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Cantor's Commentary - Parshat Beshalach                          January 30, 2021 - 17 Shevat 5781

01/29/2021 10:15:06 AM


A lot has happened since my last video three weeks ago.  Of course, Joe Biden became president of the United States.  For some reason, at exactly the same time, the late night tv comedy shows like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel have become a lot less interesting – and I say that with deepest respect, love and admiration… for their entire writing staff which I don’t have.  While Toronto is in continued lockdown, the vaccines have finally arrived, even though the rollout seems to be much less than optimal.  But on the bright side, it does seem like whatever we’re doing, it’s beginning to look like we’re finally making a dent in this pandemic.  

The latest graphs from show that the number of new cases in Canada seems to be declining steadily since New Year’s.  The same seems to be true in the United States, and even worldwide.  While our political leaders and news media continue to tell us that it may yet still be a while before we’ll start seeing life return to some semblance of normal, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling encouraged, and confident that whatever it is we’re doing, we seem to be on the right track.

In the virtual Jewish world this past week, we celebrated the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the birthday of the trees, or at least that’s the way we teach it to our kids.  In reality, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was both historically and religiously just a date to mark the fiscal year for agricultural tax purposes in ancient Judea.  But in the modern era, it has become a celebration of nature, environmentalism, and the delicious foods indigenous to Israel, and indeed the whole eastern Mediterranean region such as grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates; foods that have defined the taste of the middle east for millennia.

On Wednesday, our little shul took part in the most amazing program, perhaps the first of its kind—a multinational virtual tu bishvat seder that brought together Jewish communities from Canada, the US, the UK, and Israel, all zooming together in common cause.  One of the speakers was the great Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, with whom I had once upon a time had the absolute pleasure and distinction of serving alongside when I lived in London.  And my own personal contribution to the program was a music video I created of a brand new 5-part a cappella arrangement of the song Lo Aleicha, which we’ve I’ve also posted on the Beth Radom youtube channel.  For some real fun, be sure to check it out, and I’ll leave a link in the description and a card at the end of this video.  Despite the enormous hardship that the ongoing pandemic has brought on our world, one little silver lining has been this new model we have for virtual Jewish programming and creativity that we might never have otherwise conceived of, which has now become a part of our lives.  For this special tu bishvat seder, I chose the song Lo Aleicha for its universal message, reminding us that just because a project like saving for our planet is too big to be accomplished by one person alone, that does not absolve any of us of the responsibility to do our part.  While the quote from pirkei avot was referring to the restoration of the Temple, the same could easily be said for protecting our environment, and if we think about it, the restoration of the Temple, coupled with bringing about the Mashiach and world peace is inexorably linked with a world that has successfully achieved sustainable energy, clean air and water, and carbon neutrality.  It is only fitting that also this week, General Motors announced their plan to switch over to only producing electric vehicles by 2035.

I think that it’s so critical that we all take notice of major companies and businesses that make these kinds of commitments and recognize them for the bold steps they are taking, because let’s be clear, overhauling any company, let alone a car manufacturing company to be eco-conscious is a difficult and expensive goal that comes with a fair amount of risk.  Difficult, expensive and risk—three things that businesses usually try to avoid.  Instead to do what GM is planning will require trust in good conscience, faith and dedication to the cause—three more things that history has shown is often antithetical to good business.  And as long as we’re being honest, let’s also recognize that the world does have a few other more immediate priorities right now like our health, and of course, our economy.  If you were to say to me, “you know, investing in going carbon neutral is a nice idea, but right now we’re kinda focused on making payroll and avoiding mass layoffs”, I would have a very hard time arguing with that.  But whichever side of this issue we may find ourselves on, we SHOULD be able to all agree that these are examples of legitimate arguments that deserved to be wrestled with, debated vigorously in the media, by politicians, and within our own communities.  Unfortunately, though, we can’t.  We can’t because we’re still stuck on the much sillier debate on the validity of earth science in the first place, one of the sad realities of the misinformation age that we still seem to be stuck in.  And it seems we will remain so until we can address some of the serious problems of the human condition that continue to plague or society.

This week’s special Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, named so for the climax of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when we read about the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, after which, finally realizing that they were free from Egypt forever, the Israelites erupted in song, Ashira L’Adonai Ki Ga’oh Ga’ah, I sing unto God for He is most exalted.  Not long before, however, there was a moment that the Israelites were not so sure they would make it.  As they were cornered by the Egyptian army, and their backs up against the water, the Torah says that the Israelites cried out to Moses, “hamibli eyn k’varim b’mitzrayim l’kachtanu lamut bamidbar?” – “Were there so few available graves in Egypt that you took us out here to die in the desert?”  You heard it right—sarcasm in the Torah! And if you ask me, it’s still pretty funny for a three and half thousand year old joke.  Nachmanides, the medieval commentator, however, doesn’t think it’s so funny.  There were two groups among the Israelites, he explains, that when they saw the Egyptian army, one group cried out to God, while the other denied Moses and would not admit to having been saved, saying that they would have been better off not having been rescued.

Now I have to admit that if I had been there, personally, watching the Egyptian army closing in with no obvious path of escape, I can’t say for certain whether or not that at that moment I would be feeling at all confident in Moses leadership. Now of course, I’m not going to debate the question of whether or not the events of the Torah are exactly true to history.  But if I had been there, and it was my back up against the Red Sea with Moses beside me as we both watched the Egyptian army charge at us, in that case it would also HAVE to mean that I had personally witnessed first-hand the 10 plagues of Egypt, real proof that there was a very powerful God out there looking out for me.  In a very real way, it would be a lot like if I were to go around saying the earth was flat, then I spend ten days with a team of world renowned scientists who slowly and gently walked me through all of the math and physics in order to help me to understand that the earth was undeniably round, then I was personally flown up into space to see it with my own eyes, only to return to earth a couple days later whereupon I tell the scientists that they’re just being silly, and that I know better, and then I go back to telling people the earth was flat again.  It’s actually infuriating!  God must have been wondering why He should have bothered with the Israelites in the first place.  And it could just be that the Israelites at the time didn’t have a complete grasp yet of how the whole God thing works, after all, they had just spent 200 years in godless slavery.  So perhaps they were just scared, which is absolutely fair, and even makes sense to us because we see today that it is human nature to deflect fear with sarcasm.  But it is also that same sarcasm which shows a lack of humility in the face of the unknown, and an unwillingness to admit ignorance. 

All of a sudden it makes much more sense that those Israelites who saw the chariots of the Egyptian army and feared for their lives dismissed Moses and refused to admit they had been freed, because what they feared even more was the idea of the existence of an all-powerful God to whom they owed their body and soul.  It is no wonder they sang, mi chamocha ba’eilim, Adonai, mi chamocha nedar bakodesh, norah tehilot oseh feleh – “who is like You among the powerful, Adonai, who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praise, performing feats beyond understanding”.

So too, we can understand the fear that lives behind the skepticism when it comes to investing our lives and livelihood into making the changes necessary to meet the very challenging goals of green living.  We understand because it is even more terrifying to be forced to admit that our planet may be fragile, that our presence on it might be in jeopardy.  It’s true that maybe amidst a pandemic, now may not necessarily be the time for all of us to get on board with this particular agenda.  But that time will undoubtably come, and if we are all ready to acknowledge the reality before us and face our fears, who knows, just like the splitting of the sea, we may yet see another great miracle.

Shabbat Shalom,

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Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782