RABBI’S LETTER FOR TEVET-SHEVAT
The Mythic and the Calendrical in Jewish Consciousness
Get ready for the drama folks. We are at the cusp of the first two books of the Bible. The transition between the book of Genesis and the Exodus is striking. We leave a very tentative healthy Israelite people enjoying Joseph’s prescience and foresight in Goshen, eating well, and for the moment enjoying the fruits of Egypt. But this enjoyment is only very temporary. The Stock market of Egypt falls, coupled with growing suspicion and hatred of the immigrant Israelite population. We meet a xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervor that feels all too familiar…and soon there is that cry to beware of the “hordes” of Israelites that threaten the very essence of Egyptian-ness. And now the new Pharoah is paranoid and “knows not Joseph”. How is that possible? In my Midrashic reading, he no longer knows the “addition” that is Joseph – the literal meaning of the name. He does not understand the additional benefit of Joseph. The new xenophobic Pharoah broadcasts slanderous and fear-mongering ideas among his increasingly fearful constituency.
This is a Pharoah that does not comprehend the power of the additional, the Israelite, that the previous Pharoah knew: that there is a great benefit in the wisdom and culture of the Israelite “within”. Soon the period of severe enslavement begins and the de-volution of the descent into Egypt emerges. Out of this descent, ascent grows, and out of the rejection of oppressive slavery comes re-birth.
What is born is the new Nation delivered by the Divine, through his servant Moses. Now we know why Joseph was destined to be sold into slavery. Now we understand why Jacob and all the Tribes were required to go down into Egypt. This is essential to the Heilsgechichte, the Sacred History of Israel that we find in the Bible and expanded by the Rabbis. Sometimes we do not understand why we are entering a place of darkness…might there be a way to see this as part of a Redemptive plan? It’s bad theology, to my mind, to see that oppression, slavery, confusion and tyranny are ever a necessary condition for salvation. And yet, post facto, we can see how much we learn from suffering; how we can transcend it and transform it.
All of this occurs while most of the world is deep into the darkness of winter, just after the solstice and the return of the light: apparently, are we moving in two different spiritual directions? How are we to see this in conjunction with the calendrical shift from the Hannukah miracle to the wonder of Tu-Bishevat and the incipient and exciting rising of the sap of the Cosmic Tree and the distant hint of spring? The foundational myth of ancient Israel and the calendar of the Jewish year are in apparent conflict and we are experiencing cognitive dissonance! Think Sacred History and the mythos of freedom: the movement from the darkness and its coziness and womblike darkness generates and accelerates the new growth of the Cosmic Tree. The hidden becomes the revealed; the revealed remains hidden.
As classical Kabbalah teaches us, what is born and nurtured in the upper mother Sephirah of Binah in the Tree of Life sprouts new growth, just as the difficult pregnancy and labor in Egypt (the place of oppression) generates the new Israelite “person.” The people must go through the same process and move through the blood and waters to birth. The Tree emerges from deep dark places of growth into the sunlight, reaching inexorably upward towards the Light.
So too us – for out of our American confusion and darkness, and of late, a terrible place of fighting, mindlessness and petty struggles, impulsive and foolish domestic and foreign policy leadership, voiding much of the progress and wisdom of the last years of re-envisioning America. My hope is that a new Tree will emerge and sprout as part of the cycle of the swinging pendulum of history, and a reckoning of the truths that bind us together as a Nation and link us in global alliances across the Planet – mostly for the good.
May our Tikvah, our hope, never die. May the Jewish people, with the help of the Divine Source, continue to stand up for love, for justice, and for principle in this current age of confusion and darkness.