At our Virtual Friday Night service on January 20th, Rabbi Lizzi spoke on this week’s parsha from Exodus, and explored the idea of plagues as a wakeup call. She also gave mini-drash on angels who perform a similar warning function in the Torah.
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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
Today among other things we're going to talk about plagues, plagues as a wake up call, plagues as a way of being made aware that something isn't working. And angels! What we're singing about right now, angels, often play a similar role in the Torah. They come as a way of introducing the character to something that needs to change. You know, like think of the donkey that's carrying the Prophet Balaam who's who's tasked with cursing the Jews and an angel towards the donkeys way and the donkey cries out and the prophets like what are you doing you stupid donkey, but it's actually an angel trying to get his attention, saying you are really making a bad choice. And it takes a lot of Angel attention and a lot of donkey thwarting to get this guy to wake up. You guys, I hit a parked car today. I can't believe I'm telling you this. It wasn't bad. It was like a little bumper thing. But I left a mark. I also left a note. I'm in touch with the person whose car I hit. And for me, that was an incredible Angel. a wake up call. Like what was I doing? I know how to parallel park. I totally know how to parallel park. You guys. I'm very good at parallel parking. I just wasn't paying attention. You know, could have been much worse than a parked car. That was a little angel. Something in my way to wake me up. So I don't make that same mistake again. So as we're welcoming angels in tonight, Shalom LFM Welcome, welcome angels come on in. We're saying send us signs. God send us signs that we need to pay better attention. We need to take better care. There's something that needs to change. And I'm ready to change. I'm ready to do it. I should be doing Thank you angels. We even bless you angels even when you're annoying sometimes and even when you cost us money. And even when you make us look embarrassed which I definitely feel but also grateful. So I Bless You Angel by colonialist Santa Barbara Cooney last Shiloh Mother's Day Hi Shalom. My holla Hey Leone, ne Malik at aka Josh. Same time says familair shadow day ash shallow, my holla. Rules So there's something in this parsha Prashant VIERA about paying attention. I mean, the entire Torah could be seen as a series of metaphors and stories about how to pay attention and how not to pay attention. And why we pay attention and when we pay attention and what gets in the way of our paying attention. And so this week, we see God having gotten Moses his attention last week at the burning bush. And having succeeded in convincing Moses to be his spokesperson, well, God's spokesperson on Earth, go to go to the people let them know, I am on their side, and I want to free them. And so Moses, you know, goes to the people and kind of makes a big noise like God's here, and God wants to redeem the Israelites. And that actually makes it worse for the Israelites. Pharaoh and the taskmasters clamped down even harder, you know, so that they have to work harder. Oh, you think you're gonna leave? Let us show you who's really in charge. And so, when Moses tries to speak to the people, when God says to Moses, let them know, I am here, I will redeem them, I will lead them to freedom with my mighty hand and outstretched arm. Moses comes back and says, they can't hear me. Me I've odaka Shah, when we called sevruga because of shortness of breath, could Sarawak tightness of breath and Abu Dakka. Shah hard labor. Now avodah means work or service. Maybe you're familiar with the Jewish Service Corps, which has young young Jewish recent college grads, like serving working all over the country, helping people in in social sector jobs, which are, you know, which are really hard work, which is real labor, meaningful labor, and the ticket is this, here's what makes it, here's what makes it work that is holy and sanctified. And not what the Israelites experience in Egypt. Workers is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it's a mitzvah in the Torah. But if you must do it, if it takes over your life, if you don't have any respite, if it's the only thing you do, if you get burnt out working, if it becomes unrelenting and oppressive and constant, then it's slavery, and it's not work anymore, then it's slavery. And the Israelites couldn't even hear that help was on the way because they were too broken and defeated and burnt out by oppressive work. They did not have a moment's peace. They couldn't even take a breath. And so they couldn't hear or see a way out. This past week, I studied Shabbat as a concept with our exploring Judaism students. And it's kind of an amazing thing actually, that you know, right up there with Thou shalt not murder and thou shalt not steal, is honoring the Sabbath, remembering the Sabbath guarding the Sabbath that there is something about this ratio of six days you will work but one day is Shabbat. It is a break, it is a day off so that you will remember critically, you are no longer a slave in Egypt. You should work it's good for you. You know, but no more than six days a week, and one day out of seven. You are obligated to rest. Right? It says che che to meme to avoid WSC Takoma Lefka do all your work seriously work hard during those six days. While yo Mushfiq Chabad land on Isla and on the seventh day, it will be up Sabbath for God. Because work you usually do for a boss, for money for reward, right for the material benefits or the status that we get for working. But Shabbat you do for God, you know for lack of better word for a higher purpose. To remember that you're a human being. You are not defined by your work or worth or status or power. Right, that your Holy that you are sacred that you matter regardless of what you do six days a week Shabbat comes to remind us And I actually think it's because the gravitational pull of work is so powerful that it takes a character like God, you know, it takes an equal opposite force, a more powerful force to say you need to rest, you must, I instruct you, I obligate you, it's in the 10 commandments. And it's still really hard to do it. It's really hard to rest. So we give ourselves all of these tools to help us do it better, more easily, so that there can be, you know, an equal gravitational pull in the direction of Shabbat these candles right behind me, you know, even just lighting candles and having a chance to look at them. To take their light to pause long enough to light candles, begins to create a little bit of spaciousness inside of ourselves for Shabbat. It takes strength, actually, to put the workweek down to stop. All right, now, now, let's learn some Torah. The anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah is next weekend. Have me too mitzvah was in 1994. So I guess that makes it that makes this the 39th anniversary of my bat mitzvah next week, and it was the it was the coldest day of the year, that day in 1994. And in the sanctuary of km, Isaiah Israel in Chicago, the heat was broken that day. So everybody was like inside in their coats, but my sermon was on fire. And I talked that day about the vexing problem in the Parsha that Pharaoh appears to want the Israelites to go like he is experiencing pain and suffering, and so are his people. But God has decided to harden Pharaoh's heart, so that Pharaoh can hold his ground, and will not let the Israelites go. And in doing so he is punished by God. And the plagues the extraordinary chastisements, as they are referred to in the Torah, are loosed forth upon the Egyptians. So they suffer greatly. And we see the first of the seven plagues happen in this week's Torah portion. This hardening of the heart and the plagues are the subject of this week's story abortion. And so this divine hardening of the heart was not just a problem for 13 year old Lizzi. But it has it has vexed Jewish commentators for millennia. Because one of the fundamental axioms, you know, that Judaism rests on is that human beings have freewill, that we can direct our own choices. We are not, you know, puppets in some divine puppet scheme, you know, with God as the puppet master and all of us who are sort of playing a role. No, like, it's only meaningful that Pharaoh is Pharaoh and is evil and represents evil, and is deserving of punishment from God for his cruel oppression of the Israelites, if Pharaoh was actively making the choice to do that, right? If God's making the choice for him, and then punishing him, and all the Egyptians, in a kind of divine puppet show, where God controls all the characters and then tortures them, this is not a God, we want to have anything to do with, right? That's a sadist. That's not not the force for salvation in the universe. And our tradition sees God as the force for salvation in the universe as a loving liberatory force. So this is not just a literary problem, you know, sort of an intellectual problem. This is a philosophical, moral, theological, personal problem. You know, it's sort of like if God is hardening Pharaoh's heart and Pharaoh doesn't have freewill, then what's the point for any of us to think about changing our lives? So, as you may imagine, much ink has been spilled over this question. There are many different ways that the sages over the centuries have addressed this problem. But I want to offer one way of looking at the Exodus story today that I think can help. And that's dream interpretation. My basic thesis is that if God isn't a different character from Pharaoh, but actually both represent parts of my psyche, my inner world, then there's no conflict in God hardening Pharaoh's heart. This is just the Torah describing what happens when we are confronted with the need to adapt, change our lives, and we aren't ready for it and we resist. So follow me on this little journey, and tell me what you think. I truly wish we could be doing this as a class, I think it would be a lot more fun. I look forward to reading the comments and getting back to you. So in Union Dream Theory, every character in your dream reflects you in a different way. Because obviously, you're the one having the dream. So, you know, it's a different part of your psyche, your ego, your personality, your motivations. All of this comes out in in different characters in any dream you have. And you can say the same thing about the Torah. Every character in the Torah represents a part of you, that if you are brave enough, you will look at and recognize and have compassion for because we're all human. And you'll learn something very deep about yourself if you can be brave, and look at even the hard characters to look at as representing a part of yourself. And if we all do this, we might just be able to transform ourselves collectively, and to release the constricting oppressive tendencies that we hold on to. So who are some of these characters, I want to I want to tease them out a little bit. I'm going to use the language of AI because this is of course me too. So we are the Israelites. We are victims. We are tired. We are beaten down, we are defeated, we are weak. We can barely speak up on our own behalf, we can barely breathe. It's been hundreds of years of having no control over our own lives, doing backbreaking work every day watching our children be killed or be enslaved. We are broken. And we are in meets Ryan, Egypt and meets Ryan means not so much a geographic place. But a state of mind meets Ryan is a narrow place literally made SAR, the narrow place and in a meets rhyme. state of mind, nothing can ever change. Everything will always be this way. There's no point in trying to change things. You know, just keep your head down. Don't make waves. Be at peace with your situation. Don't try to change things. It'll just make it worse. That's the Israelite in us. At least in Egypt, okay, then you've got Pharaoh. Very different energy. Pharaoh is used to being in charge. Powerful, entitled, in control. As Pharaoh, I can't imagine the world being different from the way it is. But in my case, it's actually because this world and its systems really work for me. I'm doing fine. The truth is I'm part of the power structure. I didn't create it, mind you, I inherited it. And it's not my fault. But I like to keep things basically the way that they are. Because I'm doing okay. And then you've got Moses, uh, where's my finger puppet? This week, one of you Delia in Sweden sent me a Moses finger puppet. I'm so sorry. I left it on the fridge. Anyway, you can imagine me doing this with a finger puppet instead of just what my face but nonetheless, okay. I'm Moses. We we have a Moses inside of us who wants to speak truth to power? Who wants to get out there and is also terrified. And I've tried it actually I've done it. And I made things worse multiple times. I've made horrible mistakes, trying to act on behalf of justice. Trying to speak on behalf of the oppressed. I've made things worse. And I don't want to fail. And I don't want to make things worse for people. And I feel like I'm not even the best spokesperson anyway. I mean, like I stutter. I'm not eloquent. I get angry easily. I'm impatient. I wish somebody else could do this job. Like Moses hesitant self doubt but also full of righteousness and righteous indignation and fire. Okay, and then you've got the character of God. I am the force in the story moving everybody toward liberation. I am obsessed with fairness. And I am angry at seeing my people, the Israelites being oppressed. And I'm also angry at seeing my people, the Egyptians acting as oppressors. This is not who I created human beings to be. And it doesn't have to be this way. I will relentlessly push and push and push until my people, all of them. Understand that I created all people to be free, and to be healthy and mind and body to live with respect for one another, with dignity and fairness for everyone. regardless of status, or wealth, or nationality, or race, or sex or sexual orientation, when everyone is made in my image, it makes me angry and sad to see the world in this state. And if that means I have to send plague after plague, after plague to show you that I will not stand idly by while you oppress your brother. Then get ready for some plagues. says God. Okay, I'm breaking character. Now I'm Rabbi Lizzi again. So the plagues aren't exactly characters, you know, like parts of our consciousness so much as they are consequences for our consciousness, their karma, right, we witness in this week's Parsha, the first of the first of the 10 plagues, the verse seven of the 10 plagues, the Nile being filled with blood, making it not able to drink frogs, like descending on the land, you know, exiting the water and taking over the earth, lice, cattle disease, of swarms of insects, boils all over everybody's skin, and hail. All of these plagues represent natural forces, being wildly out of balance, and are the result of one part of our consciousness resisting the other. Right, there's the voice inside of us, saying things can and should be different, healthier, more stable, more supportive, more sustainable. It's been a long way, a long time, since we felt this way. But we can get back there. You know, that's, that's the voice of God. That's the the inner voice of the Israelites who actually are beginning to believe that, that maybe it's possible. And then there's another voice saying, resisting, not going to happen. Even though even though the result is that your world becomes more and more damaged, and unstable as the consequences mount, you keep you persist in keeping things the way they are, just maintain status quo. And the more pride that's wrapped up, and time that's invested in digging our heels into the old way, the harder Pharaoh's heart becomes. So Rabbi shefa, gold writes that as scary as the plagues are, when we witness the tragic situations of obvious and deadly imbalance, that actually can be the opening we need, when our consciousness begins to awaken, and turns toward the possibility that things could be different. And imagine that even Ferro in that moment, turn toward the possibility that things could be different. For some people, that's a heart attack. For some people, that's a near fatal car accident caused by texting or drunk driving, or horrible fight with a loved one, you know, something that acted as a plague and unwelcome imbalance of the way that things should be that causes damage. And that actually opens up a window to see that things could be different that you could be different. But beware, because the second that window of transformation opens immediately the forces inside of us that enjoy the way that things are, tell us to dig in our heels and resist changing anything. Maybe because the way things are it gives us a sense of predictability. Right? Maybe we get material benefits, maybe because we're scared of what a change could bring. Because at least we know the devil we know. By the way, I'm thinking of like the end of season one of white lotus. If you haven't seen it, go watch it but then you'll know what I'm talking about where you sort of can't believe that a person makes a choice that is so obviously bad for them. Because of the material benefits they will get even if they remain devastatingly unhappy. And so is that window opens. That is precisely when we actually can get more stuck where we are because we're so attached to the perks of this status quo. And so hence we have this language of God hardening Pharaoh's heart. It's not a force that's outside of us making it hard for us to change. It's the part of us that actually likes the way things are, and benefits from it. As another part of us is opening up that window for change. And this can be so many things. I mean, the metaphor of Egypt and going forth from Egypt and Pharaoh and God and the Israelites applies to so many things this could be staying in a relationship or a job that you know, is not right, is suffocating some part of you, but also offers stability and material comforts, this could be addictive behavior that, you know, hurts you, but also soothes you in the moment or brings you community, you know, expand this out, because of course, anything that's true about the individual is going to be true about citing write Ruby Nachman says that every human being is just an alum, Catan was small world, and the world is just the macro version of every alum, Catan. Anything that's true about each one of us is going to be true about all of us collectively. Think about the colossal collective change that we we need to make as a society if we're going to slow down climate change, which includes all the big oil companies and polluters and governments that need to make serious, dramatic changes. If we're going to save our democracy, if we're going to end systemic racism and inequality, people who benefit from the status quo, which actually is all of us, even if it's hurting us, which it is, all of us will need to relinquish some of the perks that we get from systems being as they are, in order to bring about collective transformation that will set our world back in balance. And we're seeing the plagues all around us, trying to wake us up and get our attention to open that window of transformation for us. But the thing is, it's scary. It's not even that it's not even that we're comfortable the way things are. And this is where I can have some compassion for all of us in this. It's scary, because we don't know what will happen when we really let that God force work through us. We don't we don't know what the Promised Land looks like. We're not even close. What we're just talking about is the first step on a path out of this situation and into the wilderness, which is where we figure out what's next. That's scary, that's legitimately scary, not knowing how things will go in the end, not knowing even what the wilderness looks like, or what our life will look like on the other side of this thing. I understand and appreciate our foot dragging our keeping our head down our saying to ourselves, I can go on like this just a little bit longer, we can go on like this just a little bit longer I can take it will adapt, or the consequences of waiting longer can't be that bad, right. And so let's just not do anything differently. But anyone who's gotten sober, or made it to the other side of a suicidal depression, or won a campaign, after decades of being told it was impossible, or gotten out of an abusive relationship, even though it was the scariest thing in the world they ever did, has gotten to the other side of the Red Sea, whatever that was, and they will tell you that it's worth the trek. It's worth the uncertainty, and it's worth the wilderness. And what makes it possible is knowing a few things. One, God is on your side. I mean, God is on all of our insides, you know, which means that be you're not alone. You are not alone. Not only do you have God traveling with you, you got all of these characters to keep you company in there. But you're part of a universal story of struggle that every single person has been through, and that we are all going through. We need each other, to fortify each other to walk with each other. With love and with recognition. We have been through this I have been through this you have been through this and we can support each other it's the hardest thing to do the pride the shame, of changing of doing something differently of admitting that the way things were was actually malfunctioning was wrong was bad. And everyone, everyone knows what how good it feels to be embraced. and recognized for having made the first step out of that bad place out of that meets Ryan. We can be community for each other when things get hard. That's part of what we're all doing here. I think, you know, part of what we're doing is, you know, being in a spiritual community singing songs, saying prayers, learning Torah, perpetuating tradition, having traditions, it's great, I love being part of a tradition, part of a people. Part of what we do for each other is we show up when the going gets rough. We have a claim on each other. We have marched together before and we will do it again. Because this isn't a story of something that just happened once in the past. In Egypt, in the Torah, this is the story of something we go through on the daily and will every day for the rest of our lives, we need each other. To Rabbi Rabbi shefa goal to write a lot of her commentary from this perspective, writes that the spiritual challenge of this week's Torah portion is that we should keep our heart open in the face of prolonged suffering, and let the seeds of freedom grow. In the darkness with an open heart, she writes that once you identify the ways in which your heart has hardened, in which you have resisted change, the challenge then is to bring beauty and tenderness and compassion to your heart, even even to Pharaoh in there to soften and penetrate the layers of defense that have been built up around it. And that that is actually the first step. And we need love for that. And we need compassion for that. And we need patience for that. And we need song. And we need to be cared for with good food, and maybe wine, but maybe grape juice, and community. And a good story that lets us know, we are not the first person to go through this and we're not going to be the last. And we can take care of each other. And actually, all of that is the first step toward change. So I want to just I want to bless us tonight. Want to bless us tonight, that we can be strong enough and wise enough and patient enough and resolute enough and committed enough to take that first step. And then the next step, and then the next and then the next every day for the rest of our lives. As Martin Luther King said, we may not get to the promised land. But we've got to keep walking in that direction. And we'll do it together. And we'll do it together.