Are Our Leaders God?

We know that people have short memories. One of the key questions that gets asked subconsciously is “What have you done for me lately?” The comforting news is that as Ezekiel said “There is nothing new under the sun;” our ancestors were exactly the same way-and we can learn from their example of what not to do.

In his book The Rational Bible, Dennis Prager details crises between Moses/God and Israel that arise after Israel crosses the Sea of Reeds. The first is when they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. Prager points out “It took the Israelites a mere three days to lose sight of all the miracles God had performed and to start complaining.”[1] After Moses throws his staff in the water to sweeten it, the second crises emerges when our ancestors complain about food. They whine, “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!”[2] Prager has a compelling insight there: “It is a myth people yearn most for freedom. Some people, thank God, do. But many, if not most, people prefer to be taken care of-even at the price of a loss of freedoms-rather than to have to take care of themselves.”[3] So quickly Israel goes from a triumphant people celebrating the Song of the Sea to a nostalgic people with an “exaggerated, idealized picture of the past.”[4]

The result of the dearth of food is manna raining down from the heavens. Yet God brings manna with a test, instructing Israel to eat their entire portion on the day they receive it as well as that they will receive a double portion of manna on Friday as they will not receive it on Shabbat. Moses and Aaron find this compelling, proclaiming that “by evening you shall know it was God who brought you out of Egypt.”[5] Will the miracle of the manna do what the plagues could not? Not at all. As Prager points out, “miracles sustain faith for only a brief period.”[6] Israel disobeyed Moses twice: “Some of them left some of it until morning and it became infested with maggots and stank”[7] and “the people went out on the seventh day to gather, but they found nothing.”[8] By this point God is furious, proclaiming “How long will you men refuse to obey my commandments and teachings?” (Ex. 16:28).

What’s fascinating to me is the interplay between Moses and God in this week’s reading. First Moses cries out to God to save Israel after they are in danger of being engulfed by Egypt at the Sea of Reeds. God’s retort is “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to Israel and move forward!”[9] Later on Israel cries to Moses, “Give us water to drink,” and Moses replies “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you try God?”[10] It is as if “the Israelites do not seem to differentiate between God and Moses; they demand that Moses, not God, provide them with water.” On one hand this should not surprise us, as Pharaoh viewed himself as a God, so Israel is used to viewing themselves as God. God has already placed Moses in the role of God (elohim) to Pharaoh. On the other hand Moses fears Israel asking God “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”[11] It is as if Moses is not comfortable with his role as the representation of God before Israel.

I think of how as a man of faith and the one viewed as God’s emissary this interplay works out. In rabbinical school I heard a story about a man whose wife was very ill. The rabbi came in for bikkur holim (visiting the sick). The husband shouted out, “Rabbi-we’re not ready for you yet!” It is as if the rabbi was God’s escort (or for a more negative reading the Angel of Death), bringing the woman up to heaven. How often are the leaders of the Jewish community viewed as God-like? Moses might have felt like he was just a man but that’s not how he was viewed by the people.

As we celebrate Jake!s Men’s Club Shabbat, let us bless the leaders of our Men’s Club representing that while they might feel they don’t do much, they do a great deal to sustain the Jericho Jewish Center. Let us thank Michael who tirelessly organizes the service leaders, Torah and Haftarah readers year after year; Dan who does all the behind-the-scenes work to make Jake!s Mens Club operational; Sherwin for doing the beautiful Shabbat sheet and Jake in abstentia who is the face of the Men’s Club just like Moses was the face of the Jewish people. We are so grateful to be able to celebrate together with you at Shabbat Shirah and demonstrate by example the power of Jake!s Mens Club. When we (God forbid) have a short memory and think “What has JJC done for me lately?” let us remember this special Shabbat and give thanks to our leadership for making it possible.

[1] Dennis Prager, The Rational Bible, page 176.

[2] Exodus 16:3

[3] The Rational Bible, Page 182.

[4] Ibid

[5] Exodus 16:6

[6] The Rational Bible, Page 184.

[7] Exodus 16:20

[8] Exodus 16:27

[9] Exodus 14:16

[10] Exodus 17”2

[11] Exodus 17:4

Uncircumcised Lips

It is so wonderful to have my parents and siblings here for my daughter’s special Simhat Bat weekend.

Last week we discussed Moses going outside his comfort zone but not without challenging G-d. In Parshat Shemot Moses described himself as כבד-פה וכבד לשון, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”[1] In Parshat VaEra, he took things to another level. He said ואיך ישמעני פרעה ואני ערל-שפתיים, “How will Pharaoh listen to me for I am of uncircumcised lips.”[2] Aaron becomes his spokesman and G-d replies נתתיך אלקים לפרעה, “I have placed you in the role of G-d to Pharaoh.”[3] In other words, your perceived weakness is really your strength. It is through Moses repeating G-ds words, and Aaron translating them to Pharaoh, that the plagues will occur.

In life there are plenty of things we wish we did not have yet the fortunate person views them as gifts from G-d. When other kids were going to soccer practice or dance, I was going to speech lessons two to three days a week. I had trouble with many different letters, including “s,” “r” and “th.” There were periods in my life where I thought I would never get the letters right. However, I kept going, and eventually three days turned into two, then one and finally zero. At that stage in my life I would have never imagined that I would be giving public speeches every week. Nor would I have envisioned going to nationals in Forensics (Speech and Debate) in Student Congress in High School, winning First Place in, among all things, Catholic Forensics League National Qualifiers. Without taking small steps, day after day, I would never have made it to a point where most people could not tell that I have had speech therapy and where my speaking has become my strength.

By the end of the Torah, Moses goes from having “uncircumcised lips” to becoming our people’s greatest teacher, so much so that he was referred to as משה רבנו, Moses our teacher. As G-d said in a rebuke to Moses in last week’s parsha, מי שם פה לאדם, “Who gives man speech?”[4] Often in life, rather than wishing things were otherwise, we need to appreciate both our perceived strengths and weaknesses as gifts from   G-d.

Another lesson from our reading is that when we have a weakness we work together with others as a team to overcome it. Moses was given his brother Aaron as his spokesman. As we know from Ecclesiastes, טובים השניים מן האחד אשר יש-להם שכר טוב, בעמלם “Two are better than one for they have good reward through their labors.”[5]

In a similar vein to Moses and Aaron working together, Karina and my hope and prayer is that Ariela and Leora will do the same. Each of our daughters will have strengths which will shine forth in the world as well as challenges to overcome and one way to help do that is to have a support, a friend for life, a sibling. Moses’ weakness, his uncircumcised lips, was Aaron’s strength. Looking at what Moses and Aaron accomplished together, we see the power of siblings: both were needed to blaze the trail forward and get our ancestors out of Egypt. So too may it be the case for us and for our family members and life partners.

[1] Exodus 4:10

[2] Exodus 6:12

[3] Exodus 7:1

[4] Exodus 4:11

[5] Ecclesiastes 4:9