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    I know what I’m doing – Va’era

    January 22nd, 2017

    Slavery in Egypt, from a Dutch bible, 1728

    Slavery in Egypt, from a Dutch bible, 1728

    The sidra opens with an announcement: “God spoke to Moses and said, ‘I am the Lord’” (Ex. 6:2).

    Naturally we wonder why this declaration of Divine identity was necessary.

    Perhaps it links up with the end of last week’s reading (Ex. 5:22), where Moses asks HaShem, “Why have you treated this people so badly?”

    Moses was feeling aggrieved. God’s people were suffering at the hand of Egypt and though God had commanded him to plead with Pharaoh, the response was that things only became worse.

    Why had God not stepped in to save the downtrodden Hebrew slaves?

    God’s reply didn’t seem to help: “I am the Lord!” The implication is, “I know what I am doing!”

    There is an analogy in the works of the Chafetz Chayyim, who says that human beings usually can’t see the whole picture.

    Someone looks at the way a skyscraper is being built and wonders why this, that or the other element is necessary. Surely the task can be done more quickly and easily without it!

    But, explains the Chafetz Chayyim, if the architect and engineer included this particular element in their design, it must have had a part in the overall project.

    Similarly with God. He says, “I am the Lord! Even though you are puzzled and even affronted by a specific event or action of Mine, it is part of My plan, and in the end all will turn out all right!”


    Choosing someone else – Va’era

    January 22nd, 2017

    fiddler tevye topol speaks to godThere is an old Jewish idea that even found its place in “Fiddler on the Roof” – “God, I know we are the chosen people, but couldn’t You choose someone else for a change?”

    This is a relevant thought when we read these opening chapters of the Book of Sh’mot.

    The Egyptian Pharaohs had grandiose building plans and needed vast numbers of low-class workers. Were the Hebrews the only group they could have dragooned? Why didn’t some other people get chosen for the work? Couldn’t the Pharaohs have chosen someone else for a change?

    The question seems light-hearted, even fun, but it’s deadly serious. Look at it from the point of view of the other groups who might have been forced into pressed labour.

    Would choosing them have made the Pharaohs any better, any less villains or tyrants? Would it have been a more ethical choice if someone else had been enslaved instead of us?

    That’s one aspect of the problem, and it’s not without its contemporary repercussions.

    Jews are not the only people to become what Jules Isaac called “an eternal negative symbol”. If dictators had and did treat other groups with such callousness and disdain, would it have been an ethical improvement on the targeting of Jews for enmity and suffering?

    The other side of the question concerns us ourselves. Targeting others for a change might have given us a modicum of relief, but it still wouldn’t have justified our suffering on so many other occasions.

    The vast literature about antisemitism has no answers except to say that prejudice will only be eradicated with time and education, and from an internal Jewish angle we will continue to need our full reserves of courage, hope, faith and solidarity.


    Another book of creation – Sh’mot

    January 15th, 2017

    chumash shemotThis week’s sidra brings us into the second book of the Torah, Sh’mot (Exodus). Like the first book, B’reshit (Genesis), this one is also focused on Creation.

    In Genesis, God applies His Divine wisdom to creating a world that will worship Him. In Exodus, man uses his human wisdom to create a community centred on the worship of God.

    As God used wisdom, understanding and knowledge to create His world, so in Exodus man must use his refraction of the same qualities to build a community.

    Rashi defines wisdom, chochmah, as what one learns from others; understanding, t’vunah, as finding the meaning in what one has learnt; and knowledge, da’at, as inspiration.

    Some expand Rashi by explaining that chochmah comes from others, t’vunah from oneself and da’at from God.


    Your three names – Sh’mot

    January 15th, 2017

    name labelParashat Sh’mot (“Names”) reminds me that we once lived in a street with a dry cleaners around the corner.

    As my job entailed wearing a suit every day, I often took my suits to the dry cleaners. Obviously they needed my name but there came a time when it was ridiculous. I was a regular and surely the woman behind the counter should be able to remember who I was. But no, she barked at me every time, “What’s your name?”

    Eventually I gave up expecting her to remember me but I started asking myself, “What’s your name?”

    The woman in the shop wasn’t to know that the Jewish sages said that everyone has three names, the name your parents give you, the name others call you, and the name you acquire for yourself (Kohelet Rabbah 7:1).

    The first name is beyond your control. So (generally) is the second, but the third is up to you.

    How you live life defines your identity. The values you espouse indicate your character.

    The Midrash is right: the earned name is more valuable than the given name (Kohelet Rabbah 7:4).


    Moses the Egyptian – Sh’mot

    January 15th, 2017

    Moses at the well, Sandro Botticelli 1481-2

    Moses at the well, Sandro Botticelli 1481-2

    The daughters of Yitro came home from their water-drawing earlier than usual, telling their family, “An Egyptian man helped us” (Ex. 2:19).

    How did they know that Moses who stepped forth to assist them, was an Egyptian?

    Maybe he had an Egyptian accent, maybe he was wearing Egyptian-style clothing. Maybe he told them where he came from.

    It hardly surprises us that two verses later the stranger from nowhere falls in love with one of the daughters and marries her. Highly romantic, but it doesn’t really explain how they knew he was an Egyptian.

    Perhaps he had such manners that the girls knew at once that he wasn’t a local. More importantly, he was so helpful that they thought, “No-one from around here does so much for other people”.

    Why do they call him an Egyptian? Possibly their father, with his own Egyptian experience, had told them that Egyptian young men were polite and well brought up.