The excitement that we experienced last week in Parshat Beshallach continues this week. The Israelites are now out of Egypt and now the task of building a new post-slavery life begins. We witnessed the challenge this task brought last week when the people complained about the food, the water, even the accommodations. While the ultimate reason for the exodus, the giving of the Israelites the Torah, and thus a framework to live as a free nation dedicated to the Divine, takes place at the end of this week’s parsha of Yitro, that challenge is ever present throughout the Biblical narrative.
Yitro, a Midianite minister, is Moshe’s father-in-law. According to Rashi, Yitro heard about the spectacular events at the Reed Sea and what took place with Amalek and decided to cast his lot with the Jewish people. As is well known, Yitro sees that Moshe spends his days judging the people, listening to their issues from morning until night. Yitro admonishes his son-in-law, telling him that he cannot do this on his own for he will become worn out. Rather he must delegate the responsibility of leadership to others. And so, Moshe, heeding his father-in-law’s advice, sets up a system of judges to handle the minor issues; the greater issues will remain with Moshe. Thus we see one aspect of the greatness of Moshe’s leadership, the willingness to take suggestions and allow others to lead.
One of the qualifications that Yitro says is necessary for leadership is that of truth. According to Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, known as the Rabbeinu Bachya, a Spanish Torah commentator who lived from 1255-1340, this qualification of truth is really one of character. Indeed, the Rabbeinu Bachya writes that while knowledge and wisdom are of course necessary, even prized attributes needed for leadership, it is ultimately character that sits at the top of the ladder. Using verses from the Torah about each as proof, he points out that Noah, Avraham, Yaakov and Moshe were all praised for their character, rather than their wisdom.
Ultimately this is what we strive to be: people of sterling character, people of integrity and truth. In fact, the Talmud teaches that the “signature of the Divine” is truth. Jewish tradition places great significance in knowledge and wisdom to be sure however character refinement remains the most essential quality not just for leadership, but for life.
The parsha concludes with the incredible event at Mount Sinai; the Divine revelation of the Torah. With the giving of the 10 Commandments we see in this parsha the two pieces of Jewish tradition that must go in tandem with each other, the ritual side(interestingly enough, the only “ritual” in the 10 Commandments is Shabbat), and the ethical side. It is said that Jewish tradition is about action. This is indeed true. Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, prayer are fundamental elements of Jewish practice, there is no Judaism without them, but they are authenticated only by character.
May the Judaism that emerges from this school be one that teaches, encourages and supports both sides of this precious coin.
If ever there was an exciting parsha, this week is it. Parshat Beshallach has all the makings a gripping, spelling – binding movie. As the scene opens the chase is on with the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites who find themselves at the edge of the Reed Sea. The Egyptians are at their heels and there is no where t o go, there is no escape. Nachshon ben Aminadav walks into the water up to his neck, Moshe holds his staff over the water and suddenly the sea splits in half, allowing the Israelites to walk through the sea on dry land. When the Egyptians follow the Israelites the water flows back over them and drowns each Egyptian soldier. The Israelites witness this miracle and break into a joyous song of thanksgiving, Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea.
If that isn’t enough, even though the Israelites are the beneficiaries of such an event, they complain about the food, the water, the accommodations, nothing is good. They are given water, they are given food, things seem to get a bit better, but then they are involved in yet another battle, a surprise attack from the nation of Amalek, the nation that represents pure evil in Jewish tradition since they attacked the Israelites from behind, where the weaker people were found. The wicked Haman from Purim is the embodiment of Amalek.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth points out something significant. Unlike the scene with the Egyptians where the Israelites watched the Divine defeat of their oppressors, this time the Israelites had to fight. Moshe tells Joshua to “choose men for us and go do battle with Amalek.” Moshe stands on the top of a hill holding his staff over his head. The Torah relates that when Moshe raised the staff, the Israelites prevailed, when he lowered it, Amalek prevailed. When Moshe’s arms became tired Aaron and Hur supported his arms in order to keep them raised. Joshua and his men eventually defeated Amalek.
A mishnah in the Talmudic tractate Rosh HaShanah discusses this battle. The Mishnah asks whether it was Moshe’s arms that won the battle or not. The Mishnah answers that it was not; rather it was the people looking up and seeing Moshe and their realization they had the Divine on their side that gave the Israelites the fortitude to persevere and overcome their opponent.
Rabbi Lord Sacks says this was the key element. Moshe was the leader of the people. He didn’t fight this battle. The Israelites fought this one. It was their seeing Moshe on that hill holding his staff up that inspired the people, knowing he was there. It was the recognition that their leader believed in them that stirred the Israelites in such a powerful manner that they defeated their enemy.
Who inspires us? Who is our Moshe up on hill that gives us encouragement to push forth against challenges? We all have that certain individual who gave us the strength, the courage to overcome challenges. But more importantly, for whom are we a Moshe? Who do we inspire? To whom do we give that emotional, spiritual support and reassurance that they can indeed face the challenges they confront?
Moshe is known as Rabbenu, which means “our teacher” for he is the teacher par excellence. However, I have begun to realize that he is the Manhig the “Leader” par excellence as well. He believes in and supports his people, his role is to foster the potential in the Israelites so they may be their best.
Yes, we all have our Moshe, may be aspire to be a Moshe for others.
In the entire Book of Bereshit, the longest of the five books of the Torah, only three mitzvot are commanded: Procreation, Brit Milah and the prohibition of eating the Geed HaNaseh, the displaced sinew which is part of the hind quarter of an animal. We are forbidden to eat this part of the animal for it reminds us of the injury Yaakov received during his struggle the angel in Parshat VaYishlach.
This week we read Parshat Bo which continues the narrative of the Exodus with the last three plagues. However, before the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn is unleashed on the Egyptians this narrative is suddenly interrupted by the insertion of a number of mitzvot which on the surface seem out of place. What we find though is that many of these mitzvot are indeed connected with the events in some way. The Sefer HaHinuch (literally “Book of Education”) is a 13th century work which explains each of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. The author, Rabbi Aharon ha-Levi of Barcelona enumerates 20 mitzvot in this parsha including several connected to the commandment to bring the Pesach offering, and to eat matzah on Pesach.
The first of the mitzvot is known as Kiddush HaHodesh, the Sanctification of the Month. This is the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people as whole. Prior to the advent of a fixed calendar, the new month was determined by the new moon. According to the Talmudic tractate Rosh HaShanah the court would interview two people, separately, regarding what they saw in the night sky. After hearing the testimony and determining what they heard was correct, the judges would declare a new month, Rosh Hodesh. This was crucial for the Jewish people because without knowing when a month began or ended, it would be impossible to observe holidays on the correct day. In fact, this is one of the reasons that the Syrian king Antiochus prohibited Rosh Hodesh at Hanukkah.
At Rosh Hodesh the moon is barely, if at all detectable in the night sky. During the next 14 days the moon becomes bigger and bigger, and each night a slightly larger sliver is ever more visible until it is full at the half way point in the month. Then gradually the moon becomes smaller. This cycle repeats at the next Rosh Hodesh; the moon is virtually invisible and then renews itself.
This waxing and waning of the moon is indeed symbolic. In many ways this represents the human condition. We are imperfect. Just as the moon wanes, we sometimes fail, we make mistakes. What is important to realize is that those failures and mistakes do not define a person. What does define us as people is how we respond to those challenges. Twice this week my own fallibility was on display as I was confronted with mistakes I made in judgment. As difficult as it was to hear, I hope I learned something from these lapses and will not make them again (of course making room for the other mistakes I will make). The fact that the moon waxes and renews itself is indicative of the fact that along with the mistakes and occasional failures come victories and successes.
Jewish tradition ultimately is a way of life that lifts us up, strengthens us and gives us the opportunity of self-reflection and (hopefully) self-improvement (we call this Teshuva). Judaism is a vehicle for infusing life with holiness to help us constantly become better people.
Shabbat shalom, one and all.
Sibling rivalry is part of the Torah. We saw this in Bereshit with Cain and Abel, with Yaakov and Esau, we saw this rivaly again with Yosef and his brothers. While this week’s parsha VaEira begins the actual redemption of the Jewish people from their Egyptian enslavement as the first seven plagues are brought upon Egypt, we again have a possible rivalry as we ask who was greater, Moshe or his brother Aaron?
Early in the parsha, the Torah says, “HaShem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites and regarding Pharaoh . . . to take the Israelites out of the Land of Egypt.” The Torah then lists a genealogy primarily from the tribe of Levi, from which Moshe and Aaron stem. At the end of this list the Torah says, “This was the Aaron and Moshe to whom HaShem said take the Israelites out of Egypt . . .” The first verse mentions Moshe first, the second verse mentions Aaron first.
Rashi explains that there are places in the Torah where Moshe is mentioned first and there are places where Aaron is mentioned first in order to teach that Moshe and Aaron were equal. Indeed the midrash teaches that Moshe and Aaron were in fact equal, neither one was greater than the other. “Rabbi Abba said they were like two fine pearls which belonged to a king, which he put on a scale, neither weighing down the other. So were Moshe and Aaron just equal . . . for they were created for the teaching of Torah and the glory of Israel.”
However, Moshe is described at the very end of the Torah as the greatest prophet ever among Israel. How does Aaron compare to that description? Other commentators suggest two explanations. First, Aaron is described as Moshe’s equal because Moshe’s success was dependent on Aaron. The second explanation I believe is more compelling. Aaron was great because he fulfilled the task in this world for which he was created. The leadership of the people was entrusted to Moshe, thus his task was a more challenging task, which only Moshe could fulfill, but Aaron was Moshe’s equal in the sense that he fulfilled his role in the world, he lived up to his potential, just as much as Moshe lived up to his. Only Moshe could be Moshe, only Aaron could be Aaron. Moshe and Aaron were equal, they were both great because they accomplished what they each were meant to do.
We all have a mission in life and we all have great potential. Our task is to harness that potential to fulfill that mission. Ultimately our greatness is measured through our acceptance of the mission, whatever it may be, and using our Divinely given talents to fulfill that mission.
Parshat VaYigash begins with a confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. While the brothers cannot dispute the fact the golden goblet has been found in Binyamin’s sack, Yehuda stands up to Yosef, whom he knows as the second most powerful man in Egypt, not his brother he sold into slavery over twenty years prior. Yehuda accuses Egypt’s viceroy of unfairly enslaving Binyamin and offers himself in Binyamin’s stead. At this point Yosef is so overcome with emotion that he can no longer contain himself. “And Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” he cries out to his stunned brothers, unable to speak.
Upon seeing their reaction, Yosef repeats this declaration a second time, “I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold to Egypt . . . now do not be distressed . . .for having sold me here. . . for it was to be a provider (of food) that HaShem sent me here before you . . . And now it was not you that sent me here , but HaShem.” Yosef does not let his brothers off the hook for selling him, but he does assuage their guilt by assuring them that their doing so was not of their volition, but rather part of the Divine plan.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham is told that he would indeed have offspring who would be as numerous as the stars, and those descendents would be strangers in a land not theirs and “they will be oppressed for four hundred years.” Yosef has now realized that there was indeed a purpose to his living in Egypt for so many years. Being sold was the precursory incident which brought the Jewish people to Egypt which would ultimately set in motion the events leading up to their eventual enslavement and exodus from that tyranny, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the sojourn in the desert and the entrance into the Land of Israel and the rest of Jewish history.
Life is a book whose chapters become open to us as the days, weeks, months and years go by. Very often it is only with the passage of time when we look back that we realize that events which took place during those confusing early chapters fall into place and make sense. While we don’t know the end of the story and events seem difficult and challenging at the time, Yosef teaches us that there is a plot to our life story, that there is a Divine author. While we may not know the meaning of the story for many years, for each of us, the story is a classic.
Shabbat Shalom at all.