Bo, Beshallach: Clouds and East Wind

January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Bo | 1 Comment

This is the d’var Torah I delivered as part of my graduation as a maggidah:

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Beasts. Livestock disease. Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness. Death of the Firstborn.

Today’s Torah portion picks up with the plague of locusts, goes into darkness, and brings death to the firstborn. Then, finally, Pharaoh releases the children of Israel.

Why locusts? One morning when I was in college in California, I stepped outside and—crunch! The ground was blanketed with crickets. They covered the lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. Their bodies were so close together, you couldn’t see the ground. Every time somebody opened a door, crickets jumped inside the building.

Those crickets on campus didn’t eat a lot of vegetation before they died. They were a wonder, but not a plague. They were amateurs compared to the locusts in Egypt. The Torah says:

And Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and God guided a an east wind into the land, all that day and all the night … (Exodus/Shemot, Bo, 10:13)
And the locust-swarm went up over the whole land of Egypt … (Bo, 10:14)
It covered the sight of all the land, and the land went dark. It devoured all the vegetation … and all the fruit … that remained after the hail. And there was no green left, in the trees or in the field, in all the land of Egypt. (Bo, 10:15)

Now that’s a plague.

You can watch a locust-swarm flying on YouTube. When the sun shines on it, millions of locust-wings glitter like a sea of sparks. And when the locusts swirl in front of the sun, they make a dark cloud, like a gigantic billow of smoke.

This reminds me of how God manifests as a pillar of cloud by day, and fire by night, in next week’s Torah portion. While the pillar of cloud and fire is leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his army after them. They meet at the Red Sea. Then the pillar of cloud and fire circles back, to stand between the Israelites and the Egyptians. And, the Torah says,

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and God made the sea move with a strong east wind, all the night … and split the waters. (Exodus/Shemot, Beshallach, 14:21)

Both times, God humbles the Egyptians and frees the Israelites with a moving, swirling cloud that sometimes glitters and sometimes darkens.

Both times, God also brings in a ruach-kadim. Ruach means wind—or spirit. Kedem means east—or the place of origin. So the “east wind” is also the “spirit of the beginning”.

The first east wind brings in a vast cloud of locusts that finishes off Egypt’s plant life, and dooms Pharaoh to rule over a dead land. This east wind is Pharaoh’s enemy because he cannot accept the “spirit of beginning”. He is unable to change his ways and make a fresh start.

The second east wind parts the sea so the Israelites can escape from the Egyptian army and live. The east wind is their ally because, once they get over their initial despair, they embrace the “spirit of beginning”. They leave Egypt, ready to make a fresh start.

I think the holy “spirit of beginning” touches our lives, too—whether we see the swirling cloud or not. When we are really stuck, unable to choose anything new, we risk being devoured by a cloud of locusts. But—we have the ability to cast aside that mood, and follow the pillar of cloud and fire instead.

May each one of us receive the strength to embrace the spirit of beginning, and make a fresh start.

Bo: Serving God with Possessions

April 15, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Bo | 1 Comment

(This blog was first posted on January 17, 2010.)

And also mikanu will go with us—not a hoof will remain—because we will take from them to serve Y*h, our god; and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there.  (Exodus/Shemot 10:26)

miknanu=our possessions, our property—usually livestock

Moses does not ask Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go free.  He only asks Pharaoh to let them go out into the wilderness for a three-day holiday to serve their god.  The implication is that then the slaves will all return to their jobs in Egypt.

Yet God has told Moshe that in the end, after the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh will drive the Israelites out of Egypt altogether.  Then God will lead them to the promised land.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Come), Pharoah reacts to plague number nine, darkness, by telling Moshe that all the Israelites can go to serve God in the wilderness, even the children—but they must leave their livestock behind.  Moshe refuses with the explanation—or rationalization—that “from them we will take to serve Y*h, our god, and we ourselves will not know with what we will serve Y*h  until we come there”.

The Israelite slaves do not possess much except for the descendants of the cows, sheep, and goats their ancestors brought down from Canaan.  But Moshe insists they must take all their possessions with them for the three-day holiday.  Pharaoh rightly suspects his slaves are planning to escape, instead of return.  He also seems to suspect that worshiping their god with sacrifices is merely a pretext for leaving.

In that, I believe, he is mistaken.  Moshe makes sure that the exodus focuses on religious service, not for three days but for forty years.  And the Israelites do worship God with sacrifices.  As well as sacrificing livestock, they sacrifice their security.  Even a bad situation seems secure if it goes unchanged long enough.  Now the Israelites exchange their familiar Egyptian masters for a new and unpredictable master, a god who can create terrifying plagues, a god who might ask anything of them.

Today, many of us serve God by following ethical rules, praying at the right times, and observing other rituals.  This kind of service can be a conscious effort, even a sacrifice.  Or it can be lip service, not service of the heart.  What do we do when our inner world changes and we need to hear and follow the call of the divine, but we don’t know how anymore?

We can look over our possessions, and ask God what needs to be sacrificed.  Are we too attached to our “livestock”, our material goods?  Are we clinging to our present status—high or low?  To the security of our present life?  To something else that keeps us enslaved in a narrow place?

What do we need to sacrifice in order to free ourselves to leave our Egypts and enter a new world?

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