Friday, 24 December, 2021 - 7:00 am

A few one-liners by Woody Allen:
If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your future plans.

I'm astounded by people who want to 'know' the universe when it's so hard to find your way around Chinatown.

It is impossible to travel faster than light, and certainly not desirable, as one's hat keeps blowing off.

Moses knew all along it would not be easy. In this week’s portion, Shemot, Thus, when G-d summoned Moses to embark on a mission of setting his people free, he rejects the invite. The people, he says, will deem him a liar, a charlatan.

What does G-d do? He gives Moses three signs to perform for the people. First G-d tells Moses to take his staff, cast it down to the ground, and then it turns into a snake. Moses recoils but G-d says, no, grab hold of the tail of the snake. Moses does that and it turns back into a staff. Then G-d says, take your hand and bring it in your cloak next to your chest, and then take it out. Moses does so, and his hand is white as snow, as though he was infected by leprosy. He puts his hand back inside, and when he takes it out of his bosom, it is back to normal. Then the third sign. G-d says, take some water from the river Nile, pour it on the ground, and when it hits the ground it will turn into blood.

Are these just cute Divine magic tricks, or is there a deeper meaning behind them?

What was Moses afraid of? Why did he refuse the mission?

As Moses makes it clear, he is daunted by three major concerns.

First, the people. “Behold the Jewish people will not believe me, and they will not listen to me.

Second, he was afraid of himself. He isn’t suited for a task of such magnitude.

Third, Moses was afraid of Pharaoh.

As it turns out, Moses was correct on all three counts. Despite his initial success in persuading the people, things soon start to go wrong and continue downhill. Moses’ first appearance before Pharaoh is disastrous. The King rejects Moses’ request to let the people travel into the wilderness for a holiday. He makes life worse for the Israelites. The people turn against Moses and Aaron: “May the Lord look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

Moses and Aaron return to Pharaoh to renew their request. They perform a sign – they turn a staff into a snake – but Pharaoh is unimpressed. His own magicians can do likewise. Next, they bring the first of the plagues, where the water of the Nile turns into blood, but again Pharaoh is unmoved. He will not let the Hebrew slaves go. And so it goes, nine times. Moses does everything in his power and finds that nothing makes a difference. The Israelites are still slaves.

We sense the pressure Moses is under. After his first setback, he turns to G-d and bitterly complains: “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”

G-d has reassured him that he will eventually succeed, yet, as the Torah says, “Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of their shortness of breath and because of their hard labor.” Moses tells G-d: “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me since I speak with faltering lips?”

Alas, all his fears were confirmed.

It is now we can appreciate the three original signs which G-d showed Moses when they first met at the bush.

“What is in your hand?” G-d asks Moses. “A staff,” Moses says. Moses’ staff is defined in the Torah as “the Divine staff.” This was the staff with which Moses would confront Pharaoh and perform all the miracles. “And you shall take this staff in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs."

But G-d asks Moses to cast it to the ground, where it is transformed into a serpent. Moses runs away. When it is thrown into the dirt, even a sacred staff will turn into a scary serpent. The stick is intrinsically holy, but the harsh impact from the fall on the ground, the dirt and gravel of the earth, can cause something sacred to appear as a venomous snake.

The symbolism was acute. The Jewish people are Divine and sacred; they are G-d’s stick in this world chosen to be His ambassadors, to carry out His will and purpose. But this holy stick has been cast down to the earth. The trauma and suffering of Egyptian bondage caused them to become despondent and to give up hope, emitting bitterness and venom. This is not who they are; it only happened because they were cast unto the ground, subjected to oppression, persecution, slave labor, and death.

Moses ran from the snake as he fled from the thought of leadership over an oppressed and bitter people. He already had an experience: When he tried saving a Jew from an Egyptian oppressor, other Jews informed him. Was an informer not compared to a snake? Someone who kills with the venom of his mouth.

G-d did not disagree. But he showed Moses a profound truth: Trauma causes us to often lose our innate identity, to forfeit our own inner beauty and sacredness. The people are not bad; but you must understand the distress, pain, agony, and tears they have endured. Do not judge them, do not cast them away. Do not be afraid of them, and do not run away from them. They are G-d’s staff!

Instead, G-d tells Moses, "Stretch forth your hand and take hold of its tail!" Do you know what you need to do? Lift them up! Lift them up from the earth—and the scary snake will suddenly become a sacred staff.  

Lift them up from “the tail.” Do not be afraid even of the tail end of the snake, the lowest part of the serpent. If you can only lift it up, extract it from the dirt, and show it its elevated potential and possibility, the pristine Divine holiness will emerge. At this point, they may not believe in themselves, how can they believe in you? They see themselves as serpents. Moses, show them a vision of who they can be, of who they really are.

Professor Victor Frankl (1905-1997) once addressed a large group of students. He said to them that he recently took up flying lessons and he learned from his flight instructor a concept that pilots call “crabbing.” The definition of the word ‘crab’ in the context of flight “is a maneuver in which an aircraft is headed partly into the wind to compensate for drift.”
It means this: If your flight destination is a point say in the east, you should aim towards the north of that destination so that you will land at your desired destination. If you aim at your destination, the crosswinds will cause you to land south—lower—of your destination.

Frankl quoted the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.”

If we take man as he really is, we make him even worse. For there are powerful “winds” that can derail us of our course. But if we overestimate man, if we aim higher, than we help him become what he really can be.

That is why when, Moses tells the Jews to paint the blood of their Passover offering on the doors of their homes, on the night prior to their liberation. Not only would they go free, but they would use their pain as a springboard for rejuvenation and renaissance. It would become a call to action to always stand up for the blood of the innocent.

That generation turned the blood of death into the blood of life.
For this, we remain forever grateful and inspired.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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