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“All the Reasons in the World Not To”: Learning (and good humor) in Honor of Edgar Bronfman

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Moonshine Tevet | The Bronfman Fellowships 
 
“In the hour of a person’s passing, 
neither silver nor gold nor precious stones accompany them, 
but only Learning and Good Deeds” 
(Pirkei Avot Chapter 6 Mishna 9)
“and their jokes…” (anonymous gloss, 5775)

 
This Friday, 18 of Tevet (January 9) will mark the first anniversary (“yahrtzeit”) of Edgar M. Bronfman’s passing. As a community of learning, we marked his passing 12 months ago with communal text study. We invite you to join Bronfmanim the world over to dedicate some time this week to learning in Edgar’s memory, an ancient Jewish tradition that responds to death by increasing life and learning. Some ways to take part include: 
 
  • Joining me for an online text study in Edgar's memory on Moses and the Burning Bush at 1pm EST this Thursday, January 8th (please email tobah@byfi.org for call in info).
  • Adding your voice to the Bronfman Divrei Torah Project by writing a dvar torah on this week's portion dedicated to Edgar (please email me at mishael@byfi.org to let me know if you are)
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, tells of Moses’s travails as a young leader. 
This story was a favorite of Edgar’s, and served as an inspiration to him as he travelled Soviet capitals in the 1980’s to demand “Let my People Go.” As I studied the weekly Torah portion in honor of Edgar’s Yahrtzeit I asked myself what I missed most about him. The first thing that came to mind was our weekly study sessions at the Foundation offices. But on second thought, what I missed most were his jokes. This month’s Moonshine study packets are thus dedicated to those two elements: a collection of texts to study, and a collection of Edgar’s jokes. I’ve also added – at the end – a brief thought on the weekly portion from my own studies. We hope other Bronfmanim will be sharing their 
words of Torah this week as well – may all these efforts contribute to increasing the joyous Torah which Edgar first invited us to partake in all those years ago.
Portrait of a Young Leader: A collection of sources on Young Moses – interpretations from the 12th century to the 21st – on the story of Moses’ first steps as a moral and political leader, can be downloaded here. If you’re lacking a hevruta with which to study these texts, you can hear my rendition of them on this Youtube link.
Humor in service of the Jewish People: â€œWhen one wants to understand the essence of something, one must seek out the jokes of that place” said Reb Nachman of Breslov, and Edgar would have surely agreed. Edgar told his story of leadership in service of the Jewish people in “The Making of a Jew” (1996), and interspersed in the book are some of his best (publishable) jokes. I’ve scanned the pages where such jokes are mentioned in this 15-page pdf excerpt. Reading the excerpts before and after each joke one gets a (somewhat random but equally effective) insight into the adventures and leadership of Edgar M. Bronfman z”l.

(Finally – my own contribution of Torah in honor of Edgar)
Excuses, Excuses
The highlight of this week’s Torah portion is the story of the burning bush. What we wouldn’t do to encounter a bush that charges us with that which we should take on in our lives. And how terrifying an experience that must be. Moses, for his part, upon first hearing from God, has a very clear response: he hides his face, then proceeds to say “NO”, five different ways. God persists, again and again, until He is so fully God is enraged that a belligerent Moses accepts the charge. Each refusal of Moses’ was wrapped in a different excuse, and studying these five excuses is a telling experience. 
The full text of their conversation, with the refusals highlights, can be found here.

Exodus 3:18-4:21
God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said... ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
שמות ג:יח-ד:כא
ויֹּ֗אמֶר אָנֹכִי֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֔יךָ אֱלֹהֵ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם
אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֖ק וֵאלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֑ב
וַיַּסְתֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ פָּנָ֔יו
כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔א מֵהַבִּ֖יט אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃
‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh,
and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ 
 
‘When I come to the children of Israel, and say to them: The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say to them?’ 
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים :
מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה
וְכִ֥י אוֹצִ֛יא אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ 
 
הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֣י בָא֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒
וְאָמַרְתִּ֣י לָהֶ֔ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם
וְאָֽמְרוּ־לִ֣י מַה־שְּׁמ֔וֹ מָ֥ה אֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵהֶֽם׃

 
 
‘But they will not believe me, nor listen to my voice; for they will say: The lord has not appeared unto you!’ 
וַיַּ֤עַן מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֹּ֔אמֶר
וְהֵן֙ לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י
×›Ö¼Ö´Ö£×™ יֹֽאמְר֔וּ לֹֽא־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֖יךָ ה’׃ 
‘Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.’
 
‘Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.’ 
(14) And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses…
 
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־ה’ :
בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָי֒ לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי׃ 
 
בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח׃ 
וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף ה' בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה...
 
Moses’ refusals follow an interesting pattern. They begin with himself – “Who am I” but then turn to seemingly pragmatic considerations: “what shall I say to them”, “they won’t believe me”. Yet when God supplies him with (cryptic) answers for the Israelites and (scary) miracles for Pharoah, Moses reverts back to hiding behind his own self understanding: “I am slow of speech, slow of tongue”. Finally, his most cutting and chutzpadik response: “Send I pray thee by the hand of him you shall send” – or in other words “send anyone but me”.

This long list of excuses is reminiscent of a very different list, compiled by Franz Kafka in his collection “Contemplation”:
 
Passers-by | Franz Kafka, Contemplation (1912)
 
When one is taking a walk through the street at night,
and a man — already visible from a distance because the street rises in front of us and the moon is full — runs toward us, we will not tackle him,
even if he is weak and ragged, even if someone is running behind him and screaming,
but rather we will let him continue running.
 
Because it is night,
and it isn't our fault that the street is rising before us in the full moon,
and besides, maybe these two have staged this chase for their own entertainment,
maybe both of them are pursuing a third,
maybe the first man is being pursued even though he is innocent,
maybe the second man wants to kill him and we will become accomplices to the murder,
maybe the two of them know nothing about one another and each is going independently to his bed,
maybe they are sleepwalkers,
maybe the first man is armed.
 
And after all, don't we have a right to be tired, haven't we drunk a lot of wine?
We are happy when the second man has also vanished from sight.
 
Kafka’s character, like Moses, feels called to action, yet quickly disassembles the call with a series of doubts and questions. The situations might seem very distant from eachother: a direct calling from God versus an encounter with two strangers running in the night. Interestingly their list of excuses diverge as well – Kafka focuses on our ability to read the situation. Moses focuses on whether he is the right person for the job. Yet at the end of the day, they are both asking “why me?” For Kafka the answer is clear: there is no “why me” - I am here randomly, and “it isn't our fault that the street is rising before us in the full moon.” We could have easily been on a different street, or on a moonless night. I am not called, my mere and random presence here presents no moral claim on me. For Moses, however, what eventually appeases him is the knowledge that Aaron will be at his side:

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: ‘Is not thy brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he comes forth to meet thee; and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. And thou shalt speak unto him, and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do. (16) And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead. (Exodus 14-16)
 
The promise of a brother, a hevruta, someone who will be happy to see you and one who will balance out your shortcomings – this seems to change Moses’ mind. One wonders – would Kafka’s response been different had he had a companion with him that night?

One last thought on Moses being “Kvad peh,” slow to speak. Moses goes through a process through which he turns from being someone of “slow speech” to being one of the greatest orators of Human civilization. The book of Deuteronomy, Devarim, is in fact three long speeches which Moses delivers to the people of Israel before they embark into the promised land and he disembarks from this world. The three speeches end with a poem, a song, Ha’azinu, and a series of blessings. How this man, who began as a reluctant leader of slurred speech, became a stirring orator and finally a poet, is perhaps the most inspiring journey of all. As we overcome our own excuses, as we find ourselves called to leadership from surprising places, may we discover in ourselves unknown strengths and abilities, and grow into places we hardly ever imagined.
 
Copyright © 2015 The Bronfman Fellowship, All rights reserved.


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