Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Super Bowl Challenge - Reflections on Parashat BeShalach 5775

(To read an earlier blog post on this parasha, click here.)

Unless you live under a rock, you know that this weekend is Super Bowl Sunday - the culmination of a football season that began last August; the match up of the two best teams in football, both vying for the rarefied title of champion.

Americans can't get enough of pro football, and they spend insane amounts of time and money on this pastime. Devotees spend twenty hours a week or more watching games during the regular season, and hours more analyzing the games, studying the stats, and preparing for the next Sunday. 

This obsession makes the NFL a lot a money - annual revenues of $10 billion, while the 32 NFL franchise teams themselves are worth a cumulative $45 billion. Beer-bellied Joes who will never throw a real football in competition fuel the 
$70 billion fantasy football industry.

Then consider a few stats about the Super Bowl itself:

- An estimated 120 million people will watch the game on Sunday - 40% of the entire country.
- A stadium seat costs upwards of $4,000; tickets on the 50 yard line, a cool $10,000.
- The airtime cost of a 30-second commercial is $4.5 million. 
- More food and alcohol are consumed in the United States on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day of the year save Thanksgiving.

The numbers are so large that it is hard to wrap your brain around the enormity and impact of football in American life.

But what on earth does the Super Bowl have to do with the parting of the Reed Sea? 

Shemot/Exodus 14:2: "Speak to the Children of Israel and have them turn back and encamp before Pi-HaChirot, between Migdol and the Sea, opposite Baal-Zephon."

For a week after leaving Egypt, the Pillar of Cloud/Fire led the Jewish People on a seemingly random perambulation through the northeastern approaches to Egypt. Now they were instructed to encamp on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water, opposite Baal Zephon. 

Earlier, Gcd had promised to render judgment against the deities of Egypt, that is, to expose them all for the frauds that they were. And during the Ten Plagues, He had systematically done so, except for one: Baal Zephon, the last Egyptian god standing...

...and perhaps their most important deity. And so it was arranged that the ultimate smackdown between Gcd and Pharaoh, Israel and Egypt would take place at the foot of the shrine to Baal Zephon. The Egyptians took heart: if all the other Egyptian deities had failed them, surely Baal Zephon would rescue them in their hour of need!

What did this supremely important deity represent to the Egyptians?

Our sages teach us that Baal Zephon was the god of money. This shrine was placed on the northern trade routes into Egypt; all caravans entering Egypt had to pay heavy tribute to this god. (Can you see where I'm going with this?)

For all the talk about the game itself, the NFL is big business. Stripped of all the pageantry and accoutrements, it's all about the money. 

Now there's nothing wrong with making money. But when the profit motive is unalloyed with social and ethical considerations; when the relentless quest for short-term gain blinds the entrepreneur to long-term consequences, strategy and planning, then slash-and-burn capitalism can become idol worship, Baal Zephon.

Usually, the higher interests of ethical behavior can run together with the interests of profit. But occasionally those interests diverge, and when they do, there are decisions to be made. Each individual has to evaluate their priorities for themselves. When your boss asks you to bend the rules, to maybe cheat or steal a little to close the big sale, what will you do? Character is destiny, and lives are established or shattered on decisions such as these.

The NFL's reaction to the recent spate of player indiscretions, cheating allegations and other misbehavior clearly establishes that, so far as the NFL is concerned, that which bolsters the bottom line is to be condoned, and that which damages it is to be condemned. 

Baal Zephon. The almighty dollar is king.

Now I'm not being prudish here; I enjoy football and will probably watch the game myself. But the Super Bowl presents an opportunity to make a statement about your priorities. I wonder if the people who can find twenty hours a week for the games spend an equal amount of time studying Torah? Communing with Gcd through prayer? Doing kindnesses for their fellow man? Where do these imperatives rank in comparison to football? Where you spend your time is the truest indicator of what is really important in your life.

Here is the Super Bowl Challenge: for every hour you spend watching football, spend ten minutes studying Torah. It doesn't matter which book: pick any subject that intrigues you. The key thing is to make a statement about priorities: that however much fun football is, there are other things that are more important, more enduring, more meaningful.

Hit me up if you accept the challenge, and let me know how you do. 

I'm rooting for you.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Let's Hear It for The Girls - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5775

If Bereishit/Genesis, the first book of the Torah, is the story of the Patriarchs, then we must say that Shemot/Exodus is, by and large, the story of Jewish women.

In the very first narrative of the book, we find the Pharaoh bribing the Jewish midwives to accidentally (on purpose) kill the newborn Jewish boys, and let the newborn Jewish girls live. These brave Jewish women defy the Pharaoh, and save the Jewish babies alive.

It is a woman who puts her baby - the future redeemer of Israel - in a waterproof basket to float down the Nile; and it is a young girl who risks her life to keep an eye on that basket from the bulrushes.

Who fishes the baby out of the water and gives him a chance at life? A woman.

Who saves Moses' life by performing an emergency circumcision of their son? A woman.

We are taught that the more the Egyptians tortured and enslaved the Jews, more they increased and multiplied. How so? Because of the self-sacrifice of the Jewish women, who dolled themselves up and shlepped out to fields to consort with their broken, exhausted husbands, reduced as they were to sleeping in the killing fields.

It was the Jewish women who, confident of a great salvation, stood ready at the Reed Sea with musical instruments in hand, while their men were bickering among themselves, bellyaching about surrender.

It was the Jewish women who refused to participate in the death folly of the Golden Calf. It was Jewish women who rejected the report of the cowardly spies, and later on, it was Jewish women who marched right up to Moses and his Council of Sages and made an eloquent plea for the preservation of their family's inheritance in the Land of Israel.

Moses, the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Red Sea - these are almost side shows compared to the accomplishments of these incredible Jewish women. At every turn of Jewish history, women save the day.

So we must ask: why isn't Shemot called "Jewish Women"? And don't you find it curious that the names of these great women aren't revealed until much later? (PS: The names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are a feint, mere noms de guerre.)

Answer: because modesty is the defining characteristic of Jewish Femininity. Jewish women have always eschewed the spotlight, preferring to make their influence felt behind the scenes.

Consider the relationship between  power and influence. Untamed power is raw, capricious, dangerous - like lightning. However, power, if refined, directed, controlled, can be a tremendous force for good - like electricity. 

It is but a small leap to conclude that influence is ultimately more powerful than power itself. Who is more powerful: the king or the kingmaker?

The Author of Life has engineered us such that, in the main, men possess power, and women have influence - meaning the vision, the moral clarity and the ability to direct that power for the Higher Good. 

Jewish history has demonstrated over and over again that when Jewish men ignore the guidance of their wives, they get themselves into serious hot water. "And Gcd said to Abraham: pay heed to whatever your wife Sarah tells you." She had clarity of vision where his perspective was clouded. And Jewish wives have never let us down since.

Like the Yin and the Yang, when men and women work symbiotically, great things can be accomplished in the world, because women's strengths complement men's weaknesses and vice versa. We neither of us can do it on our own.

Judaism is all about balance, about finding the middle path, about holding the center. Tragically, there are strong centrifugal forces pulling Judaism towards the extremes. 

On the right, we are witnessing the islamization of Judaism, with the voice, and indeed, the presence of women, banished from public life. Kol B'Isha Ervah has been rigidly construed to mean that women have no role in Jewish life outside the home: witness the segregated buses, the segregated wedding feasts, the segregated kiddushes, the suffocating neo-Puritanical dress codes of which our grandparents never knew. 

On the left, we have seen the christianization of Judaism, wherein Judaism resembles Unitarianism, only with Jewish stars instead of a crosses; a mitzvah-less, Gcd-less, feel-good Judaism replete with synagogues arranged like churches, women clergy, women cantors, and women serving as lay leaders. Mazal tov! Jewish feminists have proven what we have known anyway for four millenia: that women and men are equally capable. But in arrogating men's power to themselves, they have abdicated their critical role to influence, to guide, to teach, to nurture. And Judaism is immeasurably poorer for it.

Both approaches are fatal. We must look to the Yocheveds, the Miriams, the Zipporahs and the Batyas for guidance. No doubt the greatest accomplishments of Jewish women have yet to be made. And no doubt that they will most assuredly be made by holding the Jewish center; by working together with their husbands, supporting one another, guiding one another, helping one another, to perfect the world for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.