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As you read this blog post, some thoughts to consider:
This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, is special to me, speaking strictly personally, because it was my bat mitzvah parasha, in 1960, at a large Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. Becoming a bat mitzvah as a 13-year-old girl was still not something taken for granted in those days. So much so that girls were only allowed to chant the haftorah (the portion from the prophets loosely linked to the Torah portion of the week).
Back in 1960 as a young adolescent, what I thought was special about parashat Yitro was that it contained the Ten Commandments — and who doesn’t know about the Big Ten? Our G-dcast narrator opens her story this week along the same lines.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the Ten Commandments are pretty important. They represent one of the parts of the Torah that many folks have heard of, even if they don’t actually know the specifics of what they say. I’m guessing that most people raised in the Western world who have inherited the Judeo-Christian religious ethos can recite a few of what’s known in Hebrew as Aseret HaDibrot (the 10 Utterances). However, if you really stop and read these statements carefully you will see that not all of them are really commandments… or are they?
Some of these commandments seem universal for all human communities to flourish, such as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not steal” (Exodus 20:13). Others, such as “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12), seem psychologically astute. And yet others, such as “I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage..” (Exodus 20:2) seem very particular, aimed at those listening in that time and space, and not even being much of a “commandment.”
The general nature of each of these utterances or commandments left the rabbis of the Talmud and subsequent generations of commentators with plenty of material to unpack, define, discuss, and argue about. All of the laws of Sabbath observance are derived from the simple statement in Exodus 20:8-10, by means of painstaking discussions in the Talmud. The rabbis whose oral discussions are captured by the Talmud fully understood that they were creating a new framework for how the seventh day was to be observed. Although they used the commandment “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-10), they knew that their construction of the Sabbath laws was related to the Torah verses as “…mountains hanging by a hair, for they have scant scriptural basis but many laws…” (Chagigah 10a).
Leaving the Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments) for a moment, I want to focus on a section of the parasha that I think is equally compelling as the well-known list of laws, and that is the system of organization recommended by a non-Israelite leader, the man known as Yitro (or Jethro), the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses. In fact, the parasha is named after this priest of Midian, who is not only a good listener, but also a man astute in the ways of constructing a viable society. Some call him the first person to apply the rules of organizational development to a group of people who could be regarded as a motley crew of newly liberated slaves.
In chapter 18, Yitro helps Moshe figure out how to set up a system of accountability and organization so that this rag-tag multitude can begin to resemble a society that can survive together in a sustainable way. This removes a tremendous burden from the shoulders of Moshe and allows him to lead his people to their promised land. You can read the conclusion of this whole episode in chapter 18:24-27.
How absolutely wonderful for this Midianite Priest, Yitro, to observe, diagnose, and remediate a problem that plagues many organizations, even today. And how wonderful for his son-in-law, Moshe, to take the advice of his perspicacious father-in-law to heart and to re-organize the Israelites into a viable structure for daily life. Now the tribes of Israel have both the laws by which to lead their lives (the Ten Commandments) and they have adopted a system of hearing complaints and adjudicating arguments, maybe they are ready to hear more (from God) about how to go about building a life of meaning. What do you think?
To consider as you read and watch this week’s installment:
The parasha last week left us off in the middle of the story — those cliff-hangers again! We read about the seven plagues that God brought down on Egypt, as its hard-hearted leader, the Pharaoh, kept changing his mind (or hardening his heart) in conversation after conversation with Moshe/Moses, our leader and teacher.
This week, Moshe and Aharon/Aaron (the two brothers) are told by God in the opening words of the parasha, “Bo el Pharoh,” usually translated as, “Go to Pharaoh.” Take a look at how this week’s storyteller on G-dcast interprets this phrase.
Joel Stanley, the storyteller, has chosen to share this tale from the perspective of the older and more articulate brother, Aharon. It really is a different point of view and worth talking over. What do you think of the way Joel understands the command, Bo/Come?
One would think that this Pharaoh would already know the drill: first he says he will allow the Israelites to worship in the desert, then, as they begin to leave, he changes his mind. Then, he’s dealt a mighty blow such as frogs, lice, locusts, and the rest of the plagues as a response to his changing of mind. What doesn’t he understand about reneging on his word? Why does God give the Pharaoh so many chances to let the Israelites go? And what is it about human behavior that the more one does something, the more likely one is to go on doing it? Once the Pharaoh is set on the path of saying “NO, NO, NO, I WILL NOT LET THEM GO!” he ends up incapable of doing the right thing.
The ninth plague brings a terrible and utterly black darkness on the land for 3 solid days and nights. Somehow, this darkness, described as “thick” (Exodus 10:22) seems more horrible than the other plagues. Again, Pharaoh brings Moshe to court and tells him that he and his people can go to the desert to offer sacrifices. But Moshe ups the ante and tells the Pharaoh that not only does he have to let them go, he also has to provide the livestock for them to sacrifice to their God in the desert — kind of like proving who is in charge. And Pharaoh just cannot abide. We are told that “the Lord stiffened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not agree to let them go” (Exodus 10:27). What do you think has happened? Who is pulling the strings? Does the Pharaoh have free-will? Or has he just become so unable to do the right thing that he lands in a rut with no agency of his own?
We know the terrible 10th plague — the death of all first born Egyptians — will completely un-do the Pharaoh. This terrible price seemed to be what needed to happen in order that the Israelites could emerge from their bondage. Read the description in chapter 11 verses 4-8 to fully appreciate the tragedy as it was unfolding. Everyone was affected: the first born of the cattle, of the slave girl, of the Pharaoh himself. It sounds positively Shakespearean.
In Chapter 12, the scene changes radically. We are now in the Israelite camp, reading the rudimentary instructions of what was to take place in the days leading up to the great exodus of the Israelite nation.
Starting from the first day of the month, the month associated with spring and rebirth, now called Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the Israelites are told what to do. They must take a lamb (remember, it’s spring and there are many new baby lambs being born) and keep it from the 10th day of the month until the 14th day of the month and then, that evening, the beginning of the 15th of Nisan, they must roast it and share it with their household and with any neighbors who don’t have enough people in their immediate family to allow a whole lamb to be consumed. All of this must happen at night and none of the lamb can be kept for “leftovers.” Beginning with verse 11, we have a description of how we are meant to have this feast: in a hurry! And it is to be called “the Passover offering to the Lord.”
What’s truly amazing to me is that still today, on the evening corresponding to the 15th day of Nisan (usually in April or late March), Jewish families gather to tell the story of what happened back in 1250 BCE, or roughly 3200 years ago (some say the year was 1440, so 3400 years ago). We gather as families around tables and read from a little book called the Haggadah/The Telling, with phrases lifted straight out of this story in our parasha. We re-enact what these Israelites went through as they were readying themselves for liberation. And just as the children asked then (Exodus 12:26), “what is the meaning of this rite?” we prompt our children to ask us, with “Four Questions” to allow us to re-live this event.
The parasha concludes by telling us that this special, hurried roasted lamb dinner is to be remembered as the day on which we were freed from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:3-10) and that we are to “keep this institution at its set time from year to year.” Taking that memory one step further, perhaps we need to think a bit more about what it means to be a slave, a commodity, less than fully human in today’s world.
Because of people like journalists Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn and their searing report, Half the Sky, we know there are still many people (mostly women and girls) in the world today who are enslaved. They may be sex slaves or indentured servants and unable to live their lives in freedom. Perhaps out of gratitude for our own freedom recounted in this week’s parasha, each of us must do something to help free those still in bondage.
For you to consider as you read this week’s blog post:
Last week we focused on the birth of our nation; we were introduced to the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher). This week’s parasha, Va-eira, propels us right into the heart of the story of the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from oppression to redemption — all familiar phrases that echo in our heads and hearts — likely imprinted there at the Passover seder, the most celebrated Jewish ritual of the entire year.
But wait, doesn’t Passover come in the spring? And aren’t we now reading this parasha in the dead of winter? Yes and Yes. The Torah narrative doesn’t correspond to the seasons, and it does seem like this story is coming too early in the cycle of the seasons; on the other hand, we can think of it as a preview of the next major Jewish festival.
So much of what happens in Va-eira is familiar: the story of Moshe and his brother, Aharon/Aaron going to the Pharaoh to tell him “Let my people go!” If you are like me, when you hear this, you immediately set it to the music of the African American “spirituals,” or songs that the black slaves of the American South composed, soulful melodies of sadness and uplift.
The parasha opens with a little speech God gives to Moshe outlining God’s own identity; telling Moshe that God’s name is YHVH, a 4 letter name that is never vocalized but stands in for the defining statement, “I AM EXISTENCE, TOTALITY”; and reminding Moshe that this God of the Hebrews intends to keep the covenant (brit) that was made with Avraham/Abraham, Yitzhak/Isaac, and Ya’akov/Jacob so many generations before (Exodus 6:2-4.) God/YHVH then commands Moshe to go to the Pharaoh to deliver the message that the Israelites are a people under the protection of YHVH and that they must be liberated.
The rest of the parasha is a back and forth power play between Moshe and the Pharaoh, aided by what we have come to know as “the 10 plagues,” although in this parasha, we just get the first 7 — next week we’ll find out about the last three. God knows that the Pharaoh is stubborn and will need lots of persuasion to allow his cheap labor force to leave the land of Egypt, so God addresses this issue straight on… read about it in Exodus 7:14-18. God tells Moshe to accost the Pharaoh in the morning, when he comes out for his morning ablutions at the Nile River. This body of water is like the life force of Egypt — fresh, potable water in the desert. And now the God of the Hebrews is going to turn it to blood!!!
Following that first plague, we read about the frogs that will appear all over Egypt. This second plague has been turned into a very popular children’s song at many seder tables; at my seder table, I place some colorful little plastic frogs around the table, to give little kids something to play with and to remind us of this plague. We make the frogs kinda cutesy as you can see in the song:
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a much more sober and scary depiction of what it could have been like to experience the plague of frogs, seen in the movie, Magnolia. (Viewer advisory: yucky stuff.)
After an absolutely horrible week of frogs everywhere, Pharaoh says he has had enough and begs Moshe to ask the God of the Hebrews, YHVH, to return the frogs to the river. Of course, anyone who knows human psychology can now predict that the Pharaoh will change his mind. And of course, he does… (Exodus 8:11). And so on and on it goes, one plague after another, with horror and destruction raining down on the Egyptians until YHVH stops the plague and Pharaoh, in turn, reneges on his promise to let the Israelite slaves leave.
The storyteller in this week’s G-dcast video points out that when we recite the 10 plagues that the Egyptians suffered as part of the Passover seder, we diminish the amount of wine in our goblets by one drop for each plague, to symbolize our sympathy with the plight of our enemy. After all, wine is intended to gladden the heart, and we are removing some of that happy-making substance. This comes to teach us to have compassion, even for the suffering of our enemies — it’s the polar opposite of schadenfreude.
All of these natural human emotions — changing your mind when the worst of consequences lets up, not jumping up and down with glee when your enemy is getting pummeled, and hardening your heart against the human misery and pain — are part of this story.
This is kind of exciting: we start a new (secular) year on the calendar and start a new book of the Bible, Exodus or Sh’mot which in Hebrew means “[These Are the] Names,” taken from the opening phrase of the book.
The book begins with a very short history of how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt and these verses act as a kind of bridge from Genesis (Bereishit, “Beginnings”).We are officially leaving the fables about the “beginnings” of the world and of our ancestors, and transitioning to the birth of this new nation, going from being the Children of Israel (the person, who was also called Ya’akov/Jacob) to being the Children of Israel (the emerging nation of Israelites).
As you might expect in a well-crafted story focusing on birth, we have a bunch of female figures and some water imagery that echo what happens in the plot. And, in addition to women (and one special girl, Miriam) this week’s parasha also introduces us to another outsider, Yitro/Jethro, who becomes the father-in-law of Moshe/Moses, our great leader. Yitro, also called Re’uel, is a priest of Midian; he is portrayed as a wise and perspicacious desert-dweller who plays a key role in the story of our people’s birth. He also is the father of seven daughters (again, introducing more women into our tale).
Let’s list the women characters and a few tidbits about them:
Basically, this parasha brings all of this woman-energy to the foreground, as if to underscore how essential the women were in the birthing process of this nation.
The G-dcast narrator this week raises questions about another group of outliers — people with disabilities, like Moshe Rabbenu / Our Teacher Moses, who had a speech impediment.
In thinking about those who tend to be “outside” the mainstream both today and in many biblical stories, we have a trio: people with disabilities, women, and non-Israelites.
How do you think this enhances the description of the birth of the Israelite nation?
To further emphasize the birthing metaphor, we can look at the Hebrew word for Egypt: Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim also can be understood to mean “narrow straits,” probably describing the land on both sides of the life-giving waters of the Nile. The river waters are much like birth-waters; our people must make the journey down the birth canal, the narrow straits, before emerging as a brand-new nation, the Israelite nation, the People of Israel.
And so we get to the end of this blog post, without my even sharing thoughts about the burning bush, Moshe’s conversation with God, the name God gives Moshe to identify Godself, the murder of the Egyptian task-master, the fugitive status of our greatest leader, and how Moshe gets along (or doesn’t) with the Israelite slaves. Just in case this parasha whets your appetite for more, here are a couple of sources you might enjoy: