The scene is not hard to imagine. The Israelites have left Egypt and are heading towards freedom, but Pharaoh has realized what has happened and 600 elite chariots combined other chariots and officers are now giving chase. The Israelites arrive at the edge of the Red Sea. With the waters raging in front of them and the Egyptian army fast approaching from behind, the Israelites are trapped. There is nowhere to go. The situation is perilous indeed.
HaShem commands Moshe, "Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Israelites and let them go forward." Go forward? Where to? There is the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Where are they to go?
The Talmud records the incident. People from different tribes began to argue. This tribe did not want to go first into the water, and that tribe also refused. Suddenly, one man bursts forth and walks into the sea. He continues to walk and when the waters are at his neck, Moshe holds up his staff and the sea splits and what had been an obstacle, literally a death trap, becomes a clear path.
Who was this person that stood up, took a chance and literally changed the fate of his people? His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav. He was from the tribe of Yehudah and he was the brother-in-law of Aaron. Later, Nachshon was given the privilege of bringing the first offering to the newly inaugurated Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them during their sojourn through the desert.
Many centuries later, Nachshon ben Aminadav is still remembered for that one act. With boldness and selflessness (and possibly some impulsivity as well) Nachshon forged ahead and demonstrated to the Israelites that the situation was not lost; his actions helped lead the people to freedom, to new opportunities, to new heights as they would soon receive the Torah.
Nachshon ben Aminadav teaches us that no matter what the circumstances are, our actions do make a difference. We can change the world. We can, indeed we do, make things better. We, too, bring our small portion of the Jewish people to greater heights, even when it feels like the water is up to our neck.
Shabbat shalom to all!
This week we read Parshat Bo. The parsha introduces us to the mitzvah of Kiddush HaKodesh, the sanctification of the new moon. The Jewish people's attention to the waxing and waning of the moon is the basis for the Jewish calendar, without which there would be no holiday observance. The Syrian-Greek king Antiochus realized this, for one of the prohibitions he placed upon the Jewish people was that of announcing Rosh Hodesh, for if the Jewish people did not know when the holidays occurred, they could not be observed. This was one of the ways he hoped to eradicate Judaism. The calendar therefore was crucial for our continued survival. When would we blow the shofar or have a seder if we did not know when it was Tishrei or Nisan?
We also find in the parsha the mitzvah of the Pesach sacrifice, the offering of a lamb right before Pesach. The blood of this animal was placed on the lintel of the Israelites' homes as a way to distinguish their homes from those of the Egyptians, in many ways like the mezuzot on our homes today. At the very end of the parsha there is a mention of tefilin and the Ramban. Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides (1194-1270, Spain) goes into a lengthy explanation that the Exodus from Egypt is so fundamental to our identity as Jews, so much so that we are commanded to mention the Exodus everyday. We do so in our twice daily recitation of the Shema.
What occurs to me is what an amazing tradition we have. We have wonderful rituals in Jewish life to be sure; rituals that bind us together as a family; as a people. But we must remember one important thing; Judaism is more than ritualistic. Jewish life is one that calls upon us to be responsible, to be compassionate toward other people, to stand up and act, and to think beyond ourselves. Jewish tradition provides us a template for living a full, moral ethical life, taking into consideration how we interact with other people. The rituals are nice; the rituals are important, but without the ethical part of Jewish tradition, the rituals are empty of meaning. To live as a Jew means to live with a sense of nobility. We will experience that nobility, even a touch of majesty tonight as we welcome the Shabbat Queen.
I picked up the phone to make a call. The first name of the person with whom I want to speak started with the letter H. Someone answered and I began "May I talk to Hhhhhh . . . " I could not get the person's name out. Click. The person hung up. I tried a second time, "May I talk to Hhhhh . . ." Click, again, the person hung up. When I made a third attempt, and the same thing happened, the person on the other end of the line said in a very stern fashion, "Stop making prank phone calls or I will call the police." Click (this time with a slam). At that point my frustration tolerance bottomed out and on the fourth and ultimately final try as soon as the person answered, the words came out rapid-fire, "Don't hang up, I stutter!!!"
Such is the feeling Moshe must have felt the first time he stood in front of Pharaoh to request that he allow the Israelites to leave. In last week's parsha, Shemot, Moshe does accept the mission (did he really have a choice??) but the first attempt was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh refuse Moshe, but Pharaoh took away the straw with which the Israelites used to make bricks. Now the Israelites would need to gather their own straw and make the same quota. In the end, the people reject Moshe for their labor became that much more intense.
As this week's parsha, VaEra opens, HaShem is trying to strengthen Moshe, telling him that He has established a covenant with the Israelite people, and the land of Canaan (Israel) is part of that Covenant. While Moshe again uses the excuse of speech to get out this task, HaShem, doesn't let Moshe out of the responsibility. He assigns Aaron to the role of mouthpiece, as Rashi explains. Moshe will speak the words to Aaron who will convey them to Pharaoh. Rashi also makes another interesting point. The Torah says, "HaShem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites . . . " Rashi says on that phrase that Moshe and Aaron must have patience with the Israelites.
HaShem is letting Moshe and Aaron, particularly Moshe, know that he needs to have patience, not only with the Israelites, but perhaps with himself as well. Yes, that first encounter did not go well. Pharaoh refused the request and he increased the workload upon the Israelites, who also reject Moshe. However, that is only a temporary setback. It is not the end of the story. As time goes on, Moshe will persevere, he will succeed, and despite other setbacks and momentary failures, he will accomplish his goal. Ultimately, we know what eventually comes of Moshe.
Life is full of setbacks. We make mistakes, encounter obstacles, but we should see those moments as catalysts for growth and not let them keep us from our goals. As we mentioned last week, challenges make us better. We learn from the mistakes, but we find the way to succeed. Thirty-five years after that phone call to H, I have learned better ways of getting my message across.
By the way, H wasn't home anyway.
With this week's parsha of Shemot we begin the second book of the Torah. Much has happened since the Book of Bereshit concluded last week. Yosef has died and a new king who does not know Yosef has taken the Egyptian monarchy. This new king places the Israelites into harsh servitude. Fearing an Israelite uprising the king decrees that all male Israelite babies be killed upon birth while the females may live.
In the parsha we are introduced to the person who would ultimately become the leader of the Jewish people and its teacher par excellence, Moshe. The Torah describes his birth to Israelite slaves, his being placed in a basket and set adrift in the Nile only to be discovered by Pharaoh's daughter and raised in Pharaoh's palace.
As is well known, Moshe flees Egypt after it was discovered that he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Moshe settles in Midian where he marries and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law, Yitro. While in the desert with his flock Moshe has an encounter that will change his life. He stumbles upon a bush on fire, but not consumed by the flames. Through this burning bush, HaShem reveals Himself to Moshe and assigns him the task of bringing the Israelites out from their Egyptian bondage. Several times Moshe attempts to decline the challenge, each time using the same excuse. He says, "Please my Lord, I have never been a man of words . . . I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech."
Moshe is trying to use a personal difficulty, his speech problem, as an excuse to not accept this task. In fact, Rashi says that HaShem tried for a full seven days to persuade Moshe, but Moshe was adamant in his refusal. The Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiyah Sforno says that Moshe argued that he would be unable to speak with the eloquence befitting a king. However, despite Moshe's protestations, HaShem does not allow Moshe to back out. "And now, go." HaShem tells Moshe, " I will be with your mouth and I will teach you what you shall say."
HaShem is letting Moshe know that not only can he not wiggle his way out of the challenge, but that he is not alone. HaShem will be there to support Moshe.
In fact, this mission that HaSHem has assigned to Moshe is in reality a test, so that Moshe will know what he is capable of accomplishing. That HaShem tests people is not foreign to Jewish tradition. The ancient rabbis teach that Avraham was tested ten times, ranging from leaving his birthplace to performing his own Brit Milah to the final test of being willing to offer his own son as a sacrifice. Avraham passed all ten tests.
HaShem is challenging Moshe where he most vunerable. The interesting piece that some of the commentators point out is that HaShem never offers to take away or cure Moshe of his speech issue, for if he had done so it would have been a tremendous disservice to Moshe. The task we all face as human beings, created in the Divine image, is to overcome the challenges, to grow, to become even better than we already are. We do this by facing those challenges, not having them solved for us.
The challenges are really opportunities to tap into that potential with which HaShem has graced each of us. We must not allow the challenges in life to cause us to plunge into an abyss of stagnation. The true measure of character is how one rises to master that challenge when it does arrive. Every time we think we have come to the end of our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and realize that our capacity may well be limitless. We must have great dreams. Great dreams can beget great accomplishments. As with Moshe, HaShem is with us, not to make things easier, but to give us the strength to meet the challenges. May we each strive to achieve great things we can't even yet imagine.
Thank you for a wonderful, productive week.
Parshat VaYigash begins with a confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. While the brothers cannot dispute the fact the golden goblet has been found in Binyamin's sack Yehuda stands up to Yosef, whom he knows as the second most powerful man in Egypt...not his brother he sold into slavery over twenty years earlier. Yehuda accuses Egypt's viceroy of unfairly enslaving Binyamin and offers himself in Binyamin's stead. At this point Yosef is so overcome with emotion that he can no longer contain himself. "And Yosef said to his brothers, 'I am Yosef, is my father still alive?" he cries out to his stunned brothers, who are unable to speak.
Upon seeing their reaction, Yosef repeats this declaration a second time, "I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold to Egypt . . . now do not be distressed . . .for having sold me here. . . for it was to be a provider (of food) that HaShem sent me here before you . . . And now it was not you that sent me here , but HaShem." Yosef does not let his brothers off the hook for selling him, but he does assuage their guilt by assuring them that their doing so was not of their volition, but rather part of the Divine plan.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham is told that he would indeed have offspring who would be as numerous as the stars, and those descendents would be strangers in a land not theirs and "they will be oppressed for four hundred years." Yosef has now realized that there was indeed a purpose to his living in Egypt for so many years. Being sold was the precursory incident which brought the Jewish people to Egypt which would ultimately set in motion the events leading up to their eventual enslavement and exodus from that tyranny, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the sojourn in the desert athe entrance into the Land of Israel and the rest of Jewish history.
Life is a book whose chapters open up to us as the days, weeks, months and years go by. Very often it is only with the passage of time that enables us to look back and realize that events which took place during those confusing early chapters fall into place and make sense. While we don't know the end of the story, and events seem difficult and challenging at the time, Yosef teaches us that there is a plot to our life story...that there is a Divine author. While we may not know the meaning of the story for many years, for each of us the story is a classic.
Shabbat Shalom to all.