Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
“The night burglar may be killed if caught in the act, but the housebreaker by day may not be killed, and if he is killed, the homeowner is guilty of murder.” (Ex. 22:1-2)
From the perspective of the homeowner, a break-in at night is far more frightening and dangerous than a theft by day. By day perhaps other people might see the robbery and come to assist, but by night we presume that the burglar knows there will be no witnesses, and therefore intends to harm the homeowner if caught. Rashi interprets this to teach: “if someone is coming to kill you, kill him first.”
Others suggest there is a larger question here. The day burglar breaks in when the house is probably empty – the night burglar when it is likely someone is at home. The day burglar fears other human beings, the night burglar does not – and it is this which makes him so dangerous. Alternatively, the night burglar is worse not because he has no fear of humans, but because he thinks that he will go unseen in the dark, forgetting that God sees all.
Rabbi Stephen Wylen asks: “Which is the greater guarantor of lawfulness: for people to fear God, or for people to fear the judgement of women and men?”
The answer is ours to give.
Please feel free to share your answers below (if you are reading this on my personal website), on Facebook or by email
Exodus 18:1 – 20:2
Poor Moses. He may have been the most qualified person ever to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership, and one of the least prepared. This week, before we arrive at the base of Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments, Moses gets a lesson in leadership from his father-in-law Jethro.
Jethro is a tribal leader and a priest of Midian, who hearing about God’s great deeds in Egypt and the redemption of the Jewish people came to reunite the family. Once they settle in, he asks Moses to share what has happened, and afterwards his response is extraordinary:
And Jethro exulted over all the bounty that the Lord had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hand of Egypt. And Jethro said, “Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who rescued the people from under the hand of Egypt. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, for in this thing that they schemed against them.” And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God, and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel with him, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law. (Ex. 19:9-12)
Amazingly, no Israelite thought to stop to offer thanks to God before this moment. Jethro, who is not even a Jew, offers the first words of blessing and the first sacrifices of the Exodus, and he makes sure to do so with all of the collected leaders of the people. Here, Jethro offers Moses several important lessons of leadership. First, he leads by modeling leadership. Instead of criticizing or correcting Moses, he simply does what needs to be done, and Moses, Aaron and the elders line up to follow Jethro, father-in-law of Moses. Second, he models the importance of giving credit where credit is deserved. Which is to say, Jethro demonstrates through word and deed the power of leading by example and lavishing praise wherever it is deserved.
Yet there is more for Moses to learn. The next day:
… Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood over Moses from the morning, till the evening. And Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, and he said, “What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why are you sitting alone while all the people are standing over you from morning until evening?” [Ex. 18:13-14]
The next lesson? Ask before jumping to conclusions. And Jethro is only getting warmed up:
And Moses replied to his father-in-law, “For the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have some matter, it comes to me and I judge between a man and his fellow and I make known God’s statutes and His teachings.” And Moses’ father in law said to him, “This thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out – both you and this people that is with you – for the thing is too heavy for you, you will not be able to do it alone. [If you do not respect your own time, nobody else will. If you burn yourself out, not only will you suffer, but also those who look to you for leadership.] Now, heed my voice – I shall give you counsel, and may God be with you. Be you for the people over against God, and it shall be you who will bring the matters to God. And you shall warn them concerning the statutes and the teachings, and you shall make known to them the way in which they must go and the deed which they must do. [Empower the people by teaching them what they need to know, be a clear communicator] As for you, you shall search out from all the people able, God-fearing men, truthful men, haters of bribes, and you place them as chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties and chiefs of tens. And they shall judge the people at all times, and every great matter they shall bring to you and every small matter they themselves shall judge, and it will lighten from upon you and will bear the burden with you. [If you want the job done right, get help – but make sure to hire the right people, people with integrity, skill and good judgement.] If you will do this thing, God will charge you and you will be able to stand and also all this people will come to its place in peace.” [Ex. 18:15-23]
Moses grew to become the greatest leader our people have ever known, but he was not born a leader. He needed to learn, and in very Torah that he transmitted from God to Israel, he shared the keys to his success … and to our own.
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
“Mi chamocah ba-eilim, Adonai! Mi kamochah, nedar bakodesh, nora t’hillot, oseh feleh!”
After the sea parted, after the Israelites walked through on dry land, and after the waters crashed upon and destroyed Pharaoh’s pursuing army, these were among the verses Moses sang before Israel: “Who is like You, O God, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, worker of wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)
At this moment and in this place, why does Moses sing these words?
I have always assumed that Mi Chamochah was a rhetorical question, with the built in rhetorical answer: “None are like You, O God, because there are no other gods. You are One and the Only One.”
Interpreting Mi Chamochah rhetorically makes sense to us today, but how would the Israelites have understood Moses? Taken literally, Mi Chamochah presumes that other gods do exist, just on a level so far removed from God that there can be no real comparison. The Israelites, hearing Moses’ words for the first time were, among other things, steeped in all things Egyptian. They were raised in a world with many ‘gods,’ and likely would have interpreted Moses’ words more literally than we do today. They may even have felt a pull from those ‘gods,’ out of a sense of familiarity. Yes, the Israelites were now safely on the other side of the sea, physically free of Egyptian bondage, but how many were still enslaved spiritually? How many had already begun to look back to the ‘good ole days’ when the work was hard, but they knew what to expect and had a steady supply of food?
Moses’ Song at the Sea is the counterbalance to the lingering idolatry that Israel brought with it out of Egypt. It acknowledges that Egypt and most others worshipped many gods, and emphasizes that none compare to God. It demonstrates that redemption comes only from God, and it begs the question: where would you rather put your faith?
The rabbis who added Mi Chamochah to the liturgy were, quite frankly, brilliant. They understood that we still hear the call of Egypt, the lure of our false gods. Not that any of us go to our neighborhood idol shop to stock up, but we human beings have a way of putting our faith in all kinds of things, hoping that they will save us. Today, we give ourselves over to false gods like wealth, power, influence, addictions, unhealthy relationships, fad diets and more. Yet none of these is redemptive, none ultimately fulfills, none is like God.
This Shabbat, Torah and Prayer will become one, as standing with Moses and the Israelites on the far side of the Sea we sing: “Mi chamocah ba-eilim, Adonai! Mi kamochah, nedar bakodesh, nora t’hillot, oseh feleh! Who is like You, O God, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, worker of wonders?”
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
This week we read about the final two plagues, our redemption from Egyptian slavery and the commemoration of these communal memories through the observance of Pesach.
In Bo, as the first born of Egypt are slain in the night, Egypt is irrevocably brought to its knees and the enslavement of generations of Hebrews finally comes to an end. In preparation for this fierce climax, God issues two commandments to the Israelites: first, we must make a Pascal offering, splattering the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of each Israelite home, and second, no Israelite may leave their home until the sun rises.
Why does God need us to mark our homes? Doesn’t God already know who is an Israelite and who is not? And since God surely knows who we are and should be able to not kill us wherever we are, why are we restricted to our homes?
Let’s assume that God knows all of this and more. A lintel is a cross bar above a door which supports the weight of the wall above. It turns out that in ancient Egyptian architecture, at least the variant in which slaves might have lived, the lintel was visible on the inside of the door rather than the outside. As a child, I always assumed that the blood was on the outside of the house – so that the angel of death would see it before entering the home and move on. The actual text is far more chilling. It suggests that for the angel of death to see the sign it could not stay on the outside, but had to be inside, right next to each and every one of us!
Why? Why not just have the angel pass over from the outside? Why does he have to get so close?
The Torah explains: “And the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you are …” (Ex 12:13 – italics mine)
It is not enough for us to know that God will rescue us and the angel of death will pass us by. That will not bring redemption. Redemption only comes when we act with God to bring about redemption. Virtually every commandment serves as an active reminder of this truth. We offer ourselves to God through the study of Torah, through worship and through living the values and teachings of our tradition to the best of our understanding and ability. While we may not face imminent death through passivity and complacency, we certainly risk our spiritual deaths – losing a little bit of ourselves with each lost opportunity. God does not need the Pesach offering, but knows that we need the ritual. God is always present for us, but we only connect when we make the effort. This is why we reenact the ritual every Pesach in our homes and in our synagogues.
As for staying indoors through the night, this too was an act – of abstention. Rabbi A.S. Tamrat taught that the reason we were kept at home during the night was so that we would be able to follow the Proverb: “Rejoice not when your enemy falls.” (Prov. 24:17) Four hundred and thirty years in Egypt could easily have led us to become cruel or vengeful, and to take pleasure in observing the suffering of our hated former oppressors.
That, thank God, is not our way. May we always remember to stay true.
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