This morning at Or Shalom, Vancouver’s East Side synagogue, was the Bar Mitzvah of a young man named Devon. As usual during this rite of passage, he helped lead part of the Shabbat morning service and chanted from the Torah in Hebrew. The 14-year-old took on the additional challenge of chanting the Haftorah, in this case a reading from the prophet Jeremiah.
Then Devon delivered his Dvar Torah – his thoughts on the Torah portion of the week – and held the congregation spellbound with the quality of his mind and his command of language. Here I am 69, without half the critical thinking skills of this remarkable kid who is barely a teenager.
This part of the Torah tells the story of the last three of the 10 plagues that befell the Egyptian people and their Pharaoh, who refused to let the Israelite slaves go free. Here are short excerpts from Devon’s presentation:
This week’s Torah portion discusses the final stages of the plagues of Egypt in a way that causes me to question the judgment or teaching of God. In this portion God says, “I have hardened the mind of Pharaoh.” I wonder what the point is of painting one who is already evil as even more exaggeratedly flawed, and what the point is of sacrificing firstborn children and animals all across Egypt just to teach that one guy a lesson.
On first reading, this stupefied me.
But I have come to realize that as sacred myth the Torah is using Pharaoh as a symbol of immorality. And that what is described as consuming all of Egypt, including its crops and animals, symbolizes and makes viscerally real the fallout of slavery.
• • • • • •
Perhaps the disasters expressed by nature in the plagues demonstrate the pervasiveness of consequence.
Maybe the learning is that we cannot contain the evil we unleash. Another teaching is that the presence of good does not, necessarily, offset evil or save us from the consequence of evil action.
On a personal scale, as soon as we accept another human being as a lesser individual we close our minds from learning, we’ve “hardened” our minds as Pharaoh did. As soon as we accept that there is such a thing as ‘human’ and ‘subhuman’ we are falling into the steps of Pharaoh and leading ourselves to peril and who knows how exaggerated the real repercussions will be.
• • • • • •
As I become more and more aware of myself, I slow down, and as I slow down, I have begun to notice the grandeur of nature.
After a while, you start to become more and more amazed by how beautiful our world really is. And I realize that, in those moments when the patterns in the clouds swirl and the distant trees are swayed by a wind we cannot feel, I am, perhaps, as close to God, to our world, as I will ever be.
In such moments, we get a glimpse of the sheer joy of life, and that is almost too much to ever understand. That is what happens when we slow down and appreciate things; life gains newfound meaning. And would we not agree that to appreciate God’s Creation, or whatever caused this universe, is truly a holy thing?
Update on Joel Wambi’s angels
Three angels answered the call to help with the expenses for Joel Wambi, an orphan in Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community whose Bar Mitzvah is next weekend. Thank you! I wired the money to Uganda tonight.
Update on daily practice
I let Friday slip by without my daily spiritual practice of chanting, meditation and yoga. But I got back on the horse today. Fifteen out of 16 days ain’t bad for a New Year’s resolution.