In this week’s parsha, Beshalach, the Israelites begin their journey from Egypt to Israel. There are moments when the Israelites question their exodus and God’s ability to protect them. Although they are liberated, their lives are filled with uncertainty and they still carry some of their slave-like mentality from Egypt. While being chased by Pharoah, the Israelites complain to Moses,“Let us be, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?” (14:13). Just after this moment, God splits the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Israelites to safely pass to dry land. But, their complaints continued. They later said to Moses and Aaron, “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death” (16:3). Rabbi Shai Held comments that in Beshalach, “the Israelites will need to discover, however slowly and painfully, that they have agency, that they can act in ways small and large to determine their own fate.”
This originally appeared on the Joy of Kosher website.
This week, in Bo, the remaining three plagues—locusts, darkness and the death of first-born sons–-are inflicted upon the Egyptians. While Egypt was shrouded in darkness, “all Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Bo, 10: 23). How, despite the plagues and the continuing hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, did the Israelites live at the precipice of freedom and eventually gain freedom?
The Sefat Emet teaches that “God had already placed in Egypt hidden treasures that Israel had to take out. . . . When they clarified the lights that came out of such a place, they would go on to live [and shine] throughout the generations.” (The Language of Truth, Translated by Arthur Green, pgs 93-94).
Led by Moses, they embodied light and strength for both their liberation and the birth of the nation of Israel. According to R. Levi, Israel was “no more than a heap of barren rocks. But, after they left Egypt, they became like a flourishing orchard of pomegranates.” (Sefer Ha-aggadah, p.71). The recipe that I created for Bo is inspired by the concept of finding light and strength in darkness, as well as the Israelites transformation. Continue reading
In Vaera, we read that Pharoah digs in his heels, hardens his heart and refuses to liberate the Israelite slaves, thus launching plagues against the Egyptians. “Even from such hardened sinners as Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God did not withhold the opportunity of mending their ways. Before a plague visited them Moses was charged to warn them of its coming, to-morrow, if they remained obdurate.” (Exodus Rabba)
So, why does Pharoah continue to enslave the Israelites?
Commentary in Etz Hayyim notes that the Israelites “must be freed in such a way that they, the Egyptians, and all the nations of the world will understand that it was God’s doing, not Pharaoh’s goodwill” (p. 351). The Israelites understanding of God’s role in their liberation is important “to establish the principle that it is unacceptable for one human being to reduce another human being to slavery, that freedom is the will of God and not the choice of a despot” (p. 351). This story’s universal message is important today.
The beginning of Shmot includes a listing of Jacob’s sons and a description that the “Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” Pharaoh, frustrated by the Israelites fertility commanded to the midwives that newborn boys be killed. But, “the midwives [Puah and Shifrah], fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.”
A midrash says, “Not only did they not do what Pharaoh told them, they even dared to do deeds of kindness for the children they saved. In behalf of poor mothers, the midwives would go to the houses of rich others and collect water and food, which they gave to the poor mothers and thus kept their children alive” (Sefer Ha-aggadah, p. 60).
Like many stories in the Book of Exodus (Shmot), the story of the midwives is one that exemplifies our responsibility to do justice in the face of oppression and protect disadvantaged people in our communities, nation and world. Continue reading
Bereshit (Genesis) is fraught with familial fighting and divisions. Vayechi, the final parsha (Torah portion) in Bereshit, ends this strife as it is a story of unity and redemption of the 12 tribes of Israel before they begin their exile. Diane Bloomfield teaches that their patriarch Jacob, embodies the quality of emet (truth), even in Egypt, a world of constriction and exile. Jacob’s 17 years of living in Egypt prepared the Israelites for their exile: he passed the seeds of discernment to them to discover and reveal his world of emet and echad (oneness).
In Vayechi, Jacob gathers his 12 sons to his deathbed, and says “come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” Chana Kroll writes on Chabad.org that at this moment, “the twelve individuals became one unified soul. They said the Shema prayer before their father Jacob, thus reassuring him that the principles of serving G‑d and recognizing His absolute Oneness would be lived and taught by them as well. One family, with one heart and one soul.”