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Torah Sparks

January 14, 2012 – 19 Tevet 5772

Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial: Exodus 3:1-4:17 (Etz Hayim p. 326; Hertz p. 213)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim p. 343; Hertz p. 225)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

The Book of Exodus opens by listing the sons of Jacob who have gathered in Egypt and notes the passing of that generation, as well as the rapid increase in Egypt s new Israelite population. A new pharaoh announces his intent to deal “shrewdly” with the Hebrew minority, which he considers dangerously disloyal, a potential fifth column. In addition to harsh forced labor, Pharaoh devises a genocidal policy toward his slaves, instructing midwives to murder newborn Israelite boys. The midwives, described as “God-fearing” women, evade their lethal assignment, claiming that Hebrews deliver before the midwives can arrive and intervene. Significantly, the names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are provided. The midwives, first among a series of women to contribute to the Israelite redemption, and more specifically to Moses’ survival, are rewarded by God for their moral principles and their defiance (as, too, their deception) of Pharaoh. In 10 short verses, we learn of Moses’ birth and infancy, his mother’s plan to save him from murder by placing him in a basket at the side of the Nile under his sister’s watchful care, and his adoption and naming by the daughter of Pharaoh, who – is unnamed in the biblical text.

The narrative jumps several years ahead. A grownup Moses kills an Egyptian he sees beating an Israelite slave. When he realizes that the homicide he had thought concealed in fact was widely known, he flees to Midian. There he meets and marries Tzipporah, one of seven daughters of Jethro, a Midianite priest. Tzipporah bears Moses the first of two sons. During Moses’ time in Midian, Egypt undergoes yet another change in leadership when the pharaoh dies. God takes note of the suffering of the Israelite slaves and appears to Moses, now a shepherd in his father-in-law’s employ, calling to him from the burning bush. Cryptically identifying Himself as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” God assigns Moses the role of prophet and the task of leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom in the land long ago promised to the patriarchs. A resistant Moses argues that he is ill-equipped for the prophetic mission. God instructs him in a number of miraculous portents to use in establishing divine credibility when he confronts Pharaoh. Returning to Egypt accompanied by his family, Moses is, according to a brief and bizarre interpolation in the narrative, “attacked” by God. Tzipporah, joining the midwives, Moses’ mother, sister, and adoptive mother as rescuer of the chosen redeemer of Israel, wards off the threat by performing a circumcision with a sharp flint. The text is unclear about whether it is Moses or his son who is circumcised and to whom she refers as a “bridegroom of blood.” The somewhat opaque incident does reveal a menacing side of the divine, a useful foreshadowing of God’s devastating actions toward Egypt. Moses and Aaron’s first audience with Pharaoh to demand his emancipation of the Israelite slaves angers the monarch, who compounds the harshness endured by the slaves by compelling them to maintain their quota of brick-making while gathering straw for the process unassisted. Now hostile Israelites and their foremen complain to Moses that he has only made matters worse. Appealing to God, Moses is reassured that his mission will succeed. The parashah closes with the foreboding divine message: “You shall soon see what I shall do to Pharaoh.”

Theme #1: “The Story of the Moral”

“The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17)

Derash: Study

“The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe. The midwives not only believed in God, but also understood that God demands a high level of moral behavior.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“Faced with a conflict between the laws of God and those of the pharaoh, the midwives followed the dictates of conscience. Their defiance of tyranny constitutes history’s first recorded act of civil disobedience in defense of a moral imperative. ‘Fear of God’ connotes a conception of God as One who makes moral demands on humankind; it functions as the ultimate restraint on evil and the supreme stimulus for good.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

“The motivation of the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh’s orders and save lives stemmed not only from their being women, but also from the fact that their profession is intrinsically associated with bringing new life into the world, not destroying it.” (Yael Shemesh, Bar Ilan University)

“The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, remain neutral.” (Dante Alighieri)

Questions for Discussion

The Hebrew text is ambiguous as to whether the midwives were Egyptians or Hebrews. How would this information inform our reading of this verse? Is the ambiguity a critical element of the text? What moral crises face the Jewish community today, demanding that we take a stance? How does Jewish observance, liturgy, history, theology reinforce the fundamental concept of God’s moral demands upon humanity and upon the Jewish people in particular? Why did Pharaoh turn to (of all people!!) the midwives – who had devoted their lives to the well-being of newborns – to carry out his infanticidal designs? What other elements of Pharaoh’s conduct and national policies toward the Hebrew minority appear strangely self-defeating?

Theme #2: “I, too, am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP.”

“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

Derash: Study

“Their cries were not motivated by repentance, but they were simply expressions of pain over their backbreaking burden. Nevertheless, the Almighty allowed them to come before Him and advocate on behalf of His children.” (Or Ha-Chaim)

“Groaning by itself won’t do a bit of good. A groan is only a key to open the heart and eyes, so as not to sit there with folded arms, but to plan orderly work and activity, each person wherever he can be effective.” (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)

“The Exodus story teaches us about the harsh reality of enslavement – and how the spirit of a people can become crushed and beaten down through collective oppression. But Exodus also ultimately reminds us that a crushed spirit can never be fully broken – that there comes a point by which the collective cry of the oppressed will rouse the divine impulse that makes for freedom. The urge for freedom will eventually come. We must continue to ask ourselves honestly: where are the collective cries for help in our own day? What will we do to help tip the balance toward justice and liberation?” (Rabbi Brant Rosen)

“Prayer is a groan.” (St. Jerome)

Questions for Discussion

As the Or Ha-Chaim observes, the Israelites’ groan was not addressed specifically to God. Why not? Were they too afflicted to relate to the divine? Had they forgotten the Covenant that God now recalled? When is prayer beyond our reach? Is it possible to pray without articulating your thoughts to God? How does Jewish prayer inspire meaningful action, as the former Lubavitcher rebbe suggests is necessary? Why did the Hebrews’ groaning wait until (or, at least, reach new heights of intensity) after the death of the Egyptian tyrant? How might this be related to the despots deposed during the “Arab spring,” and the uncertain future confronting their subjects? How do we know what causes and political uprisings to support – helping “to tip the balance towards justice and liberation” – and which are dangerous and destabilizing?

Historic Note

Parshat Shemot, read on January 14, 2012 (the eve of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday), describes the oppressive policies of a new pharaoh toward Egypt’s Hebrew minority. Those policies, grounded in racist suspicions of Hebrew disloyalty, degenerated into enslavement and ultimately into genocidal designs. On January 14, 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama. In his first address as the state’s chief executive, he infamously pledged: “Segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever.

”Halachah L’Maaseh

It is forbidden to erase the written name of God. The forms of reference to the divine that are to be treated as sacred include the following: the Tetragrammaton (yod-hay-vav-hay), Adonai, El, Eloah, Elohim and all their variants (Elohecha, Eloheinu, etc.), Shadai, Tzvaot, Yah, and Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – which finds its origin in this week’s parshah (see BT Shevuot 35A, Yoreh Deah 276:9). Texts containing these names are referred to as “shemot” – “(divine) names.” (pronounced shay-mot, as opposed to the name of the Biblical Book – and this week’s parshah – sh’mot). Such texts must be buried when they are no longer useable. In his responsum, aptly titled “On the Exodus (and Genesis) of Shemot,” Rabbi Avram Reisner, addressing how to write the name of God in Hebrew, rules that “When writing divine names into documents that will likely be held loose and readily discarded, one should write the name in a changed or incomplete form.” This can be achieved by inserting a hyphen between the Hebrew letters or, for example, by substituting a quf for the hay in the Tetragrammaton or Elohim.

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