Month: February 2017

Parashat Yitro • Exodus 18:1−20:23

This week’s Torah portion establishes [at least] two important foundations for the Jewish people. The first – and much better-known – is the giving of the Ten Commandments from God to Moses at Mt. Sinai. It is more than a moment of fire and brimstone emblazoned in our memories; it is the beginning of our formation – who we are, what we believe, and how we interact with the people who both make up our community and who find themselves separate from it. The second – and I argue, more profound – is the sharing of perspective from Jethro to his son-in-law Moses about the latter’s style of leadership. Indeed, it is Jethro, a non-Jew, who is able to see what Moses himself cannot see; that the burden of leading a people should not fall upon him alone. Jethro teaches Moses that governing is not meant to be a solo effort – and through this we learn that in life, in work, in learning and in love, we are better together than we are on our own.

It is a perfect message for this weekend’s celebration of our Adult B’nai Mitzvah students; five individuals who have committed to well over a year of devoted study so that they can, this Shabbat, read from the Torah and lead our community in prayer. These five souls have worked together over these many months, lifting one another up and inspiring their teachers through their commitment to a Jewish ritual typically bestowed upon teenagers. These adults have chosen to pursue this meaningful accomplishment in their own lives and together will be called to the Torah as members of our Temple community. We welcome you to join us as we celebrate their accomplishments and learn from their experiences, making into a tangible reality that original teaching from Jethro himself: we are better together than we are on our own.

Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen

Parashat B'shalach • Exodus 13:17-17:16

Having crossed the Sea of Reeds, before even uttering a sigh of relief, the Israelites break into song. Known as Shirat HaYam, or Song of the Sea, the lyrics found in this week’s Torah portion are considered by scholars to preserve perhaps the oldest grammatical forms in all of Torah. "Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped,” our ancestors cried: “Mi chamocha b'eilim Adonai!

It seems appropriate that one of the oldest ways of approaching God in Jewish tradition is through song. Singing offers us a bridge and a direct connection between the head and the heart, uplifting our spirits in times of trouble and elevating our gladness during times of joy. Even those of us who are tonally challenged can find pleasure in song! Come, let all of us sing a new song unto God, we read in Psalms, and I really do hope you will join us. This Shabbat, our varying worship styles converge in one service on our Bellevue campus at 6:00 PM as our many musicians offer praise. A nosh and talk by Justice Madsen of the Washington State Supreme Court follow immediately after.

Rabbi Aaron C. Meyer

Parashat Bo • Exodus 10:1-13:16

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God’s sovereign guidance and control. According to believers, God governs creation as a loving father, working all things for good.”  In other words, according to one school of thought, God does all things for the greater good and controls the universe and all that is in it.  If this is true however, how do we reconcile the verse in this week’s Torah portion Bo where it says: Then the Eternal One said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them. - Exodus 10:1.  If God works for the good then how does hardening the hearts of Pharaoh and his courtiers serve the good?

One explanation is that this is a matter of translation.  According to the Women’s Torah commentary: “Hardened” literally, God, “Made [Pharos’s] heart heavy” (from the root k-b-d, “to be heavy).  The image of the heavy heart may relate to the ancient Egyptian conception that in the afterlife, when weighed on the scales of judgement, the virtuous soul is found to have a heart that is lighter than a feather, whereas the sinner has a heavy heart.  Therefore, in this reading, it is not that God made Pharaohs heart hard, it is that it is heavy and found wanting.

Another explanation for how a good God could harden Pharos’s heart is that of free will.  Again, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Free will: The free will defense begins by distinguishing two kinds of evil. Moral evil is evil that occurs through rational action — that is, through wrongful exercises of will on the part of rational beings. Natural evil, by contrast, is owing entirely to the operation of natural causes… The significance and pervasiveness of extrinsic moral evil is easy to underestimate, because a lot of the suffering and hardship that belongs in this category tends to masquerade as merely part of the human condition, and hence as natural evil. But it is not so. Many of the hardships that befall humankind — disease, ignorance, poverty and the like — owe their existence at least in part to wrongful willing.

Therefore, according to this reading, God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the culmination of natural evil and moral evil. God hardenes Pharaoh’s heart, not out of an act of malice, but as a result of the free will that stems from moral evil.   What happens to all of us is that moral free will eventually turns in natural free will. The decisions we make as a result of the gift of free will affect us, perhaps not at first, but over time our choices affect us spiritually, psychologically and physically.  Therefore, we must remember that our free will has consequences that transfer over time from the realm of the moral to the realm of the natural.  That is how our bodies and souls are built. 

Elsewhere, we learn that Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, one mitzvah builds upon another, whileaverah gorreret averah, one transgression builds on the next.  Pharaoh made enough moral decisions leading up to God hardening his heart, that it was actually merely the natural outcome of his behavior.  Humans are creatures of habit.  This week’s torah portion teaches us that the good habits build a good body soul connection while the bad ones deteriorate that connection.  As a result, we like God, must work to do good so our hearts are found to be light and virtuous.