When we meet Moses again
Last week and this week, Mos
When we meet Moses again
Last week and this week, Mos
These concepts have played—and continue to play—their part in history, but they are based on readings of the text that, I believe, do not ring true today.
In his commentary on Parashat Sh’mot, Rabbi Reuven Greenvald focuses in part on the issue of demography. The growth of the Israelites described in the Torah portion is threatening to Pharaoh, but many years later this type of expansion would come to be lauded by the Zionist movement. A single-minded focus on population growth led to Pharaoh’s murderous decree, and it also led to exploitative policies toward Mizrachim by the Ashkenazi elite in Israel. The old adage may state that demography is destiny, but a relentless focus on demography at the expense of morality has a far greater impact on the destiny of a nation.
In Va-eira, Moses tries to speak with the Israelites, who cannot listen due to their kotzer ruach, which can mean “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit.” Both are results of debilitating work that prevents the Israelites from looking up to see new possibilities.
In Va-eira, we learn that the Israelites suffer from spiritual inertia. They are not the only ones. Pharaoh, too, hardened his heart during the first five plagues, after which it became difficult for him to change. We, too, can get stuck in a pattern of behavior that makes it hard to change. One small lie begets a second lie, and then a third and a fourth, until we’re no longer even sure where the truth lies.
In Parashat Sh’mot, we learn the Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt by a pharaoh who did not know Joseph. To gain some small degree of control, the Israelites examine their behavior for flaws that may have caused the situation.
In Parashat Sh'mot, the text describes the Israelites in a degrading manner, saying that they were so numerous they swarmed (like creatures that crawl on the ground). This dehumanizing description is countered by the text's favorable treatment of the Israelite midwives, who took individual initiative to save lives.
Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.1 And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.
The people of Israel were not the only ones who needed a powerful reminder of God’s power and character. The memory and heritage of God’s personal connection with their ancestors had clearly dimmed in the generations of their servitude in Egypt, but the Israelites never forgot their core identity as a distinct people. Yet God’s chosen leader for the people was ignorant even of that basic tenet of the Israelite identity.
The Book of Exodus opens by creating a picture of the Israelites’ life in Egypt: who was there, where they came from, and what their connections were to the stories of Genesis. Then, we read the famed words, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). In this single statement, the Torah signals the end of a period of peace and the beginning of an era oppression and slavery.
As we near the end of the episode of Shiphrah and Puah’s bold defiance of Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the male babies born to Hebrew slave women, the Torah teaches that God “dealt well [vayeitev] with the midwives” (Exodus 1:20). Because Shiphrah and Puah’s reverential awe for the Eternal was greater than their fear of defying Pharaoh’s awful edict, the text explains that God made households for them as their initial reward.
How well did our spiritual ancestors actually know God? At the beginning of our Torah portion, Va-eira, God seems to suggest the relationship wasn't quite as intimate as we would have thought.
"God spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH" (Exodus 6:2-3).
The patriarchs had known God by one name, but apparently, not by the name through which God will be known to Moses, to the Israelites in the later books of the Bible, or to Jews today. It's a surprising statement. The patriarchs, after all, are understood by Jewish tradition to have been particularly intimate with God. In the Amidah prayer, we invoke their names when we address God - God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob - precisely because of the strength of their relationships with God. And now, we find out that they didn't even know one of God's most important names?
If we open up the Book of Genesis, we find things a little more complicated than our verse might suggest on its surface. The name Eternal appears all over Genesis; the patriarchs are quite familiar with Eternal as a name of God. Abraham refers to God as Eternal when directly addressing God (see, for example, Genesis 15:2) and when speaking to others about God (Genesis 14:22). Sarah also uses the name Eternal when she speaks to Abraham about God (Genesis 16:2). And Isaac and Jacob use the name as well (See, for example, Genesis 26:25 and Genesis 28:16).
The encounter with God at the Burning Bush is awash with examples of Moses' fear and awe of this newly-named deity and of the tasks God demands of him. So much so that he mightily hesitates to get involved. But along with uncertainty, we perceive in Moses a willingness to understand God's many-hued and vibrant personalities, and ultimately to accept God's mission.
In Va-eira, we read the denouement of the negotiations between God and Moses, after which Moses agrees to be God's prophet. As his final attempt to evade his leadership responsibility, Moses explains to God that the Israelites would probably shun him. The Hebrew text reads: Vay'dabeir Mosheh lifnei Adonai, "Moses spoke before God," or literally, "Moses spoke to the faces of God" (Exodus 6:12). This is a somewhat unique construction of address, repeated in Tanach only one other time: when Jephthah, also in a reluctant state of mind, speaks to God after becoming the commander of the people (Judges 11:11).
When we open the Book of Exodus this week, and turn to Parashat Sh'mot, we find that the Israelites are suffering under the tyranny of ego. Pharaoh, a despot who believes himself to be more powerful than God – indeed, he believes that he is a god himself – has enslaved the Israelites in order to secure his own power.
In this context, I find it particularly fitting that the leader who emerges to help the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery is Moses, whom the Torah describes as "a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth" (Numbers 12:3). While Pharaoh's first words in Exodus are focused on oppressing the Israelites to consolidate his own power, our introduction to Moses in this week's Torah portion highlights Moses' humility and his doubts about stepping into leadership. No one can accuse Moses of being a rival to Pharaoh, of leading the Jewish people for his own self-aggrandizement. When God calls to Moses at the Burning Bush and charges him with the mission of going to Pharaoh and demanding the Israelites' freedom, Moses humbly shrugs off the mantle of leadership five times (See Exodus 3:11, 13; 4:1; 4:10; 4:13).
Rabbi Kalisch challenges us to explore the balance between ego and humility. Her message recalls the words of the noted author and spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson – "Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, . . . born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."
These words connect the challenge here at the start of Exodus to difficult concepts in Genesis 1, among them, the creation of humanity in the "image" of our incorporeal God. When we embrace the spark of the Divine that is within each of us, letting it out from within ourselves to enlighten the world, then we begin to take on God's "image."
To do this requires us to let our own light out for others to see and to be aware that all the people we meet have a Divine spark within them, equally worthy of being shared. As we grow into our roles as God's partners in Creation, ceasing to shrink from either challenge or opportunity, we must be careful not to violate the borders of others, allowing them the space they need to grow and shine.
Parashat Va-eira has always troubled me. The plagues, with their collective punishment caused by the sins of Pharaoh, always seemed unnecessarily cruel to the Egyptian people.
I recently visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The last word of the Book of Genesis is b'Mitzrayim, "in Egypt," and that is where we find the Israelites at the beginning of the Book of Exodus.
Rabbi Dreyfus artfully explores the importance of vision in this week's Torah portion. However, there is one moment of seeing that gives me pause. In Exodus 2:11-12: