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.”

“Oh.”

So 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 can only tolerate so much nuanced discussion of a point. “Is it or isn’t it a noun, Mama?”

“You’re right, in a way,” 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, 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

1.28.16

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)

1.22.16

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

1.1.16

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.