A Word of Torahby Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort, Chabad at La Costa January 3, 2018
Well, the secular calendar has again turned, and the world ushers in a new year. It is interesting to compare and contrast how the Jewish people mark the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and how the rest of the world celebrates. While we spend numerous hours in the synagogue in a deeply contemplative, indeed meditative state, the rest of the world ‘whoops it up’ on their new year. Goodness knows we Jews are not averse to some celebrating, but we also know when it is time to do some serious soul-searching, and we view the New Year as precisely that time.
But this article is not about New Year’s Day, but instead it is about the four extraordinary Torah portions (known in Hebrew as ‘parshiyot’) that come out during this month (which corresponds to this issue of the Jewish Journal). The portions are ‘Shemot’ (Exodus, or literally ‘Names’), ‘Va’Eira’ (‘And I Appeared’), ‘Bo’ (‘Come’), and ‘Beshalach’ (‘When He Sent Out’).
In the course of this month we will read how the Jewish people descend from their vaunted and honored position to become lowly and oppressed slaves to how they are ultimately redeemed from Egyptian bondage in an ‘explosion’ of divine intervention and miracles. It is perhaps the original riches to rags to riches story. Maybe we can find a clue as to this theme in the four names of the portions previously mentioned. Why consider the names? Aren’t names simply superficial so why spend time analyzing them? Actually, we are taught by the Rabbis, of blessed memory, that there is great significance in the names of the portions and that the portions’ names are in some measure indicative of the portions’ contents.
‘Shemot,’ as previously indicated literally means ‘names.’ Interestingly we call the Book, second of the Five Books of Moses, by the name Exodus. Why? Because the over-arching theme of the Book is the exodus from Egypt. The birth of the Jewish Nation, which led to the Giving of the Torah by the Holy One to our ancestors some 3,300+ years ago in the Wilderness of Sinai. So what does ‘Names’ have to do with ‘Exodus’? Our commentaries tell us that, in fact, there is a very strong connection. The Jewish people were under enormous physical and spiritual pressure while in Egypt. Not only did Pharaoh seek to oppress the Jews physically, he sought to destroy them spiritually as well. Sadly, his efforts were not entirely fruitless. Many Jews succumbed to the pressures and broke either physically, or spiritually, or both. But, then again, many Jews held firm. They held fast to their Jewish identities. How do we know this? We know this because they kept their Jewish NAMES. So the name of the portion is clueing us in on what got the Jews out of that particularly horrific pickle.
When the Book of Exodus and this portion begin, it begins by speaking about the Children of Israel. Keep that in mind.
The second portion is called ‘Va’eira’, and I appeared. Previously Moshe (Moses) had been commanded to approach Pharaoh and demand he set the people free so that they could serve G-d. Pharaoh did not only refuse, but he did so with gusto! He decreed that henceforth the Jews would be compelled to not only build cities, but that they must self-produce the bricks that would be used, all while not diminishing their production. Moshe didn’t understand how the Jewish people’s situation could get worse by following G-d’s commandments, and asked G-d. He replied by comparing Moshe, and his complaint, to the Patriarchs, who did not complain despite some severe tests. “Wait and see what will happen,” G-d responded.
When this portion begins it is G-d addressing Moses. Keep that in mind.
The next portion is that of ‘Bo’. The Almighty commanded Moshe, ‘Come to Pharaoh’ and (again) demand that the Children of Israel be freed from Egyptian servitude. At this point in the narrative the tide had definitely turned. Seven of the 10 Plagues had occurred, and the time for the actual Exodus had arrived. But at the beginning of the portion Pharaoh was still (or at least seemed to be) in charge. Interestingly, the Torah says ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ That indicates that the Divine Presence was there, in Pharaoh’s Court. “Do not fear,” declared the Almighty, “For I am here too, protecting you and overseeing all that happens!” There is nowhere bereft of G-d’s Presence, for our faith informs us that He is Omnipresent. G-d can even be found in Pharaoh’s Court.
When this portion begins it is again G-d and Moshe communicating. Keep that in mind.
Finally, the fourth portion we will address is ‘BeShalach’ (When He Sent Out). This portion begins with Pharaoh saying ‘UNCLE!’ ‘I quit!’ ‘I can’t take it anymore! ‘Get lost!’ etc. etc. etc. And out the Jews went. Men, women, children all departed, and they did so swiftly. They took all of their possessions with them, and even were able to collect on all of their heretofore unpaid wages that the Egyptians had denied them. The Jews left with their heads held high and their arms outstretched in victory. The whole world trembled at this triumph, for they all saw the once mighty Egyptian empire brought to its collective knees by a small nation with no military training. The whole world heard and the whole world understood that there was (and is) a G-d in the world; a true Commander-in-Chief who controls everything. It was a moment that changed the world forever. The Exodus became even more miraculous and complete when the Jews successfully navigated the Sea of Reeds in an awesome display of the miraculous.
When this portion begins, it is about Pharaoh’s actions. Keep that in mind.
Now, let us examine what each portion begins with and with whom it deals. 1. Children of Israel. 2. G-d and Moses. 3. G-d and Moses. 4. Pharaoh.
What can we learn from this? It seems to me that we can understand from these parties how we are to conduct ourselves and bring about redemption in our time. First things first. We must remain true to who we are! Just as the Jews in the days of Egypt maintained their heritage and despite horrific pressure and oppression remained Jewish, as evidenced by how they held onto their Jewish names. (As an aside, if you don’t know yours you are welcome to contact me or your local Rabbi and we will happily assist you in getting one!)
When the Jewish people remain true to our Jewish identity, we merit revelations of the Almighty. Furthermore, we merit the leadership of Moshe, who was known as the Faithful Shepherd of our people. He lovingly related to each of us according to our particular needs and recognizing that each of us has unique gifts. Without every one of us doing his/her part, the Divine Plan is incomplete.
Finally, when we have reached such a vaunted level even Pharaoh, the very symbol of oppression and human-generated evil, comes to be an active participant in our redemption. And that is perhaps the biggest miracle of them all! Tic. Tac. Toe!
May G-d bless all of us with a month of redemption and may we merit the immediate arrival of our Righteous Moshiach!
Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort is Director of Chabad at La Costa. Rabbi Eilfort welcomes readers’ comments and questions to RabbiE@ChabadatLaCosta.com Α