Can You See Me?

In a couple of weeks I will have the opportunity to travel to Vienna with Amy and two of my sons for a week-long visit. We chose Vienna for a variety of reasons after strongly considering Amsterdam, where we could have visited with Peter Drucker and Suzanne Vine, former Oheb members who now live there. But while both Peter and I would have enjoyed seeing each other, he discouraged me from coming in the winter because the days are so short. Apparently, at this time of the year it’s still dark outside well past the time that the sun would have already risen here in the New York area, and it sets in the sky earlier than it does here as well.

If you live in a region where the days are short and the nights are long, you probably get used to the absence of natural light. Perhaps that’s what the Egyptians felt when they experienced the ninth plague- darkness. We read in this week’s parasha:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.” Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:21-23)

Commentators have written about the nature of the darkness that descended on Egypt. Some understood it not as ordinary darkness, which is merely the absence of light, but as a phenomenon in and of itself. Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550, Italy) said that the plague of darkness wrote that “the darkness which came over the land of Egypt was a phenomenon in its own right, so real that it could be felt and could not be dispelled by light.”

Other commentaries understood the darkness that fell on Egypt not as a physical phenomenon but as a spiritual one. The darkness was indicative of a callousness and indifference that set in between people. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943, Poland) wrote:

The greatest darkness is when a person does not see his fellow and does not participate in the distress of others. People could not see one another – they did not feel the other’s distress. Their senses were dulled — no one could get up from where he was. This is what the Sages meant when they stated in Shemot Rabbah that “the darkness was as thick as a golden denar.” Running after the golden denar increases one’s egocentrism, dulls his eyes, and makes it difficult for him to feel the distress of others.

Friedman quotes the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) in suggesting that such callousness was fueled by greed and a frantic chase after money. The phrase “golden denar” implies earning money not merely for one’s needs or to be comfortable, but to chase after amounts of money far in excess of what one needs (like $1.5 billion dollars!). That was the darkness that fell on Egypt—an indifference to the essential humanity of the other and seeing the people around us as obstacles to achieving our own goals.

The story of the plague of darkness reminds us to be vigilant about seeing and valuing the humanity in the people around us. Whether it’s a matter of racial diversity, sexual preference, differences in religious belief and practice, or differences in political philosophy, all issues that have afflicted society especially in the year gone by, we can’t afford to allow darkness overtake us, making us blind to the basic humanity that unites us. When that happens, we truly have a plague on our hands.

Time to Take Off Your Shoes

When Moses meets God for the first time, he encounters the Divine presence in a lowly bush at the foot of a mountain near Midian where he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks. The Sages see great significance in God appearing to Moses from within an unnoticeable piece of dry desert brush and use the image to point out that God may be found everywhere, within every aspect of the world around us, within the soul of every living thing. This Divine Bush was itself a miracle, as it was on fire yet not consumed, an oddity that draws the attention of Moses.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

God calls Moses to service from within the bush. God instructs Moses to keep his distance, presumably either for his own protection against the overwhelming power of the Divine, or because God wishes to reinforce the idea that human beings cannot occupy the same space as He does. The Divine call, though is accompanied by an additional instruction that seems strange. Moses must remove his shoes, apparently as an affirmation that the ground on which he is standing is holy.

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, Do not come any closer; take off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.

Muslims remove their shoes before entering a Mosque (indeed, all visitors to a Mosque must remove their shoes). This is likely done to create a boundary between the outside world, which is often filled with dirt and grime, and the prayer space. And the Japanese, as well as some Europeans, remove their shoes before entering their homes, a practice that is meant to keep one’s living space clean and pure. Our passage in this week’s parasha, Shemot, gives us a reason for God’s command to Moses to remove his shoes, namely that wearing shoes would somehow violate the holiness of the environment. But in what way are shoes an obstacle to holiness?

First, it can be said that because they are manmade, shoes are an obstacle to holiness. We distance ourselves from God when we tip the balance from that which is natural to that which is artificial. It’s true that the things we make are, in some way, a result of the Divine gifts with which we have been endowed. Nothing that is created is truly manmade, for the materials and talent used to create things ultimately emanate from God. But manmade things give human beings a sense that our own power and status govern the world. It could be argued that God told Moses to remove his shoes because they were manmade, and manmade things prevent us from sensing that we are in the presence of God. From this idea we might learn that is possible to sense God’s presence, God’s holiness, by connecting to things that are natural in our world.

It could also be said that God commanded Moses to remove his shoes so that he would feel discomfort when he walked on the ground. Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace and enjoyed a pampered, sheltered life. He wished to leave that environment and see the suffering of his people. Did he want to observe their enslavement, gather facts and become informed? Or did he wish to experience their enslavement? Only by feeling a small sampling of what the Israelite slaves felt could he summon the necessary passion and zeal to be God’s ambassador for freedom. In short, Moses had to know suffering himself before he could presume to represent the cause of the slaves to the Pharaoh. And God helped him, in a small way, to feel the sting of slavery by making him walk on the ground barefoot. From this we might learn that we each must find a way to better understand the sting and pain of poverty, of homelessness and of hunger in order to summon the passion and commitment required to remedy these plaques.

Moses was told to remove his shoes because they were an obstacle to holiness. Apparently, they symbolized being distanced from experiencing and enjoying the natural world. And they symbolically sheltered him from the pain and suffering of slavery.

That’s something to think about the next time you put on a comfortable pair of shoes.

As a postscript to this week’s post, I ask you to visit the webpage of Masorti Olami and consider donating to their emergency campaign in support of synagogues in France. Our brothers and sisters in France were already feeling vulnerable, and circumstances have only become more complicated in the wake of yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

CLICK HERE to be directed to Masorti Olami’s webpage.

Good to Great: Lessons for Leaders

In his book Good to Great Jim Collins analyzes what enabled 11 companies, including Coca Cola, Gillette, Wells Fargo and GE, to transition from good to great. Among his findings were that to become great, companies need to develop a culture of personal discipline, avoid radical change and restructuring and, most interesting, have a “Level 5” leader at the top, a visionary who share his vision with an inner circle of team members and works with them to guide the company to new heights.

In this week’s parasha, Chukat, we have another opportunity to speculate on the type of leader that Moses was. In the first 13 verses of chapter 20, we read the familiar of Moses striking a rock to make it produce drinking water for his complaining people, an act for which he is punished by being condemned to die in the wilderness and being denied the privilege of leading the Israelites into the Promised Land. Long considered a bewildering fate for Israel’s great leader, this Torah story makes us wonder what did Moses could have done that was so wrong.

Many commentators spanning the generations offer their take on the story. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (the “Ramban,” 1194-1270, Spain) suggests that Moses was punished for the sin of misleading his people into thinking it was he, and not God, who had the power to produce water. Relying on the verse that says “Shall we get water,” Ramban suggests that Moses mistakenly implies that he too has the power to work miracles. A responsible reading of the text does not permit that conclusion. But perhaps we can say that great leaders watch every word they say and are careful to avoid misimpressions.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164, Spain) suggests that the sin of Moses can be found in needing to be told to work a miracle, meaning that Moses may not have possessed the requisite faith to assure his people that God would provide for them. Could it be that Moses did not have faith in God? Great leaders trust their instincts; Jewish leaders ought to possess faith in God and/or in the People of Israel.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) suggests that Moses was punished because he lost his temper. He needed to keep his cool and remain calm, the best pathway to staying in control and in charge of the situation. Great leaders don’t allow anger and temper to get the best of them.

Everett Fox (Bible scholar at Clark University, MA) suggests that the sin of Moses is that he embarrasses God in public by disobeying Him. Great leaders, says Fox, reserve criticism of their boss and employees for private moments.

My own take on the story is that Moses is not punished by God. Rather, God comes to the sad conclusion that it’s time for a change in leadership if the people are to make progress. Moses was the right leader for his time, a man able to understand and make use of miracles (the Ten Plagues, signs and wonders, manna and quail from heaven) for that was what he was accustomed to doing from his upbringing in Egypt. But God asked him to “speak” to the rock, not to strike it, and Moses couldn’t make the transition to a new way of being.

Our tradition credits Moses with being God’s greatest prophet and our people’s greatest leader. Perhaps that acclaim is sentimental, which is perfectly fine. Perhaps he was not a “Level 5” leader. Our task is simply to study his life and his leadership career, measure ourselves against him, and learn what we can about becoming the best we can be in whatever we do.