Who Defines Who You Are?

Photograph of Reb Mimi Feigelson
Photograph of Reb Mimi Feigelson
Reb Mimi Feigelson

Reb Mimi Feigelson, is the Mashpiah Ruchanit (Spiritual Mentor) and Lecturer of Rabbinic Literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. (WWW.ZIEGLERTORAH.ORG)
She is an Orthodox - Israeli Rabbi and an international Chassidut teacher and story teller. She was the Associate Director of Yakar, Jerusalem and Director of its Women's Beit Ha'midrash.
In 2010 Reb Mimi was recognized by The Forward as one of the fifty most influential female Rabbis in the USA, and in 2011 was accepted to the Board of Rabbi's of Southern California as an independent Orthodox rabbi. Currently Reb Mimi has embarked on pursuing a Doctorate at HUC-JIR, titled: "On the Cusp of Life: From Scared to Sacred". It is an exploration of redefining funerals and cemeteries.

posted on January 19, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

The plague of the firstborn disappeared while reading through the Torah portion earlier today. It was a weird thing - I know it's there; it has to be... it was in the Torah last year... You can't have 'The Ten Plagues' if there are only nine, can you? But why did my eyes keep glossing over it while running my fingers through the verses, failing to see what I was reading. What was I being asked to look at in the midst of my temporary blindness?

Another question I found myself asking is: Why does our Torah portion end with sanctifying the firstborn: "And God spoke to Moshe, saying, Sanctify to me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Yisrael, both of man and of beast, it is mine" (Shmot/Exodus 13:1-2).

And is there a way that I can bring these two questions closer together?

Now my mind was racing through the first tractate of the Mishna / Talmud, Masechet B'rachot. I stopped when reaching a source that I learn with my students in their first Mishna class. It speaks of a prayer that Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakana (lived at the end of the Second Temple) would offer when entering and exiting the Beit Midrash (the study hall). When entering he would pray to cause no harm in his study, upon exiting he would express his gratitude towards God for his lot in life. (B'rachot 4:2). In class I use this as the foundation for the tradition I have of opening and closing every class with a spontaneous prayer offered by one of the students (Sometimes I think that it is more important that they learn to speak to God than the content of a specific section of the Mishnaabout to be addressed in class, but please don't tell them that...).

It is the Talmud (B'rachot 28b) that brings an extensive version of both his prayers. It is noteworthy, according to the source quoted in the Talmud, that when entering he compares himself to the other sages in the Beit Midrash, and while exiting he compares himself to those 'hanging around street corners' (merchants, according to Rashi's commentary). I push my students when looking at the comparison when exiting the Beit Midrash, as it can seem to be a very degrading comparison - 'we both get up / labor / run, but I,' says Rabbi Nechunya, 'rise to Torah, merit reward for my labor and run to eternal life, and they receive no reward and run to the pit of nothingness.'

You can answer for yourself with what tone to read his words, but the tone that I have chosen till now is one of humility. He recognizes that he is no other than those on the street, except that his lot in life is different. If it was not for the Gift of God, it could have been him sitting on one of those street corners! In the detail of his day, it appears that they are doing the same thing. He is a person no other than those he sees as he re-enters society and joins those on the street. He can see himself in them. It is the content of the action that determines its sanctity and meaning. And it is the grace of God that alters, at times, the essence of the action.

It is here that I'm drawn back to our Torah portion. Moshe, when being summoned by Par'oh, before the plague of the locust, is asked: "Who will you go with?" (Shmot/Exodus 10:8). While he responds: 'our youth and elder, our sons and daughters..." (Shmot/Exodus 10:9), only the 'Men' are granted permission to leave and serve God (Shmot/Exodus 10:10). For Moshe it is clear that the only way to leave is with our past and future - our elders and our children. Par'oh attempts to cut this bond and only suggest that we have a present. Is this not a definition of slavery right in front of our eyes? Is this not a synonym for a conceptual 'Egypt' - no past, no future, only the present? Being stripped of our identity, robbed of our destiny? It is true that in other traditions, even within the Jewish world, being in the continuous present is a sign of greatness, but it does not have the energetic pull that is needed for change and shift.

This enables me to return to my opening questions and try to connect the dots between my momentary blindness and the redeeming of the firstborn.

I did not want to see the tenth plague! I did not want to read of a nation plagued with the death of their firstborns. I can only try to imagine what was going on in the mind of the children of Israel when they woke up to a world in which the firstborn of each Egyptian household was dead, plagued by God. I can't really, even though I say I can try. Where did they find their faith to follow such a God, and what were they thinking when they looked at their own firstborn that morning? Were they like Rabbi Nechunya Ben Hakana, did they see themselves when looking at the Egyptians? Did they grab on to their own firstborn while the Egyptians were burying theirs, afraid of what could, God forbid, be?

I believe that the commandment to redeem our firstborn is God's immediate response to the fear and trepidation in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael that next morning. It was God's way of showing us how one form of sacrifice brings death, and yet another form - redemption - brings life and devotion. From the beginning of the Torah portion and till its end, the concern has been the children. From the opening when we're told: 'so you may tell in the ear of your son and son's son' (Shmot/Exodus 10:2) till the closing: 'and you will relate to your son... when I came out of Egypt' (Shmot/Exodus 13:8). And most specifically when embracing the commandment of redeeming the firstborn: "and it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying "what is this" that you will say...' (Shmot/Exodus 13:14). Even though we were only obligated to redeem our firstborn upon arriving in the Land of C'naan (Shmot/Exodus 13:11), nonetheless, the command was immediately after the tenth plague.

We have no future without our children. To a great extent, while standing in the present we are really our children's past, and they are our future! It is only with them, in all the wonderful forms and shapes and venues our children; come into our lives, that we can liberate ourselves and those that we walk with.

If Par'oh asked you, "Who are you going with; / With whom are you walking out of Egypt to serve God with?;   "מי ומי ההולכים?" - What would you say?

Shabbat Shalom.