Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shirah

Image: A footprint on a sandy shore. Image by https://pixabay.com/en/users/piper60-19643/

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, because we read the Torah portion Beshallach, which contains the magnificent Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. The Israelites survive the crossing of the Sea of Reeds with a great miracle, and in gratitude, they sing this song. Then they begin their adventures in the Wilderness of Sin (yes, that’s really the name.)

Some words of Torah on Parashat Beshallach:

On Gazelles and Pillars of Fire by Rabbi Beth Kalisch

The Song to the Violent God by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

The One that Got Away by Rabbi David Kasher

Water from the Rock by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Shabbat Shira: The Song of Miriam by Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Honoring the Blank Spaces by Rabbi Minna Bromberg

Waiting for a Miracle  by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Also, if you are interested in reading more from other rabbis, check out my new feature, Rabbis Who Blog!

 

 

Shabbat Shalom! Bo

Parashat Bo continues the Exodus story, in Exodus 10:1 – 13:16. We read about the horrors of the last three plagues, and Pharaoh’s stubbornness. Then the Israelites receive their instructions for Passover: slaughter a lamb, use the blood to mark the doorway, and eat the meat with unleavened bread while standing, ready to dash out of town. The final plague descends at night, the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. As the Egyptians wail, the Hebrews “and a mixed multitude” flee the country.

Here are some divrei Torah to illuminate the text:

Moses and Aaron Come to Pharaoh (G-dcast.com) (VIDEO)

Joining the Exodus by Natan Sharansky

The Moon Waxes and Wanes and We Learn to Count Time – Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Pharaoh’s Final Request – Rabbi Beth Kalisch

Seeking Compassion – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

What About the “Collateral Damage?” – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Are You Coming or Going? – Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

Enjoy!

Are You Coming or Going?

Parashat Bo begins on a curious note. We usually translate “bo” as “come.” But in Exodus 10:1, “Bo el Par’o” in Exodus 10:1 is usually translated, “Go to Pharaoh.” “Come to Pharaoh” would suggest that God is with the ruler of Egypt, and the next phrase seems to confirm it: because I have hardened his heart. So here we have a layering of paradoxes: a “come” that means “go” and a God who is somehow with Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil.

Most translators say, “Well, that can’t be right!” and change the more common “come” to “go:”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I might display these My signs among them; and that you may recount it in the hearing of your sons, and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” – Exodus 10:1-2, JPS translation

The Zohar offers one solution to the paradox of “go” and “come”.  It reads Exodus 10:1 as a metaphor in which God calls to Moses from Pharaoh’s throne room, summoning him into the cavern of a fearful serpent, the evil heart of Egypt’s soul.

The Kotzker Rebbe offers a different solution to the problem in apparent meaning: he suggests that God is telling Moses: “Don’t be afraid because I will be with you in the throne room! In fact, I’m already there waiting for you!”

The process of Exodus is like the journey from youth to maturity. Sooner or later, those who wish to become truly mature must confront the darkest parts of their personality. “Come,” our yetzer hara [evil inclination] calls to us, and we enter its chamber, filled with dread, because we know it to be powerful. “Enjoy yourself,” it murmurs. If we surrender to it, we give ourselves over to selfishness.  The task of the mature Jew is to take a sober look and see the evil inclination for what it is. This can be terrifying, precisely because the ugly thing is deep within us. As the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us, it is then  we may realize that despite the terrors of that place, God is with us every step of the way.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to be there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

All human beings have an inclination to selfishness. Indeed the rabbis assure us that we cannot thrive without a little of that yetzer harah. (Yoma 69b) That is not just human nature, it is the nature of all creation. But our task, as human beings, is to struggle with our selfish inclination and to keep it within the limits prescribed by Torah.

In the opening phrase of this week’s Torah portion, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that we have to go into the darkness – but God not send us there alone.

A slightly different version of this d’var Torah appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

 

Shabbat Shalom! Va’era

Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35) continues the saga of the struggle between God and Pharaoh. It deals with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy, the obstinacy of Pharaoh, and the first seven plagues.

Beyond the familiar story, what can we learn from this portion of the Torah? Here are some divrei Torah that explore parashat Va’era:

On Plagues and Hardened Hearts – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Double Vision – Rabbi Dan Ornstein

Spirits in a Material World – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Vaera and God’s Many Names – Rabbi Steven Moskowitz

Moses was Twice a Refugee – Rabbi Joshua Stanton

Does God Hear Prayer? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

Kicking It Up a Notch – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

And two of my own:

It’s Not About Us

Why Couldn’t Moses Speak?

Shabbat Shalom!

 

Shabbat Shalom: Shemot

Image: Edward Poynter painting,1867 :  Israel in Egypt  Public Domain

This week we begin to read the book of Shemot (sh-MOHT.) It is also known by its Greek name, Exodus. In many ways, this is a familiar tale, but if we read carefully, new details and puzzles will emerge from almost every chapter.

Some divrei Torah on the opening parashah of Shemot:

Blood on the Line by Rabbi David Kasher

Shiphrah, Puah, Phyllis, Rebecca, and Liz by Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

The Making of Moses by Rabbi David Kasher

The Mother Who Bore 600,000 by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Why Pharaoh felt Threatened by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Speaking Out, Even When it is Hard by G-dcast

Holding Out for a Hero? by Rabbi Marci Bellows

and two of my own:

Names & Deeds 

Zipporah is My Hero

 

Shabbat shalom!

 

 

 

 

Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

Shabbat Shalom: Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash – (pronounced – vah-yee-GOSH) is a particular favorite of mine. While there are many famous aspects of this parashah, I’m going to focus on a relatively obscure bit that has always interested me.

Joseph predicted a famine and proposed a program for surviving it in Genesis 41:33-36, when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream. Joseph’s plan sounded painless: appoint an administrator to gather grain during the years of plenty as a reserve against the years of famine.

Now, in Genesis 47, we see what this program actually required. Once there was no bread “in all the world” (v.13) people bought grain from Pharaoh, and as a result, all the gold and silver in Egypt came into the king’s palace. The next year people had no money, so they traded their livestock to Pharaoh for food. The following year, they traded their land. That year, Joseph ordered a massive resettlement of the population. Every Egyptian family had to leave their home and move to a new location.  Radak teaches that Joseph did this so they would understand that the new homes were a gift from Pharaoh. Rashbam, however, compares his policy to that of the evil Sennerachib in 2 Kings 18.

In the final year of famine, the Egyptians became bondsmen to Pharaoh in exchange for food and seed for the coming year. So by the end of the famine, Joseph had preserved the lives of the Egyptians but at a very high price: every commoner among them was a penniless slave living on land granted by Pharaoh, grateful to pay a heavy tax.

Harold Kushner points out in Etz Chayim that a generation later, the Egyptians would take revenge on Joseph by enslaving the Hebrews. Economic policy in the ancient world, as in ours, has both short term and long term consequences.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the CCAR Newsletter.