Parashat Mishpatim/Sh’qalim (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 21:1 – 24:18
The turn from narrative – the common genre of the Torah from its start until the Exodus – to law, the common genre for most of the rest of the Pentateuch – is in full swing in the first part of our Torah portion. We are overwhelmed with laws, as the title of our Torah portion indicates – “Mishpatim – just laws.” (For some discussion on the interrelationship between law and narrative see Sparks 2016.)
The statements of the laws are mostly in the casuistic form – “if something is the case, then x is the law.” This form, indeed, preserves a weak form of narrative. But, generally, the text is characterized by legalistic, dry language.
Parashat Yitro (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
After we read of God’s direct revelation to Israel of the Torah at Mount Sinai we read that God continues to communicate to them by means of Moses, their representative. This is Israel’s desire, for they have been too overwhelmed by God’s Presence to bear it for too long. So they send Moses into the space that they open between themselves and God. Thus, God will no longer be in direct contact with the people.
Parashat B’shalah/Shabbat Shirah/Tu BiSh’vat (5780-2020)
Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Our Torah reading opens with a play on words. The verse explains that, when Pharaoh expelled the Israelites, God, in leading them (naham), did not take them directly to the land of Israel, “lest the people regret (yinahem) it when they see war, and return to Egypt.” (Ex. 13:17) In this wordplay the Torah expresses the paradox of a God, All Powerful, Who leads the people, and Who, nevertheless, cannot control the people’s emotions and reactions to their experiences, for they have free will.
The word chosen to describe the people’s feelings – yinahem – has been used sparingly by the Torah before. Basically, it can have two possible meanings. One is “regret” or “have second thoughts.” This meaning is apparent early in Genesis, when God sees how badly human beings have turned out. “And God regretted (va-yinahem) having made the human being in the world, and God was saddened in His heart.” (Gen. 6:6) The other meaning is “to be comforted, consoled.’ Thus, when Isaac weds Rebecca, the Torah tells us that Isaac “was consoled (va-yinahem) after losing his mother.” (Gen. 24:67) Continue reading
Parashat Bo (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Our Torah portion tells of the final plagues that befell Egypt until Pharaoh capitulated to God’s might and liberated us. What was the underlying conflict that pitted Pharaoh against God? What was this power struggle all about? (For one discussion see my Sparks for 2017.) Early in our reading God offers that it is-
For the purpose that you may tell your children and your child’s child that which I performed in Egypt, and all the signs that I did among them, so that you may come to know that I am the Ever Present One.
What does this “knowing” entail? Our great teacher, Maimonides, has derived from the Torah that our faith in God and God’s messengers cannot depend on the evidence of miracles. He writes: “Israel did not trust in Moses because of the signs he performed. For anyone who believes because of signs has falsehood in his heart, for they may happen through magic and the like.” (Mishneh Torah, Foundations of the Torah, 8:1) But if the miracles wrought by God cannot serve to make us believe in God, they can serve to teach us something about who God is.
Parashat Va’era (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
God must persuade Moses and Aaron to persist in their efforts to liberate their people, even though they have met with initial failure. After God repeats this command regarding the people of Israel and Pharaoh the Torah stops the story to begin a genealogical list. The list begins with Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and proceeds through the next two sons, Shimon and Levi. But it does not include the rest of the sons. It concludes with Levi so as to give a fuller background to Moses and Aaron, members of the Levite tribe. (Ex. 6:14-27) Continue reading
Parashat Sh’mot (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Moses, a Hebrew survivor, formerly an Egyptian prince, and now a refugee shepherd in the wilderness of Midian, is called upon by God to become the leader of his enslaved people, the Israelites. In the longest conversation between a human being and God to be recorded in the Torah, Moses keeps on arguing against God’s call. He tries to get out of the mission that God has chosen for him.
In our own times of trouble and uncertainty, it is intriguing to read how one person tries to wriggle out of his responsibility to do something on behalf of those who are suffering. As the Torah devotes so much space to documenting the attempts by a person to evade their responsibility, perhaps that extended effort might prompt us to self-reflection. “Is this something that applies to any of us?” – we may wonder with discomfort.
Parashat Vayehi (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 47:28 – 50:26
The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph after he makes his brothers pledge that, when God shall remember them and take them out of Egypt, they will remember him and take his bones back to Israel for burial. I have discussed aspects of the significance of this pledge and act in previous years. (See Sparks for 2015, 2016, 2017)
One thing is clear to Joseph, the family and the reader – Egypt is not really their home. They must eventually return to Canaan. So, as we ponder whether the brothers and their descendants will remember Joseph at that future time, we might ask ourselves a simple question: Why didn’t the brothers simply return to their homes in the land of Israel right after Joseph’s death? What held them back? The famine years had long passed and they were free to go, not yet enslaved to the next Pharaoh. We can understand that Joseph was stuck in Egypt because of his high position in Pharaoh’s court. But, once he died, why didn’t the brothers seize the opportunity to go back home?
Parashat Vayigash (5780 – 2020)
Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
[Note: In this essay on the Torah portion I share some thoughts concerning current events and problems, so this essay is considerably longer than usual.]
How do you recognize a Jew?
This question became, in later times, a lens through which to read a crucial moment in the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, as told in this week’s Torah reading. And the question haunts us today.
After an emotional appeal for mercy from Judah, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself, not as an Egyptian vizier, but as his brothers’ long lost brother, a Hebrew like them. The brothers are astounded: “And his brothers could not respond to him, for they were very shocked before him. And Joseph said: ‘Come closer to me,’ and they drew near.” (Gen. 45:3-4) Continuing to speak to them, he says, “Look! Your eyes and Benjamin’s eyes can see that it is my mouth that speaks to you.” (v. 12) The unreality of this man speaking to them as their brother is almost impossible for Jacob’s sons to take in. Nor can they believe that Joseph is not intent on avenging himself against them. So Joseph seeks to draw them close. And he says a Biblical version of “Read my lips!” as he promises to care for them and not punish them.
Parashat Miqetz/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Joseph is raised from the dungeon to face Pharaoh in Pharaoh’s time of need. This scene, as with the entire Joseph novella, is subtly and richly packed with psychological and interpersonal elements that are sometimes ignored as we are swept along by the main plot lines of the story. But a close reading of the exchanges between the exalted ruler and the lowly “Hebrew lad, a slave” (Gen. 41:12) can help us appreciate this drama even more.
Parashat Vayeshev/Hanukah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
In this Torah portion we follow Joseph along the ups and downs in his roller-coaster life. Favored by his father and once so hopeful about his shining future, he has been thrown into the pit by his brothers to be sold into slavery. But then he succeeded in gaining respected standing in the house of a high Egyptian official. But, then he is been betrayed by his master’s wife and brought to his lowest point.
“And Joseph’s master took him and put him in the prison, the place where the imprisoned of the king were imprisoned, and he stayed there in the prison.” (Gen. 39:20) This verse repeatedly mentions a prison and imprisonment. This is the punishment that Joseph suffered at the hands of his Egyptian master after the master’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to harass her sexually.