A preface: I have loved taking the time to reflect and blog so far, but I’m hoping you, the reader will start to engage in discussion more! So, if you’re enjoying reading, please comment so I can start to be accountable to readers. That way I can learn what you think too!
As we near the secular new year of 2011, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings and beginnings. Recently in reading the Torah, we ended the book of Genesis, and began the next book, Exodus, last week. A lot happens in this transition. In Parshat Va-y’chi at the end of the book of Genesis we expierence the loss of the Jewish forefather Jacob (or Israel see: Honoring our names matters). But, the torah doesn’t just state in one line Jacob died as it does with many other previous deaths. Instead, the entire Parshat of Va-y’chi speaks about both blessings and preparations for Jacob’s imminent death. His wishes are respected, honored, and sacred.
At the beginning of Exodus, (a book that deals with the Journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the promised land) the first Parashat is Sh’mot. Here, we begin to hear the story of the Jews as slaves in the land of Egypt. In fear that the Jewish people are growing in strength, Pharoah orders that the midwives kill all Jewish male babies at birth. Sh’mot recounts the story from the birth of Moses, through his childhood, his flee from Egypt, speaking to G-d at the burning bush, and his eventual return to Egypt to free the people of Israel.
Together, Va-y’chi and Sh’mot revolve around themes of death, birth, and community support. In the story of Jacob his community engages with the wishes he has in his final days, and in Sh’mot much of the community is involved in sparing Moses’s life and providing opportunities to set him up for successful leadership.
Last week I attended services at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, where Rabbi Felicia Sol spoke about Parshat Sh’mot. She spoke of the actions that the midwives Shiphrah and Puah took in saving the lives of the Jewish male babies. She spoke of how the midwives acted out of righteousness. Rabbi Sol related this action of righteousness to the current event of the passing by the House and Senate of a bill that would repeal the actions of DADT (don’t ask don’t tell) , which now would allow gay and lesbian US soldiers to be open about their sexual identify in the military. She spoke of the midwives being either in awe of or in fear of G-d. Showing that G-d is so powerful that the midwives knew by not acting in a way which was right they themselves would suffer consequences.
“The midwives, fearing G-d, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)
What does this lesson of righteousness mean? Do we often act in the “right” way? People often struggle with what is right. However, I think even harder is to make these actions of righteousness a priority in our lives. We may know something is the “right” thing to do, but may do absolutely nothing about it. How do we get past this step? Not to say there aren’t real reasons holding us back from stepping up. We may be rushing to an important meeting, or fear for our own safety in certain situations. When we see an elderly person crossing the street how many of us offer a helping hand? Do we reach out to those we know may be struggling, or do we get preoccupied with our own lives? Do we even have the time to be righteous anymore?
Parashat Sh’mot teaches us how to act in a way that is righteous, but how do we relate that to the themes of life and death, beginnings, and endings, as we see in these two recent Parsha’s. What is our own individual ability, and/or responsibility to help a member of our community who we may see struggling with life, death, and everything in between? When life is ending what is it that we remember? How does thinking about mortality help us align the way in which we live our lives, the things we value, and how to act with righteousness above all else.
Do we have a communal responsibility to act in the “right” way towards those dealing with depression, illness, or the mourners among us?
While we are busy thinking of new year and a new beginning in our lives, people often make resolutions of how they want to improve. Maybe this is the year you’ll learn something you’ve wondered about for awhile, maybe you’ll make more time to eat right, exercise, call your grandmother, or maybe you’ll start listening to your instinct about what is right and important in your life. Maybe your priority is career advancement, or culinary school. Any or all of those things don’t change the fact that you can act with righteousness towards everything in your life.
Depression, death, illness are all topics we often avoid and struggle in dealing with as they are not openly talked about. When Jacob was dying, his son Joseph did everything his father asked for even after Jacob was gone because it was the right thing to do. Maybe doing the right thing for the ill, and mourners among us is as simple as asking for what is needed or doing things and offering even when nothing was asked of you. Often we can identify what is needed, and right but we just have too many other things going on to offer support. Remember that our situations can change in an instant and while we may not be ill or mourning today, tomorrow may be different. We each need the ongoing support of community in these moments and it is up to each individual to act in a righteous way in assisting those who currently need help in their community .
Those who are sick, depressed, or in mourning may feel shame around their situation but creating opportunities where we act ‘with intentional righteousness’ will cause a chain reaction for others to follow suit. Don’t just do things because they are popular do things because they are the right thing to do. Showing communal support when someone is upset is just as or even more important as showing support on happy occasions. It may not be easy, but often stepping up is the right thing to do.
Some resources and giving credit where credit is due:
A recent New York Times article about Jewish Communal caring for the dead
Credit to B’nai Jeshurun, as Rabbi Sol’s comments inspired me to think more about righteousness
92nd Street Y offers group discussions for recent mourners
What do you think about acting with righteousness and remembering those in our community who are struggling?