.

The vast majority of people deserve to be honored, or the synonym – respected.  It is hard for us to feel we should honor most people.  Instead, we more generally criticize or harshly judge them.  This has grown so much in the last number of years.  To honor each other, even if we have some different opinions, would enable us to work together to improve the community, country, or the world.  And we must push ourselves and others to honor instead of persecuting certain people.

Perhaps the most important feeling is compassion.  There are so many folks who suffer.  It could be from health, poorness, but also so awful from persecution, racism, and hatred.  God’s compassion for our people as slaves in Egypt should inspire us to have compassion for other people who are being mistreated.  Compassion is needed for those people with power to help those who are suffering in so many of the ways individuals or groups have experienced.  

This week’s parashah shows an example of someone who does not have compassion for other people – the Pharaoh – whose refuses to let the Israelites go, creates a pile of suffering that happens to the Egyptians.  Exodus overall shows the difficulty the Israelites have, how they escape from Egypt, and what they must learn.  It also shows how the uncaring of the Egyptians ends up with suffering for them.

Look at the comparable to the US Civil War.  So much of the south did not care about the suffering of the African American slaves, and so many of the African Americans were deeply mistreated.  The Civil War ended with a lot of suffering for white southerners as well.  So sadly, a lot of them believed they should find another way to mistreat the African Americans and never learned the appropriate lesson on how to have humility, patience, gratitude, honor, and compassion. 

What is the real purpose of the Torah?  Yes, it talks a lot about God.  Yes, it teaches us the history of the Israelites that will eventually lead to the existence of the Jews in the rest of the Tanach.  Yes, it tells us Jews about a lot of religious traditions that many Jews feel to observe.  However, the most important purpose of the Torah is how all people should perform to and with other people.  An important part of our ethic is not to hate people who are different than ourselves, whether that is a physical difference, a belief difference or opinion difference.  Of course, this is not referring deep criminals, but to most other people who are different than ourself.  There are many rules and suggestions throughout the whole Torah.

The ways we should act are way beyond the 10 commandments.  Great examples are in Leviticus chapter 19 and Deuteronomy chapter 15.  Being a true Jew is not just by doing religious actions such as holidays, but how to act with and too other folks.  I am saying that we are in a time in which so many people focus mostly on themselves and ignore others.  I close with this blessing for all people.

Yevarech’chah Adonai v’yishm’rechah

Ya’er Adonai panav alecha v’yechunekah

Yesa Adonai panav alecha v’yashem lecha shalom.

May the Eternal bless you and protect you.

May the Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you.

May the Eternal bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!

And may we do exactly what we pray the Eternal will do for us!   

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