Saturday, January 5, 2019

Moses vs Pharaoh: Politics is what it is all about then and today.

I know we live in an era where so many are fed up with politics. The cable news cycle and the drama we watch daily, and nightly in our homes and it all shows variations on a theme about the dynamic of power. Politics has become an evil word today because power is often the golden fleece rather than policy. All of this political  toxicity in our world and in our nation’s political discourse has eroded the faith of the people in our democratic institutions. Is religion the place to escape that kind of politics? 

The answer is yes and no. What I am going to show us tonight is that the negotiations between Pharaoh and Moses look a lot like what we see in today’s world whether we are referring to politics or any form of an adversarial negotiation. Our stories in the Torah are political and we simply have to embrace them and the lessons they teach about human character. Politics are very much connected to this week’s Torah portion Vaeira and the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh who demands of his brother “Let my people go!” This Torah portion goes down in our memory as the Torah portion of plagues. These are the same plagues we commemorate which Moses invoked during the Passover Seder meal. We pour one drop of wine for each plague concluding with the plague of the death of the first born in Egypt.
 Don’t be fooled for a moment by thinking this story in Exodus isn’t a political power play between the two leaders.

Pharaoh tried to show his magicians were just as powerful as Moses by producing plagues, but, in the end Moses’ power, bestowed upon him by God, was too great for Pharaoh who finally acknowledged the power of Adonai. The plagues are meant to show that the power of faith and God’s intervention were superior to anything that Pharaoh could muster up. This episode, the speaking of truth to power, and Moses invoking the Divine Presence to bring on the plagues is part of a greater narrative in the Torah about a religious and political movement of liberation. The Exodus is all about politics. How could it not be?

I just love the negotiation between Pharaoh and Moses. As each plague wreaks havoc on Egypt, the text tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  Each time Pharaoh’s seems to relent from his stubbornness and appears ready to let the Israelites go, he then changes his mind. Is Pharaoh playing to his base for fear that if he gives in he risks appearing weak and, therefore, loosing the bases of his support?

Yet, the Torah tells us how each plague created its own cycle of Pharaoh changing his mind to get rid of the Israelites only to change his mind again in the aftermath of the plague.  The failed negotiations proved that Pharaoh was a man you just couldn’t do business with because no matter what he says he always changed his mind. Finally the plague of hail illicit a different reaction from Pharaoh when he remarked, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right for I and my people are in the wrong. Plead with the Lord that there may be an end to this thunder and hail. I will let you go and you need not stay here any longer” (9:28-29).

The sad and tragic aspect of this political stand off is that even after Pharaoh said these things in acknowledging that Adonai is just and that he was wrong and that the Israelites could go free, it all meant nothing because Pharaoh said again shortly afterwards, “ But Pharaoh’s heart  hardened and he refused to let the children of Israel go” (9:35).
The sages have their own viewpoints about this power dynamic. Some espoused the belief that the purpose of the plagues was to educate Pharaoh about the power of God and others said it was to remember compassion in anger.

 When we get to the Passover Haggadah itself, the Reform movement focused on the plagues as a metaphor on how humanity brings on the plagues upon themselves when we are disrespectful of each other and our environment. Elie Wiesel wrote that the purpose of dropping the wine for each plague was to teach us to remember the compassion for the Egyptians who were also victims, albeit of their own arrogance. Again, another rule of politics the people always end up suffering at the hands of the arrogance from their own leaders. Eventually that is what happened to the Egyptians when the final blow from the death of the first born of Egypt.

The plagues, whether we are referring to the plagues used by Moses or those brought on my Pharaoh’s magicians, are  as much political weapons as they were literal weapons used by each side to prove their power. Moses knew that Pharaoh’s word was meaningless. He saw through the lies of Pharaoh, when he said , “But as for you and your servants, I know that you do not yet fear the Lord God” (9:30). In politics you can negotiate and achieve solutions even when both sides are completely opposed to each other. The problem is when there is not enough respect or trust for each side to achieve a mutual agreement. That is the core of the problem, in my estimation, between Moses and Pharaoh. This is why,  in next week’s parashah Bo, the plague of the death of the first born in Egypt  qualifies as the only factor that broke the political will of Pharaoh. Cable news cynics would say that mass deaths of Egypt gave Pharaoh the political cover to let them go and not loose power with his base.

In a way Moses was playing to his constituent base too. Was the base God or the people? That is the question we ask throughout the rest of the Torah. It drives the entire story of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai as well as the stories of Moses loosing his temper and saving his people too. I cannot help but believe that negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh resemble in many ways the kind of negotiations between political leaders today.

Alas, politics are part of life and their repercussions have an impact on the people. In the realm of religion too, our national narrative as a free people is very much connected to politics and negotiations. Many of us would like to think that that Judaism should be free of political discussions. We come to study Torah to be enriched spiritually. At the same time this our destiny and our history, how do we deny what is our past? How do we learn those lessons and apply them for how we conduct ourselves in the present for the benefit of the Jewish people, Israel and for America?

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Resend of my column on gaining a grandson and loosing a mother

My daughter recently gave birth to a son, and I beheld with wonder my first grandchild. I entered his nursery and she proudly showed me a shelf of new books that she would soon be reading to her newborn. My eyes lit up and my emotions began to swell when I saw that same book on the shelf. I was touched that the book had such an impact on her after all these years.

Within days of my return home, I received the news that my beloved mother, who was 97, had taken her last breath and peacefully, on the last day of Hanukkah, passed on to eternity. It was now my turn to take mom into my arms.
I’m home again after officiating at mom’s funeral. I read a passage from Chapter 3 of the book of Ecclesiastes:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot.”
These words exemplify the Bible’s understanding of the cycle of life and they are just as powerful today as when they were written.
I feel contrasting emotions vividly in my soul — the cycle of life with a newborn followed by the passing of this infant’s great grandmother. I am the next generation now.

There was always something about my mother’s presence that protected me from the thought of my own mortality and helped me feel that I was still a young man. My sense is that she felt younger than her friends in the assisted living facility where she lived because she had a child who had just passed sixty years.
As we escorted her casket and lowered it into the grave, I recalled that cherished children’s book. But this time. it was me holding her in my arms, laying her down on the bed for a night of eternal sleep and saying, “I’ll love you forever. I’ll like you for always. As long as I’m living, my mother you’ll be.”
I am at peace with her death while at the same time looking forward to a new journey with my grandson and his parents. Just as there was always a sense of peace and tranquility when I laid my little daughter down on the bed at night, I experienced that same harmony and flow of life as I laid mom to rest in her grave.
I no longer see the birth of a child and the death of a great grandparent as a conflict of emotions. If, as the writer Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, death is the “great homecoming,” then so, too, is birth the great homecoming, when a newborn is welcomed into his or her new family.
Aren’t these experiences simply two sides the same coin?

The thought of my daughter reading those words from the book to her son brings me great comfort. I hope she will one day repeat these words to me when I enter my final years: “I’ll love you forever. I’ll like you for always. As long as you’re living, my daddy you’ll be.”
Ecclesiastes speaks of the transition of generations which affirms how a newborn and the passing of an elder belong to the same continuum of life:
“Generations come and generations go but the earth remains forever”.
I feel at ease witnessing the goodness of this new generation’s arrival. I also mourn the passing of the eldest generation.
Have I taken the first conscious step in preparing myself for my own passing and believing that it will be OK when my time has come?
I pray that God gives me the longevity to hold this new child and watch him grow up. At the same time, I know that I have left something sacred of myself behind that my parents bequeathed to me when I was born.
Now, I will pass that on to my daughter and my grandson.
I believe even more in tomorrow. As Proverbs says:
“For surely there is a future and you will not be cut off.”
My mother’s memory lives on in me, and so, I pray, shall I live on in my daughter’s and grandson’s.

Thank you God for the gift of life and memory. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The cycle of life from birth of a grandchild to the passing of a beloved mother.

Many of us who read this column have experienced the loss of a loved one followed by the birth of a brand new baby. Or maybe it's the opposite. Well it happened to me and I have a newspaper column about how that felt and what I am learning from the cycle of life.
What do you think?
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving reflects the best side of America's promise.

Hi Everyone,
Here is my Thanksgiving day message which shows us how in our nation's history we have used Thanksgiving as a day to unite the nation from the core of our universal values. Take a read and tell me what you think. I hope you had a great day of being with family and friends.
Rabbi Brad Bloom

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht

I sat down this week with a couple in my congregation. The man told me a story about how on the morning of November 9th, 1938, he awoke to the sound of hard banging on his front door. Standing outside of his home were brown shirted Nazis SA soldiers who triggered a nightmare for them and for the rest of the Jewish people. His father was a physician who had left early that morning to visit a patient. The next time this teen saw his father was four years later in New York City in 1942. This amazing man captured me with his harrowing tale of being on the last ship leaving his community in August of 1939. They made it to America, began new lives and created a future for themselves which they have enjoyed over the years. 
He was, sadly, the exception for Kristallnacht was simply put a state sponsored national and international series of pogroms or riots sponsored and incited by the German government in Germany and occupied Austria against the Jewish people. All of the violence and destruction against the Jewish communities including their synagogues and businesses and the imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps like Dachau and the increase of racial laws were meant to further isolate and humiliate the Jews from the rest of their society. All of it originating from a seventeen year old German born-Polish Jew Herschel Grynspan  who shot and killed Nazi diplomat Ernst Von Rath in the German embassy in Paris.
Goebels and Hitler seized on this moment to send the ultimate message  which was that there was no future for the Jewish people in Germany and Austria.This is why Kristallnacht represents the Prelude to the so-called Final Solution or the Destruction of the Jewish people. 
There are so many stories recorded by many like my congregant which is why we respectfully remember and commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht and we ask what lessons does the Night of Broken Glass teach us today?
First, aside from what Kristallnacht represented in Hitler’s war against the Jews it has significant meaning for our times too. This nationwide German people’s rampage against the Jewish people teaches us how a state unleashed it police, its army, it fire department and the citizenry to run wild to destroy Jewish synagogues and businesses. They incarcerated thousands of Jews in the concentration camps of places like Dachau. Since then we have witnessed how other nations have entered the realm of insanity and hatred and done the same things to their own citizens too.

As Jews we cannot help but react differently this year to Kristallnacht in light of the recent murderous rampage by a bigoted and evil man that took the lives of 11 Jewish worshippers at the
Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. We see what is possible in our own country. Some say that this events like the march of Nazis at Charlottesville in 2016, or the burning of a Nazi Swastiker at a National Socialist Rally in Draketown, Georgia in April of 2018, point to an unprecedented upsurge of anti-Semitic outbreaks that may set an ominous and dangerous new trend for us in America and for world Jewry. Others question whether or not the Jewish community in America is vulnerable in a way that we would never have imagined or contemplated before? Again we are left with more questions than answers as to what the past can teach us.

The program we have prepared for today combines the first hand testimonies from people who experienced the wanton rage against the Jewish people that night. Their voices are still alive for us and in that way we too will bear witness to that past. The music that the brilliant maestra Mary Green has prepared will take us on a journey of the soul and hopefully will inscribe in our hearts the despair and the concern of the times in the mid 1930s as the Nazis gained power all over the world. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Mary Green singers and the musicians who are hear today. Our task this afternoon is to combine the readings and the music into our consciousness to forever hold the Night of Broken Glass or Crystal  for its place in history and for its symbol for why we should  work for a future when nothing like it will happen to us or to any Jewish community.
Finally we should be well advised to do our best to open up the dialogue with other groups to create the fortress of strength and resistance against these kinds of hate groups who not only rear their ugly heads against the Jewish community but against many communities in our country. The enemy who hates us today is the same person who despises the diversity of this great nation. How can we ignore the moral imperative to build bridges to a safer future for ourselves and for all Americans?
On Friday Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel held a commemoration of the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht.“We should remember it every day, not only on a day of commemoration. Let us work every day to ensure that what happened 80 years ago can never happen again.“I am convinced that we can only draw the right lessons if we understand the November pogroms of 1938 as part of a process,” she said.

The French Foreign Minister Edouard Philippe noted on his Facebook page the 69 percent increase in France of anti-semitic attacks. He said, "Every attack perpetrated against one of our citizens because they are Jewish echoes like the breaking of new crystal," Mr Philippe wrote on Facebook, referring to Kristallnacht.”"Why recall, in 2018, such a painful memory? Because we are very far from being finished with anti-Semitism.” Mr Philippe cited Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as saying; "the real danger is indifference”. And that is exactly our mission today. To sharpen our awareness and to fight indifference to hate and oppose any effort by a government to destroy its own population because the stakes for Jewish survival couldn’t be any greater today.

The aftermath of the murders of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh

My most recent newspaper column from the island packet.
The title speaks for itself. Thanks for taking the time to read it. Let me know what you think?
Rabbi Brad Bloom

When your loved one has a stroke, is God Present for us?

I have had quite a few congregants and relatives who have recently suffered strokes. We all know how debilitating a stroke is on a human being. Is there a spiritual dimension and a moral dimension when we are supporting our loved ones? My newest newspaper column explores this topic. Let me know what you think?
Rabbi Brad Bloom