Last week we opened the Book of Shemot, or Exodus; this week we are in the second parashah – Va’eira. God tells Moses that God “appeared” to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…This is a passage of reassurance to Moses, who, whilst having agreed to challenge Pharaoh for the release of his people Israel, is still clearly in need of a confidence boost.
We read these words of Torah but we cannot leave these words flat on the page – we must understand what we are to learn, what we are to put into our practice, how we are to understand our tradition and our place within that tradition. We cannot take these words literally.
When I spoke on Kabbalat Shabbat about the challenge of bringing our capacity for free will to establishing greater freedoms – using whatever fish ladder we might need – I was addressing the politics embedded in Torah: the notion of absolute power, the crushing servitude of a people who have lost voice and hope, and who have then turned their rage and sorrow against each other. Politics informs all our human relationships.
And we cannot advocate for the poor and the lonely, the widow and the orphan if we do not understand how symbolism and myth function in this sphere we call Torah.
My understandings of how I read Torah is much informed by my teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman, z”l, of beloved memory. Rabbi Gillman was a Professor of Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. I first learned with him online and then at his invitation, in person, at JTS. He then became my supervisor for my Master’s Thesis: We Do the Best We Can: Jewish Burial Societies in Small Communities in North America.
Rabbi Gillman was one of the most influential teachers at the Seminary and in this video he addresses the notion of myth as a mechanism for understanding Torah. Whilst not factual, and not literally ‘true’ he teaches that Torah carries tremendous truths through the concept of myth or meta-myth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmyiGlAHtf4
Some of you wrote and asked me for the link to the MiChamocha video we so enjoyed during Kabbalat Shabbat – here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0WzT4r4I94
Some of you will remember Rabbi Angela Buchdahl from our services during the Yomtovim. Here she is with a poignant revelation about her sense of “belonging” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebHG7IVALDM.
How many of us have had similar ‘breaking points’ that have actually brought us into a deeper understanding of what our authentic truth is? In this section of Torah we read about a people who are at their breaking point. Even Moses is cracked, if not broken. We all need reassurance, from within, and from the people around us. Rabbi Gillman gave me an extraordinary gift. He insisted on finding a place for me within the most unwilling bureaucracy at JTS. I didn’t fit in – and yet he insisted on their finding a crack in the granite. He stood by my side until the paperwork was signed. Rabbi Buchdahl searched her soul – with guidance from her mother’s voice. The cracks of belonging are around us. They are found in our most profound and sacred myths.