Shemot: The Birth of Acting from Moral Imperative. The Birth of Self-Restraint from Fear of God.
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar MIndfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Shemot (Exodus, Shemot), we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
Let’s begin with a quick review of what came before in Vayechi, the weekly parasha/Torah portion that comes before Shemot. Yosef, second in command in Egypt, carries the population and the region through a seven year famine. He does this in stages of social policy that slowly disenfranchises the local Egyptian citizenry. Although not Yosef’s intention, the impact of his social policy to provide grain for the people in exchange for something (first money, then livestock, then their land, and then their bodies) was such that the people ended up being like slaves to Paro, the Pharaoh of Egypt. No longer land owners, the Egyptians agree to work Paro’s land in exchange for grain and food as long as they give 20% of their yield.
And then let’s recall that while this famine is happening, Paro agrees to allow Yosef’s family from Canaan to settle in the best land of Egypt to care for Paro’s and their livestock. They settle and thrive, even reproducing and growing while the rest of the Egyptian population is slowly becoming indentured.
It does not need to be stated that this situation has been a recipe for disaster in past empires and countries. When a foreign population is welcomed by the ruler and that population thrives during a famine while the rest of the native population suffers, what usually arises is nativist, racist sentiment and eventually social policy that seeks to reverse any privilege and power that the alien population has.
And this is where we begin Shemot. A new Paro arises that does not know Yosef (Exodus 1:8). What does it mean to not know Yosef or to not know someone in our ancestor’s time and culture? The JPS Torah Commentary teaches:
It is a key term in the Exodus narratives, occurring over twenty times in the first fourteen chapters. The usual rendering, “to know,” hardly does justice to the richness of its semantic range. In the biblical conception, knowledge is not essentially or even primarily rooted in the intellect and mental activity. Rather, it is more experiential and is embedded in emotions, so that it may encompass such qualities as contact, intimacy, concern, relatedness, and mutuality. Conversely, not to know is synonymous with dissociation, indifference, alienation, and estrangement; it culminates in callous disregard for another’s humanity.Nahum M. Sarna, 1991 The Jewish Publication Society, Page 5
Paro and the native Egyptian population are threatened by the population growth of this foreign element from Canaan residing in Goshen. And because they do not know Yosef and this growing Hebrew nation, they do not have honor toward and compassion for this non-native population. They have no interest in being in relationship with our ancestors or practicing wise discernment. So we witness this new Paro and his people react with greed, hatred and delusion, and create social policy out of fear for this Hebrew nation. We witness fear-based leadership and social policy.
The first policy is to crush our ancestors’ spirit, with the goal being to stop reproduction. They are put into constricted labor (not unlike the Egyptians in the last years of the famine). This policy is not effective and the Israelites continue to reproduce.
Paro moves from this plan to infanticide to reduce the Israelite population by commanding the midwives of the Hebrews to murder the male babies as they are birthed. And this is where we meet our ancestors Shifra and Puah, the midwives who refuse to murder the male babies. We witness the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience. And why would these midwives risk their own lives to save and sustain Hebrew baby boys? What practice of theirs strengthens their middot/soul-traits of Ometz Lev/Courage, Compassion/Rachamim, and Yirah/Fear-Awe of God to defy the order of a king? The practice and observance of Fearing God (Exodus 1:17).
“Fear of God” is a phrase frequently associated with moral and ethical behavior in the Torah. Sarna teaches that “‘Fear of God’ connotes a conception of God as One who makes moral demands on humankind; it functions as the ultimate restraint on evil and the supreme stimulus for good (page 7).” To Fear God is to orient one’s behavior and life toward the greater good. It is to live in defense of a moral imperative and in defiance of tyranny.
Today, in our Mussar Mindfulness way of living, on this lifelong journey and practice toward Holiness, we call this practice of Fearing God wise discernment, living with integrity, observing Torah and the Eightfold Path.
First with the midwives and then with Moshe (Exodus 2:11) we witness this moral impulse to do what is right and just. We witness the rise of the vigilante. We do not witness rule of law. At the same time that these individuals act righteously because they fear God, a kingdom that practices infanticide as transparent public policy is born. Moral imperative manifests in individuals while moral degeneration of the leadership in the nation-state threatens the very fabric of society.
Enters God in the history of humankind to bring the Israelites out of slavery, and with this budding relationship with humanity on a global scale, the rule of law begins to manifest. We will witness more of this later in Shemot. For now, we return to our next ancestor who relies on his own internal moral compass to do what is right and just. And how does his well calibrated moral compass manifest first? He remembers his brethren. He goes out with the intention to see them and their suffering.
What does it mean to remember/zocher (ז.כ.ר) in our Torah? Sarna in JPS teaches:
The root ז.כ.ר, remember, “connotes much more than the recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement and is act not passive, so that it eventuates in actions.״Nahum M. Sarna, 1991 The Jewish Publication Society, Page 5
We learn in the Babylonia Talmud, Menachot 43b that “Looking upon leads to remembering, and remembering leads to action.” Moshe Rabeinu went out to his people with kavanah/intention and saw (looked upon) their suffering. This led him to remember his moral compass to act to stop the suffering.
Moshe murdered an Egyptian who was beating one of his people in order to stop the suffering of this Hebrew. Vigilante. No rule of law. An act to stop suffering ultimately led to the murder of an Egyptian.
This is not unlike this own mother and sister who defy public orders and hide their baby son and brother: They who do what they can to ensure his survival. To land in the grace of the daughter of Paro, who sees the boy. Who hears his cries. Who has compassion on him (Exodus 2:6).
And while these amazing female ancestors are modeling the best of their middot/soul-traits, God begins to emulate their behavior. It is appropriate that the Rachamanut/Compassion of the Divine manifests after the compassion of women. Rachamanut comes from the root of ר.ח.מ, the same root for Rechem/Uterus. Compassion in its highest form comes that holy relationship between a fetus and its mother.
God hears the groaning, the crying out, the cry for help, and the moaning of the Israelites in slavery (Exodus 2:23-25). This hearing leads to remembrance, which leads to seeing and finally to knowing. And to know, as we have learned, means an identification with the suffering and an imperative to act to stop the suffering.
We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this. We rely on your donations of any amount to offer these teachings and sitting. This donation is called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism. On behalf of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar, I thank you for your donation.
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Our practice: reflect for 5 minutes daily in the Cheshbon Hanefesh journal:
What are we to do? What are we to learn from the Torah text and our ancestors? How are we to practice?
- Do you go out to see your brethren’s suffering?
- Do you see the suffering?
- Do you remember what is obligated of you?
- Do you know God? A type of knowing that compels you to bear the burden of the other and to bring God’s Good to others?
If you answered no to any of these, then you know where your practice is. One breath at a time. One day at a time. One situation at a time. As we say in the Jewish tradition:
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