Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's parsha begins with a short lesson by God about Jewish history.  I've written and spoken about this fascinating monologue before, but I was made aware of a new approach to this material this year.  On the Bar Ilan web site, Professor Menachem ben Yasher points out that this brief address is a renewal of Moshe's mission to Pharaoh.  The first attempt failed.  So, we have a whole new strategy for how to get the Jews out of Egyptian bondage.  The first try included the elders and leadership cadre of the Jewish nation; the second effort was just Moshe and Aharon.  The first go at it was a plea for justice and the chance for Pharaoh to do the right thing with no repercussions.  Even Moshe recognized that the job was botched when he asks God how was it possible that things got even worse (Exodus 5:22).  This little lecture is a response to Moshe's complaint.  But how did these words answer Moshe's claim?  Aha, that's the topic of this article.

            What does God teach Moshe?  Basically, there are two parts to this little speech, and each teaches something.  The first part (6:3-5) is a review of God's limited relationship with the Patriarchs.  The nature of this ancestral affiliation is limited to unfulfilled promises about the future.  God assures Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov that there will be a great nation and amazing events, but none lived to see these wonders.  They didn't comprehend the full greatness of God, therefore they knew God as El-Shadai, not by the four letter, ineffable Name.  The second section of this material (6:6-9) outlines the immanent miraculous redemption of the nation, during which a greater glory of God will be apprehended.  However, unlike the first time Moshe addressed the people (4:31, when the masses believed and worshipped God), the people were highly skeptical of Moshe and ignored his message (6:10, when they totally disregarded him). What exactly is God's point in this two part lesson?

            I think God is informing Moshe that history is a process, without quick fixes.  There are a number of Midrashim in Genesis that God had created previous worlds and destroyed them (usually seven), until we arrived in this improved one.  Makes you wonder what the others were like.  Actually, the early stories in Genesis (Adam and Noach) can be read as a series of trials and errors until God and Avraham reach agreement on the future course of humanity.  I think that we have to learn two ideas from this.  First, it's okay to fail in a good cause, and then try again.  Sort of a divine version of if at first you don't succeed, yada yada yada.  But, equally important, is the warning not to be impatient.  Even when the correct path has been ascertained, it may be a winding, bumpy, long trail to the final destination.  

            So, God is teaching Moshe and the Jews a revolutionary concept.  God is not only the controller of nature (El-Shadai), but is also the architect of history and its development.  The sensitive observer can discern God not only in the wonders of a sunset or the Grand Canyon, but can find God lurking in the pages of the chronicle of the human saga.  This message helps many generations live with their tribulations, because we are in it for the long haul and can't be discouraged by contemporary issues.

            This point of view helps us to understand an odd grammatical usage at the end of God's speech.  In verse eight, towards the end of the piece God relates that Israel is being given as an inheritance for the Jewish people.  The normal Hebrew word for inheritance is yerusha, but here the form is morasha. We can understand the use of this word to mean that the Land of Israel is not a regular inheritance, which is mine to do with as I please.  Israel is more of an heirloom or heritage, which I'm expected to pass along intact (or even improved) to the next generation.  The other item which is referred to as a morasha is Torah.  In his farewell blessings to the nation Moshe proclaims:  The Torah that Moshe commanded us is a legacy (morasha) for the congregation of Jacob (Deuteronomy 33:4).   This fits well with what we've said.

            Perhaps, though, there's another way of looking at the issue.  The medieval commentary B'chor Shur (Rabbi Yosef ben Yitzchak, 13th century, one of the Ba'alei Tosfot) is also concerned about this unusual syntax.   He comments:  It is the inheritance given you from them; moreover, you shall bequeath it on to your children. Thus it is hinted to them that they shall not enter the land, as stated in the Talmud (Bava Batra 119b). According to B'chor Shor, it is clear why the Torah used morashah here and not yerushah: what is at issue is an inheritance which will not be realized, since those who took part in the Exodus would die in the wilderness and not enter the land.  We had thought that the Jews of Egypt were to inherit Israel.  That wasn't to be.  They would all die in the desert.  However, their efforts and participation in Jewish destiny wouldn't be ignored, since Israel is considered their bequest. 

            Nowadays there are many complaints about the State of Israel not living up to our spiritual expectations.  I think that this is uncalled for.  Besides the fact that we should celebrate Israel's many accomplishments and be grateful for living in an age when we have our national homeland.  These criticisms are just like the Jews of Egypt who refused to listen to Moshe, because of the travails of life. We should display a little historical perspective, and have the patience to see a long historical process unfolding before our eyes.

            So many generations of our people have anticipated the return to our ancestral land and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land.  It seems petty of us to stress the problems rather than celebrate the accomplishment.  Let's avoid the mistake of the Jews in Egypt and recognize the fulfillment of ancient promises in our lifetime, with joy and a sense of mission.             

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