Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Over the past few years, a series of articles have been published in papers like the Globe and Mail, The Independent and the Huffington Post about a new concept that some people consider an attractive alternative to traditional marriage: a marriage or relationship contract. There are various terms, ranging from 3-10 years, and some of them include a renewal clause whereas others would just end at the end of the term.
My first response was to laugh. Then I wanted to cry.
Generally speaking, a contract is transactional; it is about creating trust to benefit the various interests of the parties involved. So, for example, renters and landlords depend upon rental contracts or leases. These contracts, like so many others, are time limited and make guarantees to meet the interests of both the renter and the landlord. The landlord wants to know that the renter will pay rent at the mutually agreed upon rate, on time every month – and that the renter will not damage the apartment. The renter wants to know that the landlord will make the apartment available for the duration of the lease and will keep everything safe and in working order.
A marriage is not a contract: it is not transactional and should not entered into to create trust or protect interests.
Marriage is a covenant.
What is the difference between a contract and a covenant? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:
“In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone. It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment … Contracts are about interests; covenants about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about ‘Me’ and ‘You’; covenants are about ‘Us.’”
Contracts abound in modern Western democracies. Indeed, Sacks notes that the two central institutions of modern democracy are both contractual: commercial contracts create the market, while the state is a social contract. The market creates and distributes wealth, the state creates and distributes power.
Healthy societies, however, go beyond the transactional: they are also covenantal.
At Sinai, we received the Torah and became a nation. In a very real sense, Torah is the constitution of the Jewish people – it is the document which sanctifies our covenantal relationship with our Creator and with each other. That covenant was “ratified” in this week’s Torah portion when God gave the commandments from the top of the mountain; in that moment a mob of individual former slaves became the Jewish version of “We the people.”
“We the people” is a powerful, transformational concept, and the founding fathers channeled Sinai when they first penned those words. In a very real sense, the United States Constitution is the Torah of the American people. It is about more than the distribution of wealth and power, it is a covenantal document. Just look at the text of the preamble:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The constitution is not about transactions, but about our mutual commitment for the greater good – and it is most definitely not time-bound.
Thinking in terms of covenants is important because when we have a disagreement on a transactional level, we can just walk away from the relationship. We cannot, however, abandon our covenantal commitments without causing greater harm to ourselves and others. Our covenantal commitments are the best way to hold our local communities, our national societies, and our global network together and to build a better shared future. No matter how polarized our politics, no matter how frustrated or angry we get, covenant reminds us that we can never achieve alone what we can create together; it reminds us that we must commit to stay in this together, arguments and all – or we will all lose.
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Finally! After hundreds of years of slavery, we escape Egypt – only to arrive at an impassable sea with Pharaoh’s chariots in fast pursuit.
This was not exactly the kind of redemption Moses promised, and our people were stuck, overwhelmed with the sense that life was pressing in on them and there was no escape. What do Jews do in this kind of situation? We complain! The Israelites cry out to God (we don’t know exactly what they said) and then complain with exquisite sarcasm to Moses saying: “Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” [Ex. 14:11]
Moses basically says (paraphrased): just wait for it … God will redeem us.
That’s when God jumps in – not to redeem, but to criticize, saying: “Mah titzak eilai? Why do you cry out to Me?” [Ex. 14:15]
In a word: oy.
Who is the ‘you’ God is responding to, Moses or Israel? And what does God even mean?
Rashi, the great rabbinic commentator has two insights, which in classic Jewish fashion, seem not to agree with each other. First, Rashi teaches that God was chastising both Israel and Moses saying: “This is not a time to spend in prayer – the Israelites are in danger!” In other words, don’t look to me – take action! Then, instead of leaving well enough alone, Rashi restates the question to offer a second perspective (by changing the punctuation and thereby changing the meaning): “Why do you cry out? Upon Me …” According to this reading, God was chastising both Israel and Moses because they dared to assume that they could command God or even place expectations on God. It is for God to determine what to do, and only God.
The first statement seems to suggest that in times of need we need to act instead of pray, meaning that it is up to us. The second statement seems to suggest that we should have so much faith that we should not even need to pray, just trust that God will intervene.
We could argue either position until we are blue in the face and not resolve them to our satisfaction – until, that is, Nachshon steps in.
The Midrash is simple and straightforward. While the Israelites milled about by the Sea filled with uncertainty, he walked right into the water. He did not know how to swim. He just started walking, deeper into the Sea, until finally the water came up to his lips. Only then, says the Midrash, did God split the Sea.
Nachshon chose to act decisively and put his faith in God.
History has taught that in every generation we eventually find ourselves caught, in one way or another, between Pharaoh’s army and the impassable Sea – seemingly with no way forward or back.
History has also taught us that every generation has its own Nachshons, and it can be any of us.
When the time comes, what will we do?
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
When did God put Torah in the Torah? In parashat Bo. This week the word “torah” (which means ‘teaching’ and/or ‘law’) is used for the very first time in the Torah, and under the strangest of circumstances.
Parashat Bo describes one of the most intense times in Torah. It begins in the midst of the Ten Plagues God sent upon Egypt and continues through the hasty preparations for the Exodus of the Israelites (in which there was not enough time to even let our bread rise). Among the many remarkable elements of this story is the insertion, right in the middle of the preparations to leave, of a legal discourse about the future observance of Passover.
If we were in such a rush, couldn’t God have waited until after we were out of Egypt to give us these laws?
Why, then, do we find these laws here – and what do they actually say?
There are two distinct but connected legal sections here. We will look at the first paragraph (Ex. 12:43-51), which focuses on who shall observe and eat of the Passover offering. Those who are circumcised (meaning Jews) are required, and those who are not (everyone else) are not permitted. Towards the end of the paragraph, the word ‘torah’ is introduced:
“One torah shall there be for the native and for the sojourner who sojourns in your midst.” [Ex. 12:49]
On the surface, this, the very first mention of the word ‘torah’ in the Torah suggests that a foreigner living among us has the same legal status as we do. How extraordinary! My more liberal tendencies make we want to jump at this as a clear moral mandate to better support both immigrants and refugees. After all, if this is the first mention of ‘torah’ in the Torah, then this must a be a core principle of Judaism. Indeed, this idea is so important that God made sure to teach it before we left Egypt.
The only problem is that this section begins with: “This is the chukkat (statute) of the Passover offering: no foreigner shall eat of it.” [Ex. 12:43] How do we reconcile the different verses? Through definition. A sojourner is not any foreigner who dwells in our midst, but one who lives among us and chooses to do so as one of us. How did one do this in Moses’ time? Through circumcising every male in the household.
Well, that seems a little less universal.
Let’s look at both the exclusions and inclusions of the entire legal passage, and the placement of this section within the larger narrative. Who is excluded? Foreigners, foreign settlers and hired workers. Who is included? Slaves purchased by silver and sojourners – both becoming ‘native’ through circumcision. When are these laws given in the narrative? The morning after the final Plague, when the Israelites placed the blood from the original Passover sacrifices on their lintels so that the angel of death would pass-over their homes and spare the Israelite first born.
The laws stated here specifically refer to the observance of Passover. Nachum Sarna notes that there are other laws, which come later in the Torah, that allow strangers in Israel many of the same rights and privileges as the Israelites, including rest on Shabbat, protection within the cities of refuge, access to the produce of the Sabbatical year and even the ability to offer sacrifices and participate in other Jewish religious festivals.
Putting it all together we can see a few different concepts at play, each of which God wanted to make sure we understood before leaving Egypt – so that we would not bring the ways of Pharaoh with us. First, the placement of the text draws a connection, at least metaphorically, with the blood on the lintel and circumcision as the defining characteristic of who is an Israelite. Second, the story of the Exodus is the primary definitive narrative of our people and the Passover sacrifice is directly connected to the retelling of our story in the first person. Therefore, only those who are “all in” may eat of the sacrifice, for in so doing we are saying that this story is our story. Third, becoming an Israelite is open to everyone, even slaves and foreigners, but requires a certain level of commitment. Fourth, one torah, the same torah, applies to all Israelites and converts regardless of their place in society or their place of birth. We are all governed and defined by the same teaching/law. Fifth, those who wish to live with us but choose not to fully commit to becoming part of the Jewish people are welcome, and are still protected by Torah, just not defined by it.
It turns out, that ‘torah’ cannot be reduced to a simple slogan or concept. It is both “teaching” and “law” in that it mediates how we interact with each other and with God. It is committed to maintaining our particularistic integrity as Jews, and our universalistic integrity as human beings – requiring that we be true to ourselves and treat others with true respect and dignity.
Torah is not, nor has it ever been, an ‘either-or’ endeavor.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Think you don’t have what it takes? Neither did Moses:
“And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel would not listen to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips.’” [Ex. 6:12]
When God appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush in last week’s parasha, Moses tried to beg out of the whole affair, citing his inability to handle the job, in part because he was slow of speech and tongue. In this week’s parasha, after Moses has gone to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, Moses complains to God of his failure and uses a strange phrase to reinforce why he is the wrong man for the job: he has aral s’fatayim – uncircumcised lips.
What on earth are ‘uncircumcised lips’?
Certainly, this is not a physical description – or at least not a description of a surgical procedure. We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses was an eloquent speaker. His speeches and poetry have inspired our people for thousands of years. Besides, nowhere in Torah is there any mention of God performing a miracle to heal Moses of a physical handicap which made it difficult for him to speak. While it is true that Moses was eventually circumcised, it was definitely not done to his lips!
The great medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi taught that the word aral (uncircumcised) really means “obstructed.” Among the several prooftexts he cites are:
“Behold, their ear is arala (uncircumcised/stopped up), they cannot hear.” [Jer. 6:10]
By defining uncircumcised as “closed up,” Rashi teaches that Moses’ challenge was more psychological than physical. Moses’ lips were obstructed, because his mind was obstructed.
A true story from my childhood:
I was the kid in little league who sat in left field picking dandelions. I could have been an amazing baseball player, except I couldn’t catch, throw, run or hit – and everyone knew it. One day at practice, the coach accidentally hit a powerful line drive right at me. I’m not sure quite what happened, but instead of running away, I just stuck out my hand. With a loud “pop” the ball landed in my glove! Nobody could believe it – especially me. Having caught the ball, I was supposed to throw it to the second baseman. Again, amazingly, the throw was accurate. The coach hit the next several balls to me, varying grounders, pop flies and another line drive. I caught every ball, running all over left field – and for the first time, began to actually play baseball. My teammates cheered, and my confidence grew. While I would never be “all-pro” material, I discovered that I was capable of far more than I realized.
Moses was not playing a game, and the stakes were much higher. Yet, the blockage was the same. Surgical circumcision was not the solution. Moses had to learn that his initial failure was merely a step towards success. As Einstein taught: “failure is success in progress.”
You and I know how the story ends, but Moses still had a lot to learn. It was not enough for Moses to know that he had been chosen by God to lead – he needed to find his own voice. So, God sends him right back to try again.
It seems to me that this is a lesson for us all.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras