8/9 Jan :Shemot : Shabbat comes in 3:55 pm, ends 5:05 pm
Parashat Sh’mot – Changing the World
There is an idea, all too prevalent in discussions on the state of the environment, that each of us is powerless to change anything. The beginning of this week’s parashah disagrees. Here, at the beginning of the Exodus narrative – when Pharaoh has enslaved the Israelites and is attempting to oppress the population through infanticide – the Torah portion hones in on several small stories. These are narratives about the women responsible for the survival of one particular infant: Moses. We, the readers, know who Moses will grow up to be, so when we read these small narratives, we know that they are important and world-changing. But that is not what the actions would have looked like to the characters in play.
First, we encounter the story of the midwives, who disobey orders to slaughter Israelite sons. They cannot save the Israelite children as a whole, but they can find excuses to allow some to live, and so that is what they do. Then, when Pharaoh issues a new command that the sons be thrown into the Nile, we meet Moses’s mother and sister, who hide him until it is no longer possible and then put him in a basket in the river in hopes that he might survive. And then we meet Bat Paroh, the daughter of Pharaoh, who takes the child in as her own – and even agrees to return the infant to his mother to be a wet-nurse.
Together, the women of Egypt – the Hebrew slaves, the midwives, the daughter of the king – manage to save the life of one child. And, unbeknownst to them, that one child grows up to liberate the Israelites from slavery.
In the beginning of Parashat Sh’mot, the story is moved entirely by small acts of the seemingly powerless. Not one of those acts looks like it will affect the bigger picture. But we know, while we’re reading the story, that they will. How much power we must have, that our small acts of resistance can lead to revolution and redemption.
So in terms of a punishment for the people of Noah’s time, the flood and the destruction of all living things does seem a bit extreme. One of my rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson argues, that is exactly the point the Torah is trying to make.
Destruction, even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness” bursts beyond any manageable or fair limitations. Even punishments, originally intended to be measured and reasonable, provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship.
Rabbi Paul Arberman.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed that Adam’s sin was primarily in hiding from God and from himself. This is not, in Heschel’s eyes, an abstract idea; we all hide from God and from ourselves. Heschel expresses it thus in the third verse of his poem I and Thou:
” Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden. ”
Heschel is describing a personal experience in which he has hidden from himelf, his essence absorbed within society. His face is masked, hidden from view, making the idea to “know thyself” impossible.
I’m not sure why we hide from ourselves so well when we are young — or perhaps we just don’t take the time to think through who we are — but I can say definitively, that one of the great joys of getting older is the unmasking — getting to know yourself — what you actually enjoy or don’t enjoy doing.
Written by Rabbi Paul Arberman