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Torah Sparks

December 25, 2010 – 18 Tevet 5771

Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial: Exodus 1:1-2:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343; Hertz p. 225)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

The Book of Exodus opens by listing the sons of Jacob who have gathered in Egypt, and notes the passing of that generation, as well as the rapid increase in Egypt's new Israelite population. A new pharaoh, who is (willfully?) unaware of Joseph's contribution to the nation and its survival, announces his intent to deal "shrewdly" with his Hebrew minority, which he considers dangerously disloyal, a potential fifth column. In addition to harsh forced labor, Pharaoh devises a genocidal policy toward his slaves, instructing midwives (it seems, surreptitiously) to murder newborn Israelite boys. The midwives, described as "God-fearing" women, evade their lethal assignment, claiming that Hebrew women are chayot: so "vigorous" or (perhaps exploiting Pharaoh's irrational racist fears) "like animals" – delivering before the midwives can arrive and intervene. Significantly, the names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are provided. This is in contrast to members of Moses' own family, who are not identified by name for several chapters after they are introduced to the narrative. The midwives, first among a series of women to contribute to the Israelite redemption and, more specifically, to Moses' survival, are rewarded by God for their moral principles and their defiance (as, too, their deception) of Pharaoh. In 10 short verses, we learn of Moses' birth and infancy, his mother's plan to save him from murder by placing him in a basket at the side of the Nile under his sister's watchful care, and his adoption and naming by the daughter of Pharaoh (who – unlike her cinematic counterpart – is unnamed in the Biblical text). Then the narrative jumps several years into the future. A grownup Moses kills an Egyptian he witnesses beating an Israelite slave. When he realizes that the homicide he had thought concealed was, in fact, well-known, he flees to Midian. There he meets and marries Tzipporah, one of seven daughters of Jethro, a Midianite priest. Tzipporah bears Moses the first of two sons. During Moses' time in Midian, Egypt undergoes yet another change in leadership when the pharaoh dies. God takes note of the suffering of the Israelite slaves and appears to Moses, now a shepherd in his father-in-law's employ, calling to him from the burning bush. Cryptically identifying Himself as "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh," God assigns Moses the role of prophet and the task of leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom in the land long ago promised to the patriarchs. A resistant Moses argues that he is ill-equipped for the prophetic mission. God instructs him in a number of miraculous portents to use in establishing divine credibility when he confronts Pharaoh.

Returning to Egypt accompanied by his family, Moses is, according to a brief and bizarre interpolation in the narrative, "attacked" by God. Tzipporah (joining the midwives, Moses' mother, sister, and adoptive mother as rescuer of the chosen redeemer of Israel) wards off the threat by performing a circumcision with a sharp flint. The text is unclear about whether it is Moses or his son who is circumcised and to whom she refers as a "bridegroom of blood." The somewhat opaque incident does reveal a menacing side of the divine, a useful foreshadowing of God's devastating actions toward Egypt. Moses and Aaron's first audience with Pharaoh to demand his emancipation of the Israelite slaves angers the monarch, who compounds the harshness endured by the slaves by compelling them to maintain their quota of brick-making while gathering straw for the process unassisted. Now hostile Israelites and their foremen complain to Moses that he has only made matters worse. Appealing to God, Moses is reassured that his mission will succeed. The parashah closes with the foreboding divine message: "You shall soon see what I shall do to Pharaoh."

Theme #1: "Barefoot in the Parashah"

"Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5)

Deresh: Study

"When wearing shoes, it is possible easily to tread upon small stones that are in your path, practically without feeling them at all. But when you walk barefoot, you feel every bump and obstacle, the jab of every thorn, the pain of every pebble. This is the reason Moses, leader of all Israel, is told: 'Remove your sandals.' The leader of the generation must be sensitive to every obstacle and snare along his path. He must feel the pain of the people and be sensitive to the snares they encounter." (Olelot Efrayim)

"In the desert, which is crawling with poisonous snakes and scorpions, it is very dangerous to go without shoes, and anyone who does so is all but committing suicide. Thus, when God commands Moses to remove his shoes, He adds, 'for the place on which you stand is holy' – for in a place of holiness no snake or scorpion can inflict harm, as it is recorded in Pirkei Avot: 'No snake or scorpion ever struck in Jerusalem.'" (Edut Yehosaf)

"As the shoe is to the foot, so the body is merely the outer garment of the human soul. In commanding Moses to remove his shoes, God meant to tell him: 'If you wish to understand the ways of God and reach the level at which you will be able to behold God's revelation, you must first cast off the forces and urges of the body that conceal the soul within. Only then will you be able to achieve holiness." (Malbim)

"Requesting or demanding the removal of shoes indicates that God is seeking further intimacy with humans when they meet in places of holiness… When God commanded Moses to remove his shoes God was inviting him to enter into a more intimate mutual relationship. God was expressing that the increased closeness carried with it the possibility, and the hope, of a very special bond." (Ora Horn Prouser)

Questions for Discussion

God's instruction that Moses remove his shoes has been interpreted to both sensitivity to pain and imperviousness to injury and attack. How are both these opposites both reflected in Moses' prophetic career? Are both interpretations necessary fully to appreciate God's command at the burning bush?

How are the comments by the Malbim and Professor Horn Prouser related? How do they differ? What does it mean to achieve intimacy with the Divine? Do God's warning ("Do not come closer") and His elusive response when Moses asks His name suggest insurmountable obstacles to this goal?

What makes a place (or person or community or occasion) holy? How do we alter our dress, speech, comportment, and attitude in response to "holy ground"? How is Moses an instructive model in our own experience of the holy?

Theme #2: "Making a Lisp, Checking it Twice"

"Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." (Exodus 4:10)

Deresh: Study

"Moses was endowed with all the qualities of a prophet except one: He lacked the power of eloquent speech. This was a deliberate act of Divine Providence, so that people would not say that the Israelites followed Moses because of his eloquence alone." (Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav)

"The precise nature of the deficiency is unclear... Most traditional commentators understood it as a speech defect, but some construed the phraseology as connoting a lack of eloquence or loss of fluency in the Egyptian language. Whatever the circumstances, it is certain that the underlying idea is that prophetic eloquence is not a native talent but a divine endowment granted for a special purpose, the message originating with God and not the prophet." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"He invokes these Hebrew idioms for impeded speech… to express his feeling of inadequacy for the mission… In the subsequent narrative, Moses actually appears to be capable of considerable eloquence." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"A blemished vessel was just fine with God. An elderly shepherd with a tender, impetuous heart — a man of the desert, halting in his speech, a little awkward in his style — a person like that was no problem for God. A person like that could be a leader. Not because of his captivating rhetoric. But because he spoke the truth with all his heart." (Rabbi Janet Marder)

"At school, where every teacher was a potential spy, I tried to avoid an 's' sound whenever possible. 'Yes' became 'correct,' or a military 'affirmative.' 'Please' became 'with your kind permission,' and questions were pleaded rather than asked. After a few weeks of what she called 'repeated pestering' and what I called 'repeated badgering,' my mother bought me a pocket thesaurus, which provided me with s-free alternatives to just about everything. I consulted the book both at home in my room and at the daily learning academy other people called our school. Agent Samson was not amused when I began referring to her as an articulation coach, but the majority of my teachers were delighted. 'What a nice vocabulary,' they said. 'My goodness, such big words!'" (David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day)

Questions for Discussion

Is there any evidence in the biblical text – beyond his own assertion – that Moses was actually of somehow impeded speech? As Professor Alter observes, Moses is in fact quite eloquent. He offers a series of lengthy and compelling orations. "Slow of speech and slow of tongue" is itself a lyrical turn of phrase! Without corroboration in the narrative, how might we otherwise understand Moses' self-deprecating statement?

How might a prophet with labored or flawed speech have been particularly appealing to the enslaved Israelites? What insight into this question does the Me Talk Pretty One Day passage provide?

Rabbi Marder identifies in Moses' speech impediment an emphasis on content over aesthetic form. How else is this system of priorities expressed in Jewish ritual life and ethics? How does (or could) this value system inform Jewish communal and congregational affairs?

Professor Sarna suggests that Moses' limitations in spoken communication are intended to emphasize the divine origin of prophecy, rather than the personal gifts or qualifications of the prophet. Why, then, choose the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter for this mission and not an unknown Israelite of more humble background?

Historic Note

Parashat Shemot, describing Moses' birth, youth, and prophetic call, is read on December 25, 2010: Christmas Day. The faithful among our Christian neighbors see in Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth is celebrated on this day, fulfillment of the words of Moses (Deuteronomy 18:17): "The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken." (See Acts 3:22)

Halachah L'Maaseh

Just as Moses removed his sandals at the burning bush, Jews today remove leather shoes on Yom Kippur, at least in part in deference to the analogous sanctity of the day. Similarly, kohanim reciting the priestly blessing remove their shoes before conducting their ritual, recreating as it does the holiness of the Temple. Mourners also customarily remove their shoes during shiva.

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