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Blog - Torah Insights

The Song Called Life

n.jpgThe Song Called Life

“Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord." [1]

This is the opening phrase of the song that Moses and the Jewish people sang to G-d after the miraculous crossing of the sea. The children of Israel, following the lead of Moses, sang a beautiful song celebrating the final stage of their liberation from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and their future entrance into the land of Israel.

The opening word of the verse that begins the song is “Az” (אז), which means “then” (Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song). Every detail and every choice of word in the Torah is precise. The Midrash, therefore, seeks to explain why the word “Az” (אז) was chosen to open the song. The Midrash reminds us that this is not the first time we have encountered the word “Az” (אז). Earlier in the story Moses turned to G-d with precisely the same word “Az” (אז).    

When Moses went to Pharaoh for the very first time, to demand that Pharaoh allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt, Pharaoh refused the request and instead decided to increase the burden of the slavery on the Jews. Moses was devastated. The Torah relates:

Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people."[2]

From the outset, Moses doubted G-d, and used the word “Az (אז)” which also means “since”: “Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people”.

The Midrash informs us that when it came time for Moses to sing the song of praise to G-d, Moses sought to correct his previous lack of faith in G-d. Thus, Moses chose the word “Az” (אז) (“Since I have come to Pharaoh”), the same word he used to question G-d, he is now using to open the song of praise (“Then Moses sang”).

There are two ways a person may react upon being liberated from a distressing situation. One emotional reaction is that although he experiences a feeling of tremendous relief, his joy is dimmed by the feeling that he would have been better off never having gone through the distressing experience.

The second way a person might react is that although he fully recognizes the hardship he has gone through he realizes the hardship was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. That without the adversity he would never have attained the greatness he achieved. Thus the joy is complete. The joy does not seek to forget about the suffering, on the contrary, the joy is a wholesome one, it incorporates the entire experience. Once the challenge has been overcome, the happiness is fueled by both the initial suffering and its conquest.

Initially, in the darkest moments of slavery, Moses saw only suffering and sorrow. He cried out to G-d in pain and cried “Az” (אז).

After the exodus and the crossing of the sea, Moses reached a deeper understanding. Now he realized that the experience in Egypt was critical in order to allow the Jewish people to experience the Divine. The humility of slavery would allow them to rise to the heights of spirituality, sensitivity and kindness to all mankind. Now the joy was complete. Now the song and the joy were fueled by both the hardship and the salvation. By the “Az” of the song of the sea, as well as the “Az” of the cry due to the hardships.

The Torah teaches that each and every day we are capable of breaking free from our inner bondage, our inner Egypt, which holds us back from attaining that which we want to achieve. The same is true of the song of the sea. As we work to free ourselves from Egypt, we hear the music of the song. We understand that every part of our life, the moments of delight, laughter and elation as well as the times of trouble and tribulation, all lead to one joyous song. They may include different notes but they combine to create one song full of meaning and joy.[3]



[1] Exodus 14:1.

[2] Exodus 5:22-23.

[3] Adapted from The Beis Halevi Al Hatorah (Bishalach). 

Double New Year?

Calendar_1.pngDouble New Year?  

We are a complicated people.

While most cultures and people celebrate their new year on the first day of the first month of their calendar, we Jews, surprisingly, do not do the same.

Our new year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated on the first day of the seventh month. As the Torah relates:

In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion.[1]

Half a year after new year's day, we celebrate the new year. As the Torah tells us in this week’s portion, the very first commandment issued to the Jewish people, just days before the Exodus, was the commandment to establish the Hebrew calendar, which would establish the month of the exodus as the first month. As the Torah relates:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.[2]

Why the complication? Why do the Jewish people need to have two new years, one for the days of the year and one for the months of the year?

When we look at the world around us we notice that there are generally two tracks by which the world operates. The first is the natural, predictable order. The sun rises and sets, the seasons flow from one to the next, the agricultural cycle produces its crops. The first track is the one we call the path of nature. 

The second track is the one of the extraordinary and the unexpected. In every area in life there are moments that defy the predictions, shatter the expectations and leave us in a better place than we could have ever imagined. The second track we call the miraculous path.

Both tracks, the miraculous and the natural, lead to the same unified source, they are both expressions of the one G-d.[3] Judaism explains that both the ordinary as well as the extraordinary are expressions of the Divine. The consistent, unchanging, laws of nature, express the infinity of G-d just as powerfully as the miraculous and the unexpected, the rising sun is just as impressive an expression of the Divine as the splitting of the sea.

Thus Jews celebrate two new years in order to commemorate both aspects of Divine expression. On Rosh Hashanah, in the beginning of the fall, the opening of the agricultural cycle which follows the cycle of the sun, we are celebrating the Divine power expressed within the natural order. Just as the sun appears the same everyday, we need to excel in the realm of the predictable. If we want to reap the produce, we must plow and sow, following the order of nature established by G-d as an expression of his awesome power.

Six months later, we celebrate the new year for the months. We celebrate G-d’s unexpected, miraculous, blessings. As we celebrate the moon’s ability to reappear and reemerge, we remind ourselves of our own gift to miraculously reappear out of the darkness of the sky. We celebrate the supernatural blessings G-d has performed for his people and the ability He instilled within us to free ourselves from the confines of the predictable, and achieve the miraculous.

 


[1] Leviticus 23:24. 

[2] Exodus 12:1-2.

[3] See Hachodesh 5666. 

From Serpent to Staff

Staff.jpgFrom Serpent to Staff

Twice in the book of Exodus we read about a stick being turned into a snake and then back to a stick. This was the first sign G-d gave Moses, after Moses requested a sign to demonstrate that G-d had indeed spoken to Moses. And it is also the first sign that G-d instructed to Moses to demonstrate before Pharaoh.

It seems that the fluidity between snake and stick is critical to the story of freedom. It is the first sign because, in some ways, it is the most important sign, for both Pharaoh as well as the Jewish people, to internalize. 

Snake and stick are extreme opposites. There are various words for stick in Hebrew, (“Makel”, “Mateh”, “Mot”) the word used in this story is “Mateh” which refers to a walking stick designed to convey honor and dignity, which implies that the stick provides support for the person. The “Mateh”, the walking stick, is thought to be one of the earliest technologies that man learned to use for his own benefit.

The snake is the polar opposite of support to man. The snake does not lend itself to be domesticated, and ever since the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden there is animosity and hatred between the human being and the snake, as the Torah tells us:

And the Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this… And I shall place hatred between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed. He will crush your head, and you will bite his heel."[1]

The first step in breaking the oppression of Egypt was the recognition that the destructive serpent, which is at war with man, and the supportive staff, are one and the same, and are therefore interchangeable.

The serpent is a metaphor for the animalistic instincts within the person that can sometimes lead man on a path of negativity and destruction. In the story of the Garden of Eden, G-d cursed the serpent; the curse was that the person would perceive the snake as the enemy. When a person looks within his heart and senses a tendency to be self centered and destructive, the person views it as a serpent that can do nothing but destroy. As a result, the person becomes frightened of what he sees within himself. He feels trapped by his own internal animalistic cravings, he feels he has no choice but to succumb to its powerful lure, and becomes enslaved to and entrapped by, his internal negativity.    

Indeed, Moses was frightened by the sight of the snake:

“And He (G-d) said, "Cast it to the ground," and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from before it.”[2]

G-d then instructs Moses to overcome his fear and grab the snake:

And the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch forth your hand and take hold of its tail." So Moses stretched forth his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand.[3]

The message to Moses was that the first step on the road to inner freedom, the first step in taking control of one’s life, is the recognition that the curse of the serpent as the enemy of man can be healed.

As soon as Moses grabbed the serpent in his hand, as soon as he resolved to take control of and channel the animalistic desires and passions, that passion ceased to be a destructive serpent and, when applied correctly, fueled an outburst of targeted positive growth.   

This then was the message to Pharaoh: you may continue using the power of your kingdom to dominate and enslave, to be a destructive serpent, which will eventually lead to the ruination of Egypt, or you may channel the mighty power of your empire to be a source of positivity for all people. The choice is yours.

The story of the Exodus, with all its intricate details, plays out in the heart of every man and woman. The key to internal freedom is the understanding that we are not enslaved to our inner negativity and we are not entrapped by our inner serpent. To free ourselves we must realize that the passion disguised as a serpent can and must be elevated, channeled, and, when grasped by the mind, it is bound to become a source of support and fuel for all that is pure and kind.[4]


____________________

[1] Genesis 3:14-15.

[2] Exodus 3:3.

[3] Ibid. 4:4.

[4] Adapted from Malbim on Exodus 4:4. 

Creator of the Future

Creator of the Future Moses.jpg

At the burning bush Moses was called upon to start a revolution. He was called upon to inspire a people bound in slavery to break free from their Egyptian masters and become a liberated people. This transformation was possible only by revolting against the common philosophical beliefs and attitudes regarding the universe that prevailed in Egypt at that time.

This explains why, before he agreed to accept the mission to Pharaoh, Moses raised the question about G-d’s name:

And Moses said to G-d, "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.'"[1]

This exchange seems strange. What is the meaning of this strange name “I will be what I will be”? Of all the questions Moses could have asked G-d why was it so important for Moses to know the name of G-d? The discussion of G-d’s name seems to interrupt the flow of the story - G-d’s effort to convince Moses to accept the mission to Pharaoh, and ignite the flame of freedom within the Jewish people.  

In truth, however, in this exchange lies the heart of the story of the Exodus. 

Pharaoh and the Egyptians believed that G-d created the world. Yet the word “created” was in the past tense. Egypt and its culture believed that G-d interacted with the universe at  a single moment, at the point of creation; in the distant past, G-d was responsible for setting the process of creation into motion. Once the laws of nature had been established, G-d could no longer interfere and influence the nature of the world. After the genesis of the universe, they thought, the laws of nature reigned supreme, rendering both G-d and man subject and enslaved to the inevitable and unchanging natural order.   

There can be no Exodus, no freedom, until people realize the fallacy of a G-d of the past. People can never be free, unless they first realize that G-d is free.

Moses asked G-d, when I come to the Jews and declare that G-d sent me to announce that freedom is imminent, the first question they will ask is “what is His name”? What are His attributes? How can we expect a G-d frozen in the past to shatter the natural order and create change in the present?

G-d responded to Moses: “I will be what I will be”. While “creator” represents the past, “I will be”, represents the future.

This is the revolutionary idea the Jewish people needed to hear before they could dream of freedom. G-d is not enslaved to the natural order created in the past, on the contrary, G-d will be what he chooses to be. He is free to be whatever He chooses to be, and He gives humanity the ability to so the same.

The most bitter form of slavery is internal slavery. The most confining form of bondage is when a person believes he is trapped by his nature, shackled by past experiences and imprisoned by past failures.

At the burning bush, Moses received the key to redemption. G-d is G-d, not only because of what He created in the past, but primarily because of his ability to influence the future.

“I will be what I will be”. G-d is free. He can be whatever He chooses to be, and, by cleaving to Him, the human being, too, can attain true freedom, and be whatever he chooses to be.[2]

 _____________________

[1] Exodus 3, 13-14.

[2] Based on the commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsh.

 

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