Divine Seeds and Roots of Redemption

Joshua Block, Fun-A-Day January 1, 2019

Joshua Block, Fun-A-Day January 1, 2019

Divine Seeds and Roots of Redemption

We are deep in winter, the season of dormant seeds. We’ve brought what plants we can indoors and released our outside gardens to rest and regenerate underground during the colder months.

This year, the holiday of Tu b’Shvat falls on January 21 – hardly ideal tree-planting season in Philadelphia. Growing up on the East Coast, I’ve always associated this holiday with the coldest weather, but even that is no longer a given; in my lifetime, winters in the Northeastern U.S. have become warmer. In the Middle East, where this holiday originated, the growing seasons are also less predictable. The changing global climate and its effect on seasons add a layer of uncertainty to our planting cycles that our ancestors likely did not anticipate.

In Winter we read Shemot (The Book of Exodus), which begins by listing the names of our ancestors who were brought by Joseph to Egypt. Over the following centuries, they multiplied, and the new narrative begins: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex 1: 8).

Joseph the Dreamer has died, and the new Pharaoh does not know Joseph. Maybe Pharaoh doesn’t know Joseph’s ways, doesn’t care what Joseph did for the old Pharaoh, or chooses not to recognize the status Joseph’s family once enjoyed in Egypt. In any case, we know where this story is headed: Slavery; the resistance of five women; Moshe’s charge from God; the demand for freedom; the Plagues.

 The Ten Plagues storm through the text at a ruthless, rhythmic pace. Scholar Ziony Zevit reads them as a dark mirror of the Creation story, in which each plague reverses an utterance of creation: poisoning water; overrunning the earth with creatures of sky, land, and sea; destroying vegetation; killing animals over which people were given dominion in Eden; reverting light back to darkness; and finally, destroying God’s own likeness: The firstborn of Egypt and all the Egyptian warriors at the Sea of Reeds. Zevit concludes:

“At the end of the narrative in Exodus, Israel looks back over the stilled water of the sea at a land with no people, no animals and no vegetation, a land in which creation had been undone” (“Exodus in the Bible and the Egyptian Plagues,” Bible History Daily, Biblical Archaeological Society, 3.11.2018).

 Why would God undo Creation in Egypt?

Most of us probably learned as kids that God kept smacking the Egyptians with plagues in order to convince Pharaoh to give up and let the Israelites go. But any kid will tell you that you can’t pummel someone into kindness. And if we read the Torah text carefully, it becomes obvious that the Plagues were never meant to convince the Egyptians to change their behavior. Quite the opposite: Pharaoh is unable to soften his heart because God will not let him; Pharaoh is a puppet, operating as if under the Imperius Curse (looking at you, Harry Potter fans). God controls Pharaoh’s heart, repeatedly hardening it against Pharaoh’s own interests: “Adonai said to Moshe, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers …’” (Ex 10:1).

Pharaoh’s and his courtiers’ responses are manipulated by God. This means the lesson here is not actually for them, for how can they learn and change if they are puppets? But if the Plagues aren’t there to teach Pharaoh a lesson, whom are they meant to influence?

Well, arguably, the enslaved Israelites. This whole endeavor would be pointless if the Israelites weren’t willing to actually pick up and leave, and they may need a fair amount of bombastic convincing to do so; sometimes you can’t imagine a different reality until yours crashes down around you.

The enslaved Israelites are one target audience for the show of Plagues. But the Torah explicitly addresses an additional audience: The verse quoted above goes on to say that God has hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and courtiers specifically “ … in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians – so that you will know that I am Adonai” (Ex 10: 1-2 – my emphasis).

The second “you” here is us, the descendants of those enslaved Israelites. The authors of the Torah are reaching across the millennia to speak directly to us. But what, exactly, are they saying? That God is God? What could that possibly mean to us, here and now?

We exist in a time in which so much of what we have created is being undone: protections for nature, civil society, human rights, democratic institutions. Worse, our disregard for the Earth is causing Creation itself to change: Floods, rapid extinctions of species, death of crops, ruptures of ecosystems, fires, drought, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, massive human displacement and starvation. Exacerbated by global warming from the fossil fuels we burn, these modern plagues are making the Earth a less hospitable place for us to inhabit.

I asserted earlier that our ancestors could not have anticipated the ecological uncertainty, the undoing of creation as we know it, that we face in this era. But now I’m not so sure. As we look backwards across millennia and read about the plagues unraveling Creation in ancient Egypt, we understand that the ancestors are indeed speaking to us from just such a moment, and offering the wisdom of their story:

“A new king arose who did not know Joseph.”

When we abandon the pursuit of dreams, we begin the undoing of Creation.

At some point we stopped knowing how to dream. We started assuming that human development and creation must always end in ecological mess, that our civil structures necessarily lead to corruption. From the moment we started de-funding art and education, we chose not to believe in our ability to be better. From that moment, we forgot what the ancients have been trying to tell us, that God is God (“Ani Adonai” – “I am God”); that God is a creator, and that we, created in God’s image, are also creators.

I’m not convinced we’ve completely abandoned Joseph. One benefit of the darker, colder months is that there’s more time to sleep, to replenish, to dream. As we tuck in for the remainder of the winter, let’s use this season of sleeping seeds and quiet rejuvenation to dream up a new garden of our beliefs, civil structures, our planet – and all the little mirrors of Creation we make along the way.

In praise of Creation: Barukh she amar v’haya ha’olamBarukh Hu. Blessed is the One who speaks the world into being. Blessed is That One.

A propos mirrors of Creation: Join Fun-A-Day: Create or work on a piece of art every day in January! (Visual art, music, photography, dance, etc. all count!)

Dissonant Doubles: The Trouble With Joseph

Double Joseph Coats.png

I have a beef with Joseph. The Joseph in the Torah. The rainbow dreamer. The tender, braggy kid who is bullied by his brothers and mercilessly sold by them into slavery. Ok, maybe it wasn’t the most tactful idea to share with his brothers his dreams about ruling over them one day. But on balance, that’s just being the youngest sibling; Joseph’s dreams are not the source of my beef.

My beef with Joseph also isn’t that he matured into a tender, smart, enterprising young man who served his employers faithfully, loved his father deeply, and missed his brothers so much that he finally forgave them for almost killing and then selling him (but not without making them sweat a little first). I love the Joseph who saved his whole family from famine and brought them to live near him in Egypt. 

I have no beef with Joseph having saved Egypt, as well as many foreign, starving refugees, during a period of great famine.

Just to be clear: I love the story of Joseph. Every year I get more emotional reading it. I see my son in that tender boy and weeping young man; I see my daughter in Joseph’s ability to both dream for himself and intuitively understand others’ dreams. I see both my kids in the (only slightly exaggerated) sibling rivalry. Drawn in, no doubt, by the novella-like style in which this chunk of Torah is written, I deeply identify with Joseph. These days, when I get to the part where the Torah says, “Joseph could no longer control himself” for the love and emotion he felt toward his brothers (Gen 45:1), and he breaks down crying, I always seem to have a little something caught in my eye.

And the happy ending for Jacob’s clan? Love it. The Broadway musical based on this story (of which I can sing you every song and all the interim narration) resolves with a rousing number as Father Jacob travels down to Egypt with his entire family to re-unite with all his sons. Joseph settles his family comfortably in choicest land of the region and sustains them all, “down to the little ones” (Gen 47:12). They are well-fed and cared for, with the blessing of Pharaoh himself.

What’s not to like about Joseph?

It’s the story after the story: After Israel descends to Egypt, the intimate portrait of Joseph’s inner life ends, and the Torah resumes at a faster, more fable-like narrative clip, detailing the career of the mature Joseph in the later years of famine and beyond.

While Joseph settles his family comfortably in Egypt, his approach to the Egyptian people appears to shift course: He capitalizes on the famine by selling back to the hungry Egyptians their own food -- the food he had initially collected from them in the preceding years of plenty. In exchange for this food, “Joseph gathered in all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations being procured, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace” (Gen 47:14). When the people run out of money, Joseph acquires first their livestock and then their land for Pharaoh. He provides the people with seed to plant, and institutes an ongoing tax of one-fifth of each family’s harvest. In short, the end of Parshat Vayiggash explains how bit by bit, Joseph diverts the country’s wealth into Pharaoh’s coffers, and converts the Egyptian farmers into serfs. Thanks to Joseph, Israel emerges from the famine in good shape, Pharaoh emerges vastly enriched, and the people of Egypt and Canaan emerge severely impoverished.  


Joseph, a ruthless capitalist who exploits the people under his charge and enriches Pharaoh at their expense? This does not square with the tender, generous Joseph I still hold in my heart from the previous chapter.

Frankly, I don’t know what to do with the end of this story. A mere chapter ago I was crying with Joseph. But how can I read this part of the story and not hold him accountable? How do I grapple with the disconnect between the two Josephs – the generous, vulnerable Joseph whom I love and with whom I identify, and the Joseph who betrays and harms the people under his care?

Individually, the many colliding texts of which the Torah is comprised never intended for me to have to grapple with two versions of Joseph (or for that matter, two versions of Creation, or the Akedah). But those who complied and redacted the Torah texts, placing different accounts next to each other, perhaps saw here a deeper truth: In real life, those two Josephs can, and frequently do, reside in the same person.

Listening to the Supreme Court Justice hearings this past September and reading various opinions afterward, I realized that some of the nominee’s professional peers in Washington were grappling with two Josephs: The one they had known for years on the bench, and the one they were now getting a taste of as they witnessed his blustering, ballistic, and entitled behavior at the nomination hearing.

Dr. Blasey Ford already knew the latter Joseph. As is often the case with women, children, transfolk, people of color, and others who are vulnerable, she was forced to experience that Joseph while many others were either blithely unaware of the harm he was causing, or worse, his accomplices.

Most striking for me about those two weeks of the hearing was this: Dr. Ford’s testimony traversed the public sphere and sent tremors of recognition through the minds and bodies of everyone in the nation who has ever known anything along the spectrum of the fear and violation she described.

Those tremors shook our hearts and frazzled our nerves, waking many of us at night and besetting us with panic attacks, fits of sobbing, and headaches. The #MeToo movement was an awakening, and when Dr. Ford’s testimony hit, the effect was immediate, widespread, and deeply personal. Conversations, realizations, pain seemed to abound on women and transfolk’s social media groups and chat boards. There was suddenly not enough public or private space in which to place all this stirred-up emotion and body memory; internal cyclones that had long been tamped down spiraled through us, stirred by the external conversation. And then a week later, poof: The Supreme Court confirmation went through, the news cycle moved on, and save for a few brave and defiant news segments, public discussion of what Dr. Ford had said stopped. We resumed the daily work of our lives, consumed the ever-renewing breaking news, and stopped talking about the revolution that had just swept through our bodies.

But I’ve been thinking about all of us. I’ve been thinking especially about those of us still living or working in situations where both Josephs reside in someone whom we love or see every day. As we saw with Dr. Blasey Ford, it is hard enough to call out a stranger who has harmed us. If we are harmed by someone we love and on whom we depend, or even someone who is just a daily part of our reality, calling them out is so much harder. We run multiple risks in naming the harm: We risk harming our sense of who we are, and in many cases we risk our own well-being, our only source of support, our jobs, or our lives.

Multiple risks can quickly translate into multiple silence.

As a musician, I value silence. But not that kind of silence, stifled and fearful. In the face of that silence, my goal is to do what I can to make spaces where those silences can become voices. My wish and blessing for all of us, as we immerse ourselves in this season of longest nights, is that we are able to use our voices - and help others to use theirs - as beacons of light. Helping someone to find their voice can mean just asking the person closest to you how they are doing in the wake of September or all that’s happened since. And then listening to the answer, with empathy, and without trying to immediately fix it. Yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will) that we find the space - in our homes and in our public realms - for these conversations to not be ground back under the gears of the fickle news cycle, but to continue to shine forth, flourish, and multiply, taking all the time that they need to reveal themselves — and then take hold in our hearts, our actions, and our laws.

Top image: Joseph’s coat crafts, from The Lord’s Chips website

Parshat Terumah: Year II


Given at Society Hill Synagogue, Shabbat Terumah, February 17, 2018

This parsha (portion) has equal parts fans and haters: Architects, builders, knitters, math folks, and artisans love it. Torah leyners and people who prefer a good, juicy narrative hate it. This is because it reads kind of like an Ikea instruction manual: It’s got weird, technical words in it and complex assembly instructions – there is lots of opportunity here, for those so inclined, to geek out on the details of physical construction. As for the rest of us, we get a meta-narrative and one or two moments of deep symbolism. But I’m not complaining -- it's about art, and it's more narrative than, say, much of Leviticus.

In the first line of the portion, God tells Moshe, “Daber el b’nei Yisrael v’yik’hu li terumah,” “Tell the people of Israel to bring Me gifts.” Since this is one of the very few narrative sentences in the whole parsha (the next ninety-four verses describe how, to the cubit, to construct a holy edifice out of these gifts), let’s stay with this sentence for just a minute.

“V’yik’hu li terumah.” Terumah often gets translated as “gift” – which is correct, but incomplete. Terumah is a gift, but not the kind of gift you are born with or that just arrives miraculously, as in, “you have a gift for writing,” or “children are such a gift.” No, terumah is not a gift FROM God; rather, it is a gift TO God.

But terumah is not just any offering to God, either. In the Torah, anyone can make an individual ritual offering directly to God, but that has a different name: MinhaTerumah, on the other hand, specifically means “contribution”– in modern terms, the kind of gift you’d give to an organization or synagogue for a community project or fundraiser. Therefore, terumah necessitates a collective context; you make an offering to God, but you contribute to a community.

This becomes even clearer as we realize that each terumah God is asking for – gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper, yarns, tanned ram skins, acacia wood, etc. - is to be used in the larger collective project of building a big, beautiful mikdash, a sanctuary.

Building this mikdash demands the very attentive labor of probably every skill set in the community - artists, artisans, carpenters, miners, masons, jewelers, dolphin hunters, you name it - not to mention all the cooking, childcare, and maintenance needed to support a community involved in such an elaborate project.

In last year’s post on this parsha (scroll down two posts to the picture of lapis lazuli), I wrote about the great scholar Rashi and his take on hidur mitzvah, the act of beautifying a good deed. Essentially, Rashi describes a process in which the creator of a holy object “toils to become beautiful” by making the object as beautiful as it can be. In Rashi’s view, beauty enters the artist/artisan/builder/creator through their act of creating something beautiful.

Right at the start of in this portion, God asks the entire community to engage in a huge, communal act of hidur mitzvah: building not just any sanctuary, but one with extensive artistic detail. Then, in the one other narrative nugget we get, God explains why: “V’asu li mikdash- v’shachanti betocham” – “Let them make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.”

The mishkan is the house, or physical container. The mikdash is the sanctuary, or holy space. God says, Let them build me a mikdash (holy space), and then gives specific instructions for how to build and beautify the mishkan (the physical house) that will contain it.

The first thing to notice here is that God does not say, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in IT,” the sanctuary. Instead, God says, “I will dwell among THEM,” i.e., the people who made the sanctuary. This begs the question: Do the people who made the mikdash have to be inside it for God to dwell among them? The language suggests no: It is the act of making the mikdash, not their presence in the mikdash, that brings God to them.

The second thing to notice is the word “betocham” – literally, “in them.” “V’Shachanti betocham” is often translated as “I will dwell among them,” but it can also mean, “I will dwell inside them.”

This can be read to mean that God is brought not only into the collective but inside each person - each person becomes a Holy container - through their act of terumah, of contributing to the collective project. Just as in Rashi's view we become beautiful by creating beauty, so by making the mishkan, we ourselves become the mikdash.

When gentiles in Nazi Europe harbored Jews, they became the mikdash.

When free Americans made their houses into stops on the Underground Railroad, they became the mikdash.

When we contribute to building shelters for people experiencing homelessness, we become the mikdash.

When we shelter, sustain, and stand up for abused women, LGBTI folk, and children, we become the mikdash.

When we make our cities into sanctuaries for immigrants pursued by ICE, we become the mikdash.

When we open our classrooms and use our bodies to shield students from bullets, we become the mikdash.

When we act to make space in our legislatures and write laws to protect everyone from violence in our communities, we become the mikdash.

May we toil to become beautiful. And now more than ever, may we find and keep finding our ways, individually and collectively, to become the mikdash.

Get Up: Some Thoughts About Shoftim

Bob the Rooster. Photo: J. Roemer

Bob the Rooster. Photo: J. Roemer

Wake up. And stay awake.

This is the unified command in both this week's texts.

Since Tisha B’Av, our prophets in the Haftarah have been comforting us - “nahamu, nahamu, ami” (“comfort, comfort my people”) - as we remember the destruction of our ancient Temple and re-mourn the long-ago exile of our leaders. The prophets have been singing to us of a redemptive future, gently promising our shattered people that we will gain a new foundation covered in precious gems, and assuring us that our grandchildren will know peace.

And while there are still two more weeks of consolation coming in the Haftarah, this week is different from those previous: We are encouraged to rise from our mourning, to wake up and shake off the stupor of despair. It is from this week’s Haftarah that the Kabbalist poet Elazar ben Moshe Azikri borrowed the most rousing phrases for his Shabbat poem, “Lecha Dodi”: “Hitoreri, hitoreri” - “Wake up, wake up!” - “Uri Uri” - “Awake, awake” - “Livshi bigdei tifartech” - “Put on your robes of majesty” - “Hitna’ari Me’afar Kumi” - “Shake off the dust and get up!”

The message? Five weeks out from Tisha B’Av, it is time to rise from mourning and exile, to re-join the world of moral responsibility. Isaiah exhorts us: “Sovevu, sovevu, tzu mi sham” (“Turn around, turn around; depart from there"); "Do not touch impurity. Keep pure as you depart from there.” A second Exodus is imminent, he implies, and if we can get with the program, this time we will not leave the land of our oppressors in haste or in flight, but rather with God marching in front of us and guarding our back. It is time to wake up and re-join the living.

This week’s partner Torah portion, Shoftim, also heralds a new coming into consciousness for the People Israel. While the Haftarah has us emerging from a period of mourning and spiritual slumber after the Temple’s destruction, Shoftim telescopes us backward in time to a moment toward the end of our wandering in the desert, just before we are about to enter the land where the Temple will eventually be built. From his deathbed outside the land of Canaan, Moshe is instructing the people how to go about building a civil society once they are settled in one place.

The theme in this portion? Wake up. Act right. Don’t let anyone fall morally asleep -- individuals (including, it is specified, non-male individuals), judges, priests, towns, nations, and especially kings. Don’t fall prey to greed, don’t take bribes, don’t worship other gods, respect the authority of civil and spiritual servants. Public servants must not overreach: Priests may not acquire land; kings may not amass riches in excess or lose physical sight of this teaching.

In the first few verses, we hear the command: “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” -- “Justice, justice pursue.” This is one of our richest slogans, often used as a source text for the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam, our obligation to repair the world and fight for justice.

In the spirit of pursuing justice, Shoftim contains several specific instructions for how to govern fairly -- some revolutionary even today, and some surprisingly decent by the standards of the time:

  • Create an undiscriminating legal system;
  • Establish a meticulous process for inquiry in determining guilt;
  • Never rely on the account of one witness alone;
  • Always protect trees, even on the land of your enemy;
  • Take collective responsibility for an anonymous crime;
  • Offer a neighboring city the option of peaceful surrender before conquering it;
  • Do not deploy soldiers who have ambivalent hearts or who stand to die without ever having harvested their land or married their betrothed;
  • Establish and evenly distribute a proportional number of sanctuary cities to the total amount of land possessed by the nation.
  • I repeat: Establish evenly dispersed sanctuary cities throughout the nation, to where accused innocents from anywhere can flee and be protected from persecution.

There is much here that we today may find morally just and imperative. But “tzedek,” like “justice” in English, does not automatically imply compassion; Shoftim also contains harsh, heartless laws and inhumane repercussions:

  • The command to slaughter everyone in the area where the People of Israel will live, lest they be influenced by strangers’ ways;
  • The instruction to loot nearby towns, impose forced labor on human beings and take them as property;
  • The insistence upon public stoning for the transgression of worshipping other gods.

In fact, rather than implying a global, moral justice, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” in the context of ancient society-building, seems more to mean that the people should steadfastly adhere to a strict system of law and order, cause and effect, transgression and punishment. “Justice” here is pretty much a set of laws defined to maintain the order of monotheism and the political dominance of the People of Israel in the land which they are about to conquer.

Fortunately, the more universal applications of justice and governance - those on the first list - shine out at us across centuries, despite the archaic and brutal context in which they arose, a context in which all the things on the second list were still acceptable. But I don’t advocate glossing over that second list, because it is to the danger of this: a narrow definition of justice, or the execution of it without compassion - the underbelly of tzedek, if you will - that we must also stay awake.

For this reason, this Shabbat I plan to chant the part about public stoning in Eicha trop, the melody of Lamentations that we chant on Tisha B’av.* This is how, after reminding myself, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” I will lament the cruel behaviors that are also our human inheritance, and that we still haven’t unlearned, thousands of years later. This is how I will assert that:

We must not only be meticulous in determining guilt; we must be judicious in defining transgression to begin with, create humane structures that don’t funnel people toward incarceration, and make room for as much forgiveness and re-integration as humanly possible.

We must not only claim collective responsibility for crimes on our soil that we did not witness; we must take collective responsibility for the crimes we committed when we first came to this soil, and continue to commit, collectively.

We must not only approach other groups in peace; we must try to change the way we see them until we can see ourselves in them. And we must love ourselves. This way we will not be able to objectify, dehumanize, or demonize anyone.

This Shabbat, I will interpret the call from my ancestors through these pages, and from my predecessors through their essays, their activism, their art, their physical work - to wake up, again and again. And when the week begins, I will try, again and again, to convert that "awakeness" into practice.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dedicated to the life and memory of Marguerite Rosenthal, who loved her musical and activist Jewish heritage, and who dedicated her whole life to waking up and pursuing justice in the global, moral sense. And to her son, Ben, daughter-in-law Nancy, and grandchildren Leah and Ezra, who are this week emerging from their first year of mourning her death. May they be comforted - nahamu, nahamu - and may Marguerite’s legacy live on in us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.

*Protesting content through use of trop was the original idea of Professor Shulamit Magnus, who would chant the "Sotah" ritual (Numbers 5: 12-31) in Eicha trop.

Parshat Terumah: The Magic of Things

Last night, my 8-year-old asked me to explain what a noun is. “Sure,” I said, “it’s word that describes a person, place, or thing.”

This puzzled him. “Isn’t everything a thing?”

“Well, yes. And no. Plato kind of thought that way: He said everything is a concept. But in this case, ‘thing’ means something you can touch, feel, or visit.”


He worked his way down his spelling list, trying to identify the nouns, and stopped again.

“What about ‘together’?” he asked. “’Together’ is a thing.”

I could see what he meant. Technically, ‘together’ is an adverb; it describes how we do things. Or an adjective: it describes us as we do them. But ‘together’ can also feel bigger than that; the noun “togetherness” doesn’t even do that feeling justice -- “togetherness” separates the people from the thing they are feeling, from the way they are being. “Together,” on the other hand, describes action, people, state of being, and feeling all at once. Like love, it’s a thing.

Eight-year-olds are natural philosophers. But they are also realists. “Is it or isn’t it a noun, Mama?”

“You’re right,” I told him, “but on the test, keep ‘together’ out of the noun column.”

Parshat Terumah begins at the top of Mt Sinai, with a list of nouns: words describing things. But not just any things: terumot (physical contributions or gifts) from community members to God.

“YHVH spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece” (Ex: 25: 1-7).

These are not just raw materials casually picked up off the ground or off a tree. Consider for a moment the human skill and labor required to produce each of these material gifts; behind each of these nouns is several implied verbs: mine, and melt; plant, harvest, spin and dye; tend, catch, skin, tan; chop, saw, sculpt, sand; raise, cure, press; grow, dry; prospect and refine. So much individual human work behind each terumah, each offering of the heart. Their value is the physical beauty that results when humans work natural material with loving intention.

Jews have a value concept called hidur mitzvah: the Jewish action of using one’s labor or resources to beautify the physical object of a mitzvah (a commanded good deed). My favorite description of hidur mitzvah comes from the great scholar Rashi, as he describes the work of a Torah scribe:

“To display the beauty of the script and the splendor of its owner who toiled to become beautiful through the mitzvah as it states, 'This is my G-d and I will glorify Him,' (Shemot 15:2), be comely with mitzvot- a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sefer Torah with beautiful parchment, beautiful ink and an expert scribe.” - Rashi, Meseches Yoma, s.v. L'Haros.

In Rashi’s view of hidur mitzvah, intention, action, and physical product are all one; to “toil to become beautiful through the mitzvah” describes a way of living in which art, prayer, beauty, and labor are not separate from each other. Together, they are a thing. In this first passage of Terumah, where each Israelite whose heart so moves them is asked to offer their holy creation to God as a gift, holy craftsmanship starts with the heart; all the attention to artful detail is merely an extension of that initial desire to contribute.

Art begins from the heart. This I knew. What I find so surprisingly lovely in Rashi is the splendor he sees in the artist who is trying to become beautiful by creating something beautiful.

Artists don’t always see splendor in themselves. Just as parents, humbled by parenting, can lose sight of themselves in the toil of parenting or the splendor of their children, artists can fall prey to social constructs that see art as a noun instead of a verb, and forget that the art is both our process and our product. To be an artist is to constantly strive to answer one’s demons with beauty. Rashi’s kindness is to see the splendor in that, and in us.

But even after all this work, these artful terumot of the Israelites are not to be left as individual offerings -- for what use has God for random hunks of lapis lazuli? These terumot are all raw materials for the larger, communal project outlined in the next sentence: “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex: 25: 8).

Here the instructions for artistry become even more refined: how to overlay the ark in pure gold, with cherubim on its cover; how to sculpt the lampstand, hammered from one piece of gold, with cups shaped “like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals” (Ex: 25: 33).

Now the sculptors and carpenters and stone-setters, the weavers, welders, and builders, are not working alone; they have a common project: to create a beautiful sanctuary, together.

Many of my communities, friends, and allies stood together in Philadelphia this week, as they have been standing most weeks since November 9, to create a sanctuary – for immigrants, minorities, all people who those now in power are encouraging others to target. To speak the following truth to power and to each other: Love will prevail. We will see to that. Together.

They did it with hidur mitzvah – with music, and prayer, and sparkles. They built sanctuary with each of their very different beautiful faces and bodies, and many more who couldn’t physically be there sent their terumot of love and money.

From half a world away, I read and followed and texted with some of them, feeling isolated and connected at the same time, wishing I could beam myself over and stand with them, offer my physical terumah to the communal project of building this beautiful sanctuary. But since I couldn’t, this Shabbat I offer my words, begun in my heart and labored over, given their initial polish and brought as a gift to the place of communal building, to be further refined and set into the larger structure of the sanctuary we are building together – where bold ideas, loving practice, and people of all kinds are protected. So that God may dwell among us.

Our holy work right now is to teach those who don't yet understand that the stronger move is always towards each other. That intention, action, product, and beauty are all one. That "together" is a thing. 

I Appeared: Parshat Va'era

Parshat Va’era has a lot to tell us about seeing, been seen, appearing, and showing up. In the title sentence, God says to Moshe: “Va’era el Avraham, el Yitzhak, el Ya’akov b’El Shaddai;” "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob, as El Shaddai." I.e., this is me, the same Source of All Life who appeared to your ancestors. To them I appeared as El Shaddai.  God continues: My name is YHVH (a name we can’t pronounce). This is the first time we encounter this name for God in the text.

So much to unpack here, starting with the meaning of God’s previous name, El Shaddai, which can translate to "God of breasts." The move away from this title in this parsha could indicate a theological move away from a more feminine God. Or it could indicate a move away from God-as-parent towards God-as-unknowable-source-of-mystery.

That would be a fine discussion to have.

But today I'm going to focus on something else: The title word of this parsha, va’era, the root of which - resh, aleph – means “to see.” In the first person past tense, it means: “I was seen,” or “I appeared.”

I appeared to your ancestors. Did God actually “appear” to the ancestors? God TALKS to the ancestors a lot – maybe God shows up in the form of the three travelers that happen by Abraham’s tent; maybe God shows up as the ram in the thicket, maybe that’s God in the form of an angel, wrestling with Jacob all night by the bank of the river. Is that what God means by “I appeared” to your ancestors?

The word “appear” is one of those funny words that can mean a thing and its opposite: On the one hand, to appear is to actually show up, in the flesh, as if out of the blue. The concreteness of “appearing” becomes even more obvious when things DISappear. On the other hand, the word “appear” can also mean that we’re not sure that what we’re seeing is actually there, as in, “He appears to be telling the truth” --  meaning, nothing I can see indicates that he’s lying, but I maintain some doubt about what I can’t see.

Va’era el Avraham.” I appeared to Avraham. Maybe what God means here is, “I showed up for Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov,” which according to the Torah, God did, by intervening numerous times in human affairs. But the other, more doubting layer of “appear” becomes apparent in the second half of this whole sentence: “I appeared to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov as El Shaddai – u’shmi YHVH lo nodati lahem -- and my name, YHVH, I did not make known to them.” So God appeared to the ancestors as one thing (El Shaddai), but what they thought they were seeing was not the full story, as God is now revealing to Moshe. There is an implication here that El Shaddai was the form in which Moshe’s ancestors could comprehend God, so God appeared to them that way. Now that Moshe, or the people, are in a different phase of consciousness, God can reveal something more, or something different, about Godself.

It brings to mind the statement of Mahatma Ghandi, that “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” We see God in what we need most. That may not be all there is to God, but the God we are seeing is not a mirage or a deception; it is the part of God that is most relevant to us in a moment.

Of course, now that God has told Moshe that there’s more to God than God let on to the ancestors, we the readers feel in the know. NOW we know who the real God is: It’s YHVH. Except that, well, God could just be revealing to Moshe (and us) no more than WE can currently understand. So in this parsha we first encounter the concept that God might be a force that includes both what we see and something beyond what we can fathom.

The command “to see,” “Re’eh,” shows up several lines later, when God says to Moshe, “Re’eh, nataticha elohim l’Pharoh, v’Aharon achicha yihiyeh Neviecha.” “See, I have let you be God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your prophet.”

I’ve been puzzling over this sentence, which stands out so glaringly in such an otherwise emphatically monotheistic text. God is saying, “I will let you be / I have made you  God to Pharaoh.” God is appointing Moshe to be Pharaoh’s God, and Aaron Moshe’s prophet. Isn’t that avodah zara (serving other gods than YHVH)?

Many have interpreted this passage in a way that reconciles it with its apparent break from monotheism. Rashi interprets “Elohim” here to mean a judge and a chastiser, i.e., the Elohim of old, not really the God that we now know is YHVH. Indeed, many translations of Torah by Jews and non-Jews alike interpret “Re’eh, natiticha Elohim” to mean that Moshe is really God’s human proxy; he is only – in the doubting sense – “appearing” to be God in Pharaoh’s eyes, so that Aharon can deliver Moshe’s message to Pharaoh.

But I see something much more powerful in this language.

Remember that in the title line of the parsha, God said, “Va’era el Avraham,” meaning “I appeared to Avraham,” but also, “I showed up for Avraham. I intervened. This is how I showed up.” Now God is saying to Moshe, “Re’eh.” “See,” but also, “Appear.” Show up. This is how you will show up: You will show up as the God that Pharaoh needs to see – not the punishing, all-powerful God, but the God that lives in a human being.

Nataticha Elohim l’Pharoh.” I am empowering you to show the God in you to Pharaoh. The God in you is the God Pharaoh needs to see, because Pharaoh needs to understand that all beings are “B’Tselem Elohim,” the likeness of God. Only this will lead him to the conclusion that slaves must be released.

Here, YHVH is offering Pharaoh a last opportunity to come to a just realization, based on the likeness of God he sees in the man standing before him. And perhaps more importantly, God is offering Moshe the opportunity to drop his inhibitions and show up before Pharaoh as the truly marvelous creature of God that he is.

It is a tall order, and a scary one. Because this Pharaoh will not be swayed by Moshe’s Godliness. But Moshe must reveal himself anyway, because it is Moshe’s actions - not Pharaoh’s - that set in motion the liberation of his people.

This is how we must do it: We must reveal ourselves to Pharaoh as the true creatures of God that we are. We may not succeed in softening the heart of a despot whose heart only hardens with each passing day, with each tweet and executive order. But we must consistently demonstrate our belief in Pharaoh’s ability to see God in us. We don’t do this by hiding, or pretending to be what we aren’t, or by demanding any less than what is right. We do it by marching to the palace and repeating our demands: Let my people go.

Let my people IN.

Let my people EAT.

Let my water BE.

Despite any “apparent” futility of doing so, the seeds of our liberation lie first and foremost in our own acts of resistance and of showing up.

May YHVH bless us all with the courage to embody these empowering words: “Nataticha Elohim.” Go forth and be your God-selves.

In Praise of Elders: The Quiet Value of Yitro


This week's portion no doubt ranks high in the Torah Top Ten. It's got all the bells and whistles: Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, lightening, thunder, even smoke. It's got the making of a people, for heaven's sake -- you can't get more seminal than that. Much has been written, by people much smarter than I, about the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. It's a rich topic, but I'm not going there today.

I want to talk about Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, for whom this portion is named. You may remember that during Moshe's initial years away from Egypt, he started a family. To re-cap: Shortly after the Burning Bush incident, Moshe sent his wife, Zipporah, and two sons back to Midian to live with Yitro; Moshe was getting ready to confront Pharaoh and it seemed like the safest thing to do until things got back to normal.

At the start of this week's portion, Yitro gets word of the Hebrews' successful escape from slavery, their triumph over the Egyptians, and their travels through the wilderness. So what does he do? He packs up Zipporah and the kids, and brings Moshe's mishpoche (family) across the desert to reunite them. Not wanting to surprise anyone, he sends word ahead to Moshe that he's coming.

Wait a minute -- what? Yitro knows where the Hebrews are in the desert? He calls ahead? I thought these people were wandering! I thought they were incommunicado, dependent only on God and Nature for their survival -- I thought their isolation and independence was the whole point! Yitro's well-communicated foray out to meet them rather comically points up the contrived nature of the whole wandering-in-the-desert enterprise -- it's a little like your dad showing up with bagels in the middle of your walkabout.

But what's Yitro is bringing is more important than bagels. Moshe has a whole adult life and family to whom he is responsible; he can only put that on hold for so long. Now that he's completed his task of freeing the slaves, he has to care again for his wife and children. It is Yitro's role to gently remind him of that. Of course, Yitro would be within his rights to demand that Moshe return to Midian and care for his family there, where it's safe. But he doesn't; instead, Yitro brings his daughter and grandsons out to reunite with Moshe in the wilderness. Now, this could well have been Zipporah's idea, and her father's acquiescence could have been grudging. But nothing in Yitro's words suggests it. As soon as he arrives, Yitro listens to Moshe's story. Then he validates the God that Moshe is following on this fakachte journey: "Now I know that YHVH is greater than all gods," he says. Then he offers to take Moshe and his friends out to dinner. But since there are no restaurants in the desert, they eat in: Yitro hosts a burnt offering in honor of YHVH (Ex: 18:11, 12).

How cool is Yitro? For all of us -- children, young adults, and mature adults with responsibilities of our own, having elders who visit us, listen to us, and validate our experiences is precious and important. My dad is that kind of elder; countless times in my life, he and my mom z"l have traveled out to my wilderness to witness my daily reality and give me encouragement (and take me out to dinner).

My dad has also, countless times, come with me to work, as does Yitro in this story. My next favorite part of this portion is the day after Yitro arrives, when Yitro watches Moshe at work, mediating the people's disputes from morning until evening. At the end of the day, Yitro takes Moshe aside. "Why do you act alone?" he asks; "You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well," (Ex: 18: 14, 18). He then counsels Moshe on how to be a leader without burning out: "You shall seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God ... let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves," (Ex: 18: 21, 22).

Distribution of labor, delegation of power; the beginning of a coordinated system of local and high courts; and if not elected, at least somewhat representative, government. Not bad for a one-day, pro bono consult. I love that Yitro plops into the middle of the chaotic narrative of this bewildered people, offers a simple structure to help them organize themselves into a society, and then goes back home. That's his cameo. That he does this just before the most seminal, awe-inspiring revelation of the people's lives on Mount Sinai is, I think, key. Think about it: Receiving the Ten Commandments is a grand and mystical experience; afterwards, without that distributed leadership structure, the Israelites would probably have crashed the server (or the servant), bombarding Moshe to help them process what had just happened. But thanks to Yitro, they have a structure in place, with localized leaders, to help the community integrate the moral/spiritual guidelines they've received on the mountain.

The last cool thing about Yitro is that he knows when to leave. "Then Moshe bade his father-in-law farewell, and he [Yitro] went on his way to his own land," (Ex: 18: 27). Yitro knows that whatever is in store for the Israelites belongs to his children's generation, not his. His departure is his last show of support; he is letting Moshe and Zipporah know that they can do it on their own -- they don't need him as they face what comes next.

So for all the bells and whistles in this portion, the quiet revelation of Yitro is what touches my heart: A wise, supportive parent who shows up, reunites, listens, offers a tip, and then says: "I'm leaving now. You know what to do. You'll be fine."

Blessed are our elders. Blessed are those who - no matter how grown-up we are - show up just when we need them -- to listen to us, feed us, offer good counsel, and let us know we are doing just fine. Blessed are those who endow us with the internal structure we will need to sustain our most challenging and revelatory moments. May they be blessed to know how valuable they are.

Redemption Song (Parshat B'Shallach)


This Shabbat, the Hebrews leave Egypt to begin what will be, unbeknownst to them, forty years of wandering. At the center of this parsha is the final end of the Hebrews' slavery: their narrow escape from the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds.

A few words about The Song of the Sea, the bizarre and poetic set of lyrics sung by Moses and the Israelites just after they've crossed through the ocean and watched the Egyptian army sink to their deaths:

This text is a calligram, i.e., the closest the Torah got, pre- R. Crumb, to being a graphic novel. Visibly set apart from the rest of Torah text, the poem's disjointed, three-columned format creates a story optic, evoking two walls of water with a column of people moving in between them. (On some scrolls, this is very clear; on others, you kind of have to use the Magic Eye squint to see it.)

The Song recounts, in poetic form, what the Hebrews have just been through. In between lines of praise for The Almighty, the song returns four times to recount the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers, marveling that Pharaoh's "chariots and his army," "horse and driver," "the pick of his officers" have "sunk to the depths like a stone" (Ex: 15: 1, 5). Like an ancient, Jewish version of "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead," in somewhat gorier detail.

The song's final section, which begins with the biblical-come-liturgical phrase "Mi chamocha b'eilim, YHVH?" ("Who among the gods is like you, Yah?"), praises God before launching into a description of the ripple effect this victory will have on all the other clans and tribes who may have been thinking to take the Israelites down: "The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now the clans of Edom are dismayed; The tribes of Moab, trembling grips them ... etc." (Ex: 15: 14, 15).

In honor of the Song of the Sea, this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song. Jews have a tradition, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes in his lovely piece, of filling this Shabbat with singing -- using music, the "language of the soul" to get closer to God.

In modern practice, Shabbat Shira is a musical leader's dream: We get to do a service full of songs! But there's a problem: The actual Song for which this Shabbat is named is gruesome. Taken out of context, it appears to obsessively dance on the Egyptians' watery grave and then triumphally claim superhero status for the Jews -- that doesn't translate well to Friday-night singalongs. On the gravity meter, this text approaches not Shabbat but Eicha (The Book of Lamentations). "You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw .../ You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them / They sank like lead ..." (Ex: 15:10). Open a service with that and people will wonder why they shlepped to shul in the freezing cold. It's a guaranteed buzzkill.

"Music," writes Sacks, "has extraordinary power to evoke emotion." But on Shabbat Shira, which emotion do we want to evoke?

There are perhaps those who see nothing strange in celebrating the death of one's enemy, even on Shabbat. I am not one of them. However, in the context of its own story, I believe the Song of the Sea makes sense -- not as a vindictive and gleeful celebration of the Egyptians' demise, but as the expression of something much more sombre and complex.

I recently asked a class of seventh graders how they thought the Israelites must have felt after crossing the sea and watching their slavemasters drown after them. "Happy," some answered at first; "relieved." Then, as they started to think about it: "Confused," they said; "Tired." "In shock." Indeed. This song is written at the end of a prolonged traumatic moment; after centuries of slavery, we were running for our lives; we narrowly escaped, and then we witnessed the total, violent destruction of our pursuers, just meters from where we stood. It's hard to imagine that in that moment we would have been feeling one, singular emotion.

The Song of the Sea reflects that; it details our collective attempt to process what we have witnessed, to make sense of it. To process what might have been our sheer desire moments earlier to see human beings drown in front of us; to reconcile that moment with the fact of our existence now as we stand on the shore, watching the wreckage. Or watching nothing but waves where our pursuers were minutes before. Hence the cyclical repetition of facts, interspersed with both belief and disbelief; hence the awe, and the sense of precariousness: "... they are still as a stone/Till your people cross over, God,/Till your people cross whom you have ransomed" (Ex: 15: 16). In those post-traumatic moments, shock and confusion can dominate; jubilation is often the very last emotion to arrive. And when it does, it is not unmitigated.

Enter song. Rabbi Sacks notes that singing the Song of the Sea is the first thing the Israelites do together since leaving Egypt. Yes, they are singing together, and I see, in the text of their song, waves of conflicting emotions. Here's the magic: Music is the only element that can hold all these emotions at once, and singing is the only act that can move the singers through their confusion to the other side of it. The exhilarating and traumatic events of this story have brought the people physically to the other shore, but the events themselves have not redeemed the people; to reach redemption, they must first sing their way through this song, in all its wet, messy, gory grappling.

So we, appropriately I think, don't suffuse our entire Shabbat Shira service with its namesake; instead, we lift up the lines of redemption: Ozi V'Zimrat Yah/Vayehi Li Lishuah ("My strength and the song of God will be my salvation"), and we take the texts of our beautiful service music from other sources.

But when we reach the Mi Chamocha prayer - as in every service - we return to that moment at the sea -- the moment of joy mixed with relief, awe, confusion, shock, and probably sadness, because the world we've known is gone. This is the moment just before redemption, when all we can do is just be, and breathe. We stand on the sand. We sense the waves. And then, slowly, we begin to sing.

The Unexpected Calling: Parshat Shemot


This week's portion, Shemot, starts us on the winter's walk toward Spring and Pesach with the story of our slavery in Egypt, Moses' call to leadership, and the first part of our path to freedom.

One of the pivotal scenes in this portion is when Moses encounters God at the burning bush, and God convinces Moses to take the cause of the slaves to Pharaoh. As we remember, Moses does not accept this assignment readily; he first protests several times that he is not sufficient to the task.

In her "Reform Voices of Torah" drash this week, Rabbi Kalisch eloquently posits that it may be hubris, not humility, that initially prevents Moses from accepting the call to leadership. She interprets a midrash (story) from Shimon Bar Yochai to suggest that lack of belief in ourselves can actually be an affront to God. "What a powerful image:," she says, "God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world." She asks herself, and inspires us to ask ourselves: In what ways am I not answering the call to my sacred task? Rabbi Kalisch challenges us all to recognize the sacred call in our lives and to answer it.

I agree with Rabbi Kalisch: Yes, answer the call. I want to unpack a little bit what answering the call means.

First: Recognize that there are many different types of calls and each of us has a unique contribution.

This portion headlines Moses' slow coming to the realization that he is the only one who can confront Pharaoh on the Hebrews' behalf. But this portion actually shows several different characters answering several different calls; each plays a unique role in this story of liberation.

For starters, Neither God nor Moses is the first savior in this story -- for the whole first two chapters, Moses is a baby and God is nowhere in sight. The very first saviors, besides Yocheved, a slave woman who bravely gives birth, are the midwives Shifra and Pu'ah, who defy Pharaoh's orders and save Moses' life (and the lives of several other slave babies).

The next savior is Miriam, Moses' sister, who cares for Moses and follows him along the river, and persuades the princess Batya to bring Moses' own mother to the palace nurse him.

Then there is Batya, who adopts Moses and raises him, and Yocheved again, who nurses him. Each of these women is answering her own sacred call, connected to but also independent of Moses. It takes a strong moral compass for a midwife to refuse a King's order on pain of death, for a sister to insist on preserving a life that is doomed, for a princess to take into her care a baby that she knows is not only a slave, but a slave boy who could only have been kept alive in defiance of her father's decree, and for a birth mother to share her child with another mother for the sake of the child. As a result of their answering their own sacred calls, all of them together - midwives, sister, and mothers - not only save baby Moses' life, but sustain him until he is grown. Long before Moses is called to fulfill his sacred task, it is the sacred acts and the compassion of these women that get this story rolling.

So the first step is to be aware of the many different models of sacred task that are out there. Second is to become aware of your own skills, your own privilege, and your unique position to do good.

Shifra and Pu'ah don't know they are saving the baby who will one day free a nation; they simply recognize that they are in a unique position to save lives, and they do. Miriam recognizes that she, unlike any of the Hebrew adults, can follow baby Moses unseen and convince Pharaoh's daughter to bring his mother as a wet nurse. Batya knows that she is the one person who can legitimately rescue and raise this Hebrew baby -- without her, he would die. Yocheved is his mother, and she comes to the palace to nurse him knowing that she will not be able to raise him.

Moses eventually realizes how he is uniquely positioned to free the slaves, having been raised with the standing and mentality of a free man (and royalty at that), but knowing in his heart his kinship with the Hebrews. Aharon, having lived his life as a slave, cannot fill Moses' role, but as Moses' clear-spoken brother, he can do the speaking for Moses. Even God has a unique, but not omnipotent role: God could not have delivered the baby Moses, nursed him, or gone by Godself to demand freedom from Pharaoh. However, God's own unique powers do position God to be the inspiration and the muscle behind Moses' demands for justice.

Each character not only has a particular skill, but recognizes how they are uniquely positioned to do good. Redemption happens when each and every character uses both their skill and their position to help.

Ramses is uniquely positioned to uphold the covenant between the Egyptian people and Joseph, but by contrast he allows his fear to override his commitment and plunges an entire people into slavery.

Third step: Recognize that you can't do it alone. Each of the women is dependent on the others; Moses is dependent on all of them. Plus, he needs God to push and support him, he needs his brother to help him confront Pharaoh, and he later needs both his brother and his sister to help him lead the people out of Egypt. Even God, as we've said, requires human partners to bring about redemption. No one of these characters could have accomplished what they did alone; it is all of their actions together that result in the freeing of the slaves.

I recently came across a public letter, entitled, "To the White Parents of My Black Son's Friends." In it, the mother of a black child makes it clear how white allies are uniquely positioned to help protect her son from the dangerous, sometimes deadly effects of racism:

"We are doing what we can to find this bizarre balance of helping him be proud of who he is and helping him understand that not everybody is going to see him the way we see him. Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents. But here’s the thing– as much as we can try to protect him and teach him to protect himself, there may come a time when your child will be involved. As the parents of the white friend of my black son, I need you to be talking to your child about racism. I need you to be talking about the assumptions other people might make about my son. I need you to talk to your child about what they would do if they saw injustice happening.
"If they see my son being bullied or called racist names," she says, "they need to stand with him ... If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay ... Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If you are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble you get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can."

The letter calls on people who benefit from privilege in our system to a) become aware of the different situations they find themselves in where her son is vulnerable; b) understand how they may be uniquely positioned to help her son or someone else in his position; c) join her in the effort to keep her son safe and alive, because she cannot do it alone.

To me this is a perfect example of a call to sacred task: We all are, to different degrees, modern-day Shifras, Puahs, Yocheveds, Miriams and Batyas, Moseses and Aharons and Pharaohs. We don't always know what part we are playing in the larger story of a people, or of our world; we don't know how the story will end until it does. But what we do have are these moments when we may be called to a sacred task.

Sometimes the task takes a lifetime; sometimes it happens in a moment. Sometimes it requires sacrifice; sometimes it requires merely being aware. The trick is to prepare ourselves for it, and be present when it arises. What skills do we possess, and what positions do we hold, that will enable us to do good - in small or big ways - when these moments do arise? In this new Gregorian year, may we each be blessed with the clarity to realize the unique roles, skills, and the powers we have at our disposal to sustain life and bring about redemption.