Sunday, January 24, 2021

Saturday, January 30, 2021 The Sabbath of the Song


Readings for Saturday, January 30, 2021

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 2019 Mitchell A Levin



Thursday, January 21, 2021

Readings for Saturday, January 23, 2021


Readings for Saturday, January 23, 2021


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 2021 Mitchell A Levin