This week we learn from the torah about the accessibility of the divine. We learn that spiritual liberation is available to anyone and that we are all chosen people, regardless of if we are Jewish or not. We learn that mountains speak to each of us directly and that all kinds of people get to be leaders. From this week’s portion we learn that transformative justice is our people’s legacy and that everyone’s naked body is an altar to the divine.
But this is not what this portion says. This portion has actually often been interpreted in quite literally opposite ways. It’s the portion where the Israelites receive the commandments. Moses goes to the mountain and channels the covenant from the voice of God.
Today will be my first time reading from the torah since my bat mitzvah, when I was just turning 13. A year before my bat mitzvah I asked my parents if I could have a bat mitzvah. I know, not a common 12 year old request. They were great about it, joined a temple, found a tutor for me and arranged for this coming of age ritual. I think I had learned the alef bet before that but all of a sudden I was full flung into learning hebrew and my portion with just over a year of prep. I remember being often frustrated, the learning was hard. But I was determined. On the day of my bat mitzvah, my Jewish grandmother cried because I was the first girl in our family to do something like this. My goy grandmother gave me a garnet necklace and matching earrings, my birthstone. I remember feeling proud and alive. I also remember being corrected by the rabbi throughout my whole portion.
When it was over, it was over. No more Hebrew study. I forgot everything. I tried learning Hebrew again later in high school. I tried again, here at TBH in my mid 20’s. Over the years I tried here and there. Almost a decade ago when I began my training as a kohenet I revisited it again. My skills reading Hebrew at this point are decent. I still forget which vowel is what and what sound a few of the letters make, despite working on it many times over my life and participating in Jewish life and prayer regularly.
When Nomy and I decided to do services this time, we were both interested in reading from the torah. We decided we wanted to learn the trope, the cantillation that many of us recognize. Nomy has been an incredible chevruta in this process and made it much more fun than I could have imagined. I’ve found such joy in learning and singing my portion. But to be totally honest, it’s also been pretty excruciating. The particularities around my learning disabilities and the insecurities that have come up for me are raw. It’s not just learning the words and saying them correctly, it’s the tune, the trope prescribed to each word and phrase. The last few weeks I’ve cried many times over learning these four lines of torah. I’ve cried because I’ve wanted to be a rabbi but felt I couldn’t because Hebrew was too hard to learn, I’ve cried because my brain won’t do what my spirit wants to, I’ve cried because I’m comparing myself to others who is wasn’t so hard for them to learn. I’ve cried remembering so many times trying to learn Hebrew and music and it being really hard because of my audio processing disability. I’ve cried because patriarchy has told me learning and achieving are very prescribed and everyone must be good at things in similar ways. I’ve cried because of the effects of patriarchy on my body and spirit and I’ve cried because this is something that when I do get it, my spirit is filled with so much joy I want to burst.
On Friday, we met with the rabbi to practice reading out of the tiny scroll, the mini torah we will read from today. I couldn’t get through my portion and felt so blocked I just cried, again.
We dressed the torah and put it away. As I held her to my chest I felt her love. These are the words of our ancestors. These are the words that got written down from an oral tradition. A tradition we try to capture in our cantillation, from a time when stories were sung. As I held the torah to my chest I felt her kindness. These are the words of our ancestors. These are the words of dreams, of relationships, of wisdom, of survival, of resistance, of revelation, of love. The physicality of the small torah, held to my chest, swaddled like a baby, is forgiving. It says: Rebekah you are good, your brain is good, your memory is good, just as you are. Four lines are enough. Soar on the wings of the eagle and let the sheep skin, the plant matter, the artistry of the words put on the page with the hands and memories and dreams of all your ancestor human animals be your comfort and liberation.
I believe the stories changed when they got written down, and so did the human brain. Especially when reading became more widespread. I know as Jews we wrote it down as one of our tools to survive patriarchy. But I think in writing it down, some things got lost in translation.
What can a book written over 2000 years ago have to teach us today? It’s a book made of animal and wood and parchment paper, written with ink from trees and plants. But often we connect it with other things that we connect to Judaism. Things like a Father God that speaks down to us from a mountain, and almost exclusively male leadership. I wonder about the stories that don’t get expanded on more, those glimmers of clues of what may have been. A society that had leadership of all kinds, all genders and where laying on a holy altar meant being in your own body, naked on the earth body.
So today, as I talk about the portion, it’s coming from that place, a place of translating the story so that we can try to elicit some of these forgotten glimmers, focus on the lessons that feel relevant to us now. These wonderings come from conversation and writing Nomy Lamm and I have done together ...
Today’s portion is from Exodus.
As the portion begins, it’s been less than three moons since the Israelites left Egypt. Liberation is fresh to their experience, something that felt impossible, and they did it, and now they are on the other side. Moses has taken on a huge role, there is a lot on his shoulders. At the beginning of the portion he reunites with his father in law, Jethro, and his wife and children, and tells them all about what happened, how they escaped Egypt. Jethro is amazed at what God has done for Moses and his people, but when he watches Moses doing his work he is disturbed by what he sees, and confronts him: Moses is doing too much work, he’s made himself into the sole leader. He’s settling people’s disputes making every decision and taking on too much responsibility in the community. He says, there are other skilled people in your community, you can figure out a better system, delegate.
Moses had been pushed into this position of leadership because he had a profound connection with the divine through the burning bush. That’s what made him come back to Egypt and fight for the liberation of the slaves, it was the surge of magic that pushed him through what was a pretty horrifying ordeal of confronting his adoptive father and seeing the people he was raised with ravaged by plagues. It was through a connection to feeling the profoundness of the divine in nature, that led him to his work and all the sacrifices he made in that work.
This happens to people, we feel called by a singular, solitary divine moment where we really feel a synergistic connection with the divine in nature. We call it “feeling spoken to,” but I would assert that that voice is a collaboration between human and nature. That we are working together to make something divine. When we allow ourselves to be slow, pay attention, even slow down to the energy of a tree, or a bush or a flower, we feel that connection. Our bodies are made up of much of the same dna. We have the capability to align ourselves, and Moses has deep teachings in today’s torah portion about alignment with nature and the wisdom that can come through.
The fact that Moses had taken on so much work moderating other people’s disputes was distracting him from his true calling. Once he allowed other people to take on leadership roles, which allowed more people to step into their true callings, he was able to go back to his role of being in direct connection with nature. He went up to Mount Sinai, alone, and that’s where he felt that call again. He received information, from God, from the earth, from his body, that we have the capacity to feel chosen, to choose to be in direct alignment with god consciousness, with the goddess, with the force of life that flows through all of us. He called this a covenant, and he brought it back to the children of Yisrael, the children of struggle.
He came back to the people, saying: You are a unique and precious jewel. You are a queendom of Priests and Priestesses with direct connection to the land. Will you be mine? And the people said yes, tell god yes.
But the people are seeing the mountain shake, it is spewing smoke and fire, there are these loud blasting sounds, they are afraid that will die. (It sounds like it was a volcano!) Throughout all this, Moses continues to be in deep alignment, he continues to visit god on the mountain, he channels the ten commandments, these simple rules that he can share with people that will help cut down on the amount of arbitrating that’s necessary. With shared values, we become a people, a team that is able to work together instead of fighting over the basic survival. Don’t worship something fake. Let yourself rest. Honor where you come from. Don’t murder. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Be grateful for what you have.
The people receive this information from Moses, and they accept it, in part because they also get to witness the glory and splendor of the mountain, and they are terrified by what they see. They say, you can talk to god and tell us what you hear, but don’t let god speak directly to us, because we will die. And Moses says, this is a test that you cannot fail, god wants to see the fear on your faces, for you are those who cross over - this term has also been used for Abraham, and is where the word “Hebrew” comes from - and this crossing over is a reference to crossing the Red Sea, to being liberated, and it is a metaphor for moving past their fear, to see god in the things that feel most scary to them.
The people stood at a distance, and Moses drew close to the thick darkness, and there, there was god.
And here is some of what Moses channeled from that thick darkness: Build an earth altar. Don’t use “hewn stones,” don’t use stones that you wielded a sword against, don’t do that to her. This line is literally speaking of the earth as a body that must be respected and honored. And then, don’t make gods out of silver or gold, don’t do that to yourselves. Make peace offerings, make reparations, use the altar as a place of sacrifice, a place of making and doing peace. And finally, there is a line that often gets treated as a warning not to expose your nakedness on the altar, but we think of it differently. We think it is saying, do not build steps up to the altar, because then it won’t be accessible to all bodies to expose their nakedness upon it.
How can this earth altar support us, nourish our ability to open up and receive god, to honor the body of the earth and our own bodies, as we go through the most frightening ordeals? How do we listen to the very loud clear message that the earth is sending --- WE MUST CHANGE OUR BEHAVIORS OR WE WILL NOT SURVIVE. This is the message of our time, this is what god is telling us through climate chaos. It is a message that our ancestors felt in their own way thousands of years ago, when they felt themselves as chosen and choosing the voice of god. We can choose that right now. To open up to that big fear, and to love through that fear, as big as we possibly can. In our own small ways we do this by bringing the Torah, the physical body of the Torah, with all of her pain and beauty, her sweetness and the fear that she carries, into our arms and our hearts. To care for one thing, truly and openly and deeply, is to open that channel for caring about all of creation. We are those who crossover. This is our legacy, to be with the earth, a collaborator and chooser of life.
This is what we welcome you to do today. To choose life, despite fear, despite a society that often does not choose my life, does not choose your life, does not choose the many lives and beings of earth because it does not see our variations as gifts. It does not see our bodies and brains as the earth altars they are.
Today, I may read torah and stumble, I may breeze through. Whatever happens, I intend my voice, eyes, brain and body to be of service to the message of the earth. In my portion of the text today one line says: “How I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to me.” May we each feel the strength of the eagle inside of us, her magnificent wings capturing our spirit in wonder, her perspective from way up high, to dive down, into the heart of the matter. That matter is what matters most: all of who we are is divine.