D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Don’t tell God how big your storm is; tell the storm how big your God is!
We all set goals for ourselves. We all have dreams we’d like to fulfill. On the other hand, we also know and expect that the road towards achieving those goals and dreams will be met with obstacles. We can view those obstacles as signs we will not achieve our goal and then complain how difficult it is to overcome the storm in our way. Or we can view them as an opportunity to grow and loudly declare --big storm or not—our faith is bigger and will not allow us to be deterred.
In this week’s Torah portion Vaera, God directs Moses and his brother Aaron to make an appearance before Pharaoh and convince him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. This is not the first time the brothers have visited Pharaoh. In a previous encounter with the Egyptian king they not only fail to convince him to let the Israelites go, but Pharaoh then punishes the Israelites because of the brothers’ efforts. Not happy with Moses and Aaron the Israelites blame them for their troubles and refuse to listen to Moses’ tale of God’s promise. Not surprisingly, Moses is hesitant to try again. After all, הֵן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָֽׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, if the Israelites won’t listen to me why should Pharaoh. (Ex. 6:12)
In the end Moses and Aaron don’t give up. They go back to Pharaoh and with the unleashing of the plagues display the enormity of God’s power. In other words, instead of complaining to God how difficult their task is – how big their storm is, they instead tell the storm in the guise of Pharaoh, how big and powerful is their God. As we shall see in next week’s portion, this strategy will be the more successful approach.
“What if” gets you nowhere, “Yeah but” halts progress in its tracks, “If only” never came true.
At various points in our lives we are asked to do things we don’t want to do. Sometimes we just go ahead and do them but sometimes we make excuses for why we can’t or won’t do them. I forgot. I was busy. I had an emergency. I didn’t do it because “what if” I fail? “Yeah (I know I should do it) but” nobody cares about it. I would do it “if only” I had the skills to do it.”
Excuses help to disconnect us from responsibility, reduce our feelings of guilt and save us from admitting a personal weakness or failure. But excuses can also make us regret the road not taken and prevent us from growing and changing. As the old Yiddish expression goes: If you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.
In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot we begin the book of Exodus. The Egyptian Pharaoh has enslaved the Israelites and fearing a rebellion, Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew babies should be killed. While Moses is on that list, his sister Miriam finds a way to save him. She places Moses in a basket and floats the basket down the Nile River where Pharaoh’s daughter finds it and takes the baby to raise as her own child.
The next thing we know Moses is an adult who has killed an Egyptian he witnesses beating an Israelite. Forced to flee Egypt, Moses settles in Midian, gets married, becomes a shepherd and raises two sons.
One day while tending his flock Moses wanders a little bit further out than usual-- to Mt. Horeb in the wilderness-- where he notices a burning bush. As Moses begins to comprehend that the bush’s flames are not being consumed by the fire, he hears a voice call out to him. It is the voice of God who charges Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
Moses responds with an assortment of excuses including: “What if I can’t speak clearly to them? After all I have never been a man of words.” “Yeah, but what if the Israelites don’t believe me?” “If only I was the right man for this task, but who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”
Moses’ reluctance comes a place of both fear and inertia. But despite his doubts he is eventually able to take a leap of faith. In doing so Moses can finally comprehend that “What if” gets you nowhere, “Yeah but” halts progress in its tracks, “If only” never came true.
Try to replace guilt with gratitude
At some point in our lives we have all felt remorse, guilt or regret for something we did wrong; for the harm we may have caused another person; or even for an action we took that may not have been the right one to pursue. These feelings of remorse, guilt and regret are often reinforced when later on we are somehow reminded of what we did.
Remorse, guilt and regret can also be psychological bummers that make us aware of what we could have and should have done better. Maybe we shouldn’t have spread gossip. Maybe we shouldn’t have cheated on our spouse. Maybe we shouldn’t have lied about our bad habits.
One way to get over our guilt is to accept responsibility for what we did, ask for forgiveness and be thankful for the lesson learned. In this way we begin to ensure that our guilt will not get in the way of our gratitude.
In this week’s Torah portion Vayechi, Jacob knowing he is about to die, calls together all of his sons. Addressing each one individually and providing instructions as to his burial, Jacob is then וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּֽיו, gathered to his people.
Despite Joseph’s earlier assurance that he bears no grudge against them, the brothers worry that with Jacob out of the way Joseph will now feel free to take his revenge on them. As a result, they concoct a story about Jacob leaving instructions before his death urging Joseph to forgive his brothers. The brothers then fling themselves before Joseph and offer to become slaves in Egypt. But Joseph again assures them he bears no grudge.
In the years since Joseph revealed himself, the brothers’ lack of faith made them wary of Joseph’s true intention. Instead of enjoying those years with their brother, they were fearful of his revenge. Instead of being grateful for God’s goodness they felt guilty about what they did to their brother and father. In order to find peace and move on with their lives, Joseph’s brothers will need to find a way to replace their guilt with gratitude.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself it’s thinking of yourself less
I spent a lifetime in hell and it only took me twelve steps to get to heaven.
The 12-Steps were originally developed as an aid to overcoming an addiction to alcohol. The program’s success however, influenced the formation of additional groups supporting those in recovery from other addictive disorders. The language of the steps emphasizes the presence of God – often explained as the God of our understanding or a Higher Power. These diverse perceptions of God allow for a wide range of interpretations and religious beliefs.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, arrives “ba-makom.” Often translated as place, makom is also another name for God. But before we have a chance to wonder about the relevance of this name, the text informs us that it is night. Resting his head on a stone Jacob goes to sleep. In this peaceful makom he dreams of angels going up and down a ladder extending from the earth all the way up to heaven. In the dream God informs Jacob that he and his descendants will be given the ground on which he is lying. God then promises to always protect and to always be with Jacob. When he wakes up Jacob proclaims אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָֽנֹכִי לֹא יָדָֽעְתִּי, “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it.”
Rabbi Avraham Zalmans notes how a person’s qualities resemble a ladder. Just as a ladder needs steps and a high place on which to lean, so too people require the help of steps and a high makom, a God of our understanding on which to lean. The steps function as a barrier to prevent one from sin. In addition, the vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder demonstrates that the path towards God is not a straight line. Descending – or falling -- is normal.
As perhaps the Torah’s first “12-Stepper,” Jacob makes a decision to turn his will over to the God of his understanding. Jacob the grifter declares his yearning for a high place against which to lean. After a lifetime living in a hell of his own making, it only took Jacob 12 steps to get to heaven.