Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches that Jewish spirituality is encapsulated in our ever-repeating cycle of exile and return. This week, with parashat Shemot, we begin the greatest iteration of this cycle in the history of our people: the narrative of our Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The story is one of redemption, of the creation of a great people, of a future brimming with hope. Yet our story begins not with hope, but with suffering, pain and disillusionment:
Joseph and his generation die and a new pharaoh arises in Egypt “who knew not Joseph.” [Ex. 1:8] Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of fear that we might grow so numerous as to threaten his power. The first Shoah (Holocaust) then follows, with the royal command to throw every newborn Israelite boy into the river to drown.
Of course, we know that Pharaoh ultimately fails. We know that Moses will be born, saved from infanticide by his sister and mother, raised in Pharaoh’s own household by Pharaoh’s daughter and then called by God to confront Pharaoh and save the Israelite people. We know this, but what if we didn’t? What if we read the story without knowing the end?
In this week’s parasha, we descend from safety to slavery and then possible destruction. A baby boy survives, grows up and eventually makes it out of Egypt, where he settles into life as a shepherd – living a peaceful and comfortable life. One day he notices a burning bush and perceives that God is calling to him from the bush. Moses resists the call, saying in every way that he can that the task is beyond his ability. However, God forces the reluctant future leader to pick up the mantle. On the way to Egypt, God – who is sending Moses to Egypt in the first place – afflicts Moses with a deadly illness. His wife Zipporah manages to barely save Moses’ life by circumcising their son. Finally, in Egypt, Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn increases the burden of slavery on the Israelites, who then blame Moses.
Not knowing how the story ends, what would we do next? Would we overcome our despair, or would it overcome us?
We live in a tumultuous world. We always have. Sometimes we enjoy periods of return, more often we find ourselves in exile. When we experience the joy of return, we face the danger of taking our bounty for granted and then losing our way. When we experience the pain of exile, we face the danger of giving in and giving up – and then losing our way. When we lose our way, we can no longer see a clear path forward. However, just because we cannot see a way forward, does not mean that it does not exist.
At the end of this week’s parashah, the situation seems hopeless to the people and to Moses. Yet Torah teaches us to take the long view, that God has a vision for what the world can be, and that we are covenanted agents of change. So long as we stay true to our values, the wisdom of our tradition and to our Source and Creator, there is always a clear path forward and a future of Promise that awaits.
Numbers 33:1 - 36:13
Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books is mostly a recapitulation of events that have already been recorded elsewhere in Torah. That would suggest that the action pretty much ends (with the exception of Moses’ death and burial) at the end of Numbers. This week we conclude Numbers with a double portion, Mattot-Masei. The very last verse of the last chapter reads: “These are the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab at the Jordan near Jericho.” (Num. 36:13) This certainly sounds like a final conclusion, and it locates the Israelites right on the edge of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land. If this is really a significant ending of our narrative, then it begs the question, what happens right before the end?
Chapter 36 contains only twelve other verses, and they describe a brief epilogue to the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who had earlier requested the right (contrary to established legal conventions) to inherit directly from their father because they had no brothers. Moses, after consulting with God, agrees that that can do so. However, the issue is revisited at the end of Numbers because the family heads of Menasseh (their tribe) appealed to Moses to change the ruling. Here is the core of their argument. Each of the twelve tribes was assigned a portion of Promised Land based on their tribes and households. Since land represented security and power, each tribe was assigned land in a way that created a ‘national’ and tribal balance. However, if the daughters of Zelophehad were to marry men from other tribes, then eventually, their father’s land which was initially assigned to the tribe of Menasseh would be transferred to their children who would be from a different tribe. This would create a shift in the balance of power that would diminish Menasseh.
Moses considers the argument, again apparently seeking the answer from God, and rules that the challenge is just. In effect, the daughters of Zelophehad are free to marry whomever they wish, but, if they marry outside the tribe of Menasseh, then they lose the right of inheritance. The story ends with the five women choosing to marry within their tribe. I love this story because in it’s first iteration it creates a real precursor to establishing the concept of equality between men and women. The daughters earn the right of inheritance. However, this individual right is mediated in this week’s portion by being balanced against the larger good of the community (in this case the tribe of Menasseh). In effect, we learn at the very end of the Book of Numbers, when were are poised to leave the Wilderness for the Promised Land, that we should pursue our own interests, but that we also need to balance our own interests with the good of the larger community. Centuries later, Hillel famously taught: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I?” (Pirke Avot 1:14) I wonder if Hillel derived that teaching from this passage, and I wonder if this short little story was brought back at just this place in Torah to serve as a reminder of one of the most important lessons of our tradition.
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