January 27th: Va’era
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
I would like to share two practical lessons this week—one from an obscure verse in last week’s Torah portion, and another from the opening passage of this week’s portion.
Last week, we read about the enslavement in Egypt (began by the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph”), the birth and early life of Moses, and his call by God at the Burning Bush. Among the issues facing Moses’ decision to obey God and return to Egypt is the fact that Moses is a “wanted man.” After killing the taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave, “Pharaoh sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian...” (Exodus 2.15) In case Moses is thinking that he’ll be arrested as soon as he sets foot in Egypt, God tells him, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.” (Exodus 4.19)
I think of this verse, from time to time, when people feel the need to explain to me why they do not belong to the congregation or attend services. Often, the explanation involves someone or something that drove them away many years before. In one particular case (in another state and many years ago), a man was explaining to me that he didn’t attend services because he didn’t want to encounter his estranged sister. I did not know what to say at the time, but the fact is that he would have been quite safe attending services. His sister was never there either! As for the obnoxious things or people from years ago, there is an excellent chance that they are no longer here or active or the same. It’s just a shame to let bad memories or experiences prevent us from a place or activity that could very well be very different—and very worthwhile.
A second lesson comes from the opening passage in this week’s Torah portion. In Exodus 2.2-4, we read, “Elohim/God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord/Adonai (the Four Letter Name we do not pronounce). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My Name Adonai (the Four Letter Name we do not pronounce).”
In other words, the One God reveals Itself to humans through different names—different persona. This is true for the Jews, and, as our Tradition teaches, it is true for the non-Jews. The Prophet Amos (9.7) is quite clear in teaching that God loves all peoples and actively participates in their fates. “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians—declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the Land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.”
As for the religious truths of the Gentiles, they can come from God just like ours. This is expressed in the Midrashic treatment of the Biblical character Balaam. Though in Numbers, he is a little sketchy—a prophet for hire who must be threatened by God and educated by his donkey before relenting from cursing the Israelites, the Midrash turns him into a respected religious leader. The Rabbis speak of him being on the same level as Moses—with Moses being God’s representative to the Jews, and Balaam being God’s representative to the Gentiles. In other words, God loves everyone, and God wants everyone to know the One God and Divine Truth. This is also why, the Midrash explains, God gives the Ten Commandments out in the middle of nowhere: it was given to the whole world, and not just the Jews. This is why the Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 105a) that, “The righteous of all nations/religions have a place in the world to come.”
A modern lesson from these Traditional insights is that, though there are differences of opinion among different religions, there are nonetheless truths and values that we share. This is the basis of interfaith work, and this can lead to understanding, mutual respect, and cooperation.
One of the challenges facing our society today is the concern that those on the other side politically have lost their values (honesty, righteousness, compassion, etc.). This doubt and suspicion is seen on all sides. Though there are significant political differences, I believe that many of the common values we treasure can be found among people of all political opinions. There are a number of religious leaders who join me in this belief, and we are committed to working on our community’s sense of conscience and shared sensibilities.
Among the many programs being planned is one we are going to host at the synagogue.
On February 24th, our Friday evening worship service will be an interfaith event called: A Sabbath Service for the Community and for Our Communal Aspirations. We shall use our regular prayer book, showing our visitors the way a Jewish Service works, and we shall choose the readings that speak of our universal commitment to justice, righteousness, and kindness. I shall lead the service, and I shall invite some Christian clergy to read some of the prayers. The Torah portion (Mishpatim) will be read, and then the sermon will be given by our neighbor (and a native Louisianan), Reverend Dean Lindsey of the State College Presbyterian Church. As his starting point, I suspect he will be using the verse from the parashah, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9)
God speaks in many voices and to different people differently. This is not to say that every opinion or action is godly, but rather, there is a great diversity in the ways that God is understood and the ways that godly virtues are pursued. The key in a multicultural, multi-religious, and democratic society is to keep our shared moral values before our eyes and to work together to pursue them.
I hope that you will join us at this community event and invite your non-Jewish friends to join you.