Veara – Devon Whyte

January 2016

Hello ladies and gentlemen.

This Dvar Torah is focused on some hopeful thoughts for the future, just like the Jews when they were hoping just to be dismissed by Egypt long enough to pray to God. In the portion I see the arrogant antagonist pharaoh showing us the consequences of clouded moral decision. I see God impose power through nature, God taking back from the Egyptians the natural beauty and prosperity they had been given. These are the ideas I chose to explore.

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.

It is as if the Torah brings alive the deficit of morality in Egypt and allows us to experience it through a description of nature responding to evil, God’s judgments demonstrated by nature. I am reminded of the description of nature’s retaliation in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies: the land is given to the characters as beautiful, but through their evil actions, it is tainted and destroyed, so that at the height of their evil, after Simon is killed, Golding describes the very air as “ready to explode.” It is the same with the plagues, the rivers running with blood, and hail and locusts leaving nothing green in Egypt.

It’s myth, but the myth is not that far from reality today. In the past we can see how the roman economy was undermined by the presence of slavery resulting in the destruction of an entire empire and slaughter at the hands of the Germanic tribes.

Later on, in the not-so-distant past, American slavery was abolished and the southern states went into a depression. All the Southern states and all levels of the society suffered repercussions of slavery and the war to end it. Punishment, or consequence, affected for more than individual plantation owners.

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.

* look around you Devon you are doing great!

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.

We see Torah as representing our law, not the laws of this country, but law nonetheless. But let me ask you something, why do we follow the guidelines set for us by this book or scroll?

As a child reading or being read these fantastical and terrifying stories of the nature of Humanity, there have been times when I have felt quite intimidated. “If you eat leaven during the days of Passover, your soul shall be cut off from Israel.” For a young Jewish boy or girl this is quite scary stuff, and so, as children, or if we never evolve past taking such strong statements literally, we might follow, blindly, out of fear. It is the same with the plagues. An immature reading takes them at face value.

 

The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied moral judgment and created the field of moral development, suggesting six stages in the development of human morality. They seem applicable as a hierarchy of, both, our personal responses to the Torah and the Israelite’s development as they grew into freedom.

Kohlberg’s stages of moral development begin with moral action stimulated by fear of a punishment, and progress to eagerness for reward, as in all the promises of plentiful land and good years of harvest we read about in the Torah. God made such promises to Abraham – leave your father’s house, and I will make you as plentiful as the stars in the sky!

As the developmental stages unfold, we begin to act to fit in, as in following the guidelines of Torah to fit in with the others who do, to be a part of the social fabric of community.

Next, we might advance to following the Torah out of respect, not because we believe in it, but because it is the law and it must be followed to maintain order. In the final stages of moral development, a person, or the nation as a whole, begins to do things out of a sense of love for others. You respect Torah because you respect other people.

In maturity, we begin to develop our own set of personal guidelines based on the morals of Torah. This is the last and most advanced stage.

The final stage requires critical thinking and creativity in extracting ideas from the laws or the stories and implementing them in ways that match our personal beliefs, since they are right and morally sound.

One example of this is our willingness to change some aspects of the guidelines of Jewish Law, like the separation of men and women during services.

 

On a personal level, here I am, becoming Bar Mitzvah, achieving the fifth stage, in which I care about others. Hopefully, many of my peers and I have reached an age where we have learned how to be respectful members of society.

It is my belief that as soon as one is prepared to see both sides of an argument on equal terms, one has achieved this stage of maturity.

The reason we cannot, no matter how developed, be sent off to the 6th stage is because at this age, one, in my opinion, does not have the experience to defy rules to match personal moral opinions. Though there are always exceptions.

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?

We see God reflected through the artwork that is this world.

It is then that we understand why the Torah states that prosperity comes from the land. When we are immoral in our actions the land will turn against us.

When the hail and the locusts destroyed everything green in Egypt it was not a judgment or a punishment, merely a consequence of not listening to what is morally right.

 

It isn’t a coincidence that the Shema gives equal importance to hands, heart and soul. Our bodies, our intellect, our emotions, and moral understanding must be equal to one another for us to be truly human. One who is purely physical will not be able to learn except at a very primal, animalistic level. One who is merely intelligent will be harsh and uncaring. One who is purely emotional is foolish and ignorant. As the aspects of out beings and the levels on which we function settle into mature equilibrium, and we begin to even out, we become more and more capable of being our ideal selves, and we become what I think we were meant to be.

I see that there is the presence of darkness, ignorance, in our world. It leads us to chaos and suffering. But there is light, the light of knowledge and the natural beauty of this world, of the moral maturity that comes with this moment. The presence of good is not capable of lighting the way for those in the shadows, but if we shine our lights on them, we light the way for all.

I would like to thank Rabbi Hannah for her support and advice for my Dvar Torah and helping organize this whole thing. Helping with the editing and all helping fit my wandering thoughts into something presentable was invaluable to me. Thanks to my grandfather for advice on the presentation and final editing of my speech. Thank you to my grandmother for some whispered advice in the background of facetime calls and on the way to and from this synagogue when you helped me explain my ideas. And thanks to everyone who took the time to ferry me here and back for the meetings with the Rabbi.

Thank you mom for helping set this up, and to my Father for some important advice along the way. Thanks to David for supporting me and doing a stellar job teaching me how to get through all this while enjoying myself from time to time. Thanks again to my grandparents, they did so much for me to make this process easier, working with me and teaching me on top of what I was doing with the Rabbi and David, it helped make everything nice and took a lot of pressure off me. And thank you to my brother for leaving me alone while I worked. Thanks to my father for some advice on the trips to David’s. Thank you mom for support and taking time to organize this. And thanks to the audience, for your time.

 

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