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.
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