Parashat B'shallach Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
The poetic readings in Exodus, our Torah reading, and in the Haftarah (the week's prophetic passage from the book of Judges) give the character to this unique Shabbat of Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Poetry/Song (the same word in Hebrew).
One of the threads of these texts which is the varied role that women play in these two passages:
In the Sh'mot/Exodus passage, b'nei yisrael, the Israelites, are touched by God in the redemptive moment at the Sea of Reeds. The escaping Israelite slaves are caught between the Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army. The waters part, the Israelites pass through the Sea on dry land and the waters close over the Egyptian soldiers, chariots and horses. When the Israelites come to the realization that they have escaped slavery and the Egyptian army and that God has reached out to them in their most terrifying moment, they sing "the song at the sea," "shirat hayam."
I will sing to the Lord, mighty in majestic triumph.
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
Adonay is my strength and my might; God is my deliverance.
And Miriam is described as picking up a tambourine and leading the women in song. A spiritual leader inspiring everyone to give voice to their praise and gratitude.
In our haftarah, the judge, Deborah, summons the military leader Barak and conveys God command to bring forces against the Canaanite general, Sisera. Barak agrees only on the condition that Deborah accompany him on the campaign. As events unfold, Sisera is executed by Yael, a woman of a neighboring people (the Kenites) who sedates the general with warm milk and then drives a tent stake through his head (not a PG rated book, Judges!).
What is so fascinating is the variety of leadership roles these three women represent:
Miriam is the spiritual leader
Deborah is the political leader
Yael is the courageous warrior
A few millenia later, there are still a number of significant glass ceilings left for women to break through. It is a fascinating tension that the tradition that so lauded these three strong women has also discouraged women's leadership and participation in public venues. In the last forty years, much has happened in the Jewish world to change this . . . and many women are once again appreciated as leaders in a variety of roles, religious, political and even military, in the Jewish world.
Miriam, Deborah and Yael would be proud.
Parashat Bo Torah Reading: Exodus 10:1-13:16
In this week's parashah/Torah reading, we are offered a profound lesson through the use of a simple Hebrew word.
A song that many of us learned in Religious School as kids that we sang around Pesach time is: "Avadim hayinu, hayinu. Ata b'nei horin, b'nai horin."
"We were slaves. Now we are a free people."
The word for slaves in Hebrew is "avadim." As is the case with almost all Hebrew words, it is built on a three letter root:
ע ב ד
In the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, which we are reading now, the Israelites are referred to as avadim a number of times.
Then God has Moses say to Pharaoh: "shlach et ami sheya'avduni." Let My people go, that they may serve Me. The word for "that they may serve Me" is built on that same three letter root עבד that serves as the root for "slave."
Is the Torah equating slavery to service to God? We know that the phenomena are deeply different. In slavery there is no question of devotion. In service to God we choose to devote ourselves.
On the other hand, in slavery the only goals are those of the taskmaster. And in the service to God, we, too, are meant to internalize God's goals for us.
Perhaps the etymological lesson of עבד as Egyptian slavery and עבד as elevating worship, devotion, and study of God and Torah is that the qualitative difference is a matter of who we serve.
In our time and place, it is up to us to determine who we serve. Our culture offers us many unelevating choices . . . and our tradition offers one inspiring, enriching choice.
May we choose wisely that to which we devote ourselves.
Parashat Va'eira Torah Reading: Exodus 6:2-9:35
There is a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition between the horrific events in Haiti and our Torah portion. From the comfort of our safe homes, full refrigerators, safe running water and functioning hospitals, we shake our heads in dismay and bewilderment as the people of Port-au-Prince, Haiti continue to live in an atmosphere of chaos, death, starvation and dehydration.
Everything we understand about God as Creator compels us to reject at Robertson's repressive theology of God punishing Haitians for "making a pact with the devil" in the early 19th century as a way of winning independence from the French.
I will not accept that God punishes humans en masse through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Sunami or the Haitian earthquake.
On the other hand, this week's Torah reading includes the first half of the story of the 10 plagues that God brings down upon the Egyptian people. Unnatural disaster after unnatural disaster makes life miserable for every generation and social class of Egyptians, threatening or taking the lives of many. How do we reject God's hand in the natural disasters of sunami, earthquake and hurricane, but acknowledge God's hand in the unnatural disasters of blood, frogs, locusts and the death of the first born? Is there a theological position of integrity that encompasses these positions?
In my faith, the unnatural disasters of the plagues visited upon Egypt are the larger than life interpretations of events that surround definitive redeeming moments: God redeems Israel from the physical and spiritual bondage of Egypt. The event is profound, the triumph of the God of Israel over the gods of Egypt is stunning and challenging to the assumptions of that time and that place. It is only through the interweaving of events and impressions that is the 10 plagues story, a divine "throwdown" between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt, that the events become comprehensible.
The ongoing tragedy of Haiti is not an event of theological import, it is the unfolding of natural disaster meeting human frailty. We have many resources that we need to bring to bear at this moment: the financial resources to send food and water and the implements to provide shelter; the human resources to impose order on chaos; the spiritual resources to infuse the people of Haiti with strength. The people of Haiti have been singing songs of faith in the streets. Their faith humbles me and inspires me. Respond, with me, by donating to relief organizations and coming together in prayer, as do the people of Haiti themselves.
Parashat Sh'mot Torah Reading: Exodus 1:1-6:1
This Shabbat our weekly Torah reading brings us to the very beginning of the second book of the Torah: Sh'mot/Exodus.
We are going to witness and relive some of the greatest moments in our history as we read our way, parasha by parasha, portion by portion, through this second book of Torah.
Right at the beginning of the parasha we see the Israelites referred to, for the very first time, as "am," "nation". This is in contrast to the Israelites at the end of the book of Breishit/Genesis who were little more than an extended family. Now, in Sh'mot, the Israelites are a confederation of twelve tribes and are considered by their Egyptian neighbors to be a force to be reckoned with.
We will quickly become engaged in the quagmire and heartbreak of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the evolution of Moses from foundling to prince, from prince to refuge, from refuge to shepherd and from shepherd to national leader and God's collaborator. The sea will part. The Torah will be revealed at Sinai. The Golden Calf will emerge and enrage. The Tabernacle/Mishkan will be constructed in the wilderness and preparations will be made for the establishment of the first stage of Israelite religion: the sacrificial cult.
We will emerge at the end of the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, as a people bound to God through the salvation of Israel from Egypt and through the brit, the covenant forged between Israel and God at Sinai. Our lives will be informed by ethical, ritual, spiritual and moral mitzvot/commandments . . . through this second book of Torah we revisit our roots and our core values. By examining our beginnings as a people our appreciation for the wisdom and the richness of our tradition deepens.
Twice a day our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to recite the following verse (part of the compilation from the Psalms we call "ashrei"). As I contemplate the spiritual journey that awaits us in the book of Sh'mot/Exodus, this verse comes to mind:
Ashrei ha'am she'Adonay elohav
Blessed are the people whose God is Adonay.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.