January 1-6: Parshat Shemot
Parshat Shemot, the first portion of the Book of Exodus, provides us with a wealth of examples of individuals who intervene on behalf of others when their consciences prompt them. We begin with the midwives in Exodus 1:15. The verse calls them m’yaldot ha-ivriot, the Hebrew midwives, but our commentators disagree on whether that means that these women are Hebrew themselves or Egyptian women who work with the Hebrews. Either way, when the Pharaoh orders them to kill all the Hebrew baby boys, these women take a stand. They refuse to bring harm to these children and lie straight to Pharaoh’s face when asked why they have failed to carry out the order.
Moses’s adoptive mother, the daughter of Pharaoh, follows in the midwives’ footsteps. In Exodus 2:6, when she discovers Moses in the basket, she exclaims, “Miyaldei ha-ivrim zeh—this is one of the Hebrew children!” Pharaoh’s daughter takes her stand against her father’s horrific decree. Not only does she adopt a Hebrew child as her own, but she hires and pays Moses’s mother to nurse him. The princess does more than adopt a baby in this parsha; her actions are political. She publicly opposes her father. Her protest is one of love and radical acceptance.
The midwives and the princess intervene when they have no reason to do so and every reason to go with the status quo. The midwives’ disobedience threatens their very lives. The princess risks her relationship with her family. Yet they listen to the call of their hearts to do what is right and defend those less fortunate than themselves. It is no wonder, given the examples he grew up with, that Moses acts similarly. In Exodus 2:17, when Moses arrives in the land of Midian, he steps in and protects the seven daughters of the priest Reuel from the shepherds scaring them off, helping them to safely water their flocks. Moses owes Reuel’s daughters no allegiance, but he feels compelled to act after observing how they are being mistreated.
The story of the Hebrew redemption from slavery begins with several individual characters standing up for what they believe is right. Even when they might lose more than they ever could hope to gain, the midwives and the princess intervene on behalf of life and mercy, and it is through their actions that Moses makes it to adulthood and survives long enough to become the leader and hero of the Exodus story. In this first week of the new year of 2024, let us keep in mind the success of these ‘interveners’ who call out injustice and defend the helpless with abundant love. May we, like the midwives and the princess, look for opportunities to do the same in 2024.
January 7-13: Parshat Vaera
When I neared the end of the conversion process, I received one of the greatest gifts anyone can get—the ability to name myself. For my Hebrew name, I retained my given first name, but I also allowed myself to select a middle name, which I derived from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. I chose ‘Yocheved’––and yes, this name was inspired primarily by Ofra Haza’s stunning performance in The Prince of Egypt. But I wanted to take on the mantle of what I believe Yocheved represents.
In Exodus 6:20, the name of Moses’s mother, Yocheved, is finally revealed. But she is not introduced. We met her in last week’s parsha, in the famous tale in which she remains anonymous, a Hebrew mother forced to make a dreadful choice when she can no longer hide her infant son from Pharaoh’s decree of execution. Though the Torah tells us of her deeds, it does not tell us her plan. We have no glimpse inside Yocheved’s mind. Why did she decide to put Moses in that basket? The fact that she made it waterproof implies that she hoped Moses would survive his trip down the Nile, but what was her ultimate goal? Did she hope to rescue him when Pharaoh’s troops left Goshen? Did she hope he would be adopted?
Yocheved did not know and could not guess what would happen to Moses. To me, she embodies the oft-forgotten Jewish value of emunah. Emunah embodies faith plus. It’s more than believing in G-d, it’s trusting in G-d. Ahavah is the act of putting your child in a basket to save its life; emunah is the act of hoping G-d will take it from there.
It is a bittersweet act, to have emunah. It wins Yocheved many rewards. After all, G-d does bring her son to safety, and Pharaoh’s daughter allows Yocheved to nurse her son and raise him in her own home. And we read in Seder Olam Rabbah that Yocheved was among the Israelites who were brought forth out of Egypt and into the wilderness. However, her faith in G-d also meant she bore witness to things she might have preferred never to see. She had to give up her son to Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up in the royal house of Egypt. According to the same chapter of Seder Olam Rabbah, Yocheved outlived all three of her children.
To have emunah is to accept that when you entrust something to G-d, the outcome is out of your control. But I imagine Yocheved did not regret her choices. May her emunah serve as an example to all of us.
January 14-20: Parshat Bo
Much of Judaism, even from its earliest codes of law, is concerned with distinctions. How do we categorize different things? How do we stratify classes of objects, of people, to create a hierarchy? What is holy, what is mundane, and what is the dangerous in-between?
That tension is present from the very first parsha in which the Israelites gain their freedom. When the Israelites took their first steps out of Egypt, they were not alone. In addition to the six thousand Israelite warriors protecting the people, there was an eirev rav, a great mix. The word eirev does more than evoke a mixed group of people—its primary translation is ‘woof,’ as in the warp and the woof that makes up a woven cloth. The eirev is the thread that weaves through, up and down and around, to create unity.
Who comprises this eirev? The medieval commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Rashbam all agree that this mixed multitude are Egyptians of all sorts. Some might have converted to the Israelite faith. Some might have looked to escape an Egypt that was crumbling around them, throwing in their lot with the Israelites. Some might have been friends and family, perhaps even spouses. One thing is for certain: this eirev rav is so tight-knit with the Israelites that they are as inextricable as a thread in a woven cloth.
But a few verses after we learn of the Egyptians who travel with the Israelites, G-d gives Moses and Aaron rules for how this new group will celebrate Passover. Foreigners, like the Egyptians, may not eat of the Passover sacrifice. Circumcised slaves may eat, but not hired workers. Should a foreigner wish to participate, he must enter the Israelite covenant of circumcision to be considered worthy. Parshat Bo holds this tension between keeping groups of people separate and throwing them together so closely that they cannot be pulled apart.
It is the same tension that we contend with today. How much should we separate ourselves from other religions? How much should we separate our own religious and patriotic identities? These are questions that will endure as long as Judaism endures, but we can at least take our cue in one regard from Parshat Bo—a mixed multitude has always been a part of Jewish life. There have always been, and always will be, groups of people who make the journey with us. They could be our own interfaith families, our co-workers, our friends, and allies. They are connected to us through threads of life that cannot be pulled apart easily. And the journey through the wilderness is made sweeter through their friendship.
January 21-27: Parshat Beshalach
Forget Abraham and Jacob and Moses—the real main character of the Torah, G-d excepted, is water. Water trickles and surges its way through the story of our people from the first pages of Genesis, when G-d’s spirit hovers over the water in the formless void. Often, it is a destructive force, such as the flood of Noah’s generation or the Nile River as it turns to blood. Other times, it is a signal of life, present in the wells that serve as meeting places for patriarchs and their brides. In Parshat Beshalach, water is at its most miraculous as the Sea of Reeds is split in two. But it is another body of water in this Torah portion that interests me.
Exodus 15:17 tells us that after the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds and make their way through a wilderness with no potable water, they come to a place called Elim—a desert oasis with twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. The verse informs us “vaychanu-sham al-ha-ma’im,” the Israelites encamped there by the water.
This verse, sandwiched between the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the miracle of manna, might otherwise go unnoticed. But it is this encampment that catches my eye in the text. The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra wrote of his belief that the Israelites remained in Elim for twenty days, and that the waters there were sweet, otherwise so many palm trees would not have flourished.
Perhaps the amount of time the Israelites spent in one verse, or the flavor of the water where they camped, seems insignificant. But put in context, the oasis of Elim teaches us an important lesson. The Israelites had just been through a transformative event. They had gone from slaves to free people, and the end of their enslavement was marked by a miracle that would be difficult to believe if they had not seen it with their own eyes. Up ahead in the story, they will have to fight and travel and work hard to maintain and define this new freedom. To have the energy to continue toward Sinai, they needed a moment of rest, of sweetness.
After transformative periods in our own lives, we all need our oasis of Elim. To ask ourselves to plow through from one earth-shattering event to the next is unfair; even G-d granted the Israelites the better part of a month to recuperate. G-d gave them a safe place to rest, to drink sweet water and sit beneath the shade of palm trees, to contemplate their new status in life. We might not all have access to a tropical resort, courtesy of G-d, but we can give ourselves the same gift of time.
January 28-February 3: Parshat Yitro
There are voices in the Torah that are lost to us, whose absence paints a picture of disconnection, separation, and loneliness. In a document so obsessed with lineages—think of the descendants of Adam, of Noah, of Jacob, of Aaron—one patriarch’s line falls short. Where are Moses’s sons? How is it that the two children of our greatest leader get lost in the text?
It is only through the opening verses of Parshat Yitro that we know Moses has two sons at all. His wife Tzipporah, who disappeared from the narrative of Moses in Egypt, is revealed to have been staying with her father Yitro. She and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, join Yitro and travel to meet Moses as he camps at the base of Mount Sinai. And yet at the moment of reunion with his family, Moses greets only his father-in-law. He bows before him and asks how he has been since he last saw him.
Then he takes his father-in-law into his tent and shares ‘kol-asher asah Adonai l’Faroh ul’Mitzrayim al odot Israel,’ everything that G-d did to Pharaoh and Egypt for Israel’s sake.
There is no kiss of greeting for Tzipporah, nor hugs for Gershom and Eliezer. Moses does not bother to take them into his tent and share all the amazing things that have happened since he last saw them. Nor does he ask how they are doing. Moses and Yitro take their leave of each other, and Moses’s wife and sons are never seen again.
What are we to make of their absence? Midrash Tanchuma explains that Moses’s sons were not fit to take over the leadership of the tribes because they did not study the Torah. But this explanation does not sit right with me. Even if Moses’s sons were slacker scholars, there was no reason for them to be left behind. For all that Moses succeeds in as a leader of the Israelites, he fails as a husband and a father. His interactions with his nephews are well-documented; we never hear about his sons again.
These lost voices, these glaring absences in the Torah, tell their own story. Were Gershom and Eliezer abandoned, left with their grandfather, never to see Moses again? Or did they join their father in the wilderness, but never measured up to their successful priestly cousins and were destined to fade into the background of the story? In considering the absent text as well as the text we have, we enrich the story of our ancestors.
February 4-10: Parshat Mishpatim
By its very name, we know that Parshat Mishpatim is all about rules. It is a parsha entirely dedicated to the rules that G-d expects the Israelites to uphold now that they are free. And as is the case with any document of the Ancient Near East, these rules can raise some eyebrows. What remains clear is that the Israelites lived in a much more brutal world than we do. So many of these laws concern death and violence. And yet the Talmud finds a way to turn death into life.
Exodus 22:1 informs us, “If a thief is found while tunneling [under a fence into a house], and [the homeowner] beats him to death, [the homeowner] has no bloodguilt.” In other words, in this case, Exodus entitles homeowners to kill in self-defense. But in the Talmud (Yoma 85a-b), Rabbi Yishmael considers this verse. He is surprised that the Torah would condone murder without evidence. This law assumes that the thief, once he is done stealing, will injure or murder the inhabitants of the house to eliminate the witnesses—but what if the thief is only there to steal while everyone is asleep? He would still be liable for punishment, but not for death! Rabbi Yishmael further makes the point that even justified murder impurifies the land of Israel.
Rabbi Yishmael does not negate Exodus 22:1 or argue that the law should be changed. But he does find a way to preserve life even out of a verse that permits death. If a man is allowed to kill a thief tunneling into his house on Shabbat, he says, how much more so is it allowed for a man to save a life on Shabbat? His is an argument of pikuach nefesh, of preserving life even when it would violate the halacha.
Ours is a tradition that we sometimes struggle with, especially when we encounter laws we disagree with or stories we find challenging. But like Rabbi Yishmael, there is always an opportunity for us to examine a verse and see if we can wrestle the good out of it.
February 11-17: Parshat Terumah
Two years ago, I started to embroider a tallit. I drew the design in my diary: a rendering of Genesis to Deuteronomy done entirely in embroidery thread. On the right, I started with the days of creation, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel. Inch by inch, I’ve made it more than halfway across, and I currently sit stumped at Leviticus. I know that I want to embroider an accurate picture of the Mishkan, but for the first time, I feel nervous about sewing. This was G-d’s dwelling place in the wilderness, and it will be immortalized in thread. This is something I don’t want to get wrong.
I wonder if the artists of Parshat Terumah faced the same hesitation. In this parsha, G-d gives Moses detailed instructions on how the Israelite artists are to construct the Mishkan, down to the number of planks, sockets, and twisted linens. We know that fiber arts were a huge part of the construction—Exodus 26:31 tells us that these artists should make “a curtain of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of cherubim worked into it.”
Embroidered on the curtain should be ‘maaseh choshev,’ literally, ‘the work of a thinker.’
The medieval commentator Rashi clarifies this ‘maaseh choshev’ as a weaving with two surfaces, a unique design on either side. I can only imagine Moses explaining this to the embroiderers and fiber artists in the camp:
“You’ll need to embroider a different cherubim design on either side.”
“Okay, so which side faces the Holy of Holies, and which side faces the door?”
“Um…I don’t know. G-d didn’t say.”
“G-d told you how many silver sockets to hammer out but G-d didn’t mention which side should face the Holy of Holies??”
Talk about pressure.
Those embroiderers had a way tougher—and way more esteemed—job than I do with my little tallit. But I hope they took comfort from G-d’s instructions as I’m trying to, while I attempt to design my little thread Mishkan. The design needs to be the work of a thinker. G-d’s only requirement is that effort thought and planning go into the design that brings G-d honor. The best way to honor G-d, in this case, is to trust our minds.
February 18-24: Parshat Tetzaveh
My classmates and I are planning a party for the summer before we begin our last year of rabbinical school. We can’t quite nail down a name—Rabbinic Ethics Party? Moral Code Scrapbooking?—but the gist is this. We want to gather together with writings, art, and quotes that encapsulate why we wanted to become rabbis in the first place. That way, whenever we have a difficult day on the job, we can open our little scrapbooks or time capsules and remember why we are here and whom we serve.
Lucky for Aaron and the priests, they didn’t need a party like this. They had their reminders ready-made.
In Parshat Tetzaveh, G-d instructs Moses on how to make the priestly garments that Aaron and his sons will wear as they work in the Mishkan. G-d describes a grid-like breastplate to hang around their necks with twelve engraved stones in four rows. Each precious stone has the name of each tribe of Israel. According to Exodus 28:29, this breastplate functions ‘l’zikaron lifnei Adonai tamid,’ as a reminder before G-d forever.
The breastplate works as a double remembrance. Every day as Aaron works, the weight of the breastplate around his neck will remind him that it is on behalf of these twelve tribes that he serves. He is their representative in the sacrificial relationship with G-d. It is also a reminder to G-d. The breastplate is lifnei Adonai, before G-d, unavoidable. Each day that G-d resides in the Mishkan and partakes in the sacrifices offered by the priests, G-d has to see the brilliant reminder of the people G-d chose to love and protect.
This jewelry design isn’t lost on us today. Plenty of us have wedding rings that remind us of our commitments to our spouses. Some of us might have necklaces with birthstones or engravings that remind us of our children. These pieces of jewelry are covenantal remembrances in their way. They keep us connected to those we promised to love and cherish the most and remind us that what we do is for their safety and happiness.