Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 15, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 15, 2020

Yitro (Jethro)
18:1-20:23 Shemot (Exodus)

Yitro is the fifth sedrah in the Book of Shemot or Exodus.  The sedrah takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the reading.  “And (there) heard Jethro (Yitro), the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe.”  The sedrah divides into two parts - the Visit from Yitro (or Jethro in English) and the Revelation at Mount Sinai.  The centerpiece of the Revelation at Sinai is the giving of the Ten Commandments.  To ensure a common point of departure, please note that the term “Ten Commandments” does not appear in the sedrah.  The Hebrew term is “Aseret Ha-Dibrot” or “Aseret Ha-d’varim” which may be translated variously as the Ten Words, Statements or Pronouncements.  This makes the English term, Decalogue, more accurate.  However, we shall stick to the term Ten Commandments because of its universality and ease of linguistic usage.

The Visit From Yitro (18:1-27)
The sedrah opens with arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, in the Israelite camp.  He brings with him Moshe’s wife, Zipporah and his two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.  They had disappeared from the Torah after the quickie circumcision that saved Moshe from death.  Here the text says, “after she had been sent home.”  But there is no previous mention in the Torah as to how or why she and the boy(s) were sent home.  All we know for sure is that they were with Yitro while Moshe was on his mission to free the Israelites.  There are some commentators who contend that this re-union actually took place after the Revelation at Sinai and that it is put here to contrast the behavior of the non-Jews towards the Jews i.e., the evil of Amalek versus the virtue of Yitro.  In other words, being non-Jewish is not synonymous with being anti-Jewish.  In his commentaries, Rashi presents both views without comment.  One reason to accept the text as written is that accepting the alternative view would mean that the family of Moshe would have missed out on the most important event in Jewish History - the Sinaitic Revelation.  There may have been a reason to keep Moshe’s family out of his way while he was working in Egypt.  But it strains credulity that he would have wanted them to miss the events at Sinai, either in his role as a father or as the leader of the Israelites.  Regardless of your view about the timing, Moshe greets Yitro warmly.  In fact, he spends more time with him than he does with his family.  Yitro marvels at the greatness of God and all that has happened.  In what can only be described as a textbook dissertation on delegation, Yitro tells Moshe that he is being overworked.  He then helps Moshe set up a “court system” where lesser judges will hear most of the cases and Moshe will only have to deal with the really difficult ones.  He also tells Moshe the three characteristics he should look for in these judges.  Through the example of the decent and wise Yitro, the Rabbis want us to learn that Jews do not have a monopoly on virtue or wisdom.  Yitro’s departure is shrouded in almost as much textural turmoil as his arrival.  For while the Torah describes Yitro’s departure at this point in the text, there are further details of his leave taking in Bamidbar (Numbers), the fourth book in the Torah.  Yitro must have been a truly uncommon person since the sedrah that describes the giving of the Ten Commandments bears his name.

The Revelation at Sinai (19:1-20:23)
Approximately seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt and six weeks after the Miracle at the Sea, the Israelites are encamped at Mount Sinai, the site of the Theophany, the appearance of God.  Which mountain in the Sinai Peninsula is the real Mount Sinai?  We do not know.  While the Bible can be very specific in its geographic description of some events (at least from the point of view of the authors), the Torah provides little information as to the location of this most famous piece of real estate.  There are numerous commentaries as to why.  Some say it has to do with a fear that the site would become a place of veneration that might eclipse Jerusalem.  Some say it is because we should focus on Sinai as state of mind and not as hunk of rock.  (For an interesting look at the question of Biblical real estate, you might want to read Walking the Bible by Feiler.)  The description of the events leading to the giving of the Decalogue is not a clean narrative.  It will take us several sidrot to get Moshe up and down the mountain.  God and Moshe work to prepare the people for the Revelation at Sinai.  God gives His reasons for what He is doing.  But before going forward, Moshe must get the agreement of the elders.  While God may have the power to make us do anything, He will only reveal Himself to the Israelites if they are willing participants.  Not for the last time, the Israelites promise to obey even before they know what is required of them.  Such is their faith in God.  Once commitment has been reached, Moshe, at God’s direction, sets the physical parameters for the meeting with God.  God will “come down” into their midst.  But the Israelites are limited as to how close they may come to the mountain.  To paraphrase the Psalmist, we come near unto God, but there is a limit as to how much of the Divine we may absorb.  Like a father, God can draw us close to him in love while still being able to keep the distance necessary to judge us.  The Israelites are told to wash their clothes (cleanliness is next to Godliness) and to remain pure during the three day waiting period.  At the end of three days, “Moshe led the people out of camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”  In this verse we see a major part of what makes the Revelation at Sinai unique.  All of the people are present.  God does not reveal himself to one person or to some small elite.  He reveals himself and His laws to the entire nation.  And the entire nation accepts the Revelation.  How we as individuals understand what the authors are describing will determine, in no small measure, how we view what is contained in the Torah.  “And God spoke all these words, saying” introduces us to the Ten Commandments.  There will be no attempt to explicate them since the information is overwhelming.  But here is a list that will at least provide us with some commonality with a couple of comments:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage (20:2).
You shall have no other Gods beside me (20:3-6).

The first two commandments are given in the first person singular.  The other eight are given in the third person singular.  This has led some commentators to speculate that the Israelites actually only heard the first two commandments from God.  Overwhelmed by the experience, they then heard the other eight from Moshe as God gave them to him.

You shall not take God’s name in vain (20:7).  This is not about cussing.  Also, it is the only one of the ten that carries an implication of punishment.
Remember the Sabbath Day (20:8-11).  Compare this to the version in Devarim.
Honor your father and your mother (20:12).  Why “honor” and not “love”?
You shall not murder (20:13).  This is not an argument against capital punishment or for pacifism.
You shall not commit adultery (20:13).  The Biblical definition is different from the one we use now.
You shall not steal (20:13).  Some contend that the real issue here originally was kidnapping.
You shall not bear false witness (20:13).  Perjury would undermine a society based on the rule of law.
You shall not covet (20:14).  This is the only one of the ten that deals with thoughts instead of behavior.

The notes in your Chumashim will provide copious commentaries on the deeper meanings of each of these commandments.  Furthermore, the Oral Law is an attempt to give further definition to the Biblical commandments including the ten listed above.  After hearing the commandments, the text says the Israelites “saw” the thunder and the blare of the horn.  By saying that the people “saw” what we would normally describe as “hearing,” some commentators say we are being given a picture of the Israelites’ total involvement in the Revelation at Sinai.  The people tell Moshe that they are afraid that they will die because of the encounter, but Moshe reassures them that God has revealed His laws to them so that they will live by them, not so they will die.  Having presented the Decalogue, God continues his dialogue with Moshe.  The sedrah ends with three more commandments, all of which relate to the sacrificial rites.  They read like a prelude to next week’s portion, which is a lengthy compendium of rules and regulations.  The final verse has come to be interpreted as a command for modesty and appropriate attire when worshipping God, which stands in stark contrast to our modern concepts of taste and fashion.

25. The commandment that one believe in God (20:2).
26. The prohibition against worshiping as divine anything other than God (20:5).
27. The stricture against making a graven image (20:4).
28. The prohibition against bowing down to worship an idol (20:5).
29. The stricture against bowing down to worship an idol in the usual ways its adherents do (20:5).
30. The prohibition against uttering God’s name for a vain or immoral purpose (20:7).
31. The obligation to hallow the Sabbath by maintaining its holiness (20:8).
32. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath (20:8).
33. The obligation to honor ones’ parents (20:12).
34. The prohibition against murder (20:13).
35. The stricture against adultery (20:13).
36. The prohibition against theft (20:13).
37. The prohibition against giving false testimony (20:13).
38. The prohibition against coveting a neighbor’s property or spouse (20:14).
39. The prohibition against making idolatrous images (20:20).
40. The prohibition against constructing an altar of hewn stones (20:22).
41. The obligation to approach God’s altar with small dignified steps, lest one’s genitals be exposed (20:23).
From Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

The breakdown shown above varies from the Ten Commandments concept that most people equate with the experience at Mount Sinai.  In the popular counting method the commandments shown above, 26 through 32 are included in commandments 2, 3 and 4 in the Decalogue.

Reciting the Ten Commandments
During the days of the Temple, the Ten Commandments were recited as part of the morning service.  When Christianity was attempting to establish its own identity, its leaders rejected the commandments except for the Ten Commandments.  One of their reasons was that these ten must be the only important ones since they were the ones recited as part of the service.  In an attempt to combat this misconception and to emphasize the importance of all the mitzvoth, the Rabbis banned the recitation of the Ten Commandments as part of the service.  They are only read as part of the service when they appear in Shemot and Devarim.  The Ten Commandments may be found in the supplementary readings of the prayer book (Siddur) and may be recited individually.

Tanya on the Ten Commandments
Interestingly enough, one of the daily selections from the Tanya that is read at this time addresses the issue of what commandments were uttered directly by God to the Israelites and which were uttered by God to Moshe who then presented them to the Israelites.  The author contends that the first two commandments were those given directly by God and that they encapsulate the entire Torah as well as the 613 commandments.  To paraphrase the argument would do it an injustice.  By quoting this section in its entirety, I hope you will get a sense of what scholarly, traditional Rabbinic commentary sounds like.

“It is well known that the positive commandment to believe in G-d’s unity, and the admonition concerning idolatry, which form the first two commandments in the Decalogue:  ‘I am G-d…’ ‘You shall have no other gods…’ comprise the entire Torah.  For the commandment ‘I am G-d’ contains all the 248 positive precepts, while the commandment ‘You shall have no other gods’ contains all the 365 prohibitive commandments.  That is why we heard only those two commandments…directly from G-d, while the other eight commandments were transmitted by Moses, as our Sages have said, for they are the sum total of the whole Torah.  Thus, we actually heard the entire Torah from G-d Himself; for all the commandments are contained within these two, as are particulars within a generalization.  Therefore just as one’s love of G-d motives him to obey these two commandments even at the expense of his life, it may also serve to motivate him to observe all the commandments.  The Mechilta* illustrates this idea by the parable of a king who entered a land, and was requested by the populace to provide them with a system of laws.  To this the king replied:  ‘first accept me as your king; afterwards I will issue my decrees.’  In the same way, belief in the One G-d constitutes the foundation upon which all the other commandments are built.  But why should the two commandments regarding G-d’s unity be considered the sum total of the entire Torah, all the other commandments being merely an extension of them?  The explanation is based on a deeper understanding of the concept of the unity of G-d.  G-d’s unity means not only that there is but one creator, but that G-d is the only existing being.  All of existence is absolutely nullified before Him, and completely one with Him.  Therefore when one acts in defiance of G-d’s Will as expressed in the commandments, he sets himself apart from G-d as though he were a separate and independent entity.  This constitutes a denial of G-d’s unity, and the transgressor is therefore considered an idolater.”
*Mechilta (Tractate) is a Midrash to Shemot (Exodus).

Why Five and Five?
Why does Moses come down from the mountain holding two stone tablets, each containing five commandments?  Nobody knows, which means we can speculate to our heart’s content.  The most popular view is that the first five govern the relations between God and man; the second five govern the relations between man and man.  However, the plain reading of the text of the commandments would indicate that, based on this concept, commandments one through four should have been on the first tablet and commandments five through ten should have been on the second tablet since the fifth commandment talks about honoring thy father and thy mother.  The five and five division would indicate that the Author of the commandments intended to shroud the parent-child relation with the cloak of divinity.  Father and mother are embodiments of the Divine One.  Traditionalists who have invoked this image lay great stress on the level of fealty that children owe their parents.  What they miss is the duty that this image places on the parents.  If parenting is, in effect, an act imbued with Divine power, then parents have an obligation to show the wisdom, patience and loving kindness that we expect from God.

Why Ten?
Why did Moses only bring two tablets with the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai since God had actually given him so many more?  According to Professor James Kugel, the ten may be a form of a mnemonic with each of the ten serving as a reminder for a whole category of laws.  For example, the fourth commandment concerning the observance of the Sabbath served as a reminder for all the commandments concerning holy days and festivals “and the prohibition of false oaths might bring to mind all other commandments concerning courts and courtroom behavior.”  Another explanation is that God and Moses knew that the Israelites would have been overwhelmed if Moses had brought down an armload of tablets containing over 600 rules and regulations.  The first ten were merely the first lesson in a long series of “classes” that would occur over the next four decades as Moses unveiled the laws of God during the wanderings through the wilderness.

The holiday of Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, is connected with the giving of the Ten Commandments.  The “third new moon” mentioned at the start of chapter 19 refers to the month of Sivan.  The “third day” mentioned in 19:11 corresponds to the sixth of Sivan which is the date given for observing Shavuot.  We count the Omer for seven weeks starting from the second night of Pesach.  So on the fifty-first day after the Exodus, we commemorate the Sinaitic Revelation.  This corresponds to the timeline we have followed in the Torah.  The Decalogue is recited on the holiday.  The actual commands about observing Shavuot actually will come in subsequent chapters.

The Sixth Remembrance
There are six events that the Torah commands us to remember (in Hebrew, Zachor).  Collectively these are known as the Six Remembrances (Shaysh Zechriot).  They are found in the prayer book (Siddur) after the Shacharit (Morning Service) and are recited daily after the conclusion of the service itself.  The first five remembrances come from Devarim.  The sixth remembrance is a direct quote from this sedrah.  “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy” (20:8).  There are many Rabbinic commentaries about the central role that Shabbat plays in the Jewish existence.  We are to remember Shabbat throughout the week and not just on the seventh day.  According to the Rambam, “by remembering Shabbat every day of the week we are constantly affirming our belief that God created the world in six days, that He rested on the seventh day, and that He continues to direct and monitor all events.”  According to the Talmud, desecrating Shabbat is equivalent to idol worship while “the observance of Shabbat is equivalent to the observance of the entire Torah.”  In the days before Big Box Chain Stores, small town merchants would go home at lunchtime.  They would put a sign on the door saying that they would be back in an hour.  In that way passers-by would know that even if they were gone, the merchant was still in business.  So it is with the Jew.  Even if he is not able to honor all of the commandments, when he remembers the Sabbath he is saying that he is a faithful servant to the Lord; he is putting up his sign saying that he is still in business.  One way of Remembering the Sabbath during the week is to take care of your mundane affairs in an orderly efficient way so that they do not intrude on your thoughts during Shabbat.  The second part of the commandment does say, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.…”

People are always asking why things happen.  To paraphrase Victor Frankel, if people know the “why” of it they can survive the “what” of it.  Yitro is one of those rare instances where God does tell us why things happen.  Why did He deliver us from Bondage?  Why did He rescue us at the sea?  Why is He giving us the Torah?  “Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (19:5-6).  God has done all that He has so that we can be a nation of priests, a holy nation.  Or to put it in other words, we exist to teach the world God’s law through the example of our lives.  The laws of the Torah are the guidebook for that teaching.  Being Jewish becomes an awesome responsibility since when we stumble we not only stub our own toe but we shake the body of all mankind.

The Exodus - The Jewish Twist
The Exodus from Egypt has become a popular motif for different liberation movements.  These have included everything from the American Revolution to the Abolition Movement to the Civil Rights Campaigns of the 1960’s.  But for the Jews, the Exodus (the release from bondage) was not an end in and of itself.  Rather, for the Jews, the whole purpose of the Exodus was to be able to go to Sinai.  In other words, we traded the heavy yoke of human bondage for the lighter “yoke of the Torah.”  The Jewish concept of freedom is a strange one.  For our freedom is found in accepting the mitzvoth and trying to live our lives within their framework.

Who was Yitro?  Why is the sedrah that describes the seminal event in the history of the Jewish People named for him?  We know a lot about him, yet we know only a little about him.  We know that Yitro was the father-in-law of Moshe and the father of Tziporah.  He was Midianite.  But we are not sure where Midian was.  The Midianites may have lived on the Sinai Peninsula or somewhere in the area that today compromises Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  He may have been a chieftain or high priest.  In fact, Jonathan Kirsch, in his book called Moses:  A Life, contends that Moses got his religious training from Yitro while he lived with Midianites after fleeing Egypt.  Yitro is actually known by six other names in the TaNaCh including Yeter (addition), Hovav (to love), Ruel (friend to God), Chever (friend), Kaynee (zealous) and Putiel (“the name that tells the world that he had given up his idol-worshipping).  There is a great deal of controversy over when Yitro actually came and found Moshe.  There is also some dispute as to when he left the Israelites.  Apparently he did not stay with them.  He went back to his own people; some say to preach the word of God.  He obviously was a man of merit.  He took Moshe in when he was a pathetic fugitive fleeing Pharaoh.  He took care of Moshe’s family when Moshe returned to Egypt.  This enabled Moshe to concentrate on his mission without having to worry about domestic matters.  He brought the family to Moshe once it was safe.  And Moshe, the great lawgiver, listened to Yitro.  If Moshe Rabbeanu could listen to Yitro, Yitro must have been a man with sage advice to give.  We could all learn from this example.  For if a man as wise as Moshe could take advice from others, none of us should think we know it all or should ignore the words of others.

The Human View versus the Divine View
In the famous opening scene of the sedrah, we see the overworked Moshe wearing himself out answering the people’s questions and resolving their disputes.  Yitro’s solution is to set up a series of lesser courts to hear simpler questions and resolve elementary disputes.  Moshe would only have to resolve the disputes that nobody else could settle.  God must have seen the same problem - an overworked Moshe having to answer all of the questions and solve all of the disputes.  But He came up with a different solution.  He gave the people the Law at Sinai.  In other words, God gave the Israelites the rules of the game.  Since God had provided the rules to the people Moshe would only have to teach them the meaning.  But for the most part, they would be able to solve their problems.  In modern parlance, Yitro’s solution was to create a bureaucracy to control people’s behavior.  God’s solution empowered the people so that they would know how to behave without having to ask.  In other words, God created a system where the people would study and use the knowledge to act in the proper manner.  The people would be independent, not leader dependent.  This view would be consistent with the Jewish emphasis on study, Torah and teachers.


Two young men came to the house of a famous sage.  They asked if they might join his circle of students and study with him.  The sage considered the request, and after questioning them about the knowledge of Torah, Talmud and other texts, he deemed them as worthy of joining his group.  “Of course,” the sage said, “you will eat at my table while you are here.”  The first student was overjoyed at the prospect of taking his meals with such a renowned scholar that he could not say “yes” fast enough.  The second student stood silent and after a few minutes said that he would need to ponder this condition.  He would, he said, come back with an answer in the morning.  That night, while the first student slept soundly anticipating his first meal and study session with the sage, the second student poured over the Torah looking for an answer.  In the morning, he packed his bag, went down to the Sage’s study and said that he would have to decline the offer since he could not eat his meals with the sage.  The Sage was dumbfounded.  How could the young man turn down this generous offer?  The young man opened a Chumash to “Yitro” and read out the lines “and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before God” (Ex.18:12).  Why, the young student asked, doesn’t the Torah say they ate in the presence of Moses?  After all, they were eating the food with Moses.  Besides which all things that men do is before God, so why mention God and not Moses?  Drawing on the commentaries of others, the young man provided the answer.  The priests and Aaron were probably impressed with the fact that they were eating in the presence of such a Tzaddik - Moses.  Those eating with Moses could see him.  He was real i.e., before their eyes.  It would be only natural that they would become impressed with the fact that they were eating with such a great personage and lose some of the consciousness that no matter where or with whom they ate, they were always eating in the presence of God.  By not mentioning Moses but by mentioning God, the authors of the Torah were reminding us that while Moses may have been the leader during the Exodus, he was but a temporal tool fulfilling the will of God.  God, not Moses, is the benefactor and source of all gifts, something which it is easy to lose sight of especially in situations like the one described in the eating scene in this Torah portion.  The young man was rejecting the offer because he was afraid that eating with the Sage would give him a false sense of self-importance and distract him from seeking the presence of the Almighty.  The Sage smiled, impressed with the student’s sensitive nature and academic acumen.  He bid the lad stay and study but he promised him that he could dine with whomever he wished.  The young man stayed, studied and when the Sage passed on he became his designated replacement.  As they say back home, just because you dine with a big-dawg, don’t forget The Big-Dawg.

Deliver a Clear, Unambiguous Message

Before rendering a decision, a certain judge would always ask the person seeking relief if he had delivered a clear, unambiguous message to the accused.  If the answer was in the affirmative (and the judge was sure that such a message had been delivered) he always found for the person seeking relief.  If the answer was in the negative (well I sort of said, or maybe I told him) then the judge always denied the prayer for relief.  A friend asked the judge why the outcome of the case always hinged on this particular issue.  “Because,” the judge replied, “in Yitro we are told ‘and thou shalt make known to them the way in which they should walk, and the work which they should do’ (Ex.18:20).”  The judge illustrated his point with a well-known story.  Two friends, both of outstanding character, were preparing for a journey.  The first announced that he would be traveling in his fine coach pulled by four strong horses.  Why did he need four horses?  If his coach got stuck in the mud, he would need the strength of four horses to pull him out so that he could be on his way to perform acts of righteousness.  The second man said he would be traveling in cart pulled by one horse.  His friend was shocked.  “If you only have the one horse, what will you do if you get stuck in the mud?  How will you get out?”  The second traveler replied.  “You are right, if I get stuck in the mud with one horse I will not be able to get out.  Therefore, my task is to see to it that the horse knows exactly where to go so that we will not get stuck in the mud in the first place.”  As a Sage once said, some people are experts at asking for forgiveness.  Others are experts at looking for the right path so that they can avoid the need to ask forgiveness.

Success in Business

Two friends announced to their Rebbe that they were going into business together.  The Rebbe asked if they had drawn up a partnership contract.  No, they replied.  They were lifelong friends.  They trusted each other.  Besides which, they were men of the Torah and knew the words “Lo Teg-nohv, Thou shalt not steal.”  But the Rebbe knew that nothing could ruin a friendship faster than two friends going into business together, especially if the business did not do well.  So he convinced them to let him draw up articles of partnership.  The friends agreed as long as the agreement was simple and did not contain a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo.  The Rebbe took out a pen and paper and wrote out the letters Aleph, Bet, Gimel and Dalet.  He passed the paper and pen two the two friends for their signature.  The two laughed.  How could they sign a partnership agreement that was nothing but the first four letters of the alphabet?  The Rebbe explained.  The Aleph was the first letter in the Hebrew word “Eh-moo-nah - Above-board.”  The Bet is the first letter in the Hebrew word “Bra-chah - Blessing.”  The Gimel is the first letter in the word “G’nay-vah - Cheat.  The Dalet is the first letter in the Hebrew word “Da-loot - Destitute.”  So the A-B-C’s of success are “If your transactions are Above-board - the Blessings will come to you; if you Cheat - then you may expect to be Destitute.”  The two men cheerfully signed.  The sign on their store read, “The A-B-C Company.”  They prospered in business and in their friendship.

Who Blew the Horn?

The sound of the Ram’s Horn or Shofar played a critical role in the people’s preparation for the revelation at Sinai.  “When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain” (19:13).  “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lighting, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” (19:16).  “The sound of the horn grew louder and louder.  As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder “(19:19).  No man could make thunder and lighting and dense clouds.  Only God could make them and certainly only God could use them as communication tools.  But the sounding of the Shofar is a human activity.  Yes, God could sound a Shofar.  After all, God is God and He can do anything.  So why would He choose to use an instrument that a man might use as part of announcing the impending drama on the mountain?  Could this be a way of saying that God can only give the Commandments, but man must accept them and perform if they are to have ultimate meaning?  When you sit in the services next year and hear the sound of the Shofar, ask yourself, who is really sounding the Shofar.  Is it the person on the bimah?  Is it God?  Or is it the two of them acting in some sort of joint venture?

The Moses Room

In one of his commentaries on this week’s reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentions The Moses Room, one of the meeting rooms in the House of Lords.  Its name comes from “a large fresco called ‘Moses Bringing Down the Tables of the Law from Mount Sinai’” that hangs in the room - a fresco that was inspired by the events in “Yitro.”  The irony is that the Parliament building was built at a time when Jews were not allowed to sit in the House of Commons and when Queen Victoria had refused to appoint a Rothschild to the House of Lords.  This would appear to be part of an on-going pattern of the world loving things Jewish but without wanting Jews around!

Tenth Commandment:  A Lubavitch view courtesy of Rabbi Pinchas Ciment

Commandment number ten teaches us "You shall not covet your friend's house; or his wife, servant, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend."  Or in simple English, don't desire his beautiful home, wife, dream job, nifty sports car or anything else that is his.

It's one thing not to steal the stuff; but not even to desire it?  Is G-d perhaps being somewhat unreasonable with this one?  Is He being realistic?  Surely He doesn't think we're angels - He created us!  Come to think of it, why does the text of this commandment first list a variety of specifics - house, wife, servant, etc., and then still find it necessary to add the generalization, "and all that belongs to your friend"?

One explanation offered by the rabbis is that this comes to teach us a very important lesson for life - a lesson which actually makes this difficult commandment much easier to carry out.  What the Torah is saying is that if you should happen to cast your envious eye over your neighbor's fence, don't only look at the specifics.  Remember to also look at the overall picture.

Most of us tend to assume that the grass is greener on the other side.  But we don't always consider the full picture, the whole package.  So he's got a great business and a very healthy balance sheet.  But is he healthy?  Is his family healthy?  His wife looks great at his side when they're out together, but is she such a pleasure to live with at home?  And if he should have health and wealth, does he have nachas from his children?  Is there anybody who has it all?

As the Yiddish proverb goes, everybody has his own pekkel.  We each carry a backpack through life, a parcel of problems, our own little bundle of tzorris.  When we are young, we think that difficulties are for "other people."  When we get older we realize that no one is immune.  Nobody has it all.  So if you find yourself coveting your fellow's whatever, stop for a minute to consider whether you really want "all that is your fellow's."  When we actually see with our own eyes what the other fellow's life is all about behind closed doors, what's really inside his backpack, we will feel grateful for our own lot in life and happily choose our very own pekkel, with all its inherent problems.

Commandment number 10 is a piece of good advice as well.  Be wise enough to realize that you've got to look at the whole picture.  When we do, this difficult commandment becomes more easily observable.  Not only is it sinful to envy what other people have; it's foolish.  Because life is a package deal.

Abarbanel’s Questions

Michael Carasik, the author/translator of The Commentator's Bible includes “Abarbanel’s Questions” in his commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.  According to Rabbi Dr. Meir Tamari these questions provide the basis for the Socratic Method that this famous Sephardic Jew used to develop his commentaries on the TaNaCh.  A few of his questions are included here for two reasons.  First, they lead us to “understand the kinds of questions that commentators think need answering about the text.”  Second, they are thought provoking and should provide stimulation for the novice as well as for those who have read these portions several times.  There are too many to include them all but here a few to get you started.

“Why was the Torah given only now, and not to Adam or Noah, Abraham or Jacob?”  “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness rather than in Egypt, when He took the people for His service and began to give them the commandments?”  “Why do the people agree to do ‘all that the Lord has spoken’ when He has not yet spoken it?”  “Why was the Torah given with ‘thunder and lightning’ and not in the ‘still small voice’ that Elijah heard in Kings 19:12?”  “Why do some of the first five commandments mention ‘the Lord’ and some ‘the Lord your God’ while none of the last five mention God at all?”  “How can a just God ‘visit the guilt of the parents upon the children’?”

The Observant and Observing the Fourth Commandment

"Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God.”  The fourth commandment is a two-edged sword.  It is a command to rest, but one is to work for the rest of the week.  According to the sages, earning a livelihood, along with family, study and prayer are the way to keep a person from evil.  Among the Observant are those who do not work in the conventional sense of that term.  They spend their time in study while being supporting by others.  They contend that their study is the most important form of work.  But this claim is inconsistent with the text and tradition.  We are forbidden to work on Shabbat.  But study is such a critical part of Shabbat observance that we read the Torah in public and the Dvar Torah is as essential to a Kiddush as are cholent or challah.  So study and work are not synonymous which means that the Observant need to either get a job or realize that they are neither fulfilling the letter nor the spirit of the 4th commandment.

Who should Rest?

The commandments for the Jews to refrain from work and to rest are universal in their households.  No less an authority than the Stone Chumash states “It is also forbidden to allow minor children or to ask gentiles to do anything for one on the Sabbath that one is forbidden to do himself” or herself.  (Note on Page 2410.)  In other words, the practice of “the Shabbos Goy” should be an anathema to do those who truly wish to “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”

Modesty and Attire

This magnificent portion filled with Divine pyrotechnics and the giving of the basic law code ends by commanding us not expose our “nakedness” when ascending the steps of the altar.  In these times of “relaxed” dress codes, this serves as reminder that when we come before the Lord, modesty and proper attire is the Biblical expectation.  As we saw with the royal weddings in Great Britain, when people come into the company of temporal lords and rulers, they dress for the occasion.  Should we do less when coming before the Lord of Lords?

The Jews of Yemen

In 1949, the Israeli government began the rescue of the Jews of Yemen.  From June of 1949 until September of 1950, the barely born Jewish state airlifted almost 50,000 of their co-religionists to safety.  Popularly known as “Operation Magic Carpet,” its official name was “Operation on Wings of Eagles.”  The name came from two Biblical sources.  First was “Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself” (Exodus 19:4) which comes from this week’s Torah portion.  The second was “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” which comes from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet who provides us with this week’s haftarah portion.  For the Jews, history and tradition are not prisons.  Rather they are an anchor that connects with our past while inspiring us to deal with the present and greet the future.

Ten Commandments in Public Places

A few years ago, a judge in Alabama wanted to hang a copy of the 10 Commandments in his courtroom.  This was only one of the periodic attempts to place the Decalogue in public places.  Setting aside the question of separation of church and state one wonders what version these people want to use.  We all know that there is a variation between the versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy.  But there are also differences between the versions used in Jewish, Protestant and Catholic scriptures.  These variations are more than just a matter of linguistics.   They point to a different view of the world, history and the role of the Jewish people.


Isaiah 6:1-7:6 and 9:5-6 (Ashkenazim)

Isaiah 6:1-6:11 (Sephardim and Chabad Chassidim)

The Book:  Isaiah is one of the Three Major Prophets.  The other two are Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  The term major refers to the fact that their books are longer than those of the other prophets.  Isaiah is also the first of the Later Prophets, those coming after the books that start with Joshua and end with Second Kings.  The book of Isaiah is attributed to at least two and possibly three authors.  Traditionally, the first thirty-nine chapters are attributed to a historic figure described in the beginning of the book.  Chapters forty through sixty-six are attributed to a second, anonymous author.  Isaiah’s name in Hebrew is Yeshayahu, which is a form of a word meaning help or deliverance.  The name is certainly consistent with the teachings of this prophet.  The historic or First Isaiah lived during the eighth century, B.C.E.  He began preaching around 740 B.C.E.  His public career lasted for some forty to sixty years spanning the reign of four Kings of Judea beginning with Uzziah and ending with Hezekiah.  He was married to a woman he refers to as “the prophetess” and he had two sons.  Apparently he was related to the royal family which meant he could address his teachings directly to those in power.  According to tradition, Manasseh, whose reign was both long and wicked, murdered Isaiah.

Isaiah lived in a time of great political turmoil.  Assyria was the leading power of the day.  He witnessed the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel and the exile of the ten tribes.  He encouraged the Judeans not to make a military alliance with the Egyptians who were the enemies of the Assyrians.  Rather, he urged the Judeans to trust in the Lord for their deliverance.  Isaiah lived in a time of affluence and economic inequality.  He chastised the people for failing to care for the disadvantaged.  God would punish them for this as well as their other moral shortcomings.  The Isaiah of the Exile or the Second Isaiah is thought to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E. during the period of the Babylonian Captivity.  His message was one of comfort, hope and a vision of universal peace.  The book of Isaiah describes a unique relationship between God and the children of Israel.  They are to carry His message to the people of the world.  By following the teachings of Torah, they will show the world what God means by holiness.  At the same time, Isaiah provides a picture of God as the God of all mankind.  Isaiah transforms Him from the deity of the Israelites to the Supreme Being for all the people of the world.  Isaiah provides us with the Messianic Vision i.e., the Coming of the Moshiach.  And last but not least, Isaiah is the prophet of world peace.  It is the words of Isaiah that we read in the prayer book each week, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Neither shall men learn war anymore.”  The teachings of Isaiah, regardless of how many of them you think there are, are rich and textured.  The book of Isaiah provides us with more Haftarot than any other prophet so we will have ample opportunity to explore his teachings as the year goes by.

The Message:  This is a richly textured reading with too many messages for this brief guide.  That is one of the beauties of the prophets.  They are able to load so much into so few words.  The reading opens with historic references to the beginning of Isaiah’s active prophecy.  There are those who contend that the information in chapter six should have come at the start of the Book of Isaiah.  For us, the most striking part of the haftarah comes in 6:1-3 with a description of the “heavenly court where the angels pay homage to God.”

“Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,                    “Holy, Holy, Holy

Adonai tz’vah-ot                                                Is the Lord Master of Legions

M’lo chal ha-aretz k’vodo”                      The whole world is filled with his glory” (Isaiah (6:3)

This angelic declaration is part of the daily prayer service.  It can be found in the section just before the recitation of the Shema.  It can also be found in the section of the Amidah called the Kedushah.  When we recite these words we actually rise on our toes to emulate the angels.  The word holy is repeated three times because God is holy in heaven, holy on earth and holy for all times.  The concept of being holy is a central point in Judaism.  We find variants of the three letters that are its root in other words including Kiddush, Kedushah and Kaddish.  The idea of being holy has to do with being separate.  In following the laws of the Torah we separate ourselves from others.  Yet in being separate we provide an example for the behavior that God expects of all mankind.  The haftarah concludes with a coda from chapter 9.  The portion from chapters six and seven includes a message of impending doom.  To soften the blow and provide hope for the future, the Rabbis chose to have the reading end with the message of the Messianic Vision.

Theme-Link: The Torah portion describes the collective revelation at Sinai.  The haftarah describes Isaiah’s personal revelation as he begins his role as a prophet.  The sedrah (19:5-6) and the haftarah (6:3) reinforce the importance of being “holy.”

Copyright; January, 2020; Mitchell A. Levin


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Readings for Saturday, Feburary 8, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 8, 2020
Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of the Song

Beshalach (When he had sent away)
13:17-17:16 Shemot (Exodus)

Beshalach is the fourth sedrah in the book of Shemot (Exodus).  Beshalach takes its name from the second Hebrew word in the first sentence of the sedrah.  “And it came to pass when Pharaoh had sent away (Beshalach) the people.…”  Beshalach can be divided into five basic parts - The Parting of the Sea, the Song at the Sea, The Grumblings, The Giving of Manna and The Battle with Amalek.  Beshalach is primarily a straightforward narrative.  Unlike last week’s sedrah and next week’s sedrah, Beshalach is almost devoid of formal commandments, containing but one.

The Parting of the Sea (13:17-14:30)
As the Israelites begin their departure from Egypt, God sends them on a circuitous route rather than the direct route to Canaan.  There are numerous commentaries now and in subsequent weeks about this choice of routes.  Here are a couple of others you might want to consider.  First, at the end of the Burning Bush sequence, God tells Moshe that once the people are freed he is to bring them to “this mountain” for what will be the giving of the Commandments (Shemot 3:12).  Although nobody knows for sure which mountain is “the mountain” as in Mount Sinai, none of the candidates usually offered would have been reached by following the direct route to Canaan.  Second, the Israelites were returning to the land of the Patriarchs and this would be the land of the Judean hills and the northern Negev.  The direct route would have taken them to the coast not the land of their forefathers.  Regardless of the route being taken, the Egyptians realize that the Israelites are gone and are not coming back.  Behaving as if the Ten Plagues had not occurred, Pharaoh leads his willing army in pursuit of the Israelites.  In what will be a recurring behavior pattern, the Israelites cry out against Moshe asking why he has brought them out here to die instead of letting them stay in Egypt.

What follows is the oft-told tale of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.  The Israelites pass through in safety.  The Egyptians pursue and are trapped by the raging waters of the sea.  The Midrash and Rabbinic commentaries on this miracle are too numerous to review here.  The Miracle at the Sea eclipses all of the Ten Plagues.  It is God’s ultimate victory over Pharaoh.  Once and for all, the newly freed Israelites are to be impressed with the power of Adonai, the God of their liberation from bondage.  The crossing of the sea presents a lesson in the responsibilities of both God and man for what goes on in the world.  On the one hand, Moses reassures the people that “The Lord will battle for you.”  On the other hand, “the Lord said to Moshe, ‘Why do you cry out to Me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward.’”  In other words, God has a role in the world, but so does man.  We must pray to him for salvation, but we must also act to save ourselves.  There is an interesting Midrash about a man named Nahshon.  From a Biblical perspective, Nahshon is a real person; he is mentioned twice in the TaNaCh.  He is the brother-in-law of Aaron (Shemot 6:23).  He is also an ancestor of King David (Ruth 4:20-22).  But Nahshon’s real claim to fame comes from the Midrash in which he is described as being the first Israelite to actually start across the Sea.  While Moshe was busy waving his rod and God was turning back the waters, it still took the action of one ordinary person to make the miracle happen.  If Nahshon had not had the faith and the courage to enter, the Egyptians would have overtaken the Israelites.  This Midrash reinforces one of the themes of Judaism - individual responsibility for what goes on in the world.  In the end, the Israelites see the reality of God’s power as the Egyptian corpses wash up on the shore.  This section of the sedrah ends with a statement that the people have trust in God and his servant Moshe.  As we will see, that trust is only of a momentary nature.

The Song at the Sea (15:1-21)
The Song at the Sea is a poetic rendering of the events previously described.  For those of us with limited or non-existent Hebraic skills, it is difficult to appreciate the full majesty of the poem.  But even in English, the Song is a powerful rendering of the deliverance from Pharaoh.  If you read the Song as being sung at the time of the deliverance, the last portion starting with verse 14 carries a note of prophecy.  Here, the author tells of the fear that the Canaanites will feel when they hear about this miracle.  He also describes the future settlement of Jerusalem and the building of the Temple.  The song actually ends with verse 19.  The last two verses of this section are taken up with a brief mention of Miriam and the women dancing and chanting in praise of God’s victory over Pharaoh.  Three points of interest about Miriam’s song.  First, she is referred to as a “prophetess.”  Secondly, she is identified as “Aaron’s sister” not Moshe’s sister.  The first reference should give us some idea of the Biblical importance of Miriam.  The second reference should give us some idea of the importance of Aaron.  In other words, Moshe is important, but he is not the only figure of import.  Third, from a literary point of view, the Song of Miriam may actually predate the Song of Moses.

The Grumblings (16:1-3 & 17:1-7)
Six weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, with all of its miracles and wonders, and the Israelites are moaning and groaning.  They are sure they are going to die of starvation and of thirst.  Not for the first time, nor for the last time, will they tell Moshe that they would have better been off if they had been left in Egypt.  In both of these episodes, God provides for their needs.  In the first instance, God acts to provide food with no direct request from Moshe.  In the second instance, Moshe must ask God for intervention before water is provided.  Note that in this case Moshe is told to strike the rock.  In a later water story, Moshe will lose his passage into the Promised Land because he strikes the rock instead of speaking to it.

The Giving of Manna (16:4-36)
God hears the cry for food.  His first response is to send a flight of quail to meet the need for meat.  His second response is to send Manna to meet the need for bread.  While the quail come but once, the Manna will come daily except for Shabbat for forty years.  There have been attempts to explain this miracle food in temporal terms.  Like all such attempts, they fall short of the mark.  We do not know what manna was other than what is described.  We may assume that the authors put in the Story of Manna to reassure us that God will provide for our needs.  In the giving of manna, we find rules about the observance of Shabbat.  The seventh day is described as “a day of rest, holy Shabbat of the Lord.”  In other words, even before the giving of the Commandments at Sinai, Shabbat, as a day of rest, was part of the Israelites’ observances.  The section ends with one of those "timing” problems since it tells of the placing of a jar containing an omer of manna in front of the Ark before the Israelites knew about the Ark.

The Battle with Amalek (17:8-16)
No reason is given for the attack by the Amalekites.  However, the event must have been of great importance since it is described for a second time in Devarim 25:17-19 and it is one of “The Six Remembrances” that are recited every morning.  The victory over the Amalekites requires military action on the part of the Israelites as well as divine inspiration as evidenced by the raised hands of Moshe.  This is the first mention of Joshua, Moshe’s loyal lieutenant and successor.  The sedrah tells us that God will “blot out the memory of Amalek.”  Further, that unlike with the Egyptians, “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”  Regardless of the historic origins of this tribe, the Amalekites have become synonymous with evil and those who would destroy us such as Haman in the Purim story.


Commandments (Just one this week, the torrent comes next week.)
24.       “The prohibition against walking beyond permitted limits on the Sabbath (16:29).  From this has come the Rabbinic law forbidding walking more than about a half-mile outside city limits on Shabbat.”
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Shabbat Shirah
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shirah.  Shirah is the Hebrew word for “song.”  So Shabbat Shirah means The Sabbath of the Song.  The song in this case refers to the Song sung at the sea after the deliverance.  This Song is also sung on the seventh day of Pesach.  Different communities have special tunes for chanting the Song.  In Israel, on the seventh day of Pesach, “communal chanting of ‘the Song’ forms part of the ceremonies held by the shores of the Mediterranean and Red Sea at Eilat.”

Daily Prayer
The Song at the Sea is part of the Shacharit or Morning Prayer Service.  It comes in a section concentrating on “God’s revelation in nature and history.”  (See pages 58 and 78-81 of The Complete Artscroll Siddur.)  The familiar chant of Me Cha-mo-cho (Who is like You) which we sing just before the start of the Amidah is verse taken from the Song at the Sea.  The daily repetition of the Song of the Sea should give us some idea of how important this event was in our history.

The Israelites were commanded to take a double portion of manna on the sixth day of the week.  It is customary to have two Challot on the table for the Shabbat evening meal and the meal eaten after Shabbat morning services.  This is a reminder of the double portion of God’s beneficence to our ancestors.

The parting of the sea is part of the Haggadah narrative.  According to some, the drowning of the Egyptians is symbolized by two of our practices at the Seder; the spilling of wine and the egg on the Seder Plate.  Also, the Song at the Sea is part of the Torah reading on the Seventh Day of Pesach.  The congregation always rises when this portion is read.  The only other time the congregation rises in this manner is for the reading of the Ten Commandments.

Observing the Dietary Laws
In discussing the laws of Kashrut, some wonder why chicken, and for that matter all fowl, are treated as meat when it comes to the prohibition about not mixing meat with milk.  Read 16:11-14 and consider the following.  God tells Moshe “By evening you shall eat flesh.…”  “In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp.”  In other words when God promised flesh he sent quail.  The Hebrew word translated as flesh is “bahsahr” which also can be translated as “meat” as in “meat and milk.”  In other words, when God promised meat he sent fowl.  If God treats fowl as meat, I think it is a safe interpretation for us to treat it in the same manner.

Joseph’s Bones
Promises made, promises kept.  At the end of Bereshit, Joseph makes the children of Israel promise that when God delivers them from Egypt, they will take his bones with them.  This is one of those many reminders that both God and man have a responsibility for what happens in the world.  The Exodus may have been God’s responsibility but it was the Jewish people who were going to have to redeem the individual Jew; in this case, Joseph, son of Jacob.  “And Moshe took the bones of Joseph with him:  for he had made the children of Israel swear, saying God will surely visit you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” (13:19).  Please note, for all of those higher critics of the Torah; check out the similarity of the language here and at the end of Bereshit (50:25).  How did Moshe know where Joseph’s bones were buried?  According to a Midrash, Serach, the daughter of Asher and granddaughter of Jacob told him.  Remember that she is one of the few women mentioned in the listing of those who came down into Egypt.  Her merit, for which she was granted extra-long life, came from the fact that she was the first one who told Jacob that Joseph was alive.  Supposedly this very old woman told Moshe that that the Egyptians had placed Joseph’s bones in a metal casket that they had then hidden in the Nile.  By hiding the bones in the Nile, the Pharaoh had thought the Israelites would never leave since they had promised to take Joseph’s bones with them.  The Midrash continues with Moshe calling out to Joseph from the riverbank that it is time to go and either his bones should appear or they are released from the oath.  At that point the casket bobbed up to the surface and the rest is “history.”  There are those that say this story points to the great merit of Moshe.  For he was busy redeeming the promise of the Israelites while everybody else was busy gathering the booty from the Egyptians.

First Things First
One day a desperate woman came to see her Rebbe.  Her family had fallen ill and she wished him to utter the benedictions for their recovery.  The Rebbe said he would, but first things first.  The women must have faith in the Lord.  And why, she asked, should her faith have to be any stronger than our ancestors who left Egypt.  For doesn’t it say in recounting the events at the Splitting of the Sea, “Thus the Lord saved in that day Israel of out of the hand of the Egyptians” (14:30).  “And Israel saw the great power which the lord had shown…and the people believed in the Lord.” (14:31).  If the Lord could act first and then the Children of Israel believed in Him, surely the Rebbe could pray on behalf of her family and trust that her faith would follow.  The Rebbe laughed, realizing that the woman was right.  He prayed.  She believed.  The family’s health was restored.

The Power of Song
In the days when Jews lived in the Austrian Empire, an evil decree was pronounced against the Jews of Nikolsburg.  Despite the fact that it was winter time, the leader of the Jewish community decided that he would go to Vienna and asked the Emperor to reverse the ruling against the Jews.  When he got to the Danube, he found blocks of ice floating in the river.  No boat man would cross for fear that the ice would sink the frail craft.  Finally, one brave sole said he would take the Rabbi across, if he would leave enough money to take care of his wife and child whom he was sure were about to become a widow and an orphan.  The Rabbi agreed, but assured the reluctant sailor that he had nothing to fear.  The two men pushed off into the ice choked river.  As the boat man rowed, the Rabbi began chanting “Ahz Yashir Moshe,” (Then sang Moses) and proceeded to sing Moses’ “Song at the Sea” (15:1-18).  People on both banks of the river watched in amazement as the boat miraculously crossed the river, successfully dodging the giant chunks of ice.  As the boat drew up to the dock on the far side of the river, the crowd began cheering.  A minister of the Emperor was riding past and asked what was causing all of the cheering.  One of the on-lookers told him the amazing tale about the chanting Rabbi’s crossing of the ice choked Danube.  When the Emperor heard the story, he was so impressed by the Rabbi’s courage and the power of this “Hebrew Song” that he lifted the decree and the Jews of Nikolsburg were permitted to live on in peace with the permanent protection of the Austrian government.

Fathers and Sons; Sons and Fathers
Traditionally sons defer to the wishes of their fathers but not always.  A successful American Jewish businessman sent his son to Israel for the summer.  The son was expected to return home, go to college and join in the family’s commercial endeavors.  Instead, at the end of the summer, the son called the father and informed him that he was staying in Israel permanently.  He was making Aliyah.  The distraught father caught the first plane to Tel Aviv where his son met him at the airport.  “How,” the father asked, “can you turn your back on all that I have taught you?”  “I am not turning my back on what you have taught me.  Instead, I am doing that which is best for me.  In the Torah first it says ‘This is my God and I will glorify Him’ (15:2) and only later does it say ‘my father’s God and I will exalt Him.’”  Understanding that his son was now his own person and that he was his own person in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Jewish religion that he revered, the father embraced the son and the two returned to the amicable relation that they had enjoyed in the past.

A Person of Importance
In the land beyond the Carpathian Mountains, a famous sage was always being invited to spend Shabbat with his co-religionists in the various towns throughout the region.  So each Shabbat the sage and his secretary would visit another town.  They would Welcome the Sabbath Queen, say Kiddush and eat.  In the morning he would rise, recite the morning service complete with the weekly reading and sit down for a sumptuous Kiddush lunch.  Following the meal there would be a discussion of Torah followed by the afternoon service, followed by the Third Meal and Havdalah.  As the night would fall, the sage and his secretary would mount their horses for the ride home.  But before going, the sage would always ask to meet the person responsible for preparing the food.  The Rabbi would profusely thank him or her and ride off in the night.  One night, as they were riding away the secretary asked the sage about this strange ritual.  You never ask to meet the person who led the service.  You never ask to meet the person who chanted the Torah portion.  You never ask to meet any of the town’s dignitaries.  You only ask to meet the cook.  Why?  Because, explained the sage, it is the cook who keeps us from sin.  In the Torah when reading about the manna it states, “And Moshe said, ‘Eat it today for it is Shabbat.’” (16:25).  Food that is prepared for Shabbat must be eaten on Shabbat, not after Shabbat.  If the food were poorly prepared it would go uneaten and we would have violated the injunction of Moses.  A chazzan with a weak voice can be overlooked.  Mistakes in Torah reading can be corrected.  But a bad meal will not be eaten.  Hence, I always thank the cook for keeping us from sin.”

Short Memory

In talking about the 15th day of the first month of the year, last week’s reading says “Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand…” (13:4).  This week we read, “on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt…the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron…  ‘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…’” (16:1-3).  Exactly one month to the day after the Exodus, the Israelites apparently were violating the commandment to remember the event and had forgotten the impressiveness of the event itself.  How many of us are like our forefathers; quick to forget the good things and equally quick to grumble about what does not seem to be going our way?  How many times do we show ingratitude and how many times do we show a lack of faith?  It is a shortcoming that is part of the human condition, one which seems to have afflicted us from the very beginning and one from which we all seem to suffer.  (In an era when authors are required to make full disclosure, this passage resonates with me because I am the guiltiest one of all when it comes to this.)  Maybe “wandering in the wilderness” or “wandering through life” is the opportunity that God gives us to rectify this fault, at least in some small manner.

Nelson’s Amazing Bible Trivia:

1. What did Moses take with him when he left Egypt?  (13:19)

2. What did God do to the Egyptians just prior to drowning them?  (14:25)

3. What did Moses do to the water at Marah in order to make the bitter water sweet?  (15:25)

4. How does the TaNaCh describe the taste of manna?  (16:31)

5. What was the secret to the Israelite victory over the Amalekites at Rephidim?  (17:11)

Why Not Fight?

When the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea of Reeds, they began berating Moses, seemingly preparing themselves for death or capture.  Why didn’t they make any plans to fight?  We know they had weapons:  “Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt” (13:18).  So what held them back?  Maybe the answer can be found in the statement, “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph” (13:19) which immediately follows the statement about the Israelites being armed.  This was the generation that carried bones.  What do we know about bones?  From Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones we know that bones without the spirit of the Lord in them are just that, inert calcium.  It takes the breath of the Lord, an infusion of the Spirit, to give the Jewish people life.  This generation, this generation of slaves had weapons, but they were like the bones of Joseph - lifeless.  Only after they had crossed the Sea of Reeds and left Egypt behind would they begin to be infused with the Spirit of the Lord as we see when these same Israelites take up arms against the Amalakites at Rephidim and with the Lord’s help gain military victory.

Farewell Pharaoh

This week marks the end of contact with Pharaoh.  As soon as the Israelites cross the sea, he is gone from the narrative.  One week he is this seemingly all powerful being who threatens the very existence of the Hebrews and then, like the wind, he is gone.  Many people are bothered by the fact that in the story of the plagues, the text tells us that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  Under these circumstances, Pharaoh does not seem to be a free agent making his own choices but merely a puppet that God uses to show off His divine power.  This week shows that such was not really the case.  “When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the Pharaoh and his courtiers had a change of heart…He ordered his chariot and took his men with him…” (14:5-6).  Only then does the text say “The Lord stiffened the heart of Pharaoh…and he gave chase to the Israelites.” (14:8).  In other words, Pharaoh made the decision to go out and recapture his slaves before God intervened.  He could have left well enough alone, but like any despot, he had no intention of giving up his human property.  If there was ever any doubt as to the nature of Pharaoh, if there ever was any question that somehow God was the one who made Pharaoh behave in an evil manner just to show off His power, this interplay should put the claim to rest.


By the end of this week’s reading the enemy has shifted from Pharaoh and the Egyptians to the Amalekites.  The enmity towards the Egyptians seems to have ended as soon as the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds.  But as for the Amalekites the Sedrah ends literally “There is a war for Hashem against Amalek from generation to generation” or “The Lord will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”  The puzzle is that there is no explanation for this long-term, eternal state of enmity.  All we know is that the Amalekites attacked the rear, or weakest section of the Israelite line of march as they made their way through the Wilderness.  On the other hand the Egyptians were cruel taskmasters for over four centuries.  Some Rabbis say that the Amalekites have come to represent all of the enemies of the Jewish people but that explanation begs the question.  Do we have another one of those puzzles that provide the impetus for reading this material year in and year out?  Only time will tell.


The movement to free the slaves in the United States drew on the stories from Exodus for much of its morality and many of its literary motifs.  One cannot help but be struck by the role of water in the two tales of liberation.  For the Israelites, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds marked their entrance into a world where they were no longer slaves.  For African-Americans, crossing the Ohio River meant the same thing.  Personal note:  The first time I jogged across a bridge that crossed the Ohio between Kentucky and Indiana, it struck me as so strange.  At one end of the bridge, a person was a slave; at the other end the person was a free human being.  Gives a whole new meaning to “Life is a narrow bridge.  Do not be afraid to cross.”

Jewish Women:  TaNaCh versus Hamevaser

This week’s Torah and Haftarah readings remind us of the dynamic and important role that women have played in the life of the Jewish people.  There is Serach, the keeper of Jewish memory.  There is Miriam, the prophetess who cared for the infant Moshe.  Finally, there is Deborah, who was such a powerful figure that the Israelites would not go to battle without her.  Compare this with the ultra-Orthodox paper Hamevaser which digitally removed Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and other women from a photo of a march in Paris following the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of at least six Jews, four of whom were killed at a Kosher market while shopping for Shabbat.  This on-going war on women carried on by the ultra-Orthodox stands in stark contrast to the reality of our history which includes the sage Rashi educating his daughters.

No Happy Ending

The bulk of this week’s reading concerns itself with the last dramatic events of the Exodus.  So why not end the reading on a high note with Moses and Miriam leading the people in joyful song?  Why not, for once, let the children of Israel savor a moment of unalloyed joy?  Why not let us enjoy “a happy ending?”  Why do we have to continue this week’s reading with the wandering in the wilderness - with thirst, starvation and a battle with an enemy committed to our destruction?  Could it be that the sages were trying to teach us a lesson about ecstasy, reality and faith?  It is easy to believe when things are going our way - when we get into the college of our choice, get the big promotion or find our life’s companion.  That’s the equivalent of life when you are standing on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds knowing that you will never feel the lash of the taskmaster again.  But real life is not, as the English say, all beer and skittles.  Life can be a long hard punishing slog, sort of like wandering through the wilderness - hungry, thirty and beset by those who will rob and murder you.  Just as the real test of faith came for the Israelites once they were plunged into the reality of the wilderness so the real test of our faith comes when we are faced with the reality of daily life.  It is easy to recite a motzi on Shabbat when you are holding two loaves of warm, fresh challah in your hands.  The challenge is to recite the motzi with that same fervor and joy when you are doing it over the “crust of our daily bread.”


Judges 4:4-5:31 (Ashkenazim)

Judges 5:1-5:31 (Sephardim)

The Book:  Judges or Shoftim is the second book in the section of the TaNaCh called Prophets or Neviim.  It is preceded by the Book of Joshua and followed by the Books of Samuel.  This is appropriate since the book covers the two to three hundred year interval between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel.  This is hardly a time of glory for the Children of Israel.  You might think of it as a period like the Dark Ages, that period of history between the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance.  There was no national government.  Each tribe existed in its own little world.  As the text says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his eyes.”  Furthermore, the Israelites had lost the religious purity with which they had entered the Promised Land.  They fell victim to the temptations of the local deities and began to worship them.  As the text says on more than one occasion, “And the Children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.”  Finally, this was a period of intermittent warfare.  The different Israelite tribes found themselves under attack from a variety of enemies including the Philistines.  In other words we have a period of religious and political chaos where there was little in the way of law and order either in the realm of spiritual or temporal affairs.  During this time of anarchy, individuals would arise to provide leadership to some or all of the tribes in the face of various calamities.  It is these figures including Deborah, Samson, and Gideon, to name three of the more famous Shoftim, who provide the literary structure and historic content for the Book of Judges.  The Hebrew term used for Judge is Shofet.  This does not refer to a judge in the sense of a judicial official or an officer of the court.  Shoftim did settle disputes but they also served as administrators, political leaders and military chieftains.  They were “defenders, deliverers and avenging punishers.”

The Message:  The haftarah focuses on one of the most famous Judges of all, Deborah.  First in prose and then in poetry, it tells how she rallied a portion of the tribes under the military leadership of Barak and defeated the army led by Sisera.  It also tells of how a woman named Jael killed Sisera.  After his army had been defeated, the general sought refuge in her tent.  To make a long story short, she ended up killing him by driving a tent pin through his temple.  The haftarah definitely reinforces the notion that in Judaism women play key, active roles.

Theme-Link:  The sedrah contains the Song at the Sea.  It includes the famous songs of victory by Moshe and Miriam that celebrated the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds.  The haftarah includes the Song of Deborah.  This is her famous hymn of victory that describes the deliverance from the armies of Sisera.  Both deliverances are credited to God.  Interestingly enough, both enemy armies relied on chariots.  In both cases their advantage comes to naught when their vehicles become mired in mud.  Of course the mud is a gift from God.

The Sephardim only read chapter five, which is the poetic version of the story.  Why do the Sephardim opt for a shorter version of the haftarah?  According to one source, the practice of translating the Torah portion during the service lasted longer with the Sephardim than it did with the Ashkenazim.  They opted for shorter prophetic portions so as not to make the services overly long.

Copyright January 2020 Mitchell A Levin

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 1, 2020

Readings for Saturday, February 1, 2020

Bo (Go)
10:1 - 13:16 Shemot (Exodus)

Bo is the third sedrah in the Book of Shemot (Exodus).  The Hebrew word “Bo” means “Go.”  The sedrah takes its name from the fifth Hebrew word in the first verse, “And the Lord said unto Moshe:  Go (Bo) in unto Pharaoh.”  Bo includes a description of the last three plagues, the Deliverance from Egypt, a series of laws including those relating to observing Pesach, Rosh Chodesh (the New Moon) and the Redemption of the First Born.  Summarizing this sedrah is difficult because the material, as just described, does not always follow in a smooth narrative.  Rather, these items are dispersed throughout the text.  Also, the amount of material presented in the sedrah and its significance is almost overwhelming.  Bo marks the beginning of the significant rollout of the 613 Commandments.  The entire Book of Bereshit contains three commandments.  The sedrah of Bo, alone, contains 20 commandments.  The list of these commandments is at the end of this and subsequent weekly guides.  Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the source for the wording and numbering.

The Plagues
Even though some commentators have divided the plagues into 3-3-3-1, the Torah readings divide them into seven (Shemot) and three (Bo).  As we continue to see in our studies, the combinations of three, seven and ten are quite common, reinforcing the belief that these numbers have certain mystical “powers.”

Eighth Plague (10:1-20) - The Plague of Locusts follows the previous pattern with Pharaoh promising to obey God if the plague is lifted and then going back on his promise.

Ninth Plague (10:21-29) - The Plague of Darkness deviates from the pattern of the first eight.  The other plagues supposedly each lasted a week.  Darkness only lasts six days.  According to some the seventh day of darkness will come later at the Sea of Reeds.  The narrative of the ninth plague ends with Pharaoh threatening Moshe’s life.  He still stands haughty in the face of the Almighty.

Tenth Plague (11:1-9, 12:29-30) - The Death of the First Born is divided into two parts.  First comes the promise of the plague.  Then comes a description of the plague itself.  However, these two parts are separated by 25 verses pertaining to the observance of Pesach.

Rosh Chodesh (12:1-2)
The Commandment to Observe the New Moon is the second law given to the Hebrews.  It is the first commandment given to the entire Israelite nation.  This position of narrative primacy is probably an indicator of the importance of this commandment.  Additionally, since the Jews have spent most of their time living without a land, the calendar is of supreme importance because we have spent so much of our existence dwelling in the fourth dimension - the dimension of time.

The Deliverance From Egypt (12:31-42)
Pharaoh finally gives in.  He orders Moshe and Aaron to take the Israelites and leave.  In the sparest possible language the text describes the hurried departure of the Israelites carrying their unleavened dough and the wealth of Egypt.  Tradition states that 600,000 men plus their families departed Egypt.  Others have translated the word “elef” differently so that the number leaving is more like 6000 men plus their families.  Additionally, the Torah tells us that a mixed multitude departed with the Israelites.  These were probably non-Israelite slaves who took advantage of the chaos to leave Egypt.  According to some, this mixed multitude will stay with the Israelites until Sinai and the Golden Calf.  Regardless, their departure at the time of the Exodus can be interpreted as proof that freedom is for all people.

The Laws of Pesach (12:3-28) (12:43-51) (13:3-10)
The laws themselves are listed below in the section entitled “Commandments.”  The laws of Pesach can be divided into two parts.  The first set of laws addresses the behavior of the Israelites at the time of the first Pesach, the actual deliverance from Egypt.  Here we find the commands concerning the sacrifice of the lamb and dabbing the doorpost with blood.  The second set of laws covers additional requirements for observing Pesach for all time.  The laws are not mutually exclusive and are actually supportive.

Redemption of the First Born (13:1-2,11-15)
Since God spared the first born males of the Israelites, they now belong to Him.  Hence the law comes to us requiring their redemption.  This has given rise to the ceremony known as “Pidyon Ha Ben” or Redemption of the First Born.

Tefillin (13:16)
The Sedrah ends with one of those strange sentences that seem to have no connection with what has gone before or what is about to happen.  “And it shall be a sign upon your arm and ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem removed us from Egypt.”  This statement will give rise to the wearing of the Tefillin.  In other words, when one dons the Tefillin each morning he is performing another ritual that reminds us of the Exodus.

4.    The obligation to bless the new moon each month.  12:2
5.    The slaughtering and preparing of the Paschal lamb.  12:6
6.    The obligation to participate in the eating of the Paschal lamb.  12:6
7.    The prohibition against eating the Passover lamb raw or boiled; it must be roasted.  12:9
8.    The prohibition against leaving remains from the Paschal lamb.  12:10
9.    The requirement to remove chametz from one’s possession before the beginning of Pesach.  12:15
10.   The obligation to eat matzah during Pesach.  12:18
11.   The prohibition against having any chametz in one’s possession throughout Pesach.  12:19
12.   The prohibition against eating any food containing chametz during Pesach.  12:20
13 -14.  The forbidding of certain individuals to eat the Paschal lamb.  12:44
15.   The prohibition against removing any part of the Paschal lamb from the house in which it was first eaten.  12:46
16.   The prohibition against breaking any of the Paschal sacrifice’s bones.  12:46
17.   The stricture against an uncircumcised man eating the Paschal lamb.  12:48
18.   The command to redeem the first born.  13:2
19.   The prohibition against eating any chametz during Pesach.  13:3
20.   The stricture against chametz being seen in any Israelite dwelling during Pesach.  13:7
21.   The obligation to tell one’s child the story of the liberation from Egypt.  13:8
22.   The requirement to redeem a firstborn donkey.  13:13
23.   The obligation to break the neck of a firstborn donkey that is not redeemed.  13:13

The term itself can be translated as pass over and has given rise to the English name for the holiday.  It is also the name of the sacrifice offered in observance of the holiday.  In reading the laws of Pesach, one can see the outline of the Seder and hear words found in the Haggadah.  Some of the practices that come from the laws found in Bo include:
·        The observance of Pesach on the 14th of Nissan in the evening for seven days;
·        The Seder as a way of telling our children of the Exodus in a family environment;
·        The eating of bitter herbs and Matzah;
·        The placing of the Shank Bone on the Seder Plate;
·        The removal of chametz from our homes;
·        The eating of only Kosher for Pesach foods during the holiday; and
·        The Fast of the First Born.
(There may be more, but there are space limitations.)

Creation and the Exodus
These are the two seminal events in the Torah.  One marks the beginning of mankind; the other the beginning of the Jewish people.  We are reminded of this in the Shabbat Kiddush when we invoke the commemoration “of the work of creation” and the commemoration “of the exodus from Egypt.”  Also this explains how we can have more than one “new year.”  Rosh Hashanah comes in the seventh month but is the New Year.  It is the New Year marking the start of creation.  The month when Pesach is observed is the “beginning of the months…the first of the months for you” (12:2).  This is the “New Year” of the Jewish people.  The Exodus marks the beginning of the Jewish people as a unique nation.

The actual commandment concerning the wearing of Tefillin will come later in the Torah.  But in this sedrah we read “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as reminder on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt” (13:9).  This is an obvious reference to donning Tefillin.  We are being told that when we wear them we are doing so to remember the Exodus from Egypt.  Since donning Tefillin is one of the first things a Jew does every weekday morning, we can see that remembering the Exodus is a conscious act that should infuse our thoughts and behavior on a daily basis.

Pidyon Ha Ben
The ceremony for the Redemption of the First Born finds its origins in this sedrah (13:1-2).  The ceremony is really a rare one.  It must only be observed when a woman’s first born is a male.  If a daughter was born first or if there has been a miscarriage the ceremony is not performed.  Also, in the event of a cesarean birth, the ceremony is not performed because the commandment has to do with “the first issue of the womb.”  Finally, the ceremony is not performed when the first male issue is of the tribe of Levi.  The ceremony cannot take place until the youngster is at least thirty days old.  Usually the ceremonial table is set with Challah and a Kiddush cup.  The mother brings the youngster to the father and the Kohein, to whom the father has given five silver coins.  A highly stylized dialogue takes places between the father and the Kohein that includes a special Blessing of Redemption and a Shehecheyanu.  There is a legend I heard as youngster.  Because of the Exile, there was a sage who was not quite sure if those who claimed to be Kohanim really were in the purest sense of that term.  So every time he met a Kohein, he would go through the ceremony for his son just to ensure that at least one time it had been done right.

Rosh Chodesh
The obligation to bless this New Moon creates a monthly mini-holiday.  Every month on the first day of the month (and some months we observe this for two days), Hallel is recited.  An extra section is added to the Amidah.  The Torah is read and Musaf is recited.  On the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh, there is a special Blessing of the New Month, when the leader announces the exact time when the upcoming month will begin.  There are no prohibitions against work on Rosh Chodesh.  According to some traditional sages (and they base this on Rashi) Rosh Chodesh should be regarded as a “mini-mother’s day honoring women for their superior piety by which the Jewish people is eternally recreated.”

The Tenth Plague
The Tenth Plague is different in many ways from the other nine.  While the other nine are considered educational, the tenth is for punishment.  The tenth is to come at a stated time, around Midnight.  And the tenth requires active behavior on the part of the Israelites.  They must put blood on their doorposts and they must stay indoors.  The tenth plague also required an act of physical courage on the part of the Israelites.  They must take lambs ahead of time, days before the actual exodus.  But the lamb was sacred to the Egyptians.  By taking the lamb in this way, the Israelites were being asked to risk death at the hands of the Egyptians so that they could be part of the Exodus.  It is one thing to have faith.  It is quite another thing to lay it all on the line including risking your own life.

The Coming of the Messiah
The Exodus from Egypt is a harbinger for the ultimate redemption.  In the words of the prophet Micah, “Like the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will demonstrate wonders.”  As Rabbi Schneerson points out, “the deliverance from Egypt was a reward for the faith, which was…internalized by the Israelites.”  “So, too, will the future redemption be a reward for faith - the faith which disregards the great concealments of God that our exile brings, and which still holds firm to the belief in the Messiah.  A faith which does not hover at the outer edges of our minds but which constitutes our most inward certainty and extends to every facet of our being.”

The Tenth Plague troubles many people.  “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh…to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone…” seems to be a very harsh punishment.  To the modern eye this seems to be punishing children for the sins of the parents, something later prohibited by Jewish law.  Also, it seems to punish the powerless along with the powerful.  This could spark a lively discussion should your Seder become routine or boring.

In her commentary on “Bo” entitled Sign on the Door, Fredelle Z. Spiegel points out the role that visualizations play in the final act leading up to the Exodus.  The Israelites were not just commanded to slaughter and eat the lamb, they were commanded to “take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it (the paschal lamb).”  Why were the Israelites to do this?  The popular answer is found in the second half of verse 13, “when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”  In other words, the Israelites needed to put the blood on so that God would know that they had identified themselves as His Chosen People.  But there is a second reason for this visualization, a reason that should affect our behavior today.  In the first half of verse 13 it says, “And the blood on the houses in which you dwell shall be as a sign for you.…”  What does this mean that the blood will be a sign for you i.e., the Israelites?  By marking the doorposts, the Israelites were letting God know that these were Jewish homes.  They were letting the Egyptians know these were Jewish homes.  But most important they were reminding themselves that they were Jews living in Jewish homes.  Today we put a mezuzah on our doorposts.  The mezuzah does let the world know that Jews live in the house.  But more importantly, it reminds the Jews, as they kiss it on the way in and out of the house, that this is a Jewish home and that they are Jews.  When parents adorn their homes with Jewish objects - Kiddush cups, seder plates, Chanukah menorahs and Jewish books - they are reminding their children that this is a Jewish home.  At the Seder, it is the visuals, the items on the table, that trigger the Children’s Questions that lead to the entire recitation of the Haggadah.  In the home, it is the visuals that trigger the children’s curiosity about their Jewish heritage.  Just as the Blood on the Doorposts reminded the ancient Israelites that, despite all the privations of slavery, they were still Jewish, so it is that when we enter our homes, touching the mezuzah with our fingertips, we are reminded that, regardless of what we have experienced that day in the secular world, we are still Jews tied to the Promise of Sinai and the ultimate Redemption.

Promises Made/Promises Kept
In Bereshit (Genesis), God told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years before He would punish their masters and free them from bondage.  “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.” (15: 13, 14).  The book of Shemot (Exodus) opens with a description of the first part of the promise.  In this week’s portion we read the description of the second part of the promise including going free with great wealth.  “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.  The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people.” (11: 2, 3)  “The Israelite had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.  And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people…” (12:35).  The message to the our forbearers, and hopefully for us and our descendants, is that God makes promises and God keeps his word.

Passover Customs
For those of you who are looking for new ways to enliven your Passover celebration you might want to follow the custom of some Jewish communities in which the people would create dramatizations of the Exodus based on this week’s Torah portion, as part of their Pesach observance.  “So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders.” (12:34).  After their Seder, the Moroccan Jewish men would “rush out of the house and run up and down the street shouting, ‘In this manner our forefathers went out of Egypt, their kneading-troughs bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.’”  As part of their dramatization, Jews living in the region of the Caucasus Mountains would dress “in their festive best” for the Seder and the women would “adorn themselves with jewelry of all kinds” possibly as visual reminder of the gold, silver and clothing that the Egyptians had given the departing Israelites.

The Haggadah and Shemot
As we saw last week, the creators of the Haggadah relied heavily on the Torah as a source for the actual text.  “Maggid” - the lengthy portion that retells the story of the Exodus - includes several lines from “Bo.”  In explaining the reason for the Pesach sacrifice, the text says, “You shall say, it is a Pesach sacrifice for the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians and He saved our houses; and the people bowed down and prostrated themselves.” (12:27).  In explaining the reason for eating Matzah, the text says, “And they baked unleavened bread from the dough which they had taken with them from Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not delay there; nor had they prepared for themselves any provisions for the way.” (12:39).  As the Seder moves forward toward the first Hallel, the Haggadah again uses the words of “Bo” to explain why “in every  generation” each of us should feel that we individually were freed from the Egyptian bondage.  “You shall tell your son on that day saying:  for the sake of this, the Lord did for me when I went out from Egypt.” (13:8).  And for those of you who are looking for “extra credit,” read the section of the Four Sons and see how much of that interplay comes from this week’s Torah portion.

Problem with translation
At the start of Chapter 11, God tells Moses about the coming of the final plague.  And then, according to the modern translations, He says, “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (11:2).  The term “borrow” implies that the items will be returned to their owners after some period of time.  But we know that there is no intention of returning these items to the Egyptians, so is this a case of God being disingenuous or deliberately misleading?  I think not.  A more literal translation says “Speak now in the ears of the people and let them request each man from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor vessels of silver and vessels of gold.”  The literal translation would seem to remove the moral ambiguity created by the use of the term “borrow.”  Why would the Egyptians acquiesce to such a request?  Possibly, because, unlike their king, they had come to fear the plagues and they might have viewed surrendering their values as a “bribe” that would bring them to an end.  Regardless of what the Egyptians thought, this was a fulfillment of a divine promise that they “would go forth with great wealth.”  These vessels of silver and gold will appear again in the Torah.  They are the material from which the Golden Calf is made.  Note that the command to “request” these items is sex-segregated.  According to later commentary, the men surrendered their valuables for the Golden Calf while the women kept theirs and gave them to be used in the building of the Tabernacle.  It is one of those examples of the higher level of spirituality which we attributed to women.

Sifting the Flour

There is so much going on this portion - so much action packed narrative, so many lessons to learn.  So, how do we begin to rank order them?  How do we, so to speak, sift this “flour” so we are left with Maimonides’ “finely sifted flour?”  For Rabbi Jonathan Sacks it would seem that the following three verses are of great importance since he uses them in three separate commentaries on “Bo.”

And when your children ask you, "What do you mean by this rite?" you shall say, "It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses." (Ex. 12:26-27).

And you shall explain to your child on that day, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." (Ex. 13:8).

And when, in time to come, your child asks you, saying, "What does this mean?" you shall say to him, "It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage." (Ex. 13:14).  These verses remind us of what is really important to Jewish survival and growth.  Taken together, they show that at the time of these great events, Moses was thinking of the future, not just savoring the present victory.  They show the importance of education and training for all children.  And it shows how we teach.  We teach and we learn with questions.  As the Nobel Prize winner’s grandmother would ask him when he came home from grammar school, “Did you ask good questions?”  As Sacks pointed out, teaching like this led to the creation by the Jews of the first compulsory education system (1st century) that included providing opportunities for orphans who did not the wherewithal to pay tuition.  While our ancient contemporaries were building pyramids, ziggurats and triumphal arches, Jews were creating an educational system.  It is this system, based, in no small part on these three strictures that has meant the Jewish people continue to thrive while our ancient contemporaries are consigned the musty dust bin of history.


46:13-28 Jeremiah

With so much to cover in the sedrah, we will keep this brief.  As one of three Major Prophets, Jeremiah is worthy of a lot of time.  He provides three of the haftarot for sidrot from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), so we will have plenty of time to give him his just deserts later on.

The Man:  Jeremiah lived at a time of great political and social turmoil during the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E.  He was active during the last days of the Southern Kingdom and lived through destruction of the Temple and the early days of the Exile.  He was born about 645 B.C.E. in small town outside of Jerusalem called Anatoth in the lands of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was part of a priestly family that had found favor with King David but was subsequently banished from Jerusalem by King Solomon.  So from his birth, Jeremiah appeared to be destined to play the role of the quintessential outsider.  The Jews of Jeremiah’s time were confronted with the challenge of Babylonia.  Jeremiah’s advice was to make peace with the Babylonians.  His advice was repeatedly ignored.  He was branded a traitor and imprisoned.  His life was threatened on more than one occasion and he suffered the indignity of having his writings burned before his eyes.  Jeremiah told the first exiles sent to Babylonia (pre-586) to become good citizens of their new home.  After the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was taken to Egypt against his will.  According to some he died there under questionable circumstances.

The Message:  It is complex, multi-faceted and beyond what we can cover this week.  He is the reluctant prophet who chastises the people.  Some see him as the embodiment of harsh meanness and his name has come into the language in the word “jeremiad.”  But he was also a man who put a premium on social justice and ethical behavior.  He provided guidelines for identifying false prophets and is the prototype for those who are willing to challenge the military and foreign policy actions of their government while remaining a loyal citizen.  Considering events in the United States, this is an excellent example of the timelessness of the teachings of the TaNaCh.  Last, but not least, Jeremiah provided a message of hope when all that was going around him should have led to despair and hopelessness.  If you want to swim against the stream, Jeremiah will show you how.  More importantly, he will tell you when and why you should make the effort.

Theme-Link:  The sedrah tells of the humiliation of Pharaoh and the redemption of the Israelites from bondage.  In the haftarah, Jeremiah tells of the humiliation of a contemporary Pharaoh.  He is relating his message to the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C.E. when the Egyptians were defeated by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar.  This is the same Nebuchadnezzar who will become King of the Babylonians and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E.  This brief haftarah then ends with a message of restoration for the Israelites.  It predicts a future redemption that will be even greater than the redemption from Egyptian bondage.

Copyright January 2020 Mitchell A Levin