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RABBI'S COMMENTARY

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Behaalotecha: Jethro Rescues Moses


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark


            Call me Jethro—or Chovav, or Reuel, who cares? Most people know me as Moses’s father-in-law and Zipporah’s father. I go by many names. I strive to be modest, but, truly, I am an essential part of the Israelite Saga. As Jethro in my first life, I was First Citizen of Midian—president of the Chamber of Commerce, School Superintendent, and High Priest, to boot. One night, a dusty, footsore, exhausted young refugee named Moses found his way to my door, escaping from the slavery hellhole of Ramesses II’s Egypt. For nearly a week, he sat in a corner of my house, mad with sunstroke—the boy had clearly not spent too much time outside of the Pharaoh’s Palace in his life, for all his self-declared babbling about being Saviour of his people. He also nattered on endlessly about his invisible Desert God—it was all clearly balderdash; who worships an invisible God? My eldest, dear Zipporah, took pity on the formerly-royal lout and drew water for him—again and again. Alas, my wife Ozeret was never much of a cook, but she soon expanded Moses’s belly and stopped his caterwauling. I noticed that his sunburn had no effect on his appetite—he gobbled down whatever she brought him and cried for more. His manly beauty captured Zipporah’s heart. I personally thought him older than he declared himself, but I kept silent. Those of us with five daughters cannot be fussy when a possible suitor comes down the road.

           

And so, I married Zipporah and Moses, in my capacity as—ahem—High Priest of Midian. She swiftly gave birth to two sons and was over the moon with joy. Moses had a habit of gazing off to the distant mountains for—inspiration? (I always thought him a bit demented, but said nothing to my daughter—she is my favorite) He insisted on having the boys circumcised—why, he did it himself!—and named the elder Gershom, for, as he told me, “I am a stranger in a strange land,” and Elazar, for, “My Desert God has aided me.”


Never a word of thanks to me for rescuing him from certain death, whether at the hands of Pharaoh or wasting away in the wilderness. What can you do?  Moses is not the sort of fellow to ever say “thank you” to mere mortals; his eyes are continually turned heavenward, where his Mysterious Deity dwells—or so he tells me. I have heard of sky-gods before; my Baal is one of them. At least, Old Baal can be trusted to bring thunder, lightning, and the healing rain for our crops. As for Moses’s Invisible God, I have yet to be persuaded.

           

One bright spring morning, Moses called out to my wife, daughters and me, entirely without warning: “I must depart, to free my people!” After Zipporah packed him a bag-lunch of matzos and butter, he raced out the door and disappeared for weeks. He never communicated directly—what, would it hurt him to mail us a simple papyrus? “Dear Folks—I am having a bit of a time getting rid of the frogs.” Not a word. I heard of his exploits only from caravaneers and merchant folk who passed from Egypt and through our territory. After that firstborn plague—nasty business, that; I am a firstborn myself, and it made me queasy—I was glad to hear of the Israelites’ God giving them freedom. I heard that they were traveling to the Sea of Reeds—how could they cross that mighty flood? Immediately, I bundled up Zipporah and the boys, and set out to find them: it was time to re-unite their family; my grandsons, those adorable little wolf-cubs, had been gobbling up all my winter victuals. They had their father’s appetite, bless them.


After a few days’ journey, we approached the Sea. I found Moses sweating under the desert sun and shouting vainly to gain the people’s attention. They called him “rabbi,” meaning teacher, prophet, tribal leader, or commander-in-chief. As an experienced civil magistrate, I could see that he was wasting himself away with overwork, never taking a day off. Day and night the people stood before him, with questions ranging from whether a chicken was kosher, whatever that meant, to the highest cases of law involving property, passion, or finances. There were even capital crimes—one unfortunate was stoned for breaking the Sabbath, whatever that was. Pity. I’d have let him off.

           

 Moses sat on a certainly-looted, wobbly royal chair beneath a raggedy palm-tree which was meant to ward off the desert sun. He held a hammer meant to be a gavel and his skin was nut-brown: Old Sol was beating down on his baldy head. He looks old, unhealthy, and ludicrous, I remember thinking. The chair was painted with worn-looking gold, and a small, chipped bust of Osiris gazed balefully over the Prophet’s left shoulder.

           

“How goes your prophetic career, Son-in-Law?” I queried, after pushing my way to front of the line, elbowing aside a cobbler who was yammering about his wife’s suspected adultery. Poor woman! I would have sent him home; make ‘em work it out. Perhaps I could assist….

           

Moses sighed and managed a weary smile. “The people gather before me for legal, familial, and emotional advice,” he answered, “and I have no recourse but to sit here in judgment, night and day, and answer their questions. The arrangement seems to be working, I suppose,” he said, reaching for the pottle of warmish water nearby. I noticed his hands were shaking. Some young lout of a servant—I found out later he was called Joshua—leapt to hold the jug to his master’s cracked and blackened lips. Spying me, he laid his hand on the pommel of an Egyptian sword and blinked at me suspiciously.

           

“Oh, Moses, Moses,” I said thoughtfully, gazing at the endless line of Israelites, “You will kill yourself with overwork and then, where will this mighty multitude be? And when did you last eat anything?”


My mooncalf son-in-law gazed upward to a nearby cloud where, I assumed, his Deity was seated, watching, listening, and judging. “If I cannot answer their questions, Father Jethro,” he replied, “I turn to the Lord God, and He supplies the answer. But it’s mostly me.”


“Hm. Not good. Your Mighty Prophet must take a break, Sonny,” I said to Joshua. I lifted Moses up by his skinny, sunburnt arm from his Throne of Judgment, and led him behind a thorn-bush. Well, the crowd protested! But I ignored them.


“Look here, Moses, my boy,” I said, forcing him to look at me and not at the clouds, “Here is how to fix your judicial dilemma. You must appoint judges of fifties, of twenties, and of tens—that way, you have a good chance of some sub-magistrate down the line finding the chicken kosher, while you confine your efforts and wisdom to weightier matters.” His eyes lit up; he sat down with Joshua and Aaron, and they created a plan.


Now, he treats me with more respect. I’m not just some old duffer from hick-town Midian, but a valued adviser. This morning, he asked me if I would care to accompany him and his ragtag crowd of Semitic humanity deeper into the desert—no, thank you, Moses. Having seen what turmoil has arisen thusfar from your people’s haphazard interactions with God, I long to return to my little town of Midian, where a man may worship, judge, and cogitate according to his conscience, not under the steady gaze and judgment of a demanding, Invisible Deity. Baal and I understand one another. Let Moses keep his God.


Farewell, Moses and you Israelites! You will see me no more. Have a care to treat my Zipporah well—I have yet to see you take a day off; indeed, I worry about the stability of your marriage. And your two boys, Baal pity them, fled into the World long ago, not least to get away from their father and his unbearable godliness. I pray for their safety and good health. In Midian, a man may sit comfortably beneath his vine and his fig tree; will it ever be so in Israel? O Baal! Israelite God! Let there be peace, far off and near!

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OUR RABBI - David Hartley Mark

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Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Rabbi David Hartley Mark was born in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side, that legendary Jewish immigrant neighborhood, attending Hebrew Day School. He was first from his school, the East Side Torah Center, to attend Yeshiva University High School for Boys—Manhattan. David attended Yeshiva University, where he attained a BA in English Literature, a BS in Bible and Jewish Education, and a Hebrew Teacher’s Diploma (HTD). He spent his third year of college at Bar Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, where he developed a fluency in Hebrew, and toured around the country. He has also attained a Certificate in Advanced Jewish School Administration from the Hebrew College in Brookline, MA.

David attended the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he earned an MA degree from Queens College, as well as an M.Phil. degree, majoring in 17th Century English, specializing in the work of John Milton, as well as the Romantic Poets. A year teaching Hebrew School in a Reform temple in Brooklyn convinced him of his great love of Judaism, and he began attending the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yonkers, NY, where he was ordained a rabbi in 1980.

 

He met Anbeth, who was hired as temple secretary the same day he was hired to teach. They were married in 1978. They have two grown children, Tyler and Jordan, as well as a grandson, Aidan.

 

Rabbi Mark served pulpits in Warren, NJ, Fayetteville, NC, and Portsmouth, NH, in which last pulpit he spent 22 years, a record for that state. Seeking warmer climes, as well as closer family members, he and Anbeth took the pulpit of Temple Sholom in 2009. He also fulfilled a lifetime dream of teaching English at Keiser University in Ft. Lauderdale.  

 

OUR CANTOR - ANITA SCHUBERT

 

Cantor Anita Schubert, grew up in Queens and Lynbrook in New York, says it was a combination of her love for both singing and religion that led her to train to become a cantor. “I grew up in a conservative synagogue. My parents weren’t super religious,” she said. “I started going to shabbat services and never stopped. I learned the musical chants . . . all the right stuff. I picked it up and was able to lead services as well. When I was a teenager I was asked to be one of the adult leaders in the junior congregation. I graduated to running it.”

Although she found her niche leading her congregation, it never occurred to her to be a cantor. “I was the wrong gender until the 80s.” As for her musical style, “It’s mostly a cappella. But I have been accompanied by someone on guitar and piano.”

Her academic background includes both undergraduate and graduate courses in music theory, sight-singing, ear-training, music history, conducting, choral arranging, voice building for choirs, vocal training, as well as studying the piano and flute. Plus, “I began singing in choirs starting in the third grade.”

She also took college courses in Hebrew, modern Jewish thought and the history of Jewish music.

Schubert said although women had been taking cantorial courses, they were not considered cantors at first. However, things changed for the better when women were finally accepted into the Cantors Assembly, an international association representing the cantorial profession.

Schubert has been actively working as a cantor at various congregations around the nation for many years before her new position at Temple Sholom. She realizes her coming here will be an historic event for the local place of worship. And what will she bring to her new congregation? “My spirit, my choice of music. We have a lot of options. We go beyond the traditional.”

 

 

 

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