Parashat Va’Era: Elephant Talk — January 27, 2016

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By Juval Porat

An ancient story tells about a person who made it part of their daily routine to converse with their creator. A conversation would sound something like this:

God, there’s suffering in this world, why don’t you do something?

On other days it would sound something like this:
God, I’m sad. Why don’t you do something about it?

On other days it would sound something like this:
God, I don’t like these people. I’m scared. Why don’t you do something about it?

Each day brought with it a different conversation starter with God, ending with: “Why don’t you do something about it?”. In deep meditation, the person hoped for an answer, for some sort of response to clarify, to comfort, to make sense of the injustice and the suffering existing in the world and after days, weeks, months and years of practicing he almost came to accept that an answer wouldn’t come until one morning from deep within a whispering voice emerged with an answer. To the person’s amazement the voice said: “I did something about it – I created you.” This parable, told by my colleague and teacher, Cantor Ellen Dreskin upholds the affirmation of one of the central tenets of Judaism – that we are made in God’s image and as God’s partners in repairing the world. Tikkun Olam is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as it strives to bring peace, freedom and justice to all people.

Like the thin voice emerging from our friend’s consciousness, a powerful and challenging assertion emerges out of this week’s parasha in regards to God’s relationship and desire for us.

Parashat Va’Era continues to tell the story of slavery in – and exodus out of Egypt with the 10 plagues creating the backdrop for the momentous event that is the liberation of the people of Israel “with mighty acts of judgment” by God’s “outstretched arm”.

“You are to say everything I command you”, instructs God to Moses: “…and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his country. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites.

If partnership for bettering the world is what’s on God’s, why does God prevent Pharaoh from repairing his way and doing what’s right and just? How can it be that God, who is supposedly our partner is also an active contributor to a chain of truly unfortunate events, such as the plagues?

And how can hardening Pharaoh’s heart as an act to glorify God’s name and power be reconciled with the idea that God is all about repairing the world with us?
Shouldn’t our basic moral intuition be somewhat connected to what God holds dear as well?
And how are we made in God’s image, when our parasha suggests that God has no commitment whatsoever to our ideas of what is right and just.

Are we and our system of moral codes only means for a momentous event to be told for generations to come as a collective memory of a chosen people? Should we accept that to be removed from just and morality, as God seemingly is in this week’s parasha, is just another part of the Godly image in which we are made? Should we conclude the injustice in this world caused and perpetuated by humankind is part of God’s image?

About a month ago I traveled to Thailand to volunteer at the Elephant Nature Sanctuary’s program titled Journey to Freedom. It seems appropriate to share my experience on Journey to Freedom on this Shabbat in which, next to the challenging assertion that God might not be the God we think or want to pray to and believe in, one of the most famous verses is being brought up by Moses to Pharao: Let my people go.

Elephant Nature Park was founded in 1995 by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, perhaps the best-known conservationist of the biggest land mammals on the planet and unlike other tourist outfits in Thailand, ENP delivers something unique — a chance to interact with elephants without exploiting them.

These gentle giants, while revered in the country, are not free from human made abuse, suffering and cruelty. Every day, wild baby elephants are captured and taken away from their mothers (who are often killed) and forced to undergo a torturous training to domesticate them, the phajaan. The Phajaan essentially breaks the spirit of the elephant, using fear of pain to train them to accept riders on their backs, perform tricks and paint. However, ENP provides a sanctuary for these creatures broken by tourism and the illegal logging industry. All elephants living in the park have been rescued, one at a time, from harsh lives. Their purchase, negotiated by Lek, can take months or years. Many of them come to the park untrusting, ailing, and alone.

The Journey to Freedom project, which started in 2010 has grown into a nearly independent sanctuary for Asian elephants managed and maintained by Karen people whose population in Thailand resides mostly on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Their long history of working with elephants used to be centered around the logging industry – a cruel and abusive exploitation of the elephant as a log carrying animal.

While the 1989 ban on logging was beneficial to the forest and the remaining wild elephants, it presented problems to the captive elephants and their owners. Faced with a loss of income, many Karen saw the only solution was to send their elephants to far away camps set up to entertain tourists. The Karen men would frequently lease their elephants to the camps where they were often mistreated.

When Karen Elephant owner, also known as Mahouts contacted Lek soliciting help to extricate their elephants from the abusive trekking business, the Journey to Freedom project was born.

Today, Journey to Freedom encompasses three villages and 15 elephant and is the next step in improving the lives of the Karen people and the elephants they keep. Its aim is to replace the income the Karen can earn by renting their elephants. Instead, elephants are cared for at home and left to live in their natural jungle habitat. To provide a livelihood to the people, Journey to Freedom allows visitors to come and spent time with the elephants in their natural homes.

By asking the Mahouts to “Let the Elephants go” Lek was able to show that elephants can be a source of income without their being exploited and to provide economic support for humane and culturally sensitive choices. As such, the Journey to Freedom has benefitted not only the Elephants, but all who interact with them.

Me and 18 other people from Australia, Scotland, and San Diego spent a week with the Karen people and their Elephants, feeding the Elephants, walking the Elephants, or better yet, following the elephants as they paved their way through the jungle, shoveling sand from a nearby river to be used for building a confined area for a new-born baby elephant named Kelee, singing, dancing and playing with the village children, providing Kelee and her mom with truck-loads of their favorite jungle bush which we went to gather with our machetes, receiving blessings from the local shaman, practicing meditation with the local instructor and sharing from our lives, while at camp.

On our last night, we had a chance to meet with Lek at the Elephant Nature Park and her life quest, fueled by her passion and commitment to save the Asian elephants from their plight, inspired me immensely. Lek recognized all sides of the Elephant’s situation in Thailand, the effects of government regulations, protective laws, needs of indigenous or poor populations, and limitations of money and space. Her park is not only a safe refuge for rescued Elephants, but also for dogs, water buffaloes, monkeys and cats. It also help generate jobs for the local community and as such her park benefits all inhabitants of the region. This holistic and realistic approach may be what has made Lek so good at what she does and it reminded me that more often than not, human actions and choices aren’t always that easy to categorize or label as “bad” or “good” when considering the wider context and circumstance. Lek’s life quest and the incredible reality she’s created made me look into an alternative light shed on Pharaoh’s God-hardened heart and the difficult ramifications suggested by it.

“God also said to Moses, I am the God. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name יהוה [Adonai], I did not make myself fully known to them.” A Midrash relates יהוה to another name of God as revealed to Moses in the burning bush: “אהיה אשר אהיה”, “God said, I Will Be who I Will Be. You must tell them: ‘The one who is called I Will Be has sent me to you.’”

Based on the letters both names share, the Midrash suggests that the name יהוה may be derived from the verb “being” and as such might mean “to exist”, “to cause to become”, or “to come to pass”.

The Midrash (Mishpatim 43) goes on to say “And God said to Moses, I Will Be Who I Will Be – in the same way you are present with me I will be present with you. Like a mirror image reflects one’s self, like a shadow reflects one’s movement, so will I manifest myself as a direct reflection of your action.

This Midrash, as it understands God’s name which is revealed to Moses for the first time, invites us to explore the possibility that God works as a result of the God we’re present with and not as an external generator of circumstances. God is like our shadow, both literally and metaphorically, and as we examine our shadows, as we dive inwards and through our shadow sides, God reveals Godself accordingly as the Being, which acts in the world and in relationship to us, according to how we create our reality. Within us, our struggles, our beliefs, our narratives and life-quests generate a reality, which in return influences us and our immediate environment. God isn’t an external force which hardens Pharaoh’s heart, but rather a result and effect of Pharaoh’s self created reality.

This isn’t to say that changing one’s reality is easy, or at times even possible.

Perhaps, the heart of the story of the Exodus isn’t so much an historical narration, but rather a tale of our inner psychological occurrence in every given moment. We all contain the Slave, Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron within us. And we’re all on a journey out of Egypt, attempting to tear apart the Red Sea within, on our journey towards our Torah and the arrival home at our promised land. As we plan and design, experience and realize our lives, so is God present within us accordingly.

Who knows what prevented Pharao from letting go of what needed to be let go of – what history, circumstances, traumas and struggles shaped Pharaoh to see the world in a particular way that did not serve him or anyone who was part of his reality.

The midrashic prerspectove offered here re-affirms my appreciation for all those whose life quest is reflected in a reality that benefits all. Lek’s state of being, her relentless faith in the good in people, created a reality which returns goodness to all who are part in it.

What shapes your reality and how can you make sure you keep cultivating what needs to be cultivated to help maintain a reality that benefits you and those who are in it?

“I did something about it”,says the small voice within: “I created you – to be mindful, to pay attention to what arises, to examine the shadows, to make the downward, inward journey where the only way out is through – from acceptance of what is to persistence for betterment, from Being to What You Will Become. Listen and I will be what I will be.”

Shabbat Shalom

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