Month: January 2018

Parashat Yitro | Exodus 18:1-20:23

Metaphor abounds in our Torah; there is no shortage of poetic language used to describe God, God's relationship with us, and indeed, our experience in the world. Among my favorite metaphors within our tradition are those that invoke the natural world; especially animals. We have a classical example of such metaphor in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro. God calls to Moses from the mountain, instructing him to remind the Israelites of how God "... bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me." (Exodus 19:4) Rashbam, an 11th century French Torah Scholar (and grandson of Rashi) remarks that our metaphor is easy to understand. According to him, it might as well read, "I transported you safely over the sea in dry land just like eagles fly over the seas," emphasizing the speed and safety with which God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. But Rashbam's grandfather asserts that there is more we can glean from this metaphor.

"An eagle bears its young aloft on its wings," Rashi writes, "All other birds clutch their young between their legs underneath because they are afraid of another bird flying over them. The eagle, however, is only afraid of the hunter's arrow... It therefore places it on top of its wings saying: let the arrow rather pierce me than my young." Rashi's interpretation offers the possibility not only of efficiency, as Rashbam suggests, but of intimacy as well. The relationship  established between God & Israel at this moment is one of concern, nurture, and deep care.

How are we to understand our relationship with a God that can seem distant, indeed relegated to another time and place? If we are to remember the Exodus from Egypt every day (and we are), and if we are meant to see ourselves in every generation as having been redeemed from Egypt (and we are) then perhaps we ought to imagine an intimate, caring and protective God who wants us to survive and indeed thrive, just as the eagle protects and supports its young.

- Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat B'shalach | Exodus 13:17-17:16

Imagine the scene: you've just left Egypt with all of your belongings on your back, surrounded by everyone you know, and many whom you do not. You reach the Red Sea, only to realize that Pharaoh and his armies are hot on your heels. You have two options: certain death at the hands of the cruel leader whom you have just escaped, or possible death in the watery depths before you. And then suddenly, a third option: God causes the waters to part, and you tentatively step across the sand, timidity and disbelief turning into a mad dash for survival. You make your way across to dry land and turn around in time to see the encroaching armies swept up in the deepening tide... 
A stunned silence falls over the huddled masses, until you hear a singular voice ring out in song, the Song of the Sea - a song of gratitude and of wonder and of praise at the first true taste of freedom. The sound grows as the song moves through the throng of Israelites around you; family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers...
This is what we remember on Shabbat Shira: the third option which is God, and redemption, and freedom's hard-won song.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman

Parashat Bo | Exodus 10:1−13:16

"Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household,” we read in this week’s Torah portion. This earliest mention of the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, Passover, dictates both the ritual (sacrifice and eat a lamb) as well as the ritual attendees (your household). While we do not — and desire not to — slaughter cute, furry animals in the celebration of this holiday, we maintain the communal aspect to this day. Eating the Passover meal, sharing the Passover story, among a group of family and friends creates sacred community throughout the generations. Combined with the foodie aspects of the holiday, it is little surprise that the Passover Seder is the one of most observed Jewish rituals. The Passover offering mentioned in our Torah portion, then, both reflects and serves to create strong Jewish identity.

 - Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Va-eira • Exodus 6:2−9:35

Why do we drink four cups of wine during our commemoration of Passover? A historian might point out the parallels between the Greek symposium and the Passover seder, suggesting four cups was the ideal number to spark vigorous discussion without devolving into inebriation. A talmudist might guide us to the volume of consumption necessary to fulfill the mitzvah (four olive’s worth; Mediterranean olives, not pizza olives). A rabbi would suggest the answer is found in this week’s Torah portion.

"I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians," we read in this week’s Torah portion, the first of four promises made to the Israelites in Exodus 6:7-8. “I will deliver you from their bondage;” "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm;” and "I will take you to be My people,” round out these promises. In honor of God’s covenant with the people, we consume a glass of wine for each of these promises. A careful reading of the text, however, notes a fifth and final promise in the very next verse: "I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to your ancestors.” Our Passover seder, then, uses five cups of wine and not just four. The fifth cup, of course, is poured for Elijah the prophet, herald of the promises in this Torah portion!
- Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Sh'mot • Exodus 1:1−6:1

“A new king arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, beginning both a literal new book of Torah and a metaphoric new chapter for the Israelites. While the first eight verses of the portion continue the narrative of Genesis, enumerating those families sojourning in Egypt, verse nine renders Joseph’s assistance to the Egyptian people and subsequent rise null and void as the new ruler sought to impose harsh new restrictions. “So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses.” It is a dramatic narrative device from which we might learn an important lesson.

Jews are natural story tellers, born perhaps of our long and rich history. Tales of “your grandmother did this” or “your crazy uncle did that” not only build resilience among our people but ensure the lessons of previous generations are not forgotten. Compare this to verse nine of our Torah portion, where history and prior success are ignored. Not only is this model presented as distinctly non-Jewish, it is also quickly shown to be ill-advised. Let us continue telling the stories of our tradition, turning them and turning them again, for important lessons have yet to be fully grasped.

-  Rabbi Aaron Meyer