You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Shemot.
From Rabbi David Kasher
BECOMING MOSES – Parshat Shemot
This week, we begin the Book of Exodus, and from here on out, Moses will be our guide. We will follow him from his precarious beginnings until his death, the final scene in the Torah. The epic saga of the Exodus, the story which defines the Jewish people, is, in many ways, the story of Moses.
So why Moses? Why was he chosen to be the great hero of our tale, and remembered lovingly forever after as “Moses, Our Teacher”?
In many ways, he was the unlikeliest of candidates. He was, by his own description, “not a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) He never wanted the job to begin with, and tried desperately to refuse it. And he spends much of the journey brooding and grumbling, lamenting his unbearable task – even asking God at one point to, “just kill me already.” (Numbers 11:15)
Yet God seems certain that this is the one. For hundreds of years, the Israelites have been suffering in Egypt, with no help in sight, and then suddenly Moses is born and – voila – God finally appears. It is as if Redemption itself has been waiting for the arrival of this one boy.
What was it about Moses?
Perhaps he was just born special. Rashi tells us that at the moment of his birth:
…the whole house filled with light.
נתמלא הבית כולו אורה
Rashi is not just plucking this lovely image out of nowhere; he is picking up on some very particular language the Torah uses. When Moses’ mother gives birth, we read:
She saw him, that he was good. (Exodus 2:2)
וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא
This very familiar language is echoing the story of Creation, when God first creates light:
And God saw the light, that it was good. (Genesis 1:4)
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב
Moses’ birth, then, is like a new world being created. He is the harbinger of a whole new Beginning. Moses is like the light that emerges from total darkness. And like that first light, he has been fashioned by God for just this purpose. Even Pharaoh’s astrologers, the midrash tells us, foresee the coming of a redeemer, which is why they advise that all Israelite boys be killed. (Exodus Rabbah 1:18)
It was Moses they saw in the stars. Moses was the chosen one.
Or perhaps the secret of Moses’ success isn’t nature, but nurture. The most striking feature of Moses’ early biography is that he is not just rescued, but rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and taken to live in the royal palace. This Hebrew boy, who will one day lead his people to freedom, grows up as an Egyptian prince.
Perhaps this, then, is the key to Moses: he has a dual identity, and so he knows better than anyone how to communicate with both Israelites and Egyptians, and how the Pharaoh operates. He is the perfect go-between, for he has been unwittingly training in diplomacy his entire life. Sure, maybe Moses was a special boy, but it was his unique positioning, above all, that prepared him for the job ahead.
There is some truth to both of these explanations. But if we look carefully at the moment that Moses is actually tapped by God, we find one other detail in the narrative which suggests that neither Moses’ divine birth nor his royal upbringing was enough to make Moses into the great savior of Israel. There was one more test he had to pass.
We usually think of God simply appearing to Moses at the Burning Bush and announcing the redemption. But that is not exactly the way it happened.
It is at first only an angel of God – a secondary representative – who appears in the form of a bush on fire, but not burning up. A strange sight, to be sure. But that’s it. No announcement. No revelation. No dialogue at all.
And then, Moses makes a move:
Moses said, “I must turn, to look at this marvelous sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (Exod. 3:3)
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה–אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה: מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.
Then – and only then – does God actually appear and engage Moses. The language in the next verse is very precise about it:
When the Lord saw that he had turned to look, God called out to him from the bush: “Moses! Moses!” And he answered, “I am here.” (Exod. 3:4)
וַיַּרְא ה’, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה–וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.
It is only when God sees that Moses has turned to look that the revelation takes place. In case we didn’t pick up on it in the Torah itself, the midrash highlights this moment for us:
Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said: he turned his face and looked, as it says, “the Lord saw that he had turned to look.” And when God saw that Moses looked at Him, He said, “This is the one who is fit to lead Israel.” (Exodus Rabbah 2:6)
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ אָמַר הָפַךְ פָּנָיו וְהִבִּיט, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִבִּיט בּוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָמַר נָאֶה זֶה לִרְעוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.
That was the qualifying attribute: the fact that Moses turned and searched for something that was at first only vaguely there. So Moses’ destiny wasn’t a sure thing – it was waiting in potential. Before God would seek out Moses, Moses had to seek out God.
There is, however, a second interpretation in that same midrash that bears mentioning. It follows the first, as if in disagreement:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: What does it mean that he ‘turned to look’? God saw that he turned and was outraged when he saw the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Therefore he was fit to be their leader. And that is when God called to him from the bush.
אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק, מַהוּ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא סָר וְזָעֵף הוּא זֶה לִרְאוֹת בְּצַעֲרָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְפִיכָךְ רָאוּי הוּא לִהְיוֹת רוֹעֶה עֲלֵיהֶן, מִיָּד וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה.
Again this reading sees the key to Moses’ distinction in the words, “he turned to look” – but Rabbi Yitzchak reads these words metaphorically. Moses “turned” from his own life to look back at the place he came from. He remembered the pain of his brethren, and could not bear it. And this was the quality that made Moses into a leader: his empathy. Certainly Moses had the talent and the training to do the job – but what tipped the scale was that he had the heart.
In either of these rabbinic interpretations, the critical thing is that Moses turned. Without that turn, there would be no Moses as we know him. Without that first little movement on his part, there could have been no redemption.
As fragile as this answer is, there is something reassuring in it. Because it means that we can all be Moses. We do not have to be born under a good sign. We do not have to be raised in a palace.
We only have to seek out God. And though our revelation may be obscured, we must continue to search. Out in the wilderness, somewhere among the bushes and shrubs, the One we seek is waiting to be found.
We only have to open ourselves to human suffering – to feel outraged by injustice, agonized by the pain of our people, and called to action – and we will be shown the way forward.
We only have to turn and look, and our redemption is at hand.
Spiritual Poetry Makes the Good Book Great
BY RABBI AMY KALMANOFSKY
For many readers, the Torah is more than the good book. It is a great book. The Torah’s greatness can be attributed to its literary uniqueness (there really is no other book quite like it) and to its remarkable place at the foundation of three major religions.
For me, the Torah’s greatness comes from the way it integrates artistry and meaning. The Torah is playfully serious. It manipulates language, selectively includes and excludes essential narrative details, and is overtly intertextual. Above all, the Torah is crafted to express and to suggest. Its laws, stories, prophetic oracles, wise sayings, prayers, and songs all function in a way as a kind of poetry—a spiritual poetry—that captures the religious imagination, expressing and suggesting profound meanings.
Like all good poetry, the Torah brings in each individual reader and connects us to its stories and truths. Like all good spiritual poetry, the Torah communicates something essential about human experience, capturing our vulnerabilities and our aspirations that extend beyond the specificities of ourselves. The Torah’s spiritual poetry is expansive. It blends the universal with the particular; communicates what is eternal in each moment; and speaks to us as humans and as Jews.
One of the ways the Torah does this is by telling stories that collapse time, causing the past, present, and future to intersect. There are core moments in individual characters’ lives that are linked intentionally to Israel’s larger story, and even to the grand human narrative. These moments simultaneously look backwards and forwards to connect characters with their ancestors and with their descendants, including each one of us.
Parashat Shemot offers several examples. The parashah opens with the names of Jacob’s sons, records the death of Joseph and the passing of his generation, and introduces the next generation of Israel that, being extraordinarily fertile [פרו וישרצו וירבו], fills the earth [ותמלא הארץ] (Exod. 1:7). The words used to describe Israel’s fertility echo the story of creation in Genesis 1 and God’s command to the first humans to be fertile, increase, and fill the earth [פרו ורבו ומלאו] (Gen. 1:28).
With this echo, the Torah poetically links Israel’s story to the world’s story and suggests that Israel experiences a new or renewed creation. Depending on one’s perspective, it is a moment of cosmic continuity or discontinuity. Either way, Israel’s story intersects with the world’s story and the creation of humanity.
Next, the parashah records the birth of Moses, whose life is in danger in the wake of Pharaoh’s decree to throw Israel’s baby boys into the Nile. In another nod to the creation story in Genesis 1, Moses’s mother perceives her son’s goodness [ותרא אתו כי טוב] and places him in a tevah, a container [תבה], setting him afloat in the Nile river. (Exod. 2:2-3)
The only other place in the Torah that the word תבה (tevah) appears refers to Noah’s ark. In this way, the Torah poetically links two moments of salvation, while also hinting at a future salvation. Moses is Noah. His experience of floating down the river in a תבה connects him to this ancestor. Moses also is Israel. His personal experience of salvation—of being drawn from the water—connects him with the people he will lead through the water to their salvation.
The centerpiece of the parashah is Moses’s call to prophecy at the burning bush. This is another poetically charged moment in which the present and the future, the personal and the communal, intersect. Exodus 3:1 describes Moses shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep deep into the wilderness to Horeb, God’s mountain.
This one verse encapsulates the entire story of Exodus in which Moses shepherds Israel through the wilderness to God’s mountain. Once again, Moses’s personal story reflects Israel’s story. Similarly, Moses encounters God at the burning bush [סנה], an overt wordplay on Sinai [סיני], the site of Israel’s communal revelation. In this way, Moses’s intimate moment of private revelation foreshadows Israel’s grand moment of communal revelation.
Moments of creation, salvation, and revelation punctuate Moses’s story, Israel’s story, and the human story. They also punctuate the story of my own life and are key to why the Torah’s spiritual poetry speaks to me and why I think it makes the good book a great book.
The Torah’s spiritual poetry makes specific moments feel timeless and transforms personal stories into communal ones. By doing so, it also enables ancient stories to feel alive for contemporary readers like me. Its expansiveness welcomes me into the Torah’s world and helps me extend my personal narrative beyond my present, connecting me to the ancient past and the distant future. The Torah’s spiritual poetry enables Moses’s story to become Israel’s story and Israel’s story to become my own.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Darkness. Water. Light.
The parallels between the openings of the first two books of Torah are just too glaring to ignore.
Genesis – the first book of Torah – begins: G-d created heaven and earth, and the earth was chaotic and void, with darkness on the face of existence. But the Divine spirit hovered over the water’s surface. G-d said, ‘let there be light, and there was light.’”
Exodus – Torah’s second book – begins with the bitter enslavement of the Jewish people who descended to Egypt. With unprecedented ferocity darkness engulfs them. The Egyptians impose upon the Jews harsh labor and severe persecution intended to crush their spirits and break their bodies.
Despite the continuing intensification of the darkness, to the point that Pharaoh orders the massacre of all Jewish newborn males (“every boy who is born must be cast into the Nile”), a Divine spirit is born and hovers over the water: When Moses was born his mother “saw that he was good” – the entire house filled with light (Sotah 12a. Rashi). After hiding him for three months from the Egyptians “she took a papyrus box, coated it with asphalt and pitch, placed the child in it and put it in the rushes near the bank of the Nile.”
The little child of light lay snugly in a basket hovering over the dark waters of the River Nile, idol of the Egyptians. Until Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people, draws him out of the water – thus naming him Moses (Moshe), because “I bore (mashe) him from the water.” This in turn set in motion all the events that would lead the luminescent Moses to bring light to the Jews in the Egyptian darkness, and ultimately redeem the people in full glory.
Both books of Genesis and Exodus describe the dark nature of existence and the power we have to face our challenges.
Existence by its very nature is a dark place. We begin our lives – as the Torah begins its first two books – experiencing the surface of existence, with its inner nature personality shrouded within. Finding our mission and direction in life does not come easily. Clarity must be earned. Everything real and true must be discovered. Accessing the goodness of man and the beauty of life requires sustained effort and commitment, without which human nature gravitates easily back to self-interest and all its inevitable vices. Even science today has come to the surprising recognition that “dark energy” and “dark matter” is the stuff that makes up the overwhelming majority of our universe (see It’s the Tzimtzum, Stupid).
But hovering above the dark waters is the spirit of G-d – the soul, crafted in the Divine Image. Each of us carries within a Moses-in-microcosm – a force of light floating above the waters. Waiting for us to set her free by fanning the pilot flame of the soul (“G-d’s flame is the soul of man”), allowing it to illuminate everything in its path.
The most powerful message you will ever hear and the greatest blessing you can ever receive is not that you will be immune to the threatening shadows of existence. Rather, that for every moment of gloom you carry within a more powerful force of light. With every disappointment and loss you receive a gift of radiance. Above every illness and tragedy hovers an indomitable spirit that can and will prevail.
The most powerful message you will ever hear and the greatest blessing you can ever receive is not that you will be immune to the threatening shadows of existence. Rather, that for every moment of gloom you carry within a more powerful force of light. With every disappointment and loss you receive a gift of radiance. Above every illness and tragedy hovers an indomitable spirit that can and will prevail.
As we begin a new solar year, with all the uncertainties that come with the future, we also begin a new book in the Torah, which offers us a wise and timeless lesson: Above all the dark waters of life hovers the Divine spirit, waiting. Waiting for us to ignite its flame and bring light into the world.
“Let there be light” is our mandate. The challenge presented to each of us is this: Will you be part of the darkness or will you be committed to bring light into the night?
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Light at the Heart of Darkness
She is one of the most unexpected heroes of the Hebrew Bible. Without her, Moses might not have lived. The whole story of the exodus would have been different. Yet she was not an Israelite. She had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by her courage. Yet she seems to have had no doubt, experienced no misgivings, made no hesitation. If it was Pharaoh who afflicted the children of Israel, it was another member of his own family who saved the decisive vestige of hope: Pharaoh’s daughter. Recall the context. Pharaoh had decreed death for every male Israelite child. Yocheved, Amram’s wife, had a baby boy. For three months she was able to conceal his existence, but no longer. Fearing his certain death if she kept him, she set him afloat on the Nile in a basket, hoping against hope that someone might see him and take pity on him. This is what follows:
Pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe in the Nile, while her maids walked along the Nile’s edge. She saw the box in the reeds and sent her slave-girl to fetch it. Opening it, she saw the boy. The child began to cry, and she had pity on it. “This is one of the Hebrew boys,” she said (Ex. 2:6).
Note the sequence. First she sees that it is a child and has pity on it. A natural, human, compassionate reaction. Only then does it dawn on her who the child must be. Who else would abandon a child? She remembers her father’s decree against the Hebrews. Instantly the situation has changed. To save the baby would mean disobeying the royal command. That would be serious enough for an ordinary Egyptian; doubly so for a member of the royal family.
Nor is she alone when the event happens. Her maids are with her; her slave-girl is standing beside her. She must face the risk that one of them, in a fit of pique, or even mere gossip, will tell someone about it. Rumours flourish in royal courts. Yet she does not shift her ground. She does not tell one of her servants to take the baby and hide it with a family far away. She has the courage of her compassion. She does not flinch. Now something extraordinary happens:
The [child’s] sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” “Go,” replied Pharaoh’s daughter. The young girl went and got the child’s own mother. “Take this child and nurse it,” said Pharaoh’s daughter. “I will pay you a fee.” The woman took the child and nursed it. (Ex. 2:7–9)
The simplicity with which this is narrated conceals the astonishing nature of this encounter. First, how does a child – not just a child, but a member of a persecuted people – have the audacity to address a princess? There is no elaborate preamble, no “Your royal highness” or any other formality of the kind we are familiar with elsewhere in biblical narrative. They seem to speak as equals.
Equally pointed are the words left unsaid. “You know and I know,” Moses’ sister implies, “who this child is; it is my baby brother.” She proposes a plan brilliant in its simplicity. If the real mother is able to keep the child in her home to nurse him, we both minimise the danger. You will not have to explain to the court how this child has suddenly appeared.
We will be spared the risk of bringing him up: we can say the child is not a Hebrew, and that the mother is not the mother but only a nurse. Miriam’s ingenuity is matched by Pharaoh’s daughter’s instant agreement. She knows; she understands; she gives her consent.
Then comes the final surprise:
When the child matured, [his mother] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter. She adopted him as her own son, and named him Moses. “I bore him from the water,” she said. (Ex. 2:10)
Pharaoh’s daughter did not simply have a moment’s compassion. She has not forgotten the child. Nor has the passage of time diminished her sense of responsibility. Not only does she remain committed to his welfare; she adopts the riskiest of strategies. She will adopt him and bring him up as her own son. This is courage of a high order.
Yet the single most surprising detail comes in the last sentence. In the Torah, it is parents who give a child its name, and in the case of a special individual, God Himself. It is God who gives the name Isaac to the first Jewish child; God’s angel who gives Jacob the name Israel; God who changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. We have already encountered one adoptive name – Tzafenat Pa’neaĥ – the name by which Joseph was known in Egypt; yet Joseph remains Joseph. How surpassingly strange that the hero of the exodus, greatest of all the prophets, should bear not the name Amram and Yocheved have undoubtedly used thus far, but the one given to him by his adoptive mother, an Egyptian princess. A Midrash draws our attention to the fact:
This is the reward for those who do kindness. Although Moses had many names, the only one by which he is known in the whole Torah is the one given to him by the daughter of Pharaoh. Even the Holy One, blessed be He, did not call him by any other name.
Indeed Moshe – Meses – is an Egyptian name, meaning “child,” as in Ramses (which means child of Ra; Ra was the greatest of the Egyptian gods).
Who then was Pharaoh’s daughter? Nowhere is she explicitly named. However the First Book of Chronicles (4:18) mentions a daughter of Pharaoh, named Bitya, and it was she the sages identified as the woman who saved Moses. The name Bitya (sometimes rendered as Batya) means “the daughter of God.” From this, the sages drew one of their most striking lessons: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: ‘Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but I shall call you My daughter.’” They added that she was one of the few people (tradition enumerates nine) who were so righteous that they entered paradise in their lifetime.
Instead of “Pharaoh’s daughter” read “Hitler’s daughter” or “Stalin’s daughter” and we see what is at stake. Tyranny cannot destroy humanity. Moral courage can sometimes be found in the heart of darkness. That the Torah itself tells the story the way it does has enormous implications. It means that when it comes to people, we must never generalise, never stereotype. The Egyptians were not all evil: even from Pharaoh himself a heroine was born. Nothing could signal more powerfully that the Torah is not an ethnocentric text; that we must recognise virtue wherever we find it, even among our enemies; and that the basic core of human values – humanity, compassion, courage – is truly universal. Holiness may not be; goodness is.
Outside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, is an avenue dedicated to righteous gentiles. Pharaoh’s daughter is a supreme symbol of what they did and what they were. I, for one, am profoundly moved by that encounter on the banks of the Nile between an Egyptian princess and a young Israelite child, Moses’ sister Miriam. The contrast between them – in terms of age, culture, status and power – could not be greater. Yet their deep humanity bridges all the differences, all the distance. Two heroines. May they inspire us.
 “Seeing that she [Pharaoh’s daughter] wanted to save Moses, they [her handmaids] said to her, ‘Mistress, it is customary that when a king of flesh and blood issues a decree, even if the whole world does not fulfil it, at least his children and the members of his household fulfill it. Yet you transgress your father’s decree!’” (Sotah 12b)
 On the adoption of a foundling in the ancient world, see Nahum Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken, 1986), 31–32
 Shemot Rabbah 1:26
 Vayikra Rabbah 1:3
 Derekh Eretz Zuta 1
“Naming Holy Ground”
By Rabbi Janet Madden
“All the place is holy ground” from “The Poet’s Mind” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The name of the parsha that begins the second book of the Torah is taken from the enumeration of the descendants of Israel who migrated to Egypt: Shemot (“Names”). But the names and the history of the generation featured at the beginning of the parsha quickly fade; the new, xenophobic Pharaoh has no knowledge of the shared Israelite-Egyptian past. He perceives the Israelite population as an ever-growing threat and so subjects them to slavery and genocide. Ironically, though, while this Pharaoh perceives the Israelites as a rapidly-multiplying and threatening foreign entity within Egypt, the midrash records that by the time of Moses’ birth the Israelites had already lost most of their distinctive identity except for the way they dressed, their language and their names.
In Judaism, the naming of children constitutes a profound spiritual practice; names are markers of identity and of a person’s essence.The Sages say that naming a baby is a making of a statement of character, uniqueness, and the child’s path in life, since, at the beginning of life, a person is given a name, and at the end of life, a good name—a good reputation—is all that is taken from this world by that person (Brachot 7b; Arizal – Sha’ar HaGilgulim 24b). The Talmud also teaches that parents receive one-sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name for their child, and so, in this parsha titled “Names,” the bestowing of Moses’ name is notable. The Torah does not record a name given to Moses by his parents. Instead, Moses, a man of complicated and evolving identities, “the one drawn from the water,” is given an Egyptian name, one bestowed upon him by Pharaoh’s daughter, his surrogate/adoptive parent, whose own name is unknown. Moses’ name is both descriptive and prophetic, referencing as it does his rescue from the deadly waters of the Nile and his unique role in Judaism. As Bava Kama 17A states, “There is no water except Torah!”
The thematic importance of names in Shemot reaches its climax when the Holy One calls Moses’ name from the burning bush; soon, in an act of audacious intimacy, Moses asks G-d to reveal G-d’s name. The Divine answer, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”—“I will be what I will be,” or “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming”—is a life-affirming self-identification, a revelatory signifier of the dynamic and evolving nature of the G-d of Israel and, by extension, of those who are in relationship with the G-d of Israel.
In preparation for receiving the Divine Name, Moses is told that he is standing on holy ground and instructed to remove his shoes. The ground is, indeed, a sacred place, signifying depth, fertility, the place of origin, the place from which we have come, and the place to which we will return when we have let go of all that is extraneous to our souls. In the ancient world, shoes symbolized sensuousness, comfort, luxury and pleasure. Slaves and fugitives went barefoot; shoes were the mark of a free person, transactional symbols so significant that the Talmud (Shabbat 129a) declares: “A person should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet.” Shoes are connected to status, but shoes are also barriers to connection with the sacred earth. To remove one’s shoes is to remove a protective covering, an enclosing, artificial form, the idea of power and authority, to rebalance and to connect to the earth, to remove a re-shaping imposed by human ideas of power, authority, and style.
The Kabbalists describe the body as “the shoe of the soul.” Just as shoes enclose and protect feet, so does the body serve as a protective covering during the soul’s journey in the physical world. And in that transcendent moment in Shemot when the Holy One shares the Divine essence with Moses, we can glimpse the deep holiness that can take place when we allow ourselves to be in unguarded soul-connection with dynamic, ever-evolving Divine possibility.
A NEW KING – Parshat Shemot
This week, all watchful eyes are fixed on one verse:
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:10)
וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף
It is an ominous line, suggestive of all the terror that is about to envelop the Israelite people as the Book of Exodus begins. It will begin with a fear of the growing immigrant population, move quickly into slavery, and lead eventually to state-sponsored murder.
We left the Book of Genesis with the family of Israel comfortably settled in Egypt, having secured a fertile plot of land, thanks especially to Joseph’s close relationship with the Pharaoh. But this new Pharaoh, quite pointedly, does “not know Joseph.” How is this possible? Can he really have forgotten the man who served as the right-hand to the previous king, and who saved all of Egypt from famine?
There is a debate in the midrashim, recorded by Rashi, over exactly what kind of new administration this was, and how authentic was their “forgetting”:
“A new king arose” – Rav and Shmuel debated. One said it was truly a new king. While the other said, it’s just that his laws were new, and that “he did not know Joseph,” meant that he acted as if he did not know Joseph.
ויקם מלך חדש: רב ושמואל חד אמר חדש ממש. וחד אמר, שנתחדשו גזרותיו: אשר לא ידע: עשה עצמו כאלו לא ידע
The latter opinion is that this was not simply a gap in some new leader’s historical memory, but a feigned ignorance by the old Pharaoh, played out for political purposes. Here we have hints of a dangerous psychological profile: a person who could shift personalities at will, and speak lies with total conviction. A sociopath with unlimited power – this was truly a man to fear.
But he did not do it alone. We see him, just after his inauguration, turn to his people and whisper:
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they do not increase… (Exodus 1:10)
הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן-יִרְבֶּה
But who was he talking to? What team of advisors sat in his inner circle? One of the richest midrashim in all of Exodus Rabbah fills the scene with a cast of notable characters:
Rabbi Hiya said in the name of Rabbi Simon, “Three people were there to advise: Bilaam, Job, and Jethro. Bilaam, who affirmed the plan, was killed. Job, who was silent, was punished with suffering. Jethro, who fled, merited children who sat on the High Court of Israel.” (1:9)
אמר רבי חיא אמר רבי סימון: שלושה היו באותה עצה, בלעם ואיוב ויתרו בלעם, שיעץ, נהרג. איוב, ששתק, נדון ביסורין. יתרו, שברח, זכו בניו וישבו בלשכת הגזית
Now this is rabbinic storytelling at its creative best. Three figures, plucked from various side stories across Tanakh, and inserted into Pharaoh’s coterie of trusted advisors. And then, each of their imagined responses is used to explain their eventual destinies. Bilaam the prophet is indeed killed, in the war with Midian (Numbers 31:8). Job is the famous epitome of human suffering, a righteous man tested by God with the death of his children, the destruction of all his property, and the agony of a terrible disease. And Jethro is Moses’ father-in-law, who will thereby become an ancestor to future leaders of Israel. Three men with three very different fates.
There is one thing, however, that these three men all have in common: they are all non-Israelites. It is not too common for stories in the Hebrew Bible to feature outsiders so prominently, and when it happens, the rabbinic interpreters are confused as to how to regard them. Are they friends or enemies, righteous or wicked? This midrash, rather than painting over that question with a broad brush, gives the range of possible answers: Bilaam was a bad man, Jethro was good, and Job was somewhere in between. Their characters are measured by how they respond to an unjust government, and they present us with three possibilities: 1. Support the ruling power, 2. Keep quiet and hope for the best, 3. Defect.
In this relatively simple moral schema, the midrash suggests, everyone will get their just deserts. Consenting to oppression, whether actively or passively, will eventually incur divine punishment. Refusal to participate in the plot of the wicked, though it may require dangerous sacrifice, will be rewarded in the long run.
The picture is complicated, however, by a remarkably parallel story we find in the Talmud. The setting is entirely different: centuries later, in the Land of Israel, recently conquered by Roman authorities. And our characters are now not rabbinic reimaginings of Biblical figures, but the rabbis themselves. Yet they are presented with the same basic dilemma that confronted Bilaam, Job, and Jethro: how does one respond to oppressive state power? And look at how similar their responses are:
Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together, and Yehudah ben Gerim was sitting near them. Rabbi Yehudah opened by saying, “How fine are the works of these people! They have made markets, they have built bridges, they have built bathhouses.” Rabbi Yossi was silent. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said, “All that they have made, they have only made for themselves; they built marketplaces to put whores in them, bathhouses to pamper themselves, and bridges to levy tolls for them.” Yehudah ben Gerim went and told what they said, and it was heard by the government. They said: Yehudah, who exalted us, shall be exalted. Yossi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Tzipori. Shimon, who slandered us, shall be killed. So he and his son went and hid… (Shabbat 33b)
יתבי רבי יהודה ורבי יוסי ורבי שמעון ויתיב יהודה בן גרים גבייהו פתח ר’ יהודה ואמר כמה נאים מעשיהן של אומה זו תקנו שווקים תקנו גשרים תקנו מרחצאות ר’ יוסי שתק נענה רשב“י ואמר כל מה שתקנו לא תקנו אלא לצורך עצמן תקנו שווקין להושיב בהן זונות מרחצאות לעדן בהן עצמן גשרים ליטול מהן מכס הלך יהודה בן גרים וסיפר דבריהם ונשמעו למלכות אמרו יהודה שעילה יתעלה יוסי ששתק יגלה לציפורי שמעון שגינה יהרג אזל הוא ובריה טשו
The basic responses here, at first glance, seem in many ways to be exactly the same as those we saw in our original midrash. Rabbi Yehudah plays the role of Bilaam, supporting the ruling authorities. Rabbi Yossi, like Job, is quiet. And Rabbi Shimon is the Jethro of the tale, refusing to sanction the government, and consequently having to run away to save his life.
Yet there are also some important differences between the two stories:
First of all, these rabbis are not direct advisors to the Roman government. They are not in positions of power at all. In fact, they are members of the conquered population. They will not merely be witnesses to oppression, but potentially its targets. And so the question of how one responds to a ruthless state power is very different here, when the consequences of that power will have an effect on one’s own people.
Secondly, we are given an extra option for response by Rabbi Shimon: protest. It is true that, like Jethro, he ends up having to flee for his life. But before then, he does something that we never saw Jethro do. He speaks out against the government. Rabbi Shimon is the only figure in either tale that engages in actual resistance.
Finally, and most troublingly, the recompense for the rabbis’ actions is very different than the kinds of rewards and punishments we saw in the midrash. For Bilaam, who supported the Pharaoh, was killed; but Rabbi Yehudah, who praises the Romans, is elevated in status. Instead, it is Rabbi Shimon, who denounced the regime, who is sentenced to death. And while he does manage to flee, like Jethro, and eventually survive, there is no mention of any clear reward for his righteousness. Rabbi Shimon, the lone voice of protest in these narratives, will have to live in hiding for years, and will suffer great afflictions all the while.
What are we to make of all this?
Are there different methods for dealing with dictatorships, depending on whether or not one is in the ruling class? If so, then it is strange that in our two cases, it is those with less power, the rabbis under Roman rule, who produce the strongest voice of resistance. But perhaps that is always the way. The powerful rarely participate in acts of rebellion. We might celebrate Pharaoh’s cabinet members for resigning, but we do not expect them to march in the streets against him.
Or, perhaps, the difference between the two stories is simply that God is more present in one than in the other. In the world of Exodus, God intervenes in history – the wicked are punished, and the righteous are saved. Everyone gets exactly what they deserve. By the time we get to the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, it no longer seems clear to the rabbis that this is the case. Forces of violence and oppression are able to seize victory without restraint, and the most vulnerable are left unprotected. Where is the God of Justice when we call out? Why have we been so abandoned? Perhaps these are the questions the rabbis are grappling with.
Then again, maybe the rewards and punishments of our protagonists are not as easily categorized as we have so far suggested. Yes, we heard that Rabbi Yehudah was to be “exalted.” But what does that mean, really? It is so vague. And can we trust the Romans to make good on their word? Rabbi Shimon, meanwhile, was sentenced to death – but he does manage to escape. And while his life is not easy afterwards, he does seem to be protected by God, is able to raise his son, and goes on to become one of the most revered scholars of his generation. Is that so different, after all, from the fate of Jethro, whose greatest honor was that his descendants were judges on the Great Sanhedrin? Perhaps righteousness is its own reward.
One thing, however, is consistent between the two stories. Those who stay silent do not fare well. Both Job and Rabbi Yossi decide to say nothing, presumably in hopes that while they may not curry government favor, they will at least go unharmed. We might have expected this strategy to work. Protest is dangerous, but so, too, is colluding with an evil empire. Silence might seem to be the only safe option. Yet the quiet are not rewarded for their restraint. Rabbi Yossi is sent into exile, and Job will go on to suffer as no man ever has – not for his active support of Pharaoh, but for the cowardice of his tacit consent.
It is not at all clear what to do when a wicked king arises. But we will not get away with doing nothing.
“Fire and Light”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D, ’11
Parshat Shemot opens with a list of migrants, the names of the heads of households of the fortunate 70 Israelites who have been given life-saving permission to enter Egypt and therefore survive a world-wide famine.
But survival does not come without complications. As the Israelites thrive in their adopted home, a new Pharaoh becomes concerned that as “The children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very very strong, and the land became filled with them,” this immigrant success story has the potential to destroy the Egyptian way of life. And so, Pharaoh proclaims harsh edicts against the Israelites and both Egyptians and Israelites are pushed to increasing awareness of their essential differences.
In this context of Egyptian persecution, the birth, survival and adoption of Moses—the Israelite male child who is taken into Pharaoh’s home and raised as an Egyptian— is a miraculous story of dramatic irony. It foreshadows the episode that lies at the heart of Parshat Shemot, which takes place when the facade of Moses’ life unravels. A dramatic reversal takes place: the boy raised as a princeling in Pharaoh’s palace becomes a fugitive who must grapple with his true identity, an Israelite capable of killing an Egyptian. Now, tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, Moses truly finds himself in a liminal space, symbolized by the wilderness setting. Removed from Egyptian civilization, surrounded by the spare grandeur of the natural world, Moses is ready to enter a deeper level of consciousness.
Thornbushes are common, unremarkable elements of desert vegetation; their thorns ensure that they serve as living barriers, discouraging humans and animals from penetrating their depths. As Samson Rafael Hirsch points out, samech. nun. hey, the shoresh for senah, the Hebrew word for “thornbush,”—which may mean a species of blackberry—carries the connotations “fend off,” “blinding,” “barren and inhospitable place.” But the off-putting appearance of thornbushes also deceives—the external defenses that repel also protect blossoms and succulent fruit.
In a paradoxical parallel, fire both destroys and purifies. In contrast to human-controlled campfires, desert fires are sparked by natural forces and become chaotic, runaway wildfires. As the Ger Rebbe points out, there is a distinction between the wildness of “fire that burns” and the domesticity of a “fire that gives light.” The fire that emanates from the thornbush growing in holy ground is the latter. The origin of this controlled, bright, attention-getting fire is divine: from its depths, an angel-messenger appears to Moses and G-d calls to him.
“Hineni” is Moses’ response to G-d’s call. This moment of response and revelation kindles Moses’ being and illuminates it with Divine purpose. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in Aurora Leigh, “Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with G-d/ But only he who sees, takes off his shoes/The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries/And daub their natural faces unaware.”
May our lives and our work be illuminated with holy awareness and holy purpose. May we recognize, in the words of Margaret Silf, that “We stand before a burning bush whenever other human beings share with us something of their relationship with God or something of the movements of their hearts. In such moments may we always realize that we stand on holy ground.”
From Avielah Barclay Soferet
Tov – Goodness – Enlarged Letter Tet in Parashat Sh’mot
January 16, 2009 at 6:02am
There is an unusual enlarged letter in Parashat Sh’mot which you will find only if you are using an old Torah scroll written by a Kabbalist. The addition of many large or small letters not approved by “Midrash Rabah Aqim”, but by some later Kabbalist rabbis, or found in “Torah Sh’lemah”, are found most often in Torot written at least 200 years ago in the former Czeckoslovakia, Poland, and are still written into now Sifrei from the Yemenite community.
Luckily for us, many of these Ashkenazi scrolls were saved during the Holocaust and, although tragically their communities did not, they have been, for the most part, repaired and loaned to synagogues who could not otherwise afford a Torah scroll (by the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust, a charity worthy of your donations). So we get to see how Torot used to be written, which is quite different than the standard ways done today.
In Sefer Sh’mot/the Book of Exodus 2:2 we find an enlarged letter Tet (ט) in the word “tov” (טוֹב) – “good”:
וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא, וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים.
And the woman conceived, and birthed a son; and she saw him, that he was good, so she hid him for three moons.
This verse refers to baby Moshe – Moses – when his mother Yocheved gave birth to him. Some commentators write that Moshe was perceived even then as especially good. How did she know? Don’t all women blessed to become mothers see how amazing their babies are?
Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha-Neyss said that “Tov” was Moshe’s real Hebrew name (before Pharaoh’s daughter Batyah named him “Moshe”); R’ Yehudah said his name was Tuvia; R’ Nechemyah said Yocheved forsaw that Moshe would be gifted with prophecy; another rav claimed that Moshe had been born as though circumcised (a sign of a Jewish saviour, which has happened in modern times); the Sages declared that when he was born, the whole house was filled with light. A bit of a giveaway.
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאוֹר, כִּי-טוֹב
“And G@d saw the light, that it was good” (Be-reshit/Genesis 1:4)
References: Sotah 12a; Torah Sh’lemah
Copyright A. Barclay
From Rabbi Arthur Waskow
In the traditional Jewish spiral of Torah reading, we are about to start the Book of Exodus — the transformational story of successful resistance to slavery. But to Jewish tradition the Book is not known as “Yetziat Mitzrayyim, the Exodus from the Narrow Place / Egypt.” It is known instead as “Sefer Shemot –- the Book of Names.”
Early in the Book of Names, God goes through a change of Name.
This is no minor side-slip. Think of the furor when Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali; think of the political and personal transformation when David Gruen changed his name to Ben-Gurion.
And these were merely mortal heroes. For the Eternal Holy One Who suffuses all the universe to change The Name is seismic. Cosmic.
It happens first at the Burning Bush. As Moses faces the unquenchably fiery Voice Who is sending him on a mission to end slavery under Pharaoh, he warns the Voice that the people will challenge him: “Sez who?”
And the Holy One, the Wholly One, answers: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be” –- a fitting Name for a universe in which the powerless poor can be empowered and the pharaoh’s power can dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds. Then God adds, “But that’s a mouthful. You can use just ‘Ehyeh, I Will Be,’ as my nickname, if you like.”
“And oh yes, you can also call me ‘YHWH.’ “
But we actually can’t. There’s no way to “pronounce” those letters, with no vowels. And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say “Adonai, Lord.”
Now why do we think that God’s Name has changed? Maybe it has been these mysterious Names all along?
But God, and Torah say: Not so. The second time the voice tells Moses that the new Name is “YHWH” is in Exodus 6: 2-3. Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing “Brickmakers Union, Local #1” has miserably failed. This time the Voice explicitly says that the Name by which He/She/ It was known to the forebears — El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture, is no longer the Name for use in the liberation process.
Why this second Voicing of the new Name?
I suggest that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new Name. He has often used the old one on the warm-hearted assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it.
But the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality. That’s why Moses has failed, the Brickmakers Union has collapsed. So this time the Voice makes it absolutely clear: “Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way.”
The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God IS different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb, “know,” “grok,” the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to ReName God.
In our generation even more than in Moses’ day, the world is indeed being transformed. The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.
We must ReName God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.
And that is why I have been urging us to know, grok, God in our own generation through “pronouncing” the Unpronounceable Name by simply breathing — YHWH with no vowels, as the Interbreath of Life, the ONE that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.
We breathe in what the trees breathe out;
The trees breathe in what we breathe out:
We breathe each other into life:
What we call the “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the Earth’s atmosphere that has thrown out of balance the mixture of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out — that is, the balance of CO2 and oxygen. Human action is sending more CO2 into the atmosphere than Mother Earth can breathe.
If we hear the YHWH as the Interbreathing of all life, then that Name Itself is now in crisis. God’s Interbreathing Name is harshly wounded, choking, and it will take our action to heal the Name.
We cannot begin the healing so long as we refuse to Name the wound. Using the old names, names of “Lord” and “King” and domination, is like trying to heal a seriously wounded person by treating someone else. We can only begin the healing by reclaiming the Truth of the Name, the Breath within the Name.
Just as we calm ourselves by breathing mindfully as individuals, so all humanity must learn to clear the Life-Breath of the planet by a collective calming, shared mindfulness. That requires not just action by many individuals in their individual lives, but public action by communities and polities to heal the wounded Interbreathing.
“Science,” “politics,” and “religion” fuse into a single truth.
If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, I think we must do as Moses learned to do and ReName God.
I think we must rid ourselves of the old Name — Adonai, Lord, King, dominating Dominus – and address Divine Reality as the Interbreathing Of All Life. That is the Truth, and we are Called to say it.
With a sacred but outdated Name, an outdated way of understanding our world, we will, like Moses, fail at the task before us.
For years, I have encouraged prayer communities to breathe the Name as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and then to use “Yahhh” instead of “Adonai.” And then I have said that anyone who feels deeply God-connected through the use of the “Adonai” which they have recited, chanted, sung a thousand times should — for God’s sake! –- keep on using what connects them.
But I have come to think this is an inadequate teaching. I am now intending to say all this, and then to add my understanding of why Moses failed at first. And why the Voice had to insist on the new Name. And I will invite people to keep that challenge in mind as they voice their own response to the Voice.
Interbreathing, not OverLordship, is how our world now works. Now Is. And will be.’
The Hebrew word “dibbur” can mean either “word” or “deed.” If we can conceive of God and Universe through a new word, a new name, we can also act far more effectively to bring about the changes that our planet needs.
For Moses, the new Name made possible both resisting Pharaoh and shaping a new kind of society.
For us, it means both resisting the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing new Plagues upon our planet; and shaping a new society in which we are constantly aware that all life is Interbreathing, that we are interwoven with the eco-systems within which we live – that indeed, YHWH, the Breath of Life, is ONE.
With blessings of Sh-sh-sh-sh’ma!
Hush’sh’sh’sh to hear the thin small Voice, the Breath of Life that’s Wholly One– Arthur
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Haftarah Shemot 5773: “Must it be Armageddon?”
Haftarat Shemot 5773: “Must it be Armageddon?”
(Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23)
(c) Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Classic religious philosophy involves someone suffering: It’s “us or them. ”
This week’s Haftarah, taken from Isaiah’s prophecies of doom and destruction, poses that classic theme with graphic details. For instance: “Was Israel beaten? …Did Israel suffer as much slaughter as their slayers? (Is. 27:7)” The verse suggests that while the Jewish People has suffered, God’s has caused (or will cause) far greater pain for the agents of Jewish suffering, be they Egypt, Assyria, or others. Our return to God’s Grace includes both the national ingathering to the Land of Israel as well as Israelite military triumph. This day-to-come will be announced by a great ram’s horn (Is. 27:13).
There are striking similarities between the Haftarah and the Torah reading for Shmot. Both speak of liberation and the acknowledgement of God’s Holy Name by the Israelites and the world. Both liberations will be manifest in miracles and in the physical exit of the Israelites from Egypt. Both liberations are not dependent upon the actions of the Israelites. Rather, they are parts of God’s mysterious plan.
It is this last point that should draw our attention more than any other. It is well-known that, in the context of Biblical Israel, the success of any clan was understood as the expression of their god’s will and power. This is why, in next week’s Torah portion, God sends Moses to Pharoah “as a God (Ex. 7:1)” so as to convey the liberating message of Adonai in language familiar to Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia.
How should Jews today interpret the theology of Isaiah’s Armageddon narrative? Must our relationship with God continue to be understood as “us or them?” What happens to a world in which my People’s success must come at your People’s demise? And, more to the point, what does it mean when I see my success (and your suffering) as a manifestation of what God wants?
Can there be an authentic Jewish theology that sees the “ships” of all faiths rising with one tide? Is there a way to create a language of faith in which God’s will is only fulfilled when every member of the collective human family is treated as a worthy divine image?
The First 40 Years
After Moshe flees Egypt he winds up in the land of Midian, where the Torah says “vayeshev al hab’er — he sat (or lived) near a well.” The seven daughters of Reuel, Kohen of Midian, came to draw water from the well for their father’s sheep, and local shepherds harassed them. “Vayakam Moshe vayoshi’an — And Moses rose and saved them.” When his daughters return and tell him the story, Reuel tells them to bring this man home, and he gives Moshe his daughter Tzipporah as a wife.
40 years later, when he is tending the sheep of “his father-in-law Yitro” (another name for Reuel), God appears to Moshe in Hasneh Bo’er Baesh / Burning Bush — and the rest is history, our history. After a few brief encounters with Pharaoh, Moshe will lead the Children of Israel for 40 years in the desert.
So what was Moshe doing for those first 40 years? This is a time that began for him with water by the well, and ended with the fire of God’s presence.
One clue may be in the answer to another question — why were those shepherds harassing Reuel’s daughters in the first place? Rashi says that Reuel, Kohen of Midian, abandoned the idols of the local cult after he had a vision of One God, and therefore the Midianites turned against him.
So what were Moshe and Reuel doing during those 40 years? The Torah leaves this to our imagination. Was Reuel teaching Moshe the Kabbalistic secrets, preparing him for the fire to come? I imagine the two of them walking silently together through the desert, perhaps to a remote cave where they would sit in silence until God’s presence revealed itself.
Whatever it was that they did, apparently after 40 years Moshe was ready. Just as he has risen to save Reuel’s daughters 40 years earlier, he rose to save us. He led us to freedom through water, the Sea of Reeds / Red Sea. And when he and the Children of Israel followed God through the desert, we followed the Pillar of Cloud (water) by day, and the Pillar of Fire by night.
We all need preparation for the journey that God intends for us. May we, the descendants of the people of that generation, be blessed to know how to follow that same Pillar of Cloud and Pillar of Fire in our own time, to be the priests and teachers and leaders, each in our own way, that the world needs today.
From Rabbi Yoel Glick
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire – lahavat aish” (Ex. 3:2) Fervor for the battle to perfect ourselves, a desire to reduce our faults to ashes, a yearning to burn through the veil between God and us, a longing to burn away all of the suffering that is in this world. These are the lahavot aish, the “flames of spiritual fire” that are the outer signs of a true experience of God.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
JANUARY 14, 2012
Names, and opening our eyes
Here’s the d’var Torah I gave this morning at Congregation Beth Israel. (Originally posted at the From the Rabbi blog.)
In this week’s Torah portion we re-enter one of my favorite stories, and one of the deepest stories, about Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher Moses. It is also, I believe, a story about each of us.
Moshe is tending sheep in the wilderness when something remarkable happens. An angel of God appears to Moshe in the midst of a burning bush.
According to the late 13th century Kabbalist Bachya ben Asher, there’s a process here of opening of awareness. Moses first sees a bush, then he sees that it’s on fire, then he sees that it’s not consumed. He’s really looking at what’s there — not just filling in the blanks of what he expects to see, which is the way most of us see things most of the time. Moshe, though: he looks deeper into the bush which burns, and then he’s able to hear the voice of God.
Take off your shoes, God tells Moshe — the Torah tells us — for you stand on holy ground. In the Hasidic understanding, this isn’t a literal instruction about footwear so much as an instruction about removing whatever impediments are keeping us from encountering holiness. Remove your habitual ways of seeing so that you can witness the miracle before your eyes. Remove whatever is keeping you distant from God.
This is going to sound like a digression, but I promise you it isn’t. Every morning, in the blessings for the miracles of each day, we say the blessing Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, poke’ach ivrim — Blessed are You, Adonai, who opens the eyes of the blind. And then later, we say Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, ha-mevir shena m’einai u’tnumah me-afapai — who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.
Why, the sages ask, do we bless God Who opens our eyes and only afterward bless God Who removes sleep from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? And our sages answer: it’s because falling asleep can always happen. And waking, too. The film that covers our eyes — sometimes we’re not even aware that it’s there. This isn’t, in other words, about literal sleep or literal blindness.
Moshe looks at the burning bush and he sees that it’s a miracle because his eyes are truly open. We, too, stand in front of the burning bush. It still burns. It’s up to us to practice opening our eyes, on every level, so that we can see all of the miracles which are right in front of us. So often, we go through our days spiritually asleep: our eyes may be open, but we’re so caught up in our anxieties or frustrations or distractions that we don’t notice God’s fire right in front of us.
At the bush, Moshe says: You’re giving me a mission, but who shall I say sent me? And God says, tell them that you were sent by the God of your ancestors; tell them that Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh sent you.
Many of you know that the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God which we can spell but not pronounce — Yud / Heh / Vav / Heh — is often understood as a mysterious form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” It seems to mean something like Was and Is and Will Be, all at the same time. And sure enough, God’s name here is given as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming. God says, tell them that I Who Am Becoming sent you.
We are made in the divine image. Like God, we are always becoming. And we don’t know who we will become. In Stanley Kunitz’s words, in his beautiful poem The Layers:
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
The fact that we are always changing is part of what makes us like God. God isn’t static, unchanging, always the same. On the contrary — God is constant transformation. God is the force for transformation in our lives.
An invitation. To notice the miracles around us. To notice the bush as it still burns on. To remove whatever stands in the way of our encounter with God. To remember that, like God, we are always becoming — and like Moshe, we are always confronted with radical new possibilities, if only we will open our eyes.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas
Rejecting our Negative Story
This weeks Torah reading begins with the Israelites descent into the exile of Egypt.
“And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt.” (Shemot, 1:1)
The story of the Torah reading unfolds, Moshe/Moses is born and the seeds of redemption begin.
The Israelites are deeply entrenched in slavery and have come to expect the worse for themselves. In their deeply traumatized state, they do not even complain about their predicament.
“Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to Hashem…And Hashem heard their cry” (2:23:24)
When the current Pharoah dies there is a break in the physical labor and the Israelites suddenly become aware that there is a possibility of a higher quality of life. When they realized that there are options other than slavery they sighed and cried out.
Their mentality was of slavery and therefore they expected to be slaves. They had a depleted sense of self-worth and believed that slavery was their only option.
When they rejected their miserable situation and cried out for change – they initiated the process of freedom.
Freedom began when the Israelites acknowledged that this state of slavery was inherently wrong for them and that they did not belong in Egypt.
The Energy of the Week:Rejecting our Negative StoryThis week’s Torah reading imbues us the energy to demand positivity and reject a state of limitation and negativity.
We need to demand a better reality for ourselves and give our demands a voice.
The first step to personal freedom and empowerment is not to accept slavery to our surroundings, our upbringing, genetics or environment.
We must clearly realize that we can be a master of our life.
In this way we become open to a new reality, and do not get stuck in our smallness.
We expect it to be good and therefore it will be. The demanding itself broadens our vessel to receive more Light.
Torah Reading for Week of December 19 – December 25, 2010
by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz,’07
This week we begin the book of Shemot (names). The first words of the book, v’eileh ha’shemot (‘and these are the names’) reintroduces the names of the families that came down to Egypt, the ancestors of the people who will, in this book, find their identity and become the Jewish nation. The first letter, vav, (‘and’) reminds us that this is part of a continuing story.
This is a transformation story, which begins: “These are the names of Israel’s sons who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family” (Shemot 1:1). But Jacob and Israel are the same man! Remember that in Breishit 32:27-28 Jacob wrestles with a man in the middle of the night, and is told: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with G-d and with humans and have overcome.” We recall this each time we enter a synagogue and sing: “Mah tovu ohalecha, Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). Ya’akov’s tents have become, after his transformation into Israel, holy places where the Shechina (miSHKENotecha) dwells.
In the ancient Middle East, stele, a stone or wooden slab, recorded the names of rulers and their genealogies: names of enemies were obliterated. Psalm 34:17 reports that even G-d does this: “The face of the Lord is set against evildoers, to erase their names from the earth”. Is this why there is no record of Joseph in the histories of Egypt, despite his success at saving the Egyptian people from starvation? When, a few verses later, we are told “A king arose who knew not Joseph” (Shemot 1:8), perhaps Joseph’s name had been obliterated. If your name is not recorded, you are not remembered.
Rashi tells us that G-d enumerates the names of the seventy who are brought down to Egypt, comparing them to the stars that G-d brings out Isaiah 40:26 “He brings out their host by number: He calls them by name
In Jewish tradition, names have both meaning and power. In Ashkenazi tradition, children are named after a loved one who has died, perpetuating that person’s memory. When children are brought into the covenant, they are given a Hebrew name: until one has a name; one doesn’t really exist as a member of the tribe. When one converts to Judaism, there is a public announcement: “The person shall be known in Israel as …..”.
If one is gravely ill, folk tradition suggests a name change, hoping to “fool the angel of death”, or additional names associated with healing are added to the sick person’s given name. The traditional unveiling ceremony, when the name of a loved one is seen on the gravestone for the first time, is a painful but important milestone in the path of grieving. The names of the sons of Israel are inscribed in specific order on the Ephod (breastplate of decision) worn by the High Priest when he enters the sanctuary (Shemot 28:29): these names gave the Ephod legitimacy and power. The Jewish mystical tradition of using angelic or Divine names for healing or magic continued, perhaps the most prominent example being Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, Master of the Good Name.
One way to refer to G-d is HaShem…the Ultimate Name. Martyrdom is known as ‘kiddush haShem’; ‘sanctification of the Name’. Since according to Breishit 1:27, we are all created in the image of G-d, “b’tzelem Elohim”, each of us is created in the image of that Name.
This week, may that Name, and each of our names, be blessed with peace.
From Melissa Carpenter
And Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, even yesterday, even the day before, even earlier when you spoke to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue. (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)
kaveid (when used as an adjective for a body part) = heavy, dull, implacable, insensitive
On the way, at the lodging-place, God encountered him and sought to have him put to death. And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his legs, and she said: Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me. And it withdrew from him; then she said: A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions. (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)
The book of Exodus opens with this week’s Torah portion. (Both the book and the first portion are called Shemot—Names). The Israelites are now slaves in Egypt, and the new Pharoah fears insurrection. Moses is born and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. As a young man, he murders an Egyptian overseer, flees to Midian, and marries the daughter of a Midianite priest. At age 80, still vigorous, Moses encounters the burning bush, and God assigns him the job of returning to Egypt and demanding that the Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their god. Moses tries to back away from this mission five times, and each time God counters his objection. The fourth time, Moses pleads that he has never been a good speaker, saying “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (see my first translation above).
Does this mean that Moses believes he is not eloquent, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language, or that he has a speech impediment? The commentary is divided. A famous midrash describes Pharaoh testing three-year-old Moses by presenting him with a choice between a jewel (or in some versions, a lump of gold) and a burning coal, on the theory that if this adopted grandson is a threat, he will choose the jewel. An angel in this story guides Moses’ hand so he picks up the coal, brings it to his mouth, and burns himself. The resulting scar causes a speech impediment by making his mouth literally kaveid: heavy, thick, insensitive.
On the other hand, in next week’s Torah portion, Moses describes himself twice as having “uncircumcised lips”. Circumcision of the foreskin is both the removal of a covering, and an act of consecration to God. Thus the phrase “uncircum-cised lips” is a metaphor both for being habitually silent (close-mouthed), and also for being unworthy to speak. I think when Moses describes his mouth and tongue as kaveid in this week’s portion, he is also using a metaphor. This metaphor emphasizes his inability to speak effectively.
Why does Moses keep saying he cannot, dare not, or will not speak? He may regret murdering the Egyptian overseer so much that he is still unwilling to take any significant action in the world. Opening his mouth and telling the Pharaoh to release of a huge number of Hebrew slaves certainly counts as significant action.
For a prophet, power comes from speech. Power is also indicated in the Torah by the symbol of a king’s staff or rod, and by other phallic euphemisms such as “thigh” or “legs”. Circum-cision, then, dedicates a male’s symbol of power to God.
The idea of circumcision appears in this week’s Torah portion as soon as Moses gives in to God’s demand and heads toward Egypt with his wife and their two sons. In the famously mysterious “Bridegroom of Blood” episode (my second trans-lation above), God seems to want Moses’ death, and Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, saves his life by circumcising one of her sons and touching the blood to someone’s “legs”.
The ambiguity of the pronouns in this passage has resulted in many different explanations of the details. (For example, did Tzipporah touch the bloody foreskin to the “legs” of her son, or Moses, or an angel God sent to kill him?) But traditional commentators agree on its main message: that Moses deserves death because he failed to circumcise one of his sons at the proper time, and this transgression made him unworthy of being God’s agent in Egypt. Tzipporah saves her husband’s life by immediately circumcising the correct son and ritually connecting her act with Moses.
Modern alternative theories include Martin Buber’s comment that founders of religions normally experience a night when their newly-won certainty suddenly collapses, and they are assailed by demons of terror and doubt. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg considered the uncircumcised baby a stand-in for Moses with his uncircumcised lips.
I agree with both of them. I think Moses’ encounter with death does express his terror of speaking for God and getting it all wrong. The emergency circumcision ritual does enable him to commit himself to speaking for God, and sanctifies that commitment.
Moses’ wife is the one who changes his terror into commit-ment. Whatever her beliefs about God, Tzipporah is a Midianite, not a Hebrew by birth. She would know of Hebrew circumcision rites only by hearsay. Yet she does exactly the right thing to rescue her husband from his disabling and deadly fear of speaking in the name of God. Maybe her graphic reminder of circumcision, the primary sign of commitment to God, jolts Moses into his own commitment. Or maybe it is her action that commits him, willy-nilly, and Moses can only accept it, knowing in his deepest heart that his wife is right.
Tzipporah only says two sentences in the Torah. Her last word is “circumcisions” in the plural. She has circumcised someone physically, and she has also circumcised Moses’ lips metaphorically, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.
The commentary agrees that Moses could not have survived without the unusual actions of the women in his life: his mother Yocheved, who casts him into the Nile in a basket; Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds him and adopts him; and Moses’ sister Miriam, who arranges for their own mother to be his hired wet-nurse. But the strangest rescue of all is when his wife Tzipporah sees him dying and saves him with blood, in a stroke of divine inspiration.
BECOMING (SHEMOT) 2009
But Moshe said to God
Who am I to go to Pharaoh?
And God said
I will be with you
I am becoming who I am becoming
it is time for you to do the same
everyone else walked right by
but you saw the miracle burning
Pick up your staff now
and make yourself ready
The journey ahead is long
and generations will comb their stories
to learn how you tied your shoes
and how to lead the people
with compassion and with vision
as you are about to do.
From Rav Kook
Shemot: True Humility
“God’s angel appeared to Moses in the heart of a fire, in the midst of a thorn-bush.” (Ex. 3:2)
Why did God choose a sneh, a thorn-bush to reveal Himself to Moses?
A Cure for Fever
The Talmud (Shabbat 67a) prescribes a peculiar procedure for those suffering from a high fever. The patient is advised to take a thorn-bush, and each day make a cut in it using an iron knife. When cutting the bush, he should trim it near the ground, and say:
“Thorn-bush, thorn-bush! The Holy One did not let His Presence reside in you because you are the greatest of all trees, but because you are the lowliest.”
What do thorn-bushes have to do with fevers? What is the purpose of this strange procedure?
Circumstantial and True Humility
Rav Kook wrote that there are two forms of humility. The first type could be called ‘circumstantial humility.’ Due to infirmity, poverty, or some lack of talent, intelligence, social standing, etc., a person may feel vulnerable and insignificant.
However, this is not genuine humility. Should circumstances change, newly-found strength or wealth or prestige may very well delude one into believing in his own prominence and self-importance.
True humility comes from a different, more objective source: awareness of our place in the universe. This humbleness is independent of the vagaries of life’s circumstances. It is based on recognition of our true worth, on insight into the essence of the soul, and a clear understanding of the nature of reality.
Unfortunately, the fickle nature of the human mind allows us to be easily deluded into ignoring anything beyond our own egocentric world. How can we escape such delusions?
This trap may be avoided by recognizing the transitory nature of circumstances. Poverty, sickness, and so on, have the power to make us aware of our intrinsic vulnerability. Awareness of our inherent potential for weakness leads us to properly evaluate our true worth, and thus attain genuine humility.
The Lesson of the Thorn-bush
By all criteria, the thorn-bush is a lowly and unimportant plant. It grows in barren locations, providing neither food nor shade for others. It even rejects interaction with other living things by means of its prickly thorns. Yet, precisely because of its isolation, the thorn-bush may deceive itself into believing in its own greatness. Therefore, the Sages advised cutting the bush down to its very roots. We trim away all the superficial aspects, leaving only the bush’s essential worth – its roots, its connections to the rest of the universe. God placed His Divine Presence on the sneh not because of its sense of self-importance, but because of its innate lowliness – the spirit of true humility which remains after the bush has been trimmed to the ground.
The thorn-bush procedure recommended by the Talmud enables the suffering individual to recognize the purpose of his illness: attainment of sincere humility. This trait is the remedy for all strange fevers and delusions.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, p. 121)
From Rabbi Sholom Brodt 2010
22 Teves 5770
_Shmot 1:1: These are the names of the B’nei Yisrael who came to Egypt. Each man with his household who came with Yaakov.
1:6: Yoseif died. All his brothers and all that generation [also died.]
1:7: The B’nei Yisrael were fruitful and prolific, and their population multiplied. They were exceedingly mighty, and the land was filled with them.
1:8: A new king came into power over Egypt, who did not know Yoseif.
Verse 13: The Egyptians enslaved the B’nei Yisrael, with body-breaking labor.
1:14: They made their lives bitter with harsh labor involving mortar and bricks, and all kinds of work in the fields. All the work they made them do [was intended] to break them._
A new cycle of exile and Redemption begins in Parshat Shemot. Each time a cycle is completed and a new one is about to begin, we hit a soft terrain and the sense of steady progress evaporates. This is not because we haven’t made progress, but rather because we discover that the journey is longer than we had imagined and we have a lot more to do. We may have expected that by now, after nearly 6000 years of humanity’s spiritual journey, we would see more of Hashem’s Divine Light and that by now we would no longer slip back into depression and sadness. Yet Hashem is still hiding from us. Once I heard that the Kotzker Rebbe1 saw a child crying, I think it was his grandson. The Rebbe asked him, “Why are you crying?” The answered, “I was playing ‘hide and seek’ with my friends and they haven’t found me.” “But isn’t that the point of the game- to hide so well that they can’t find you?” “Yes,” said the child, “I hid so well that they could not find me. But I’m crying because they stopped looking for me!” At that point the Rebbe lamented, “Hashem has been hiding for so long, so long, and sadly so many of His children have stopped looking for Him.”
No one can hide and conceal himself as well as Hashem. Hashem is providing us with life and sustenance beyond our comprehension and imagination. Hashem is continuously present and ‘speaking’ us into being and existence. He does not stop thinking about us and all of the Creation, even for an instant. Yet He remains fully concealed and hidden. This is something that we cannot do. Not only can we not create matter, we also cannot completely destroy it; some trace of it in one form or another will always remain. Just as we cannot create some-thing out of no-thing, we also cannot make no-thing out of some-thing; nor can we completely conceal ourselves.
Nevertheless, though Hashem is so utterly concealed, we cannot totally forget Him. At our primary root of being, we are souls that are ‘a part of the Divine from above.’ Even though we are living in (and are so very pre-occupied with) this mundane material world and even after having attained the physical possessions we seek to acquire, we continue to experience a certain emptiness, hunger and yearning.
Why is it, that we Jewish people are never really satisfied with our material possessions? Why is it, that when a Jew has one house he already wants another, when he has one car he feels that he needs another, and then another? Reb Shlomo zt”l2 explained that this is because Hashem designed us in such a manner that we should experience emptiness so that we should seek Him, that we should yearn for Kedusha (holiness). However, if I do not know that it is the Kedusha of closeness to Hashem that I am seeking, I will mistakenly think that it is some material object- a car, a house, a washing machine or whatever, that will fill my emptiness. Yet when I get the object I still feel hungry and empty, because that is not what was really needed. However, if I still do not know what the true need is, I will probably think that I need another object, or a bigger one. And another and another until I finally realize that it is my soul that is yearning to be filled. And that empty space is so holy that only holiness can fill it. Only Hashem can fill my emptiness.
But we still need to understand more. Even people who are learning Torah and doing mitzvot also experience emptiness, sadness and depression, all the various kinds of ‘exile’ and enslavement. Why is this so? There are many possible explanations and the following is only one aspect, but it is an important one. Until we achieve all that Hashem wants us to, and all that we are meant to achieve during our journey in this world, we will continue to feel emptiness and yearning. Hashem is the Ein-Sof (the Infinite one) beyond all our conceptions. We are finite and thus we are not expected to reach the absolute Ein-Sof, but we are expected to reach our personal ein-sof; our personal beyond. If we try to satisfy ourselves with anything less, we will soon find ourselves feeling empty even in our fulfillment of mitzvot and in our study of Torah. And so we are open to re-experience our exile and enslavement. The important thing is to remember that this is all part of the process and journey towards our ultimate redemption. Therefore, let us not give in to fatigue, sadness and depression. Instead let us rise to the challenge- with faith and joy! For it is only with joy and faith that we will ultimately be fully redeemed.
When Moses is born, the “house was filled with light” attesting to his future as [an] enlightener of humanity. But right away this light has to be hidden, for he, as all Hebrew newborn males, lives in perpetual fear of discovery by Pharaoh’s baby killers. Then he is placed in the Nile, precariously protected only by a reed basket, sharing, if only in potential, the fate of his fellow babes cast into its waters.
Here we have a … lesson in leadership: the leader cannot appear from “above,” but must share the fate of his people. This was the lesson which G-d Himself conveyed by first appearing to Moses in a thornbush: “I am with them in their affliction.”
We are told that Moses’ mother, Jocheved, was born “between the boundary walls” of Egypt when Jacob’s family first arrived there. This, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, means that Jocheved belongs neither to the “old generation” born in the Holy Land, to whom galut will always be a foreign and unknowable world; nor is she of the generation born in Egypt, to whom the state of exile is a most natural and obvious fact of life. Rather, she straddles both these worlds, meaning that she has intimate knowledge of the circumstance of galut as well as the transcendent vision to supersede it. So Jocheved is the woman in whose womb could be formed, and under whose tutelage could develop, the one who could redeem the Children of Israel from their exile.
The circumstances of Moses’ birth are a lesson in the selflessness demanded of the leader. Jocheved and Amram had separated when Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Hebrew males be cast in the Nile. Their eldest daughter, Miriam, rebuked them: “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s: Pharaoh decreed to annihilate the males, and your action shall spell the end of all Jewish children.” Amram and Jocheved realized that, as leaders whose actions will be emulated by others, they had to rise above the personal danger and anguish involved in [parenting] Jewish children in these terrible times. The result of their remarriage was the birth of Moses.
The only purpose for the existence of this world is for man (without force or coercion) to be able to find G-d. Therefore, the enslavement in Egypt placed the Jews in a situation which was clearly very far beyond their ability to remedy on their own. When they saw there was no other way out, they fought back with the only weapon available to them: G-d. The Jewish experience in the massive concentration camp of Egypt uncovered all of the material veils of this world. The Jews were then clearly able to see that the only solution to all of man’s problems is G-d. They came to realize that G-d should be a person’s first resort, not the last. For any problem that is ever solved, is always solved through G-d, whether we are aware of it or not. How do we get G-d to step in, to help us solve our problems? We must merge ourselves and become one with G-d. When we become one with G-d, we become like an extension of G-d Himself. In that case, our problem now becomes His problem, and He then steps in to save us. For the Talmud teaches: “Treat His [G-d’s] Will [fulfilling the commandments] as if it were your own will, so that He will treat your will as if it was His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He will nullify the will of others before your will” (Talmud Avot 2:4). In addition, we saw no other way out. This situation forced us to strive, to become one with G-d. This brought us to discover and realize that G-d is the only solution to our problem. This brought us to find G-d, on some level. This is the fulfillment of G-d’s wish and is the purpose for His creating and sustaining the world.
Reb Shalom Brodt
IN EACH AND EVERY GENERATION
There is a famous teaching from the holy Baal Shem Tov, that is very deep. The Talmud, in presenting the instructions on how to celebrate the Pesach Seder, teaches: “In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see himself / herself as if he /she went out from Egypt.”
This passage, which we also recite in the Haggadah, is generally understood to mean that when you are celebrating the Pesach holiday, and you are sitting at the ‘seder’, you must attempt to visualize yourself as a slave who has just been liberated. It is not enough to only give thanks, for the great miracles that Hashem did for us in liberating us from Egypt. We must personally experience the redemption, as if we ourselves left Egypt.
The Baal Shem Tov, and his holy disciples further taught: not only “each and every generation”, but also at every hour, each person is obligated to see himself / herself as if he /she went out from Egypt!
According to the holy Torah it is a constant Mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt, all the time. It is for this reason that as part of the “Shema Yisrael” prayer, we recite the Torah passage in which we read: “I am Hashem your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt, to be for you, G-d, I Am Hashem, your G-d” Emet!
What Chassidut is saying, is that ‘remembering’, such as in ‘I remember that on such and such a date, the Exodus took place’, is not enough. Simply believing that the Exodus took place is not enough. You have to experience your liberation from slavery; you have to experience your freedom, every day, all the time!…
“MiTZRa-yIM” “MeiTZaRIM” NARROWS
The Baal Shem Tov explains that “MiTZRa-yIM,” the Hebrew word for Egypt, can also be read as “MeiTZaRIM”, which means ‘narrows’. Thus, “sippur yetzi-at MiTZRa-yIM”, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, is also the “sippur yetziat MeiTZaRIM”, the story of your exodus from ‘narrows’. From this perspective the story of the Exodus, is the archetype for each person’s personal exodus. Each character and event in the Exodus story represents the various forces and struggles that one experiences in the process of personal liberation.
I am inviting you to study the parsha from this perspective and to search for insights into your personal “yetziat MeiTZaRIM,” exodus from narrows. How are you enslaved? Who is the Pharaoh you are enslaved to? What can you learn from Moshe Rabbeinu that will help you in your exodus? What can you learn from G-d? How can you ‘plug into’ the redemptive energy that Hashem is providing each day?
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Shemot
C D E half-flat F
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure called a *maqam,
Arabic cognate to Hebrew maqom, Place.
The Philosopher Avicenna (d. 1037)
Identified 12 principal modes
From “place” (Arabic) Hebrew cognate Maqom.
Ethical and cosmological implications
Signs of zodiac
Times of day and night
Healings and treatments,
Each week a musical figure —
I have returned to the story
I heard the groaning,
and I knew their affliction.
I am a turning soul,
I have no face
all I have is a soul
I give it to you
Here I am with my soul
it’s all I have
I give you my soul
and that always saves me.
And you say,
don’t worry yourselves
I give you my soul too
I will be with you for the whole story
take you out from here
serve you forever.
I give you my soul
Keep for myself –
We are saving each other with nothing
giving up our separate selves
handing over our souls to each other
ceasing to be
From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days
The Night Encampment
As Moses returns to Egypt, he and his wife, Zipporah, and their sons stop at an encampment. Inexplicably, the Divine attacks Moses in the night. A midrash tells that Zipporah deduces the reason for the Holy One’s anger: Moses’s sons are not circumcised (Exodus Rabbah 5:8). She grabs a stone from the floor of the desert and circumcises her son, and the Eternal desists from this bizarre murderous intent.
Perhaps this incident is the metaphor for the long night of the soul. In his heart, Moses feels both Hebrew and Egyptian. Part of him does not want to go back and engage in a struggle between his two peoples. This is the part of him under attack.
Rebecca Alpert, in her modern midrash, points out that Zipporah’s name, “bird” may refer to her flight with Moses, or it may suggest that the Divine comes to her as a bird. Zipporah, guided by the bird voice within her, wisely understands that Moses must fly free of Egypt. Her bloody, yet necessary act toward her son frees Moses from his old assumptions and allows him to embrace a new identity. Zipporah teaches us to fly free of our certainties and be open to new visions.
Source cited: Rebecca Alpert, ” Rediscovering Tziporah” From The Women’s Torah Commentary
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Five Cities of Refuge
Despite the grazing flock, this is hardly a pastoral scene. Something is strangely on fire. ” And Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). Even the name of the mountain is Horeb, from the Hebrew, meaning “to be destroyed or ravaged.”
The whole scene is itself a prototype of what will come when Moses brings the Jewish people back here. There will be fire too, but then it will engulf the whole mountain: “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire… Warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish” (Exodus 19:18, 21). Dangerous business here. You get too close, you see too much, you could get tired.
But that only makes us want to know: if something is being shown to Moses, can he–or anyone–look without being destroyed? (How strangely fitting that the final verses of Deuteronomy describe Moses as the only person who ever saw God face-to-face! [Deuteronomy 34:10])
Perhaps it was never meant to be an attention-grabbing miracle. Maybe the bush is a metaphor for the self, aflame with the presence of God that miraculously is not consumed. Everything we know tells us that such moments of rapture should destroy us. The mystery of the bush that burns but is not consumed comes to teach us otherwise. Indeed, it happens all the time. Professor Alexander Altmann once observed, “Finding God and worshipping [God] is but another way of saying that we have found our Self… [We are] reborn in [us].”
Now we understand God’s instruction, ” Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). It’s everywhere.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Opening our hearts and eyes 2007
This week’s Torah portion — Shemot, the beginning of the book of the same name — contains a lot of good stories. One of them begins like this:
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”
The most remarkable thing for me, in this snippet of story, is not the sneh, the bush that burned but was not consumed. It’s the moment where Moses takes notice of the bush, and says to himself, “hang on, this is incredible, I’ve got to stop and pay some attention to this.” The moment where Moses’ eyes are opened, his consciousness expanded, because he’s both willing and able to see the wonder that’s right in front of him.
There’s midrash which suggests Moses wasn’t the first person to pass by the burning bush. Others had walked by and ignored it. Maybe they thought they were seeing things. Maybe they assumed it was something other than what it was. Maybe they figured there was some rational explanation for a bush that burned but was not consumed, and anyway they had things to do, sheep to herd and goats to yell at. One way or another, as a result of their distraction they missed the presence of God, the ruach ha-kodesh, manifest in plain sight.
But not Moses. Moses had his eyes open. He noticed, and marveled, and altered his path to get a closer look. He had his priorities straight, and the miracle of an ever-burning bush was enough to get his attention. In this way, Moses took the first step toward relationship with God — because, as the text tells us, it wasn’t until God saw that Moses had turned aside to look that God called out.
God calls to Moses not once, but twice. There are other times in Torah when God calls twice. Both Abraham and Jacob are, at important moments in their journeys, called in this dual way. In both of those cases, as my teacher Reb Marcia pointed out earlier this week, the ta’amim (cantillation marks) show a psik, a break, between one iteration of the name and the other. But in this case — when God calls “Moshe, Moshe!” — the cantillation marks are mercha tipcha, a single musical phrase. Something different is meant by this dual naming.
In one interpretation, when God calls twice, God speaks both to the mochin d’katnut (“small mind” or limited consciousness) and to the mochin d’gadlut (“big mind” or expanded consciousness.) Each of us thinks, feels, and perceives on both of these levels: a small level, ego-bound, and a broader level that sees the big picture. When God calls to Moses, there’s no psik between the two instances of his name, because there’s no psik between his higher and lower selves. He’s entirely awake and purely open, and as a result God can speak to him on both levels at once.
The tradition teaches that we will never again know a sage quite like Moses. Even so, I think this small story offers a model to which we can aspire, in our hopes of living up to Moses’ example. True, Moses spoke directly with God, and even had a glimpse of God’s Presence in a backhanded way. Moses negotiated with the greatest temporal power of his time. Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, across the Sea of Reeds, through the desert and into covenant. These are achievements most of us are unlikely to match.
But the precondition for all of those things happening, for all of the amazing work Moses did in the world, was the simple opening of his eyes and heart. His vision was clear enough that he could see what was in front of him, and recognize it for the miracle that it was; his heart was open enough that he could hear God’s broadcast on multiple levels, and could respond. These are acts of which we are all capable. These arise out of qualities inherent in us all.
And in emulating these to the best of our ability, we honor Moshe rabbenu (Moses our teacher) — and we honor the ruach ha-kodesh inherent in the sneh, in creation, in every ordinary miracle that waits for us to open our eyes and take notice of what is, and of who we can become.
From Rav Kook
Shemot: Going To Peace
After agreeing to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses took leave of his father-in-law. Jethro blessed Moses “Go in peace” [Ex. 4:18]. Actually, Jethro said “Go to peace.” The Talmud [Berachot 64a] picks up on this fine nuance:
“One who takes leave from his friend should not say ‘Go in peace’ (“lech BE-shalom”), but ‘Go to peace’ (“lech LE-shalom”). Jethro told Moses, ‘Go to peace’ – Moses went and succeeded in his mission. David told his son Absalom, ‘Go in peace’ – Absalom went and was hanged.”
“When taking leave of the deceased, however, one should say, ‘Go in peace.'”
What is the difference between these two salutations? Why is one appropriate for the living, and the second for the dead?
Ready for the Journey
Life is full of struggles, both spiritual and physical. We are not doing our acquaintances a favor by pretending these battles do not exist. Implying that the road is easy will only lower their guard, lessening their preparation for the obstacles that lie in the way towards their ultimate destination.
Therefore, we should warn our friends at the start of their journey: know that peace and tranquility are far from us. There are many who strive against us, and there are many obstacles on the way that must be overcome. We tell our friends ‘Go to peace.’ Proceed towards your destination, but do not expect that the path itself will be peaceful and easy. The road is full of impediments; only by overcoming them, will you reach peace and completeness.
Of course, the story is much different for souls who have already completed their journey on earth. Their material struggles are over, and these obstacles no longer exist. The soul may continue to grow in that world too, but the path is a tranquil one. Therefore, we take leave from the dead by saying, ‘Go in peace.’
With these two salutations, the Sages contrasted the nature of this world and the next. The physical world is replete with struggles and challenges which we must be prepared to face. The World to Come, on the other hand, is one of rest and peace, which we need not fear.
[Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 106-107. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, p. 396]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
The Israelite tribe grows while enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses is born, is raised in Pharaoh’s court, and eventually rebels and goes to live as a shepherd in Midian. He receives the call to prophesy, is given God’s name and returns to Egypt to free his people.
AS WE ENTER THE BOOK of Exodus, we live ever more consciously the story of our liberation. This story happens in the timeless present. It stirs the soul to its awakening. Only when we can know and experience the journey from slavery to redemption each day can we truly taste freedom and enjoy the milk and honey that is our inheritance.
Our blessing, the possibility of liberation, is born at the time of greatest travail. Moses is born within us at a moment of despair when we have been beaten down, constricted, forced into the narrowest possible definition of self. That seed of truth and vitality is hidden away and then placed in a teva, an “ark.”
What distinguishes an ark from a boat is the absence of sail or rudder. It is a vehicle that is completely surrendered to fate, to God’s Will. As with Noah’s ark, the hope of a new world, a new kind of consciousness is set afloat. The Ba’al Shem Tov reminds us that the word for ark, “teva,” also means “word.” The word filled with potential is set adrift on the river of Life.
THIS IS HOW OUR JOURNEY towards consciousness begins. The inner seed of prophecy, filled with our true essence, is surrendered and entrusted into the hands of God, via the primal waters. From there it is embraced by the journey, blessed with experience, education, nourishment, and inspiration, sent to distant lands, initiated into foreign wisdom, and shown the secrets of the wilderness.
We are prepared for prophecy by the landscape of our lives until finally, one day, we stumble upon the same bush that we have passed a hundred times. This time, our eyes open to perceive its fire. In that extraordinary moment of blessing, God calls us by name twice,1 breaking through the outer self to the inner essence that has been waiting. And that inner essence responds, “Hineni.”2 Here I am.
We are called into presence by the sudden knowledge that the ground upon which we stand is holy. We are commanded to take off our shoes, for nothing must come between us and this sacred ground. We are called into prophecy as we receive the great name, which is the Ground of Being – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.3 Standing on that ground we are sent to do the work of liberation, freeing ourselves from societal expectations of what is deemed “normal.”
The blessing of Shemot sends us to a work that to “normal mind” seems impossible.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
FOR 400 YEARS the people of Israel suffered the oppression of Egypt. Only when the sigh and the cry and the groaning were sent forth could the process of liberation be set in motion. God waits for that cry, and that cry only happens when self-awareness is achieved and the spirit is set free to be heard, remembered, seen, and known.4
The spiritual challenge of Shemot is to cultivate the awareness of our own enslavement. Consciousness must precede the cry that awakens the God-force of liberation. To be heard by God is to let the inward sigh become an outward cry. That cry breaks the pattern of enslavement, shakes up the status quo until the memory of covenant is jarred awake. To be remembered by God is to remember the presence of God within. To be seen by God is to lift the veils of self-deception. To be known by God is to move beyond pride and shame, to surrender to the Unknowable.
When the God-force is set in motion by our cry, our lives become the scene of miracle. Moses the Prophet, Aaron the Priest, and Miriam the Artist are awakened to power, and then Pharaoh will be challenged. When that happens, when Pharaoh’s power is threatened, he takes away the straw that we used to make the bricks of our enslavement, and the task before us becomes even harder.
The spiritual challenge of awakening becomes unavoidable. We see how slavery (living from our conditioned responses) has deadened the senses, drained us of vitality, kindled our doubt. Our usual strategies for survival are not working anymore. There is no turning back.
1 “God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.'” (Exodus 3:4)
2 Exodus 3:4
3 “And God said to Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh) and He said: ‘! us shall you say to the children of Israel: I AM has sent me unto you.'” (Exodus 3:14)
4 These are the verbs used to describe God becoming aware of the oppression of the Israelites (Exodus 2:24-25)
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