Tag Archives: B’nai Mitzvah

The Dilemma of Moses as Killer

By Charles Rudnick, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom.

Today’s Torah portion, known as Sh’mot from the Book of Exodus, examines the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt under Pharaoh, God’s acknowledgement of their suffering, and his decision to send Moses to free the Jews from Egypt.

Within this broader context, Sh’mot tells the story of Moses’ own birth and growth into an adult and a leader of the Jews.  The portion I chanted today focuses on one aspect of this story that I believe is both an integral part of the overall Torah portion and highly illuminating in its own right.  It is also particularly meaningful to me.

We learn that Moses was born following Pharaoh’s order that all Jewish boys in Egypt be killed by throwing them into the Nile River.   Following his birth, Moses’ mother hid him for as long as she could.  When he was three months old, she placed Moses in a wicker basket, which she water-proofed and left along the edge of the Nile.

The basket was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took Moses in and raised him as her own son in Pharaoh’s household.  When he had grown into an adult, one day Moses went out and witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew.  He reacted by striking down the Egyptian and killing him (he also hid the body).

The next day, Moses went out again and saw two Jewish men fighting.  When he asked one of them why he was hitting the other, the man replied with scorn, telling Moses essentially:  “Who died and made you king?  Are you going to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?”  Moses realized his secret was out and, fearing for his life, fled to the land of Midian.

Moses’ actions are both inspiring and troubling, for they raise questions about law and society that are core to my beliefs and much of the work I have done over the years.

On the one hand, Moses demonstrated great bravery by standing up to an Egyptian oppressor to save a fellow Jew from being beaten.  His decision to act in the face of a terrible injustice is admirable, and I’m sure many of us hope that we, too, would have the courage to try and stop an act of physical violence if given the opportunity.

Yet there are also unsettling aspects of Moses’ actions.  Was it really necessary to kill the Egyptian?  Why did he hide the body and try to pretend nothing happened?  One he was discovered, why did he flee the country, rather than stand up and take responsibility for his actions?

It’s important to consider these questions in context.  There are very few details provided about the circumstances surrounding Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, but the evidence suggests Moses was aware of his Jewish heritage at the time – the Torah portion says he “went out to his kinsfolk” and “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”   We also know that Pharaoh had inflicted great suffering on the Jewish people.

It is therefore possible that Moses was reacting on behalf of all Jewish people against their oppression, inspired by the injustice he witnessed.  He may also have been conflicted about his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s household while his “kinsmen” lived in servitude, possibly contributing to his violent reaction.

Yet even if we assume these things are true, do they justify or merely help explain Moses’ actions?  Does one person have the right to take justice into his or her own hands?  Moses may have been motivated by moral outrage, but he still killed a man, and did so solely of his own accord.  The Torah does point out that Moses “turned this way and that” to see if anyone was around, which could mean he was trying to find someone else to help stop the beating – or it could mean he wanted to make sure nobody was watching.  Even if there were someone of authority around, Moses had every reason to doubt that justice would be served upon an Egyptian beating a Jew.

These issues resonate uncomfortably with some of the challenges our nation is currently grappling with regarding the treatment of African Americans and other minorities by the police and courts.  Like Moses, many people in communities of color have ample reason to distrust our system of justice, and some choose to take matters into their own hands.  When protestors burn cars or buildings, some may just want to destroy property or steal, but others are motivated by moral outrage at a system that has historically treated them or their “kinsmen” unfairly.  As with Moses, this may not justify their actions, but it provides context and helps us understand them.  And in both cases, it speaks loudly to the dangers of a system in which all people are not treated equally, and where the rule of law is being undermined by a lack of trust.

The dangers are not esoteric; they are real.  One of the main reasons this Torah portion struck a chord with me is my lifelong belief in, and commitment to, the rule of law.  Just ask my kids – to their bewilderment, the phrase “rule of law” comes up frequently in our house!  I have always believed that a society governed by fair laws, administered impartially, is fundamental to protecting rights, to resolving disputes, and to creating the trust that is essential to the fabric of any civil society.

It was for these reasons that I spent several years working to strengthen the rule of law in emerging democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.  I have seen what happens in societies that lack the rule of the law — and the needless suffering and chaos that can result.

In 1995, I arrived in Sarajevo at the tail end of a brutal, three-year war, charged with helping to rebuild a legal system that had suffered through war as well as 50 years of Communism.  I was surprised to hear the same refrain over and over again:  our number one priority must be to re-establish faith in the courts.  Granted, I was running a legal reform project, but I was struck by the fact that academics, government officials, members of the legal community, and ordinary citizens all felt that creating a trust-worthy system of justice was essential to helping that country rebuild.  The lack of such faith had undermined citizens’ confidence in their entire government, and contributed to the fraying of that society.

Here at home, we need to do whatever is necessary to rebuild some of the lost trust in our system and strengthen our rule of law against further erosion.  I think today’s Torah portion provides an example of how we as individuals can play a part in this process, at a very human level.

As I consider the implications of Moses’ actions, my disquiet at his decision to take the law into his own hands is somewhat tempered by God’s apparent forgiveness of him for murdering the Egyptian.  Perhaps God understood that Moses acted to save the life of another, and therefore felt his actions were justified.  As a “rule of law” guy, this type of rationale by a legitimate authority certainly gives me comfort.  In addition, we see later in Sh’mot that God chooses Moses as the person to return to Egypt and free the Jews from servitude.  It’s hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of Moses’ character, and I find myself inspired to give Moses the benefit of the doubt, even if I don’t fully understand all the facts.

Similarly, I hope that as our country continues to struggle with the fallout of the recent crises in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland – no matter which side of the issue we find ourselves – we can try to step back and give those on the other side the benefit of the doubt; try to appreciate the context for their actions; and perhaps use this openness as a foundation for strengthening our trust and improving how we treat each other, both individually and within our system of justice.

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The Power of the Parent in Decisions

By Bob Rosenthal, 

Early on in Parashat Shemot, the Pharaoh of Egypt, fearing that the growing Israelite population presented a potential threat to the Egyptians, declared that all boys born to Hebrew women shall be killed.  Some time later, when Moses was born, his mother initially tried to protect him by hiding him, but after three months, she determined that she could not hide him any longer.  She then put the infant Moses in a wicker basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile, presumably hoping that he would be rescued and raised by an Egyptian.  As it turned out, not only was Moses found by an Egyptian, but the one who found him was Pharaoh’s daughter.  Despite suspecting that Moses was a Hebrew child, Pharaoh’s daughter allowed him to live and eventually made him her son.  (At the clever suggestion of Moses’s sister, Pharaoh’s daughter had Moses’s mother nurse him until he was grown up enough to be brought to Pharaoh’s daughter).

What is striking to me about this part of Parashat Shemot, aside from the horror of this early instance of persecution of the Jewish people, is the choice that Moses’s mother made when confronted with the threat to the survival of her son.  There is no surprise that a mother’s love for her child would be so strong that she would take any measures, however desperate, to protect her child from harm.  However, is it so obvious that a parent’s love will always lead to a decision that puts the interests of the child ahead of the interests of the parent?  Would Moses’s mother clearly have made the “wrong” decision if she had chosen to risk her son’s life in order to have the opportunity to raise him herself and preserve for herself the joys and rewards of being his parent?

Fortunately, in the world that we (the congregation of Temple Shalom) live in today, it would be extremely rare for a parent to face a decision as critical and harrowing as the one that Moses’s mother confronted.  But there are still many instances, ranging from the mundane to the very important, when we as parents must decide how to act or at least to advise when the interests of our child may be in conflict with our own interests.  Should a parent who places a priority on academic achievement prohibit his daughter from devoting countless hours to playing the flute (at the expense of study time), even though music is the daughter’s passion?  Should a parent who cares deeply about the continuity of her Jewish heritage across generations discourage her son from marrying his “one true love” because she is Christian?  Should a parent who has saved up for years to afford the car of his dreams sacrifice that purchase because his daughter wants to attend the expensive private school that reportedly provides more personal attention to its students?

Perhaps there is only one “right” answer to these questions.  Intellectually, I can understand that it would generally be the responsibility of the parents to place the interests of their child ahead of their own, but in the practical reality of personal emotions and perceptions of knowing what is best for their child, the “right” answer may not be so obvious.  (And, of course, there are many circumstances in which it can be argued that the long‑term best interests of the child are different from, and should override, decisions that will bring him or her happiness in the near term.)  Does the Torah teach us, through the example of the actions of Moses’s mother, that it is a tenet of our faith that the interests of the child should always take precedence?  I am confident that there are Torah scholars who can address that question at great length.  For most of us who face these parental decisions, we often wrestle with them endlessly and remain uncertain even after the decisions are made.  We do not necessarily look at Moses’s mother as setting a standard to follow, but rather as making an incredibly difficult and courageous decision in a situation that we can hardly fathom.

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Hineini, Here I am!

By Anne Rosenthal, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Hineini.  It is Hebrew for “Here I am.”  Hineini: here I am, at this point in time, the celebration of our b’nai mitzvah; in this place in space, at Temple Shalom with family, friends, and my community. Hineini: here I am, in this holy sanctuary, to elaborate on the teachings of the Torah and the portion this week, Sh’mot, from the book of Exodus.  For those of you who know me, you may remember that it was only a little more than one year ago that I formally converted to Judaism. Today I am celebrating my status as a bat mitzvah! Allow me to explain why this particular parashah, Sh’mot, and in particular, Chapter 3, verses 1-6, has special meaning for me.

Moses, now an adult, has driven the flock of sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, into the wilderness.  He comes to Horeb, the mountain of God, and there he sees an amazing sight.  An angel of the Lord appears in a blazing fire coming out of a bush.  Moses sees that the bush is on fire, and yet the bush is not consumed by the flames.  He says to himself, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” God sees that Moses has turned aside to look, and then he calls to Moses out of the bush.   “Moses! Moses!”  Moses replies, “Here I am,” in Hebrew, “Hineini.” God tells Moses to remove his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground, and God continues, “I am the God of your father’s house, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Then Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look at God.

It’s probably clear to all of us that this is an important event in the Torah. God calls Moses, Moses responds at the ready.  Scholar and teacher Rabbi Norman Cohen offers that this is the moment, when God calls to Moses and he responds, “Here I am” that will eventually lead to the solidification of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.

Like me, you may find parts of this story curious: why is it that God waited for Moses to turn his head to the side to gaze at the burning bush, before calling out to him; why did he call Moses’s name twice; why did Moses choose to reply, “Here I am”?

It has been suggested by scholars that God waited for Moses to turn his head, before calling out to him, because he wanted Moses’s full attention. God waited until Moses was fully prepared to hear him, in a spiritual sense.  Moses may have been deep in thought as he led his flock through the wilderness, maybe about his day’s work or family problems, as he approached that bush.  Only when he turned his head to clearly observe the flames, was he concentrating and fully engaged in the moment. God called Moses’s name, and then again a second time. Perhaps Moses failed to respond to the first call of his name out of fear, disbelief, or distraction.  Perhaps God repeated Moses’s name to signify the importance of His appearance.  Moses replied, “Hineini”.  Here I am: I am listening with my heart, mind, and soul and am ready to accept you.

“Hineini,” as Moses used the word in response to God’s call from the burning bush, is, I believe, just as relevant today in our everyday lives.  When we come to Shabbat services, we are invited by the clergy to turn off our cell phones, close our eyes, allow ourselves to be fully present. We are called to turn away from the daily pressures and demands of our busy lives.  In this way we can be with the congregation, and together pray to God. We can say “Hineini”.  This allows us to connect with the people around us, to pray, to think, or whatever we choose.  It allows us to be fully present in that moment.

There are distractions all around us in our hectic lives. We often refer to our ability to “multi-task” and we take on more and more responsibilities. But as we do, I think we begin to ignore or not really listen to the people or things that matter most to us.  How many times have I heard my family members ask me a question or tell me about their day, while I’m too distracted by so many other thoughts or chores that I don’t really hear them.  How many times have I seen people talking on their cell phone as they sit at the table with friends in a restaurant.   Perhaps in these situations, and so many others, we need to stop and remind ourselves, “Hineini,” here I am.  I am listening to you, I hear you, and I care about you.  I am here for you.  “Hineini” is our state of mind when we are not allowing ourselves to be distracted, but instead are devoting our heart and our mind to the people or situation before us, whether we are in Temple, before a burning bush, or talking with others.

I would like to share with you a part of the story of my ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim, marking my formal conversion to Judaism.  Arriving with my family, I was greeted by my close friends who were already there, waiting in the beautiful lobby. I first met with the Beit Din; how reassuring it was to me, that my three Rabbis from Temple Shalom were there to serve as my panel.  We talked for half an hour, about my journey that led me to my decision to convert.  Then I was escorted to the suite where I was to prepare for my immersion in the mikvah.  I took my time and followed the precise instructions. When at last I was ready, my good friend Lisa Berman, who was also serving as my mikvah guide, led me to the mikvah.  She reminded me to turn the handle of the spout, to allow a few drops of “pure” water into the mikvah waters.  Then, as I descended the stairs, Lisa discreetly turned away and held up a large sheet for my privacy.   I felt alone as I slowly, carefully, and purposely entered the warm, soft waters of the mikvah.  It was very quiet, and very peaceful.  I became overwhelmed by the significance of the commitment I was about to make.  It was a spiritual experience for me unlike any other.  Although my clergy, family, and close friends were nearby in the lobby, I could not see them, nor they me.  But I could hear them over the top of door, their soft whispers and gentle laughter, as they waited for me to announce that I was ready to proceed.  It was so still, so peaceful in the mikvah. But I was so quiet, they must have wondered whether I was there at all.  After several more quiet, still moments, Rabbi Gurvis called to me. “Anne, are you ready?”  he solemnly asked.  “Hineini,” I replied.  In the sense that Moses used the same word in his reply to God before the burning bush.  Hineini, Here I am, ready to complete my conversion to Judaism, and ready in every sense to accept this special covenant with God.

Of course I have been an adult for many years, though I have been a Jewish adult for but one.  I suppose I might have waited for 13 years before becoming a bat mitzvah.  But instead, here I am.  Hineini.  I hope that each of you will have an opportunity to say the same to yourself, today as you celebrate with us, and also to keep it in mind and practice it often.  Hineini.  It’s an amazing, and powerful, little word!

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Generational Continuity

By Linda Mills, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

When we were asked to think about how the assigned Torah portion had meaning to us, I began to ruminate about my relationship, to the Temple, to my parents, and to my children. In my reading, when the mother of Moses who cared so deeply about him, put him in a basket in the reeds by a stream, she felt he would be safer there, rather than left to the mercy of the Egyptians. She was trusting that someone would find him and protect him. By doing this, she was unknowingly furthering the future of the Jews, but she had to trust.

I found many connections to my own life in this short passage. Sixty five years ago, I was a child in a new temple just being founded in Newton, Temple Shalom. I experienced a sense of family there, going through many life passages—religious school, confirmation, sitting with my parents for all the high holidays, marriage and the Bar Mitzvah’s of my sons. Rituals were established. My father, a founding member of the Temple and chair of the Religious Practices Committee for twenty years, loved this Temple with his heart and soul. He felt that we must get there on time for the high holidays, which meant that we had to arrive an hour before the service began to sit in the same seats, year after year. Although the row that was filled by eight family members now only has one, I have continued the family tradition.

Family tradition continued into the sixties. A Temple was situated on the same street where we bought a house. It never occurred to me to join that synagogue. I intended to stay with Temple Shalom, and this meant, as a single mother who worked outside of the home, that I would bring my children three times a week to Temple from Framingham, a thirty minute drive each way. The time when I relaxed in the Temple, waiting for the return trip, I felt peaceful and at home. As my parents did for me, I gave Temple Shalom the huge responsibility for educating my children in their religion. Moses’s mother knew that she must give up all aspects of her child’s future, but she trusted that he would be taken care of. I too trusted, even though I had a choice.

Tradition is carried on in many ways. My son Jonathan who lived in Poland for ten years, like my father, was a founder of a temple, but this one was in Warsaw Poland. I smiled when I read the Rabbi’s itinerary for Poland because Temple Shalom people are about to visit that very temple, Beit Warszawa Synagogue. I burst with pride as I listen to my son Eric who continues the tradition of giving to his temple by blowing the shofar at the close of Yom Kippur.

Years have passed since my father first sat in the sanctuary seats I continue to inhabit, and years have gone by since I brought my children to be educated. When I recognized that my parents and my kids were no longer my connection to the Temple, I knew that I had to make a more significant relationship for myself. I searched for a way that would be meaningful and at the same time would give back to the Temple for all they had given me and my family. It was natural then for me to work with Rabbi Berry in reshaping the educational program. In thinking about Jewish education for children, I understood what was missing for me. My religious education did not include learning Hebrew, girls were not Bat Mitzvahed in the fifties at Temple Shalom. I took the daunting step of enrolling in a Hebrew class. I was the oldest student, and the letters terrified me. I felt like a third grader with dyslexia. However, it eventually came together, and I considered having a Bat Mitzvah. I will never be a fluent reader, but when I sit in the sanctuary on Friday night or on the high holidays, I can read the words.  Temple Shalom has once again brought meaning to my life.

The connectedness, the tradition, the protection, the generational continuity, the sense of family came together for me as I thought about how Moses’s mother protected her son, which allowed for generational continuity and traditions, which Moses would pass on to his people.

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Foundation for Leadership: the Childhood of Moses

Leslie Levine, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

As a newborn, Moses is given by Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, back to his mother Yocheved to be nursed.  He is returned later on to Bitya, who then names him.  After a period of time in the royal household, Moses emerges as an adult who identifies strongly with the Hebrew slaves, calling them his brethren.  While there are few details in Exodus about Moses’ childhood, the passages we do have reveal that Moses was exposed to two very different environments, each of which contributed greatly to his development as a leader, preparing him for his pivotal role in the years to come.

Moses likely spent most of his pre-adolescence being raised by his parents.   While many interpretations of Exodus 2:9-10 conclude that Moses was returned to Pharaoh’s daughter immediately after having been weaned, which would have been at about 2-3 years of age for a male child at that time, the passage does not actually support this conclusion.  Rather, the sequence suggests that the child was nursed, then grew up, and only then was given up to and named by Bitya.  This contrasts to, for example, Genesis 21:8, where the same word for “grew up” is followed by “and was weaned”, immediately followed by the description of an event triggered by the weaning.

Why does the Torah repeat the word וַיִּגְדַּל, meaning ”grew up”, first referring to the child prior to being returned to Bitya, and then referring to Moses by name?  The medieval French commentator Rashi quotes Judah, son of Rabbi Ilai, who said that the first use (Ex. 2:10) of the term “grew up” was Moses’ growth in stature, and the second (Ex. 2:11) was his growth in greatness, as shown by Pharaoh’s eventually appointing him overseer of the royal household.  Moses’ parents, Yocheved and Amram, raised him for the most formative years of his childhood, which Midrashim find to have been for about his first 7-12 years.

Moses emerged as an adult recognizing the Hebrew slaves as his kin, evidence of the weighty influence of his years with his parents.  His first act upon leaving the royal household was to slay an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.   It is his years as a prince that form the basis for his feeling empowered and entitled to intervene against the Hebrews’ oppression and struggles.     The influences to which Moses would have been exposed in Pharaoh’s household would have included  being part of the highest caste of Egyptian society, as well as an excellent education including public speaking and military training.

Moses matured from infant to adult in two extended periods of time.  The first was spent with his parents, who imparted to him their faith and identity as Hebrews.   The second was an adolescence during which he was an heir to the throne. He was highly educated, privileged and indoctrinated into a sense of power and authority.   The combination of the boy’s upbringing in these two very different environments instilled in him a wide range of beliefs, sometimes contradictory, and skills.  The result was a young man accustomed to informed decision making, strong in his belief system and prepared to assume the role of leader of his people.

To me, the story emphasizes the pivotal role that a child’s early years with his parents plays in the formation of his identity and value system.

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From Deference to Authority

By Rachel King, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Within the three short verses of my Torah portion, Exodus Chapter 1, Verses 15 through 17, lies what has to be one of the major acts of defiance in Torah. Afraid of the Israelites, who have been growing in number and strength, Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite boys should be killed at birth. As my portion tells us, the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, “fearing God … did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” This act of defiance enables the Israelites to continue their line—which as we know, goes on to endure across borders and millennia.

Torah commentators have debated whether the “Hebrew midwives” were Israelites themselves, or perhaps Egyptians assigned to deliver Israelite babies. The text is unclear. If they were Egyptians, the midwives were especially insubordinate to their ruler. Whether Egyptian or Israelite, we read about two subservient women whose act of civil disobedience leads to what we understand as a critical outcome: the birth of Moses. The women ignore the rule of the land in favor of the rule of a higher authority: they know that God’s spiritual and moral code does not include killing babies. The text doesn’t give us any detail about what consequences the midwives would have faced by defying Pharaoh. Nonetheless, we can assume that this punitive and angry ruler would be prepared to hand out terrible, perhaps even fatal punishment for their disobedience. Despite this, Shifrah and Puah make the only choice that seems right to them, the moral imperative of which is far greater to them than any personal consequences they might face.

This story brings to mind several historical events in our lifetime. From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Vietnam draft dodgers, to Edward Snowden, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have followed their consciences instead of the law of the land — and who have suffered the consequences. I am certainly interested in the political and historical implications of such acts. Yet, as a woman and as a Jew—and on the occasion of becoming a bat mitzvah—I am more interested in exploring the deep personal resonance this snippet of Torah has for me. For I have spent much of my life being deferential, a “pleaser” – to my parents, my teachers, my bosses, my friends, and my partners. It has only been recently—as l have gotten older, and as life has thrown significant challenges at me—that I’ve begun to evaluate my choices not based simply on following the rules and making others happy, but based instead on my own sense of what is right. Choosing Judaism as an adult was a conscious act of aligning my values and my sense of justice with tikkun olam, and embracing a powerful code by which I choose to live. Simultaneously, having weathered some difficult situations and people over the past decade, I have reached a place in my life where I am no longer willing to just go along with decisions and actions I don’t believe in. This is why I can especially appreciate that Shifrah and Puah stand up to a powerful leader, defy a social and civil code they think is wrong, and choose to obey a higher authority.

In our Torah reading, that higher authority is, of course, God. But I believe that the midwives are also answering to themselves. Shifrah and Puah know they will disappoint not only God but themselves if they follow Pharaoh’s decree to take innocent lives. They are willing to suffer Pharaoh’s punishment as long as they don’t have to face God—or their own consciences—in the final reckoning. This is the heart of the Torah passage for me. The more experienced and the wiser I get, the more I believe in my own authority. I don’t blindly follow others’ rules anymore; rather, I evaluate them for their sense and their moral value. I decide whether I can live with them according to my own belief system—my own authority. I am willing to say “no.” I will accept any practical consequences, as long as my choices and actions don’t lead to two outcomes I can’t accept: harm to others, and disappointment in myself.

There is much to learn from these brave biblical women. While listening to my own authority certainly won’t result in building a nation, I can only hope that the decisions and actions I embrace throughout the rest of my life have a similarly positive, lasting impact—on my children and on my legacy.

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Seeing the Other

By Shona Keir, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Exodus begins with a list of the twelve sons of Israel who, along with their families, immigrated to Egypt.  At first, the community had a small population of seventy but they started thriving in their new environment, and the community grew.

Then a new king, Pharaoh, came into power.  Pharaoh, having no prior personal connection to Joseph or the Israelites, was fearful and suspicious of the Israelites’ ever-growing community.  Without the personal connection, he did not see them as human, so he set forth a mandate that subjected the Israelites to hard labor and essentially turned the entire community into slaves.  In letting his fear guide his actions, he quickly defined the Israelite community, a community he knew nothing about, as the “Other”.  With the mandate, he gave his subjects the right to see them as the “Other” as well.

Despite oppression and brutal forced labor, the Israelite community continued to thrive and grow.  Pharaoh amped up his fear level again, and set another mandate.  He instructed the two Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew newborns.  The midwives believed that G-d would not want them to kill the babies, so they did not follow Pharaoh’s decree.  Pharaoh grew upset with the midwives, and declared all male newborns, Hebrew or Egyptian, be thrown into the Nile river.  His fear and hatred of the “Other” was so destructive that he was ready to sacrifice the future of his own community in order to hurt the Israelites.

In the meantime, a Levite husband and wife conceived a child.  When the wife gave birth, she saw she had delivered a beautiful baby boy.  She feared for the baby’s life so she hid him for three months, until it was no longer possible to keep him a secret.

She had to do something to give this baby a chance at life, so she waterproofed a basket and put the baby boy inside.  She went down to the river Nile, and floated the basket among the reeds.  All along, her daughter had been watching what was happening, and now she watched the basket as it floated among the reeds.

King Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe.  She spotted the basket and directed one of her slaves to get it for her.  When she opened the basket, the baby started crying.  She realized it must have been the son of a Hebrew woman and took pity on the baby.  The baby’s sister, still watching, got up the nerve to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like her to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child.  Pharaoh’s daughter said yes, and unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter, the baby’s sister brought back their mother as the wet nurse.  The mother was able to be with her son until he reached the next stage of his life, at which point, she returned him to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and named him Moses.

The parasha continues on, but what seemed interesting about this passage is how familiar the story of labeling an entire group of people as bad and then degrading them is, thousands of years later. It is an example of how easily an entire community can be dehumanized strictly based on lack of personal connection, lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown.  What is encouraging is that there always tend to be a few people willing to go against the grain to do what seems fair and just, despite pressure to go along with acts of inhumanity.

Several woman played major roles in creating the ability for Moses to grow up safely within the Egyptian community.  If the Egyptian community had known who he really was, they probably would have killed him.  The common thread in this passage is that each of the three women developed a personal connection with the baby, which greatly improved his chances of surviving.  His mother had the connection of his birth and of taking care of him for three months.  His sister had a connection with him as her baby brother, and she also she had her own connection with her mother.  She witnessed the hard choice her mother made in order to try to save her brother’s life.  That bravery may have encouraged her own act of courage when talking to Pharaoh’s daughter about getting a wet nurse.

It was particularly interesting to look at the connection between Pharaoh’s daughter and the baby.  Being the King’s daughter, she must have known about the mandate to drown all newborn male babies.  Yet, when she saw the baby and heard him crying, he became human to her. She decided to help him.  As both the King’s daughter and a royal subject, she must have realized how much trouble she would be in if she disobeyed his decree and was caught.  The connection she made with the baby was more powerful than the mandate of her father.

Degradation of entire communities due to fear and then hatred has occurred throughout world history.  Certainly, people of our faith are not strangers to the experience of being identified as the “Other”.  Throughout out our history, it has left devastating consequences.  The most recent large-scale instance was the Holocaust, which ended only seventy-five years ago.  In some places today, we are still considered as the “Other”, and there are still people who would prefer we didn’t exist.

This passage showed that the importance of personal connection with each other should not be minimized.  It is too easy to write an entire group of people off due to fear of the unfamiliar or discomfort.  We are less likely to be cruel and inhuman when we are able to find a way to identify with people and their particular situations, even if their circumstances are not as recognizable to us.  It is important to remain diligent in the act of seeing the humanity in each situation to which we are exposed.

The passage also provides some reassurance that there will always be people who are willing to stand up against an inhumane situation, despite the resistance and despite the consequences.  World history has shown this to be the case as well.  In some of the most challenging circumstances, there are always news clips about a person or a group of people who put their safety, and sometimes their lives, on the line in order to help other people.   Those who perform such brave acts show inherent good that I believe is in most of humanity.  Going forward in life, I hope to be more consistently conscientious in my role as a member of society, recognizing that personal connection provides an enormous benefit to the cohesiveness of societal living.

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Pharaoh Today

Melanie Henriques, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom — How privileged we are to be able to greet one another with these words without fear of persecution.

In today’s portion, Shemot, there is a new Pharaoh ruling Egypt.  He feared that the Israelites were too numerous and could side with an enemy and overpower the Egyptians.  Pharaoh  attempted to suppress the spirit and strength of the Israelites through taxation and forced, harsh labor, and eventually death.  Despite these measures, the Israelite population and strength continued to increase.  This is one of the earliest instances of religious persecution.

I have been fortunate to have lived in two countries and in a time period where religious differences are not only possible and respected but celebrated.  In Jamaica, I attended the elementary school established by the Jewish community and a public high school founded by Franciscan nuns – both welcoming to and attended by children of all faiths. Church leaders and government dignitaries annually attended our Rosh Hashanah services to celebrate the New Year with us, and our spiritual leader was invited to celebrate with other faiths. Here in Newton we’ve just celebrated a season of lights – we saw chanukiot glowing and Christmas trees sparkling.  Sitting today in our midst are family members and friends of other religions who have come to share this occasion.

However, much of the world does not enjoy these religious freedoms.  And it seems to be increasingly getting worse.  We all know the story of the Spanish Inquisition where Jews were forced to denounce their religion or flee their country.  And we are aware of how the Holocaust has touched the lives of so many, including those in this Congregation.  Recently, the news has been filled with reports of religious persecution worldwide.  Christians and Yezidis are systematically tortured and killed by ISIL.  This past November Kenyans traveling by bus were singled out and shot dead because they were Christians.  Nigerian girls live in fear of being kidnapped and forced into marriages and servitude by Boko Haram; hundreds have already suffered that fate.

Are the fundamentalist groups the new Pharaoh?  Are they inflicting Pharaoh-like oppression on others through slavery, fear, torture and death; even upon members of their own religion?  The Israelites were blessed to have Moses come lead them away from Pharaoh’s bondage.  Where is the Moses of the Christians in Kenya?  Who will rescue the girls in Nigeria?  Who will protect the non-fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan?  Who will be the Moses to stand up to ISIL?

There is hope when we reflect on the actions of our civil rights heroes – Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela.  They showed us that individuals can change the world for the better. We see hope in the more than sixty countries who have joined the US-led coalition to fight ISIL.  We see hope in Malala, a young girl who stood up to the Taliban.  Hope exists in the small acts of individuals bringing together people of different religions such as the Hand in Hand interfaith schools in Jerusalem.

As you sit here today, take a moment to truly appreciate the religious freedom you enjoy.  Think about a small step you can take to stop these modern day Pharaohs.  We are not required to solve the problem but we can play a part in bringing about more religious freedom than the year before – through charity, calling attention to the issues, and being more accepting and tolerant of one another.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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Forgotten Heroes of the Exodus Story

By Carol Gabel Berlin, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Popular culture has brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt into our lives.  Moses, God and Pharaoh have starring roles.  We love this story for many reasons, especially because it serves to teach several important lessons including overcoming oppression and putting our faith in God.  “Remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt,” helps to frame our moral code.  This time in our history informs our Shabbat service.  It influences our interpretation of modern historical figures from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.  Moses was a larger than life hero, as were these modern figures. How surprising it is to find in the Talmud, “It was the reward of the righteous women of that generation that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.”  These are powerful words about a story that for most is about the heroics of men.

We find these women tucked neatly into the portion read today. Seven verses in parashat Shemot are about the midwives Shifrah and Puah.  With the mention of midwives seven times in as many lines, I believe we are meant to pay heed to these women, and particularly to the impact their brave and defiant actions had on the Hebrew people.

Pharaoh had demanded that Puah and Shifrah kill all Jewish male babies as they are born, but they don’t.   Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they let the Hebrew boys live.  Puah and Shifrah explain to Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.  They have lively births, and the babies are active before they arrive.  Thus they cannot follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boys as they are born.  This portion explains their actions by saying that the women are “God fearing.” God rewards the midwives with homes, and the people increase greatly.

These two brave women really mattered.   They acted as if everything depended on them, in a form of civil disobedience that caused our numbers to multiply, Moses to be born, and perhaps even allow us to be gathered here today.

Who are Puah and Shifrah, and what is it that makes them so brave?  What does it mean to say they are “God fearing?”  How did they become God fearing?  The answers to all of these questions can be found in their work.

The delivery of babies is a miracle of creation.  Today we may understand this scientifically, but it remains a miracle.  We stand in awe of each of these little creations, these new lives. Shifrah and Puah witnessed this miracle with each healthy birth.  How could the midwives disregard their life’s meaningful work and follow the Pharaoh’s orders?  Are they God fearing?  Although the Torah says they were, we might not choose those words. I understand this as coming to God through their actions.  Shifrah and Puah followed their hearts. The miracle of birth was their connection to creation, their connection to a higher power.

When Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill these small miracles, he shows that he really doesn’t understand the emotional connection of a midwife to her work, bringing forth new life into this world. Pharaoh was far removed from the miracle of birth, creation, and God.  Sadly, as this portion concludes, Pharaoh tries another method, demanding that all Hebrew boys be thrown at birth into the Nile River.

The midwives bring the babies through a narrow place, mitzrayim, to begin life.  This act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people.  This portion states, “The people multiplied and increased greatly.”  The Hebrew word for a narrow place, mitzrayim, is also the word for Egypt.  These heroic midwives bring Jewish lives into the world, creating the multitude that would leave Egypt, to leave the narrow place, Mitzrayim.  Their actions are a metaphor for the bigger story, the miracle of the flight from slavery to freedom.

Midrash tells us that Shifrah and Puah were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister.  I like this midrash because it positions Miriam, referred to later in Exodus as a prophet, as a central focus in the story of the Exodus, as a giver of life, as she is throughout the rest of our story.

In another Midrash, it is told that Miriam’s father divorces her mother to avoid the killing of children by Pharaoh. His example is followed by other husbands in the community.  If there are not new babies, none can be thrown into the Nile.  Miriam, also acting as if everything depends on her, says to her father, “You are worse than the Pharaoh because you are keeping all children from being born.”  This in turn causes the fathers to return to their wives, and in the case of Yocheved and her husband, leads to the birth of Moses.

Miriam, throughout our story, sustains life.  As Puah, she is life giving.  In her chastising of her father, the results are again, new life.   It is Miriam who places her baby brother into the water, but stays to watch him be drawn out by Pharaoh’s daughter.   It is Miriam who, during the travels we will study in coming weeks, finds the well that sustains the multitude as they move forth, out of Egypt, out of the narrow place.  Miriam is life giving.  If we are to accept that Miriam is also Puah, she begins as a young girl as a giver of life, a fighter for freedom.

An act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people, to the Exodus from Egypt.  Opposition to Pharaoh’s decree builds our community and leads us from that narrow place, from Egypt.  One of my favorite prayers that precedes the Amidah says, “Pray as If everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.”  Puah and Shifrah understood this.  We all should.

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A Stranger in a Strange Land

By Lauren Adams, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

The three verses I read, which conclude our parasha, describe Moses’s flight to Midian after he kills an Egyptian slave-master. At a well in Midian, he meets the daughters of a Midianite priest who are trying to draw water for their flock but have been driven away by shepherds. In the next few verses, Moses defends the priest’s daughters, and their father invites him to the house to break bread. The priest then gives his daughter Zipporah to Moses as a wife.  Moses and Zipporah have a son whom he names Gershom, which means “a stranger there,” for, Moses, says, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.”

Moses’s statement, made at this particular time in his life, is rather paradoxical. Unlike his fellow Israelites, who have long been strangers in the land of Egypt, Moses recognizes himself as a stranger in a strange land only when he leaves Egypt. A Jew raised as an Egyptian, Moses had been a stranger all of his life. But it is in Midian, where Moses is taken for an Egyptian (presumably because of his clothes), that he feels like a stranger. Only once Zipporah’s family welcomes him does he recognize his strangeness.

Even before trying to unravel this paradox while thinking about our parasha, the phrase a stranger in a strange land called out to me.  The image of a young man wandering into new territory, not yet knowing his future, takes me back to my first encounters with Judaism and Jewish texts. The most memorable of these was my very first Passover Seder, at the home of dear friends of my husband, Jonathan’s—and now mine. On that special evening, our friends were also hosting a distinguished guest, Dr. Abram Sachar, a renowned Jewish historian and the first president of Brandeis University. My head was swimming that night as I tried to keep up with the dialogue. Having grown up Catholic with only a passing familiarity with the ten plagues and the parting of the red sea, I could barely follow the sophisticated discussion of connecting texts and related stories.  A stranger in a strange land, indeed. I’m sorry to say that I’ve retained nothing of the intellectual substance from that night, but the shared participation in the telling, the delicious Sephardic foods, and the resounding call of “Next year in Jerusalem!” made a lasting impression. I did not yet know that it was only the beginning of my Jewish education.

In the years that followed, as Jonathan and I built a life together and decided to raise our children Jewish, my exploration of Judaism continued and deepened.  We brought Jewish traditions into our home, and I took classes to keep up with what my children were learning in Sunday school. Eventually, my curiosity pulled me further into study, and I fell in love with the texts, with the history, with the traditions and values of the Jewish people.

Given my own journey into the Jewish community, the paradox of Moses’s strangeness resonates deeply with me. In Midian, where Moses is “a stranger,” he meets his wife Zipporah and her father, a Midianite priest who later becomes his trusted advisor. They go on to travel together in Sinai, and the priest helps him lead. In the strange land of Midian, Moses meets his new family, and stays for 40 years.

Twenty-five years ago, I did not recognize that special Seder as the first step in my journey to Judaism.  As I stand with my classmates today after another rich year of study together, I look back and remember, “Ger hayiti b’eretz nachriyah, I have been a stranger in a strange a land.” But now that land is home.

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