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.
Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
Why is this holiday different from all other holidays?
This is the essential question posed by the first chief rabbi of Palestine, Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, about the sacrificial Temple service for Yom Kippur as described in Acharei Mot.
On all other holidays we only offer one chatat, one sin offering with a goat. Why on this holiday do we offer two, a goat and an ox?
You were wondering the same thing, weren’t you?
Rabbi Kook teaches some wonderful Torah here:
The ox is a symbol of great strength. Oxen were traditionally used for construction and cultivating land. The ox’s strength was harnessed to till the earth, to transport goods, and other constructive purposes.
Good intentions are not always enough. Even when we mean well, we sometimes cause harm. Acharei Mot and Yom Kippur encourage us to acknowledge and learn from our ‘constructive’ as well as our ‘destructive’ mistakes, so that we can continue to grow as human beings. We are truly strong, in more ways than we realize, which is why in this case, two offerings are better than one.
 Gold from the Land of Israel: A new light on the weekly Torah portion from the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, by Rabbi Chanan Morrison, pg. 198-99.
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
From the Burning Bush to the Plagues in Egypt, Moses is forced to face and then to overcome his self-doubt. Never mind that he has just interacted with the Creator of the Universe, never mind that his eventual success is guaranteed by God over and again: Moses struggles to believe – in himself.
“And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying: ‘Behold, the Children of Israel have not hearkened to me; how then will Pharaoh hear me, and I am of uncircumcised lips?’” (Ex. 6:12)
Va’era gives us a glimpse into the making of a Jewish hero. Moses focuses on his own shortcomings, and on his initial failure. He sees himself as unfit for the task. After all, how can he be God’s spokesman with a speech impediment (uncircumcised lips)? How can he convince Pharaoh if the Israelites themselves won’t listen?
God’s answer is as simple as it is true. To paraphrase, God tells Moses to ‘get back in there’ and provides specific instructions about what to do and details ways that God will help. In other words, if we let our fear of failure drive our decisions, then we will surely fail. If we look at the obstacles before us and seek solutions to overcome them, we will surely succeed. If we keep ourselves focused on the end goal, then every failure along the way is a necessary lesson along our path to eventual success. God may not use these specific words, but this is exactly what Torah teaches over the course of the entire Exodus narrative.
As the inheritors of this precious tradition, we can recognize ourselves in this story. Whatever our self-doubts may be, we can follow Moses’ lead: with clarity of vision and with God’s help, anything is possible.
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Timing is everything.
Every New Year is about new beginnings, new chances for success (both personal and professional), new possibilities. This week, just after we celebrate the secular New Year, we will begin a new book of Torah. Parashat Shemot opens with the darkness of slavery, but ends by pointing us squarely towards a brighter future. The journey to the Promised Land will be anything but easy, yet, with time and persistence we eventually arrive. As we read Shemot this Shabbat, let us look forward to the New Year with the realism and optimism of Torah. Let’s identify the specific obstacles that lie ahead so that we can meet and beat them, and let’s also keep faith – faith with God and with ourselves. With God's help we truly can make each new tomorrow brighter.
Genesis 41:1 - 44:17
Three Torah portions. Three dreams. In VaYetze Jacob dreamed of an angelic ladder reaching to heaven, and discovered God where he least expected. In VaYeshev Joseph dreamed that his entire family would one day bow down to him, prophesying a future in which he would be God's instrument for their very survival. The dreams of Miketz, however, are of a different flavor.
Pharaoh dreams two dreams in our parasha. In his first dream, Pharaoh sees seven 'ill-favored' and gaunt cows devour seven healthy and plump cows. Then he dreams that seven withered ears of grain devour seven 'goodly' ears. Although his dreams are prophetic in the way that Joseph's were, Pharaoh was not able to interpret them. Only Joseph was able to understand the dreams as a prediction of seven years of famine that will follow seven years of plenty.
Yet Joseph is not the only Jew who would eventually interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th century rabbi also known as the Sefat Emet (the language of truth), offered an intriguing observation. He connected Pharoah's first dream to one of the great challenges of human beings: controlling our inner urge to do wrong. In his close reading of the text, the Sefat Emet observed that the lean cows act in three different ways;
And, look, another seven cows came up after them out of the Nile, foul to look at and meager in flesh, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. And the foul-looking meager-fleshed cows ate up the seven fair-looking fat cows ... (Gen. 41:3-4, translation by Robert Alter - I have added the bold font)
The Sefat Emet taught that the foul-looking cows represent our Yetzer haRah, our inclination to evil, and the inclination to evil follows the same three steps as the cows in its determination to conquer us. First it comes up after us, to examine our actions. Then it stands by us, growing closer and creating a sense of familiarity and even comfort until, finally, it swallows us up completely.
How do we stop it? He doesn't say, at least not in this commentary. Perhaps just the knowledge itself is our best defense.
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
Chayei Sarah ("Sarah's life") gets its name because it begins with the verse: "Sarah's life was one hundred and twenty seven years - these were the years of the life of Sarah." (Gen. 23:1) In the Hebrew text the word for "years" is repeated after each number - 100 years and 20 years and 7 years. Since Torah is usually sparing with its language, why is the word 'years' repeated so many times here? Rabbis have been asking and answering that question for centuries!
Recently I stumbled upon a commentary called Divrei Shaul al HaTorah, written by Rabbi Yosef Shaul HaLevi Nathansohn (1808–1875). He had a beautiful and challenging take on this verse:
Generally we refer to people in terms of the years: the person was born in this year, died in this year, etc. In the case of our greatest individuals, however, the years are described in terms of the people, because the years become special by the presence of these individuals. That is [the meaning of] "these were the years of the life of Sarah."
His insight raises an important question: how are we influencing the years of our lives?
Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Among the many famous stories in Vayera is the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah. Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel, who was a great teacher of Mussar, asked why Abraham dared to challenge God by saying, "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" (Gen. 18:24). I will let Rabbi Finkel's answer speak for itself:
Abraham was the epitome of compassion, and his greatest opponent was Sodom. Its residents were the exact opposite of Abraham. In their evil ways, they were opposed to everything that he preached and did for them. They fought against him and against all the good that he implanted in people. Abraham, then, should have been happy that the cities were to be overturned. But that was not the case. Instead, he stood up and pleaded for them. This was because Abraham was loyal to his views and his moral convictions. If he had been happy at the destruction of Sodom, that itself would have been similar to the ways of the Sodomites. Rather, Abraham's belief was to help everyone and to not have anyone harmed. Abraham was interested in having sin perish, but not the sinners. (Rabbi Natan Zvi Finkel)
Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
Lech Lecha is arguably one of the strangest phrases in Torah. Lech is a command that means, “you, go forth!” Lecha is a pronoun that generally means, “you” or “yourself.” This strange repetition of “you” is problematic for two reasons. First, it is grammatically “incorrect” (so far as anything in Torah can be labeled as such). Second, Torah itself is incredibly economical with its language – every word has purpose. So how do we understand this simple yet challengingly redundant little phrase? Rabbi Michael Boyden offers a unique insight. He suggests that lech lecha could mean, “Go to yourself.” Although at first glance this translation doesn't seem to fit into the overall context of the verse, it does make grammatical sense. Here is how the entire verse might read with his translation: “The Lord said to Abram: Go you, to yourself, from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1). I wonder if our journey as a Jewish people parallels Abram’s journey to become the first Jew. Each of us in on a spiritual journey, just as collectively we are also on a spiritual journey – and the purpose of that journey may just be to move from where we are, from what is comfortable and familiar, towards an uncertain Promised future – where we can be true to ourselves, and even more, to God.
Genesis 6:9 - 11:32
Who was to blame for the flood? According to the midrash it was Noah's fault because he failed to protest against the corrupt actions of his generation. The name Noach itself is suggestive, because it can mean "rest," as if to say that Noah rested when he should have taken action.
It seems to me that, like Noah, we live in a time filled with hamas (corruption/violence). Extremism and brutality are on the rise, conflict is intensifying in the Middle East along with a growing refugee crisis, and Palestinians are attacking Israelis in what might become a Third Intefada. Antisemitism is growing in Europe, and here in the States we continue to ignore the racial and economic injustices that make life unbearable for so many of our citizens.
If we rest like Noah, another flood may come - a flood of our own making rather than from God. Perhaps we weren't the cause of all of the world's troubles, but we can sure be part of the solution. Wherever we live, let's speak out to effect change. We have the power to influence our world, and now is not the time to rest.
Genesis 1:1 - 6:8
The rabbis say that one should not ask about what happened before “In the Beginning …” Then, they go on to offer multiple answers! In the classic anthology of midrash, Bereishit Rabbah (1:4), we read: “Six things preceded the creation of the world. Some were actually created, and others came up only in God’s thought as what was to be created. Torah and the throne of glory were created. The creation of the fathers [and mothers], Israel, the Temple and the name of the Messiah came up only in God’s thought …” As we begin the Torah again this Shabbat with Bereishit, we might ask ourselves how we plan to build on the holidays that are now behind us. We have a New Year, a new beginning, and yet, before we can really create whatever we have chosen to make of this year, we should also engage in a time of planning, and of developing the tools we need for success. Let’s learn from our Creator and take the time now, each in our own ways, to articulate our goals for the year, the steps we will need to take to reach them, the things we may need to overcome, and what it will all look like when we succeed. After all, if it’s good enough for God, it’s probably good enough for us.
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