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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Yitro:
In this weeks torah portion Beshalach the Israelites are finally on their way to freedom. As they made their way to the sea Pharoahs’s army approached. Trapped, the Israelites turned to Moses and said, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians, than to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11-13). According to Rabbi Ibn Ezra “The Israelites still have a slave mentality, despite their having experienced God’s redemptive power during the Ten Plagues.” This lack of faith might make one question whether the Israelites were worthy of being chosen to receive the Torah as a result of their apparent lack of faith and trust in God. However, it is this very lack of faith, and this questioning that the Israelites do that makes them worthy of receiving Torah.
According to Daniel Gordis in his book God Was Not in the Fire, “In Jewish spiritual life, faith is not the starting point of the journey. Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth. Doubt is what fuels the journey. Indeed, as we will see, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate and even celebrated in Jewish life.”
Therefore, it is the Israelites asking why God has brought them out to the wilderness to die that makes them the unique people to receive and interpret Torah. Most people would not think to question God or their religious leader. Here their questioning is the precursor to their redemption. God does not save the Israelites to show them how their lack of faith is unfounded. Rather, God splits the sea because even though the Israelites might think like slaves, they do one thing a slave does not do. They exercise their power to voice their opinion, even in opposition.
“Why do Jews wear those funny boxes on their heads?” While such a question would be considered offensive in most other contexts, it was beautifully innocent coming from the overeager 4th grader on a tour of Temple’s sacred spaces. Stepping back from my emotional connection to the rites and rituals of Judaism, I must admit she had a point. Tefilin, the black leather boxes traditionally-observant Jews wear on their heads and forearms during prayer, do look a bit funny. The answer to her question was more complex than she could have anticipated.
I explained that we sometimes read the biblical text quite literally. Why do Jewish holidays begin the night before? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day” we read in Genesis, a model of night and day different from the secular solar ordering. Thus when it says “you shall bind them as a sign before your eyes”, that is exactly what we do! The last words of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, offer further explanation: “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).” Those funny boxes, then, not only serve to fulfill one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot but also as a reminder of our freedom in this world and our obligation to emulate God by striving to bring freedom to all in need.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer
This week’s Torah portion, Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35) begins with an introduction. “God spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai (El Shaddai being one of the many names for God in Jewish tradition).” Certainly God needs no introduction, so why this peculiar way of starting the Torah portion.
Instead of listing attributes — “I created the heavens and the earth” or “I destroyed the world in the time of Noah, pay attention” — God presents as the same God honored by Moses’ forebearers. The manner in which God is introduced forms a lasting theme in Jewish prayer. With the Amidah, we begin our central prayer recognizing God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Indeed, the sages of the Talmud suggest that the very idea of prayer itself was initiated by these patriarchs: “Rav Jose son of Rav Hanina said, the tefilot were instituted by the patriarchs (Berachot 26b)!” God’s introduction, then, is a lesson for all of Jewish history rather than mere making the acquaintance of Moses.