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Posted By The Stash

We are rightly critical of those we consider hypocrites. We demand that people “walk the walk and talk the talk”, that their private and public persona remain in synch. And woe to the public figure, with Tiger Woods simply being one of many notable examples, whose private life is revealed to be far different than the person his publicists have carefully carved out. Many reporters live for the opportunity of unmasking this type of behaviour. This type of journalism has become so popular that it spawned the disgusting revelations that brought down press baron Rupert Murdoch.

Judaism shares this concern that, as Maimonides wrote of the ideal student, “his inside matches his outside”. And that is the purpose of the tefillin whose construction is described in this chapter. We are told that they “will be a sign on your hand and remembrance between your eyes, in order that the G-d’s Torah will be in your mouth, for with a strong hand G-d freed you from Egypt.” This strange verse links some kind of object worn on the hand and head to remembering Torah and the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. How is this possible?

The Rashbam, ever the literalist, says simply that “Torah in your mouth” means that Judaism will always form part of the natural course of things you speak about. The Jew will see their lives through the lens of Torah. Their decisions will be informed by and infused with a sense of “what does Judaism say about this”. Why would they think this way? Ramban observes that the Exodus from Egypt was so fundamental a deliverance that we must mention it continually. Without it, we would not be able to serve G-d freely. Hence the phrase zecher l’yetziat Mitzrayim” –“in memory of our being freed from Egypt” is part of the Shabbat and Yom Tov Kiddush.

Now, after reading about the disgusting scenes of chareidim demanding that Judaism become a religion of segregation in buses and shopping malls, it may be tempting to argue that the last thing we need right now is “the Torah of G-d in our mouths”. It would seem that those most concerned with making G-d’s discourse their own wish to have nothing to do with their fellow Jews, and citing the torah engage in shameful acts reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the South or Islamic lands in which Sharia rules. It is precisely this attitude that our passuk wishes to challenge. Were we liberated from Egypt just to oppress fellow Jews? In the Temple, the Ezrat Nashim—the Womens’ Court—was situated in a desirable location where the service could be easily viewed. Biblical Jewish women, the sustainers of our religion in Egyptian bondage, were not relegated to the “back of the building”. Nor were there separate times for shopping in the ancient marketplaces in Biblical Israel.

Those who act in this manner and call themselves holy sever their behaviour from their learning. They may know a great deal, but their actions reflect ignorance and misanthropy. They need to “re-align their tefillin”—they need to remember the heroism of our female ancestors in Egypt, and make their actions reflect the historical truth they wish to ignore. As for us, as Intelligent Jews, we need to educate those whom we meet who ask us why these “Religious Jew” act this way, and wonder if this reflects an official stance of traditional Judaism. We need to explain that fanatics exist in all religions, all claim religiousity, but few are religious. And we need to keep learning and talking about Torah so it remains in our conversations and hopefully that of the coming generations.

Posted By The Stash

The Opening verse of our parasha is vitally important. It states: “And I [G-d] appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as “Kel Shakkai” [G-d Almighty] but I did not reveal my name “Adonai” to them.” All the major commentators agree that our foremothers and forefathers knew of G-d’s existence, but the names refer to different levels of their knowledge of the Divine. Nechama Leibowitz powerfully argues that often we assume that Moses’ knowledge of the Godhead was greater than that of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. After all, does the Torah not tell us that Moses was the greatest of the prophets? Surely he must have understood G-d more deeply and thus the Tetragrammaton (the 4 letter name of G-d) is applied to him by our parasha’s opening verse!

Not so. A well known piece in Massechet Sanhedrin (111A) has plenty to say about how Moses rates against his ancestors. G-d begins by complaining: “Alas for those who are gone, and cannot be replaced”—that is, our forefathers. G-d argues that Abraham left his native land, traversed a desert, and moved from place to place at the Divine behest, and never once asked for a miracle, nor “did he question My ways.” Isaac was driven out many times from places he settled, but “he did not question My ways”. Even Jacob, who was promised the entire land in his famous dream, could only pitch his tent after he purchased a small area for 100 kesitas of silver, but “he did not question my ways.” Moses, in stark contrast received miracles and signs at the bush, but the first time he faced adversity he complained. Indeed, Rav Soloveichik explained that this is why Moses actively interceded with G-d not to destroy the Israelites after the sin of the Golden Calf—he had to make up for his lack of faith in Egypt. It was only after this—when Moses’ intervention, rather than his typical reliance on miracles, saved the nation from Divine wrath that, argues the Rav, Moses actually attained a status higher than the Patriarchs and Matriarchs as a prophet.

In sum, the faith of the first Jews was a simple but deep one. They obeyed without much heed for the burden their obedience placed upon them. The question is: can we or should we have this faith? There is much to admire here in our ancestors’ willingness to abandon all in the face of the Divine decree, and to believe that their will must bend to G-d’s. But can we have a faith like this in an age of religiously “justified” zealotry? That is a very good question, for it really forces us to ask: what does faith look like and sound like? I suggest that the Talmud proposes a very profound truth: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not violate the law of the day just because they had a Divine promise that one day this land would be theirs. All three paid for land rather than taking it; all three did not graze in land that was not theirs. Their faith did not impose itself on others. And that is the faith we can seek—one that speaks to our needs, but leaves others to find their own way to G-d.

Posted By The Stash

In Egypt, the family of Jacob flourished, and their numbers exploded. Suddenly they morphed from a family of 70 to a nation of millions. The Torah records this matter of factly: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

As Rashi observes, all these verbs that describe the rapid increase in the Israelite population are synonymous words, piled up one on the other just like the increasing density of the Israelites in their chosen region of Goshen.

This rapid increase in the size of the Israelite population was famously forecast by G-d to Abram. The Torah relates that G-d took Abram outside and invited him “to count the stars if you can possibly count them” and then said “that is how numerous your descendants will be.” Yet Rashi brilliantly comments upon this with a verse from Psalms: “G-d counts them even though they are as numerous as the stars; G-d calls each by their name.” G-d does not lose sight of the individual Israelite despite the explosive increase in their number.

The narrative of Parashat Shmot makes it clear that the role of the individual in society remains crucial no matter how large the group becomes. Certainly we are told many times of the collective suffering of the Israelites: “And Pharoah embittered their lives with harsh labour”, “and the Israelites groaned from the work”, “and they built garrison cities.” But the parasha also emphasizes the singular bravery of individuals. How was Moses born? We read “And a man of the tribe of Levi married a woman of the tribe of Levi.” Why not tell us this verse refers to Amram and Yocheved, Moses’ parents? Because the text wishes to remind us that any man or any woman of Israel would have made the choice to have children and take the risk of having a boy who would be subject to death by Pharaonic decree. Indeed, a well known midrash shows the individual bravery of Miriam by interpreting this verse to mean that Moses’ parents separated when Pharaoh issued his decree rather than risk having a boy. Miriam went to them and said: “you are worse than Pharoah—he only decrees against the males but you decree against both genders!” Abashed, Amram and Yocheved reunited, and the rest is history. And what does Miriam do next, to ensure that this whose birth she catalyzed survived? She watches his progress down the Nile and recommends to Pharaoh’s daughter that she hire Yocheved as the wet nurse. All this—and we are never told her name. Why should we—many other girls would have done the same. This textual modality and many other midrashim combine to indicate both the brave active and passive resistance to slavery anonymous individual Israelites exhibited. Without their resolve to continue a minimal practice of what was then Judaism, Pharaoh would have succeeded in his mission of annihilation and assimilation.

There is a great lesson in this for us. There is plenty of room for the individual to make a difference today, and there always has been. Moreover, our tradition and our texts praise the person who takes initiative and acts morally within society. The fact that not all those who resisted Pharaoh have a name indicates this is truly an “everyman’s rebellion”. And so it should be. If we are to escape being the victims of history, we must take an active role when we believe our history is about to take a turn for the worse. Our names may never be recorded, but our actions will speak for us.

Posted By The Stash

Our forefather Jacob lived for 17 years after being reunited with his son Joseph. One would assume these were happy years when a long separated family could now bond and heal the deep wounds inflicted by jealousy, sibling rivalry, and hatred. Not at all. No sooner had Jacob died then the brothers concocted yet another story as they bow before Joseph begging for mercy, “Your father commanded before he died saying, ‘forgive the transgression of your brothers, and their sin, because they treated you evilly.’ And we ask that you forgive us…” (50:16-17).

An almost predictable ending to a lifelong misunderstanding. Joseph may have been the “Master Dreamer” in his brothers’ eyes, but they were certainly “Master Concocters of Tales”. They had never told the entire truth to their father about what happened to Joseph, or about what “the Lord of the Land” had told them when they went to Egypt to buy grain. Unsurprisingly, they revert to their previous behaviour. And what is Joseph’s response as they grovel in front of him proclaiming “we are your servants”?

Even without the benefit of Hollywood to guide us, we might expect a lengthy and vengeful diatribe followed by imprisonment for some brothers and death for those who were regarded as ringleaders in the plots against him. Instead Joseph replies: “Do not be afraid, am I G-d? You planned evil against me, but G-d planned all would turn out for the good, so that as we can see today, our nation will become numerous. So don’t be afraid, I will sustain you and your families.” And he comforted them, and spoke to their hearts (el libam).”

He spoke to their hearts—that is, Joseph’s speech went right to the essence of the brothers’ fears—that now, unfettered by his father’s presence, he would avenge himself on his brothers, measure for measure. We must marvel at Joseph’s nobility of character. His kindness goes beyond the norm. There is not even a mention of revenge. Indeed, Joseph cries when his brothers speak to him.

Joseph cries because it is painful and difficult to show mercy, subordinate his illustrious career as Egyptian grain czar to familial needs, and conquer his urge to wreak vengeance. The Torah is letting us know that the path of righteousness is not without pain. It is difficult to be a tzaddik (extremely righteous person) and it takes a personal toll. As Rabbi Chanoch Waxman observes, “Yosef rereads his destiny in accord with the needs of his family. The righteousness of Yosef is about elevating his family - the human needs of his father and brothers - above any destiny or any previous interpretation of his destiny. In place of his youthful vision of rulership, or some other later interpretation, Yosef fashions a vision of caring and support. These are acts of self-sacrifice and morality that the brothers cannot fathom. They are part of the cause of their worries, their distance, and the tragedy of Yosef.”

We are not tzadikkim on the level of Joseph, but we can still learn the vital message of knowing when to defer personal gain for familial peace. We will find this challenging, difficult, and sometimes impossible, but we must at least allow the “family factor” to weigh in the decision making process. This may fly in the face of our much vaunted “Charter rights to individual expression” but it builds a foundation of self-sacrifice and loyalty to our family always. This, never so much as now, is the basis of Jewish society and survival.




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