Sh'mot - Exodus - 12/20/2013
Post date: Dec 20, 2013 6:46:18 PM
I had the pleasure and privilege tonight, to do a close reading of this week's Torah portion with my son, Isaac. The portion is the first chapter of Exodus, or in the Hebrew, "Sh'mot", the "names of", as in, "These are the names of the [individuals] that came to Egypt."
The Book of Exodus relates the most momentous event that shaped the Jewish people: our enslavement in Egypt, our redemption, the following epiphany at Mt. Sinai, and life in the desert.
This first chapter opens with individuation, naming Jacob and each of his son's that came to Egypt. Each family was named. Each family bought in. The perasha is represented in the Maggid - the story we read on Passover. The narrative of the chapter moves very quickly, from moving down to Egypt, to our enslavement, to the birth of Moses, but there are distinct phases which Isaac identified for me.
I used to think the first phase of one nation enslaving another was best represented by the line attributed to the new pharaoh, "Vayaaqom melekh chadash al mitzrayim asher lo yadaa et Yoseph," ... A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. But instead, Isaac pointed out to me two more subtle hints as to what happened after our ancestors moved to Egypt and before that new king arose.
In the verse before talking about the new pharaoh, the perasha describes the growth of the Children of Israel in Egypt using 3 verbs, "Pru, ve'Yishretzu, ve'Yirbu". The first and the third words, we know from the very first mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah: God commands humans (actually all living creatures) to "Pru ve'Urvu" - be fruitful and multiply. So, our ancestors fruited and multiplied in Egypt. But the middle verb, "Yishretzu", has some important connotations.
Again, looking at the creation story of Breishit (Genesis), the term is used to describe the swarming and teeming of creatures in the sea and on the land. In other words, our ancestors spread like insects throughout Egypt. This description is unflattering to the Children of Israel, whose Joseph had saved all of Egypt from the famine years before. Now we became like bugs, indistinguishable from one another.
Verse 6 reads, "Joseph and his brothers and all that generation died." In a slightly less literal reading, we might interpret that sentence to mean that the tribal ancestors were no longer influencing the lives of their descendants. In other words, well before the new pharaoh forgot about Joseph, the Jews themselves forgot about him! We either forgot or took for granted what made him stand out, his service to the people, his distinguished accomplishments. We were riding on his coattails, and not, as they say in modern corporate management lingo, "continually reinventing ourselves."
The Book of Exodus concerns the most momentous event that shaped the Jewish people: our enslavement and ultimate redemption. The first sentences of that story give us a critical clue as to how those events unfolded. We went from individuation to anonymity. By spreading insect-like throughout the land, by not challenging ourselves to stand out and be the best that we could be, by letting the accomplishments of our ancestors die with them instead of keeping them to inspire us to greater accomplishments, we became vulnerable to the subsequent horrors inflicted upon us.
By saying this, I don't mean to blame the victim. The pharaoh acted with malice toward our people. Furthermore, it could not have been different. We were not a unified people with language, customs and traditions. We did not yet have the Seder to teach us about freedom, the Shofar to teach us about forgiveness, the Sukkah to teach us about humility. We had not yet created the vehicles to teach our children the lessons of our history. What *could* one generation, at that nascent stage of the Jewish people, pass on to the next, in order to teach the lessons learned of old?
But the message is clear. When we become complacent, when we become satisfied, when we don't let the sacrifices of our forbears inspire us to be better ourselves, we become vulnerable to abuse. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in an interview (which I paraphrase from memory): Everyday when I wake up, I find something wrong. I am never satisfied. I always need to change. You might say that I'm the most maladjusted person in the world. But the day I look in the mirror and there is nothing I can do better is the day I'm dead.
In complacency and acceptance lie the seeds of oppression and abuse. May this introductory story from the book of Exodus teach us that practicing our Holidays, customs and traditions, remembering the accomplishments of the individuals that came before us and letting them inspire us to be the best that we can be is not just a slogan but an imperative for us and for every generation.