Coming isn’t Going

First a little Judaism 101 for those who may not know: The Jewish people read a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) every Saturday, the same portion in every Jewish community all over the world. We do this in the order these portions arrive in the text of the Torah. It takes us a year to read through from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Last week’s Torah portion is called “Bo“, which is the first significant word of that portion. “Bo” means “come”. The whole first phrase of the portion is Bo el Paroh, בא אל פרעה, which is often translated “Go to Pharaoh” instead of “Come to Pharaoh”. Honestly, “Go to Pharaoh” makes more sense! Why. then, would the text say “Come to Pharaoh”?

“Come” is a command of beckoning. Who is beckoning? Certainly not Pharaoh! Plus, Pharaoh’s not even doing the talking! So, it must be God! Now the question is why; why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh rather then to command him to go to Pharaoh? The answer could only be that God is there, with Pharaoh! For those who are students of this story, you might know that God has anything but a congenial relationship with Pharaoh in this part of the Torah. In fact, Torah portion Bo chronicles the last three of the Ten Plagues. God and Pharaoh are adversaries. God is proving not only that God can best all the Egyptian gods but also can manipulate Pharaoh at will, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ pleas to let the Jewish people go free. With all this in mind, our need to answer our questions is even more intense: why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh and why is God with Pharaoh?!

Why is God with Pharaoh? Because, in the end, God is with everyone, even those we might dismiss as the embodiment of evil. In the end, God is as much Pharaoh as God is Moses. In the end, we must see the image of God (tzelem Elohim, צלם אלהים) in everyone, in everything. After all, the Ten Plagues themselves are manifestations of God and they are certainly evil if you are an innocent Egyptian suffering their effects. God is the process of negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. God is the Nile and the plankton that died in that water and gave it its rusty, bloody, color. God is the frogs, the flies, the disease, the locusts. God is the death of the first born. And…God is the empowerment of an enslaved people to see the slim possibility of freedom and run toward it through the sea, beckoned by the Voice-of-the-Universe. God is the complexity of their freedom in a foreboding wilderness that could consume them as much as it could be the path to their future.

When God beckons Moses to come to Pharaoh, Moses is coming face-to-face with the inscrutability of Life – how much potential there is for good and evil in everyone and everything. The difference between Moses and Pharaoh  was that at the same moment in time that Moses was beginning to understand the mystery of God/Life/All, seeing himself as a small but significant part of Something-much-Larger, Pharaoh was retreating from It. As Pharaoh’s heart became more and more petrified (in both senses of the word), his horizon became more and more narrow. He was desperately trying to aggrandize himself within a very small world rather than seeing himself as part of Everything. Eventually, he was defeated, not by an external punishing God, but rather by the same God of which he was a part that beckoned Moses and Pharaoh perceived an outside enemy.

In our day, too, we are faced with leaders whose horizons are self-limited, who’ve created an artificial universe in which they see themselves as pharaohs. The only way to countermand them is to maintain our humble understanding that they are no bigger than we are. That humility, as it was for Moses, is empowering. When leaders’ own misperceptions of the wholeness of the world, of the Universe, of Life Itself cause them to narrow their vision, we must keep ours wide, even when we feel beckoned toward what seems at first glance to be an overwhelming confrontation with evil. It isn’t evil. It’s Life – in all of its intricacy, simplicity, incomprehensibility and comprehensibility. We have as much power and influence in that Life as those who claim they have it all.

Two Chants that I Won’t Chant

Like many of you, I’ve been out there already, on the street and at the airport. I know there’ll be many more occasions. I am clear as to what values and principles brought me to those events. I went because I am a Jewish-American. I went because I am a human being. I went because I am a small part of the Holy-Everything with a voice that had to speak.

Here’s what may be surprising to those who know me: I went because Donald Trump IS my president. I couldn’t chant along with others when they shouted, “Not my president!” Don’t get me wrong, I feel that sentiment deep inside me. Still, I’m marching because Donald Trump IS my president and I disagree with everything he stands for. I am marching because I believe in America and the grand purposes and values for which it was created and for which it ultimately stands. I believe in those who created our freedoms and our systems of checks and balances. As a Jew, I am commanded to rebuke those whom I believe are acting immorally and, as an American, I have the right to do so. I am exercising that right and that obligation because I can and because I must and NOT  because he isn’t my president, but rather because he IS and I won’t allow his narcissism, his petty tweets, his selfishness, his small mindedness and his “alternative facts” to hijack America.

I was recently introduced to another chant, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” Several Jews who were around me reacted in horror and amazement when they heard those words and that simplistic, conflated thinking. I also felt that reaction and I felt that a chant like that in this new movement was inevitable. I am a Zionist. I love Israel. Still, if Israel insists on building more settlements, I believe, if she is not completely destroying her own future, she is certainly destroying a future in which she could be at peace with her neighbors. However, what those in the growing movement against the agenda of the Trump administration need to learn is that not all walls are the same. The proposed wall between Mexico and the US is certainly unkind, closed-minded, short-sighted and against the best interest of the United States. Who more do we want in our country than those willing to work and pay taxes and who appreciate our guaranteed freedoms  The wall between the U.S. and Mexico borders (pun intended) on being immoral because it would need to be enforced by those who would have to ignore the basic humanity of those trying to enter the United States. I know that if my grandparents had faced a land barrier rather than an ocean between them and the possibility of a better life, they would have done anything to make that dream a reality, even if it meant crossing that border without documents.

On the other hand, the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank has a two-fold reality. On the Israeli side, it’s a security fence. It has dramatically reduced violent attackers coming into Israel, especially suicide bombers. For the most part, Israel kids are pretty safe now riding the buses and going to buy pizza. However, on the Palestinian side, it’s just a wall, a wall that keeps those behind it in prison, without the freedoms or hopes or possibilities that exist on the other side. That wall is more complex, it’s reality is more nuanced and in order for it to come down, both sides are going to have to own the other’s narrative about the wall and what it means. That wall cannot stand forever. Every day of its existence, it weakens Israel’s personality, democracy, and freedom. Every day of its existence, the possibility of a real Palestine living with a modicum of prosperity and in an economic and cultural symbiosis with Israel becomes more and more impossible.

The wall between Israel and the West Bank prevents Palestinians who would do Israelis harm from coming into the country. It also prevents that great majority of Palestinians who desire a life with a bit of security, a decent job, a government that operates with integrity and access to health care and education from getting anything near that.

Mexicans are not coming into America with the intention of blowing themselves up and taking as many people as they can with them when they die. They are coming here to work. That’s all. That’s different.

See you on the street.Me at Lax 2.jpg