by Becky Schisler
January 31, 2009/6 Shevat 5769
Parashat Bo begins with God instructing Moses to “come” to Pharaoh and warn him of the impending eighth plague, Locusts. Pharaoh, however, remains defiant in his refusal to free the slaves, and a plague of locusts followed by darkness ensues.
After these two plagues, Moses again tries to bargain with Pharaoh, but the stubborn king, lamenting about all his locust-devoured vegetables, makes it very clear that he is unwilling to negotiate. And so the tenth plague commences: The smiting of first-borns. First, however, the narrative is interrupted for God to give Moses the first commandment that the Jewish people ever receive: To sanctify Rosh Chodesh, the new month, beginning with the month of Nisan.
Anyway, at midnight of the appointed night, the plague strikes. All over the land sons unfortunate enough to have been born first lay smitten in their beds, and Pharaoh’s own son dies before his eyes. Only the Israelites, feasting on their paschal lamb behind bloodied doors, are spared.
After this final offense, Pharaoh can’t order the Jews out of Egypt fast enough; they leave in haste with all of their possessions, bundles of unleavened bread, and gold and other riches graciously donated by their friendly Egyptian neighbors. The parsha ends with various post-exodus mitzvot, including the commandment for tefillin.
Now, obviously, there are many things that stick out from this parsha. One might come away with a grotesque image of a garden being devoured by a blanket of swarming locusts, or perhaps a fatal angel silently sweeping the land of Egypt, sparing not even a first-born baby cow from its deadly mission. However, the event that truly puts this parsha in league with Lech Lecha is the Exodus of the children of Israel from the land of Egypt. This exodus is a story that we all know well; but what does it really mean, for us, as the Jewish people?
Some might say that the Exodus is so significant because it resulted in us being released from physical bondage by the Egyptians. However, this was not its only great outcome. The Exodus marks our birth as a people. Indeed, when God revealed Himself to us at Sinai, he introduced Himself not as the creator of heaven and earth, but as “… your G-d, who has taken you out of the land of Egypt”! (20:2) The foundation for the relationship between the Jewish people and God is not that He has given us life, as this does not make us unique from any other human being (or any other plant or vegetable, for that matter) but rather that he has given us freedom. The concept of being “freed from bondage” is one that can be interpreted many different ways and can spout many beautiful metaphors, but for the sake of brevity I won’t elaborate on them.
Lastly, there is one great gift of the Exodus that is more important than all of this: the inspiration it has caused. Throughout all the tribulations the Jewish people have been subject to (and there have been a lot) it is this exodus that we have always recalled with comfort, and it is this exodus that has reminded us that with faith, perseverance, and the will to survive, we, the Jewish people, can overcome even the most terrifying of evils.
Right now, our biggest trial is that of terrorism in the Middle East, brought on by people who desire to see our homeland torn to pieces. However, we have always endured hard times, and we will always press on. The will of Moses to press on throughout Pharaoh’s defiance, and the will of the Jewish people to survive after more than 200 years of slave labor proves that im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream. As long as we have the will to survive and flourish, we shall, no matter the odds … just as our ancestors did in Egypt so long ago.
by Charlene Thrope
January 22, 2010 / 7 Shevat 5770
Just as the Israelites leave Egypt, a series of laws about Pesach interrupts the story. The intricacies of Pesach, like what counts as chametz and the text of the Hagaddah, come much later, but the laws in Parashat Bo give us a fairly detailed description of how and why we celebrate Pesach. However, some of these laws extend beyond Pesach.
“There shall be one law for the citizen and for the ger who dwells among you.” (Shemot 12:49)
“Ger” is often translated as “stranger,” but this definition doesn’t convey the true meaning of the word in this context. As a non-Israelite who makes a conscious decision to live with the Israelites, a ger takes on certain obligations, but also benefits from being part of the community. A ger is contrasted with a ben-neichar, translated as “foreigner” – a non-Israelite who just happens to be living with the Israelites temporarily. If he circumcises himself, a ger is allowed to offer the Pesach sacrifice, whereas a ben-neichar is not even allowed to eat the sacrifice.
The difference between a ger and a ben-neicher is their level of desire to be part of the Israelite people. Because a ger actually makes an effort to join the community, we treat him just like any other member of the community. We are not overly harsh, but we also do not give him special treatment. This balance is essential for a ger to actually feel like he is an Israelite.
It is so easy to act differently towards outsiders, whether we ignore them or make exceptions for them, and these actions cause outsiders to remain outsiders. When a new student comes transfers to your school, show him around without allowing her to become dependent on you. When a new member comes to your chapter program, be friendly but don’t force her into friendships. If you treat outsiders the same way you treat everyone else, you’ll begin to realize there never was any reason to treat them differently, and so will they.
by Dani Saks
Most Jews probably know the story of Moses asking Pharoah to free the Jews. He says no, plagues follow and eventually after the tenth plague the Jews are let free. One of the most powerful displays of God’s power in the whole torah. Especially because every Egyptian saw and experienced all of these plagues. A lot of Jews will learn this story from the Pesach Seder, or read about the first seven plagues in this week’s Parsha Va’eira.
However, what has become very commonplace in today’s society is learning a lot of what we now about our religion from the media. I know that as soon as I see the annual TV broadcast of the Hollywood picture The Ten Commandments I know Pesach is just around the corner.
Anyway, in the film Moshe is depicted as doing all the negotiating but this is a common misconception. According to the Torah, Aaron, Moshe’s older brother did all the talking because Moshe had a speech impediment. I don’t know about you but it seems to me that this is too convenient that after explicitly expressing to God that he did not deserve to lead the Jews to freedom, Moshe tells God that he can’t even ask Pharoah to let his people go.
I feel that the Torah is trying to reinforce the fact that Moshe did not want to do this. He didn’t want to become the greatest Jewish leader and prophet of all time.
This is the person who we praise all the time for being a pillar of strength!? Someone who was hesitant about essentially being the hand of God is an individual who we are told is our role model?! The explanation to this issue is actually very simple. The commentators explained back in Shemot that the reason that Moshe originally declined God’s offer to be the leader of the Jewish people was due to his identifying trait. Humility was the reason Moshe declined this offer. Maybe it was humility that motivated Moshe to claim his speech impediment as an excuse for not speaking to Pharoah. So Moshe is as great as we speak of him.
The Torah is merely showing us that no matter who you are you have to remember humility. Even Moshe Rabeinu who had every reason to be confident and egotistical remained one of the most humble Jews in history. If Moshe can do it, I’m sure every Jew can think twice before speaking so highly of themselves.
Humility is a huge part of Judaism. It’s one of the reasons we wear kippot, to recognize our position compared to God at all times. Remember, sometimes you can’t take people for granted. Especially our leaders because they all have something to teach us if we are wise enough to pay attention.
by Ron Shapiro
January 24, 2009/28 Tevet 5769
After Moses finally accepts God’s request to lead the Jewish people during the famous “Burning Bush” scene last week, Parshat Va-era begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the Jewish people and tell them that God will bring them out of Egypt. Surprisingly, the Jewish people did not believe Moses and Aaron. When God told Moses to speak to Pharoah, asking him to release the Jews from slavery, Moses refused. He claimed that Pharoah would never listen to him, considering that he has a speech impediment and not even the Jews believed God’s promise. However, God assured Moses that this would not be the way, for Aaron would speak to Pharoah.
When God described to Moses and Aaron how to confront Pharoah, God said:
“V’ani akshe et-lev paro v’hirbeiti et ototai v’et-mophtai b’eretz mitzrayim” (Shemot 7:3) But I will harden Pharoah’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 357)
Why does God say that he will harden Pharoah’s heart before he has even rejected Moses’s request? Why would God cause the 10 plagues to happen unto the Egyptians and cause so many deaths to humans created in his image? One interpretation states that God responded to Moses’s in this way so that he would not be embarrassed due to his inadequacy (Etz Hayim p.357). Another explanation points to the fact that for the first five plagues the text reads, “Pharoah’s heart was hardened,” rather than, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart,” which appears in the final five. Rashi believes that God hardened Pharoah’s heart so that he could see the power of “the Hebrew God.” The Rambam explains this phrase by saying, “Sometimes a man’s offense is so grave that he gives up the possibility of repentance” and that with each rejection on his own Pharoah loses his ability to repent.
The parsha later begins narrating the story of the beginning plagues, which seems like a never ending loop of “God warns Pharoah but he ignores the warning, plague comes to Egypt, Moses and God forgive Pharoah.” Why doesn’t God sense this repetitiveness after 4 or 5 plagues? Why does he continue to forgive Pharoah time and time again?
The parsha teaches us that even when someone has done so much evil that they can no longer they repent, we should still give them another chance to better themselves. Pharoah is depicted as one of the most evil figures in the Torah, yet God gives him 10 chances to repair himself. Sometimes, we put our trust into people time after time, and they fail us with each task. However, we should continue to give them the benefit of the doubt. On the other side of situation, we should strive to repair the trust that we might have lost with an acquaintance.
by Charlene Thrope
January 16, 2010/1 Tevet 5770
At the beginning of Parashat Vaera, Moses tells the Israelites of God’s five promises &8211; to free them, to deliver them, to redeem them, to take them, and to bring them to the land of Israel. Although this message is powerful, the Israelites do not listen to Moses. In order to deliver God’s message more effectively, both Aaron and Moses go to speak to Pharaoh, asking him to let the Israelites leave Egypt. When Pharaoh doesn’t grant God’s request, Aaron and Moses demonstrate God’s power with signs, including the ten plagues.
God alone cannot save the Israelites. The Israelites do not always listen to Moses, God’s messenger, perhaps due to his speech impediment. To compensate for Moses’s weakness, Aaron speaks for Moses. But even when Aaron and Moses work together, they need to prove God’s power to others, especially Pharaoh. God, Moses, and Aaron all knew they needed help in order to accomplish their goals. God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but God tells Moses “lo nodati lahem (I did not make Myself known to them).” God relies on Moses, and this dependency shows a whole new aspect of God, including God’s weaknesses.
Knowing our weaknesses allows us the opportunity to ask others for help. The amount of resources we have is overwhelming &8211; our family, our friends, our teachers, our rabbis &8211; but they are useless if we choose not to embrace them. We cannot and should not try to do everything by ourselves. We may not be able to overcome our weaknesses alone, but with help from others, we can bring out our true strength.
by Judah Kerbel, 2009 USY International Religion/Education VP, 5769
January 17, 2009/21 Tevet 5769
In Parashat Shemot, Moses was out shepherding Jethro’s flock when he received a call. No, not on his cell phone, but through a phenomenon even greater than cell phones:
Va-yeirah Malach Adonai eilav b’labat eish mitoch ha-sneh va-yar v’hinei ha-sneh bo’er ba-eish v’ha-sneh einenu u’kal (Shemot 3:2).An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all a flame, yet the bush was not consumed (Etz Hayim Humash, p. 327).
The burning bush catches Moses’ eye, and bearing the human trait of curiosity, he merely intends to check out this supernatural phenomenon of bush that burns but does not turn to ashes. God then calls out to Moses, he cries out the famous “hineini,” I am here [at your service], and the rest is history. The appearance of God through a bush seems to bear significance. The medieval commentator Chizkuni analogizes the burning bush to the Jewish people, explaining that “it is a sign comparing Egypt and Israel, as the enemy is compared to the fire and Israel to the bush. And like the fire did not consume the bush, in this fashion the enemy could not defeat Israel.” Philo, the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher from 1st century Egypt, comments that “the bush that burns but is not consumed symbolizes the Jewish people, perpetually attacked and endangered but perpetually surviving” (327).
Davka today, I came across an Israeli scientist named Isaac Berzin, who has developed a method for utilizing algae to produce biofuel and to consume carbon dioxide (no pun intended). He was named one of the Top 100 people of 2008 in Time Magazine, and in the profile of his work, Time includes an analogy he made to the burning bush. “What can you burn without consuming it,” he asks. “Renewable fuels.”
What is our renewable fuel that has prevented our enemies from annihilating us over a span of over 3000 years? The answer, in my opinion, is our covenant with God – adherence to Torah. Going back to Chanukah, which feels like so long ago already, the Jews’ victory against Antiochus & Co. was a military victory vital for the spiritual success of the Jewish people. All wars that the Jewish people have fought, whether physically or spiritually, have been fought for the sake of keeping alive God’s covenant. Our observance of Torah is not merely a luxury &@8211; it is necessary for our survival. As the saying goes, “water for fish is like Torah for the Jews.” So long as our commitment to Judaism remains a priority for the Jewish people, we can thrive. We have the willpower, evident in our constant survival as our enemies still attempt to destroy us, as well as our faith and our principles. A comment in our Humash: “to see that a bush is on fire is easy; to see that it is not consumed takes time and patience ….” (327). We must continue to struggle to add sanctity to our lives and keep the faith alive even when times make it hard to do so.
As I discuss our enemies’ inabilities to destroy us, I add in a prayer that as our brave soldiers fight Hamas, an organization committed to eradicating Israel and Jews, we hope for their safety and well-being, and that their courage will send a message to a cynical world that the Jewish people do not let up when their legacy is at stake.
by Charlene Thrope
This week we begin the book of Shemot with Parashat Shemot. If you have ever gone to a Passover seder, attended Religious School, or watched The Prince of Egypt, you know the basics of the book this book. You also probably have a general idea of what happened in the book of Torah we concluded last week, Bereishit. The transition between these two books – from stories of individuals to the story of a nation – is abrupt. Throughout the book of Bereishit, the term b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, refers the actual children of Israel, or Jacob. However, within the first few verses of Shemot, this term comes to mean the entire Israelite people.
The emphasis on nationhood found in Shemot becomes clear from early in Moses’s life. Initially, we do not know the names of Moses’s parents – we only know that they are Levites – and although his mother nurses him, Moses spends much of his childhood living in the palace with Pharaoh’s daughter. When Moses goes out into the world and sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, the Israelite is called echav, his brother. Although Moses and the Israelite are not actually brothers, they are part of the same nation. This bond is strong enough for Moses to call the Israelite a member of his family.
We usually focus on our own lives and the lives of our family and friends before we look into what is happening in the rest of the world, and it certainly makes sense to try to solve problems on a small scale before tackling global issues. However, as sudden or overwhelming as it may be, we must remember to make the transition from people to peoples, from Bereishit to Shemot. We learn from the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” but we cannot settle for saving a world – we must strive to save the world.