Thursday, December 27, 2007

Discord and Dialogue (Shemot)

Regular contributor Casseopia drops knowledge like she's got enough to lose. Check her latest post below:

This week, we begin the book of Exodus with Parshat Shemot. A lot happens in this Parsha, including the entire first half of Cecil B. DeMille's movie: from the Hebrew slaves being put to task building Pithom and Ramses to Moses’s marriage to Tzipporah in the desert of Midian. This is the Parsha where it all goes down – Moses meets God for the first time at the burning bush, and he begins his life’s work of bringing the Jewish people to Israel.

The story of Exodus is an epic tale of oppression, revolution, and freedom. This story is so crucial to the Jewish faith that we tell it three times during the year – once in shul, as read from the Torah, and once at each of the two sedorot (Passover meals) as we read from the Haggadah. Why is this story so important to us? What does this story reveal about Judaism and how does it apply to the way we practice Judaism today?

My experience as a Jew is both spiritual and political. I am frequently called upon to contribute my opinion regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict “as a Jew”, as if my thoughts on the matter are more valid than those of any gentile. I find, ironically, that it is most difficult to express my opinion on the matter because I am Jewish. Is it okay for me to criticize Israel’s actions? Is it kosher to sympathize with the Palestinian people? Can I be a leftist and also be a Zionist?

The Torah (and incidentally, nearly every Israeli I’ve met) answers a resounding: "Yes!" The Torah teaches that we should rise up in the face of an oppressive government, that we should seek out strong leaders and hold them accountable for their actions. It is our heritage to call people out when they do wrong, whether you’re a slave in Egypt (Exodus 2:11-14), or a card-carrying member of the first middle eastern democracy.

Dialogue and discord are encouraged in Judaism. The Torah teaches that it’s okay to struggle, that’s it’s okay to get things wrong. -- the interaction is what has value.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Torah Gets Up on That Ass ... (Shemot)

My boy D Lycious hit me with a surprise commentary this week, so check the kid's debut post below:

Long before Sir Mixalot, us Jews have been "getting up on that ass" for centuries now. In Parshat Shemot, after HaShem does His best rendition of my favorite Pesach song, "Go Down Moses," there is an innocuous verse where Moses and fam do as HaShem says (which is always a good decision):
So Moses took his wife and his sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt ... (Exodus 4:20)
Seems pretty simple, right? What better form of transportation to get to Egypt than a friendly, run-of-the-mill beast of burden? But as with everything in Torah, there is something deeper at play here ...

Why "the donkey"? I don’t know this donkey from my ass (pun intended), so why are we on such a close basis? Wouldn’t "a" donkey suffice as transportation to Egypt? Sure, but because dayenu, it would have been enough for a donkey to take them to Egypt, this must be “the” donkey of some yet-to-be-uncovered fame.

Let’s look a bit deeper: In Hebrew, the word for donkey is chamor, which appears in a few places before, such as when it comes to Abraham. There is a very similar situation where Abraham specifically packs up (in this case) "his donkey," namely during the Akedah or binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Talmudic scholar Rashi, referencing Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, has my back on this one. In his commentary of Exodus 4:20, he writes, that our ass is the donkey that "Abraham saddled for the binding of Isaac, and that is the one upon whom the King Messiah is destined to appear, as it is said: 'humble, and riding a donkey.' " (Zechariah 9:9)

Evidently this ass gets around and he’s pretty damn old, and evidently still kicking if the Messiah needs to get up on that ass some time in the future. Additionally, this chamor seems to have a magical power for seeking out the spotlight. First, he wanders in when Abraham performs the ultimate test of faith and then -- lo and behold -- the ass is there when Moses is sent to redeem HaShem's children from Egypt.

So right of the bat you know that Abraham’s ass is pretty magical, both in age and at stepping in shit. To quickly segue, we see that the ass is far more magical that Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey, who only helps one person do one particular important thing, but not as magical as Shrek’s buddy, Donkey, who also just helps one person but can talk! But if it’s a talking ass you want, all we have to do is look ahead to the portion of Balak, where Moses and people Israel come in contact with another chamor.

I’m sure that you’ll be able to read up more on this Parsha when it comes around in July or so, but for now, here’s a brief rundown: Moses has led the People Israel through the land of Moab, where the King Balak doesn’t take too kindly to them round there and sends a prophet, Balaam, to go curse the People Israel. Balaam "saddled his ass" to go with the princes of Moab to overlook the People Israel and curse them, but oddly enough his ass veered off course when HaShem sent an angel to stand in its path. Balaam didn’t really like this so he started beating the donkey, at which point HaShem made the donkey speak to Balaam with the proverbial "Why you gotta do me like that?" Then HaShem reveals to Balaam the angel that had been in the donkey’s way and Balaam is persuaded begrudgingly to become a double agent for HaShem against King Balak of Moab.

Overall, the Torah has many parables about asses. In particular it is associated with the physical and material -- chamor comes from the word chomer, which means "physicality." In Abraham’s and Balaam’s case, they "saddled" the ass, from the Hebrew word yachvosh, which comes from the verb "to conquer." However, when Moses "mounted" his family upon the chamor, the Hebrew word was yarkivem, which comes from the verb "to ride." What is different between these settings?

Abraham and Balaam, who are contrasted in Talmud (Pirke Avot 5:22, were required to submit to HaShem’s will and reject the physical, material temptations to either not kill your own son (understandable) or to be greedy (also understandable, but not as admirable). They had to "conquer" the physical world in order to perform the task at hand. However, for Moses, HaShem had already in the previous part of the Parsha explained what the true task was. Whether Moses and family got to Egypt by plane, train, or automobile, they just needed to get there; though the task was similar for Moses and his family -- to liberate the People Israel from their physical oppression and slavery, to conquer Pharaoh’s material grasp on their lives -- they were merely along for the "ride."

So it is with life, that though we may all strive to be more spiritual and do away with the material crap that seems to weigh us down, it’s cool to use asses ... I mean, the physical world, to get us where we want to be spiritually.

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