Shemot — 5771 — Present Day

31/12/2010 at 11:04 Leave a comment

“Present Day”

Parashat Shemot

25 December 2010

Neil F. Blumofe


As we enter into this new sefer Torah, this new Book of the Torah, we find the outfitting of issues that continue to vex us today.  I think it is too limiting to view the Torah as a series of stories, that when strung together, describe a particular history.  Rather, the Torah is a text that remains alive, hot to the touch – that continues to describe our lives as they exist today – we are not so different from our relatives found within this scroll, nor are our concerns so divergent.  It is this timelessness that makes this scroll sacred – and the encouragement that we receive in our tradition, to take on the story of the Exodus, for example, and turn our dining room tables into places that generate freedom during Pesach, may be applied to any section of the Torah, as well.


In the opening passages of Shemot, we see a description of what seems to be a pattern of our history – we are invited to or emigrate to a country and enjoy some success – for perhaps a generation or two, or even for hundreds of years – and then we are witness to the inevitable winds of change and new leaders rise up who have other priorities and plans and we are painfully reminded of our outsider status – of our inherent otherness, even in our native land.  You may see this reflected in the Hebrew in the opening verse of Shemot: v’aileh sh’mot B’nei Yisrael ha’ba’im mitzraymah – and these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt – the verb ha’ba’im is in the present tense – this seems a bit odd, considering that the B’nei Yisrael had already made the trek from Canaan to Egypt – and our commentators notice this and state that according to the Egyptians, it was as if the Israelites were just now coming to Egypt – even these many years later.  Indeed, the Midrash teaches that all was well until Yosef died – and now that he was gone, the attitude towards his family was radically changed.


In my weekly note to our Agudas Achim community that I sent yesterday, I have asked us to consider what we expect – even though we celebrate Yosef in all that he did to enrich the Egyptian nation, in this new time, we are faced with unexpected travail and deprivation.  We may have a sense of what we deserve or even what we are entitled to – because of who we are or any successes that we may measure, based on our experience – however, are these ideas realistic?  Do our efforts really warrant certain results?  How tied into the opinions of other people is the regard that we have for ourselves?


It has been quite striking in this past week, noticing how we negotiate the confluence of time – today Shabbat and also a big day for most of our neighbors.  Some of us have openly embraced a universal message of Christmas – on the largest and vaguest terms — a time for appreciating efforts towards peace and for goodwill – and some of us just appreciate the respite in our structured, busy lives — a brief moment of civility in an otherwise coarse unfolding of days – grateful for the smile and the wish of Happy Holidays amid the bustle.  It is understandable that we do want to participate in this leavening of the spirit.


And – how do we connect our lives to this living Torah, which is written in the present tense – I know it seems outlandish that we should consider ourselves outsiders in this place and at this time.  A great many of us were born in this country and have even resided in the great state of Texas for a long while.  Why in these opening statements of Sefer Shemot, is our idea of home and security being so severely deconstructed?  So different than the end of the Book of Genesis, by the end of the first chapter of Exodus, the Jews are enslaved and are forced to elude the law that condemns Jewish babies to death.


How can we manage to live our lives in such privation and adversity?  And where is God – do we need to twist these dire circumstances into a radicalized interior theological trope that can sustain us and rationalize our victimhood — God needs our suffering to redeem us?  God wants us to descend deep into the pit of despair and then in a dramatic, heroic fashion, redeem us, just in the nick of time?  Why can’t we just smile and dream with our neighbors in this time, exchanging niceties, riding the gentle crest of living in the majority?


What responsibility we have to seriously consider the Torah.  We are taken along in Moses’ development – and yet he speaks harshly of the people – telling God that they will not believe his message and in fact will say, lo nirach eilecha haShem – haShem did not appear to you. Hazal, our generations of commentators bend over backwards trying to figure out what this means within the context of the Torah and the generation enslaved in Egypt – however, in an extraordinary insight, the S’fat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic master, claimed that this rebuke of Moses was not to his own generation, rather, it was to ours, when our faith is dim.


Now, when we have so many choices not to opt in – when we are currently part of forming the culture in our society through media and other means – even now, living as we never have before, with a strong Israel that in its mere existence, helps protect us outside of the land, from the rhythms of our unfortunate exiles and genocide – our Torah is calling to us, in forewarning – asking us to apply ourselves, to enter its deep waters and in fact devote our lives to revealing its meaning.


So, let us do both – let us be grateful for living relatively harmoniously in this stitch of time and let us too make an investment in our future – let us not exchange our legacy for our convenience – our inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup – rather, let us read the Torah in present tense, listening as it teaches and as we encounter the difficult and the unknown – the inscrutability of God – as we are tested and challenged, both in our physical and in our spiritual lives, let us continue to develop the strength to respond to our doubts and our fears in thundering examination and confidence.

Shabbat Shalom.


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