Pharaoh

Chanukah: Welcoming the Stranger

The other night I was returning home from orchestra rehearsal. We’d had a good time together, and my energy was high and light; it was our final rehearsal before an upcoming recording session for next week.

It’s an interesting group, a traditional Chinese orchestra, with strings Pipa, Zheng and Erhu; winds Sheng and Suona, and of course the Dizi wooden flutes.

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I fit in somewhere with my Western oboe, and there are cellos and double basses, too. The percussion section is a busy kitchen with all sorts of drums, chimes, gongs and cymbals.

Our music is both traditional Chinese compositions, such as ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’, and also some world music. For example, we’ll be recording two Uighur pieces, ‘Alamuhan’ and ‘Dance of the Youth’. The music is all upbeat, yet has movements that express such deep pathos via the soothing warm tones of the strings and Sheng, echoed by the crying call of the wooden flutes and now also with the deeper, evocative oboe voice. You can see some of our corps in rehearsal at the Toronto Chinese Orchestra’s FaceBook page .

So, with the floating melodies of Erhu drifting me back to my truck, and the light snow falling, I headed home. Or, so I thought.

My first stop was for a snack. It was almost 10:30pm and stopping at the local Chinese supermarket after rehearsal to peruse the arrays of colourful packages along the aisles in the brightly lit market adds to my already gay feelings from the music we’d just played together.

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I picked out two packages after carefully reading the ingredients, and after the checkout process, brought them neatly into my truck and opened them for noshing on the 25 minute drive home. The snow still swirled a bit, but I was glad to be on my way home to see my two cats and watch a bit of TV (usually a ‘Matlock’ rerun) before going to bed.

My GPS app got me as far as the on ramp to the highway heading west. It was closed! Darn. My app wouldn’t register the closure, and instructed me to drive in what ended up being a 360º circle back to the same on ramp. The funny thing was, I was part of a pride of other drivers who were taking the same circular route, likely given by their various GPS apps.

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The joy of the rehearsal kept me feeling upbeat and positive. I tried to report the closure to my app again with no success, but this time it told me to get onto the highway and drive east. I obeyed. Oops, when it instructed me to get off, it took me to another westbound on ramp–which was also closed. Oh Snap!

I began to eat the snack more voraciously, and decided to take a timeout to fill my gas tank up. It’s a good idea to keep the tank more than half-full in sub-freezing temperatures. After negotiating all the various reward and payment cards and agreeing to a pre-payment amount, my truck tank was filled and I felt more focused on how to get home. You see, Toronto has never-ending construction–and also keeps its decisions about road closures a well-kept secret. Highway 401 Westbound was closed for the night where I needed to get on.

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Now some detour signs appeared. I guess those went up while I was getting fuel.

I dutifully followed the signs. There were so many detour routes to choose from! D-6, D-9, D-11, D-14, D-16. Which would you choose? The signs were tiny and didn’t say what the difference was. After 3 times around the same loop and finding myself back at the same closed on ramp, I tried D-14 and finally ended up at the Don Valley Parkway, and on my way home. My 25 minute happy drive took 2 hours! and I was still happy.

Our rehearsal music and good cheer carried along through all the twists and turns; the route was so much like our music: happy to find the onramp; dark feelings when it was closed; then tentativeness as I followed the detour signs into unknown and not well lit parts of the city’s outskirts. Then joy at seeing other cars merging towards an onramp; and sadness that it, too, was closed. The final dash home to the finale–I’d picked the correct detour route, and joyfully cruised familiar highway home.

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Music is created to tell us what life is like. I would have felt strange and alone, dissociated from the reality and familiarity of how the roads normally work, but the music and companionship of the rehearsal informed me that this is how life is, and the more we play in it together, the better it gets.

TCO FaceBook page

 

Recently, I was in a discussion about how to greet new people when they enter a faith community. I was told that here in Toronto, no one invites strangers to their homes and that the onus of invitations is on the newcomer. It begged the question: how does one feel welcomed and stop being a stranger?

As Jews, we are commanded, urged, and reminded frequently in our sacred texts and liturgies to welcome the stranger, because we once were strangers in a strange land (Egypt). And, we know what happened to our Hebrew ancestors when they were treated like strangers–400 years of enslavement. It doesn’t say anywhere that certain geographic locations are exempt from this duty.

My experience of impersonal treatment of drivers on my journey home, by closing a major highway with no signs, and then confusing ones, is one way a city can cultivate feelings of alienation and being unwelcomed. Some unidentified, hidden, civic body made the decision to close the highway without consideration to avoid leaving drivers in the lurch to fend for themselves. Or, maybe it did advertise the closure to media outlets known only to already entrenched Toronto denizens (found it now on Twitter!)

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Especially during these days of pandemic, doing acts that allow others to feel seen and valued keeps our human societies afloat. The ‘each person for themself’ mentality, or the more insidious ‘I got away with it’ culture we find ourselves in, is being tested by none other than a microscopic coronavirus. Keeping each other in the dark, hoarding, and leaving new settlers to wander aimlessly contributes to the at-times chaotic manner with which we as a society make our decisions about how to navigate forward into the unknown resolution of living with the ongoing pandemic.

We don’t have to break our commitments to safety to be together. There are amazing new and revamped media platforms for staying connected with those we already know and love, and for bringing in those who we don’t yet know well, and who could be enriching our lives.

A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt after Joseph was gone, and what did he say? “Who is this Joseph? I don’t know any Joseph”. Will that be you? how will you navigate the famine-like path that takes away those things that used to feed you and I: the restaurant meals, travel, or going out to concerts films and plays? or the new supply chain shortages and the eroding of peoples’ patience in general as we face waning vaccine immunity and new virus variants of concern? Will you end up with a closed heart that leads to disaster, as Pharaoh had; or be guided by the wisdom inside haunting melodies, transcend popular myth, and take the trip home–together.

At this time of Chanukah, as the shortening of days swings back into lengthening hours of daylight, we can choose also to leave behind darkening trends that don’t serve us well, and rededicate to the light and wisdom of new personal and social paradigms.

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Bo: What a Plot!

The reading for last Shabbat was parasha Bo, which is the 10th chapter of the 2nd book of the Torah, which is called Shemot in Hebrew, or Exodus in English.

Imagine it is Kabbalat Shabbat, here is my d’rasha for you,lmdb.com about Bo:

Has anyone seen the film, ‘The Ten Commandments’?

Anyone seen it…lately?

Ok. Well, I ask because yesterday was my grandmother’s birthday, z”l,

and her favourite movie was…The Ten Commandments!

as I was studying the parasha for tonight’s drasha

I could almost hear her voice kvelling,

She would say, “What a movie!! Such wonderful costumes, and acting…

AND–WHAT A PLOT!!!   Grandma Dot

 

Yes, Grandma, what a plot, indeed. And, then I started to wonder what it was, besides the fact that it’s THE TORAH, that makes this story have such a “great plot”?

 I began to read the first line, and some answers started to come to me:

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“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants for the purpose of putting my signs in their midst. And so that you will tell into the ears of your children and the children of your children how I raised you up from Egypt and of my signs which I put in their midst, and they will know that I am YHVH.'”

 

What dramatic opening lines. Wow. COME to Pharaoh. Not GO to Pharaoh, because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of his servants. Not his servants’ hearts. But the heart of his servants.

So, God is beckoning Moses toward Egypt, with the suggestion that God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart,

as a way for God to show God’s Might and Power,

and to escalate the tension between the Pharaoh and his people:

as his heart hardens, so does their desire close for more punishment from the plagues.

 

What is meant by heart? justmytype.ca

My Biblical Hebrew teachers taught us that in Tanakh times, the HEART was the where one’s will resided. They didn’t know what the BRAIN did, except maybe make the limbs and bodily functions work.

So the WILL of the Egyptians was also becoming hardened and closed off.

The grand purpose of all this was to create a platform for raising the stakes between Pharaoh and Moses

so that God would need to manifest greater and greater powers,

through the signs, or plagues,

and thus once and for all, be shown as God Most High and Powerful to all of Egypt. And

cccindy.comThis was to be told right into the ears of Moses’ children, and their children,

for all the generations of Israelites to come.

So that they will know that God alone is YHVH.

 

I think some of the appeal of this story line, that makes it such a good plot, as my grandmother would say,

Is that this dynamic happens not only in this one Biblical story,

But in our own lives, communities, and even world events. Sometimes, an idea or action that helped protect us from harm can go awry and go too far:

On the personal level, can you recollect times when you just kept resisting hearing someone’s needs or advice, and kept finding ways of ignoring obvious signs of seriousness until it was too late?

Or a community that ignores the needs of its poorest residents to the extent that the needs builds up and create an overwhelming housing and mental health services problem to contend with;

Or the hardening of hearts that at various times in history has led the world to a scary international escalation of terrorism, wars and arms threats.abstractdesktopnexus.com

 One thing God is telling us in this passage

is that we can get ourselves into trouble by running around

creating great plots and

ways to avoid letting in what our opened hearts

we know is the truth.

 

With this story, we can remember,

through telling it year after year,

That God comes along with you

And is greater than any Pharaoh’s hardened heart.

 

My grandmother always encouraged me to be my best, and part of that is having the privilege to study Torah and remember that God is greater than Pharaoh.

Grandma Dot

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