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Torah Sparks

February 7, 2009 – 13 Shevat 5769

Annual: Ex. 13:17 – 17:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 399; Hertz p. 265)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 14:15 – 16:10 (Etz Hayim, p. 403; Hertz p. 268)
Haftarah: Judges 4:4 – 5:31 (Etz Hayim, p. 424; Hertz p. 281)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

The Israelites leave Egypt and head into the wilderness. God accompanies them, appearing as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. Being a slow learner, Pharaoh again changes his mind and takes off after his former slaves with his warriors and 600 chariots. The terrified Israelites find themselves trapped between the pursuing Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds. God tells Moses to hold his rod out over the sea; he does so and the sea splits. The Israelites cross on dry land and then, at God’s command, the sea closes and the Egyptians drown. Moses leads the people in the great song of praise and thanksgiving to God; Miriam leads the women.

Just three days later, the people begin complaining that the water they find at Marah is too bitter to drink. God instructs Moses in how to make the water potable. A month later the people are complaining yet again, this time about the lack of food. God responds with the miraculous manna and with quails. Along with the instructions for gathering manna the Israelites are given the laws of Shabbat.

Once again the people find no water. God tells Moses to strike a rock and water comes from it. The Israelites are attacked by Amalek; they defeat their attackers with God’s help.

1. His and Hers

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. (Exodus 15:20)

  1. But where could the Israelites have gotten timbrels and flutes in the wilderness? It was simply that the righteous [women] had been confident and knew that God would do miracles and mighty deeds for them at their going out from Egypt and they prepared for themselves timbrels and flutes. (Mekhilta Shirata 10)
  2. In regard to the men, it states, “They had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (14:31). They believed that Moses was the only one capable of performing miracles, and without him God would not save them. That was why, when Moses went up to Sinai, they wanted an image upon which God’s Divine Presence would dwell. But the women believed in Miriam too, even though she had not performed any miracles. That was why they did not follow after the golden calf. They believed that if Moses had disappeared, there would be other prophets upon whom God’s Divine Presence would rest. (Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber), 1762-1839, Pressburg, Hungary)
  3. The sages of the school of Rabbi Eliezer taught: In the verse “These are the rules that you shall set before them” (Shemot 21:1), Scripture makes a woman equal to a man in regard to all the ordinances governing relations between one person and another. The sages of the school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: In the verse “When a man or woman commits any wrong” (Numbers 5:6), Scripture makes a woman equal to a man in regard to all penalties prescribed in the Torah. (Bava Kamma 15a)
  4. In social scientific theoretical discussions as well, American scholars have long asserted that women are more “religious” than men through essential psychological differences or social conditioning... The theoretical assumption that women are innately more religious than men has led scholars and most policy makers to virtually ignore the feminization of American Jewish life... Gender imbalance is a critical problem in American Jewish life not because women are more active but because men are less active... Current patterns contradict thousands of years of Jewish history, during which men were the public and signifying Jews – and during which women were often marginalized or shut out of organized intellectual activities and public Judaism. (Sylvia Barack Fishman, Ph.D, and Daniel Parmer, MA, “Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life,” Brandeis University, 2008)

Sparks for Discussion

Are women more religious than men? In what way? Are men and women religious in different ways? Is gender a helpful distinction in thinking about Jewish belief and practice? Do we have a “boy crisis”? Is it possible to make such broad-stroke statements?

Over the last 25 years the overwhelming majority of Conservative congregations have become egalitarian. Some people have suggested that there is no longer a place in the Conservative movement for non-egalitarian congregations. What do you think? How do you understand a movement in which some congregations are led by female rabbis and cantors while others forbid or limit women’s participation in ritual?

2. Those Were the Days

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

  1. Rabbi Joshua said: And did they really want to eat meat? They were merely exaggerating when they said this. Rabbi Eleazar of Modi’im said: The Israelites were slaves to kings in Egypt; they went forth to the market, helped themselves to bread, meat, and fish and what you will and no one told them no. They went forth to the fields, helped themselves to grapes, figs, and pomegranates and no one told them no. (Mekhilta Vayassa 2)
  2. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for eighty years. During that time the Egyptians would go into the desert and catch a ram or deer, slaughter it, and make a pot roast of it with the Israelites looking on but not tasting, as it is stated: “When we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread.” It does not say, “When we ate from the fleshpots,” but “When we sat by the fleshpots.” They had to eat their bread without meat. (Shemot Rabbah)
  3. Why did they lie by saying “When we sat by the fleshpots”? Surely they had been burdened with bricks? But it is the manner of the poor man to say, I wined and dined handsomely with so-and-so when he didn’t even exchange a word with him, just in order to prompt others to give him. (Hemdat Ha-yamim)

Sparks for Discussion

Is it possible that the Israelite slaves in Egypt were accustomed to eat their fill of bread and meat? Why do they say they did? Were they longing for the security of the “good old days,” when life was predictable if not pleasant? Do most people tend to romanticize the past? Why?

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