Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Walk Article-Shmot



Rabbi David Walk


            Did you ever want to be something else?  Like when I was a kid I wanted to be a Yankee fan, because they always won, and my Red Sox always lost.  But I couldn't, because kids from Boston didn't do that.  Then, of course, George Steinbrenner came along and I couldn't even think about being pro-Yankees.  The team in the Bronx had become the Evil Empire.  Similarly, there are times when I think that I'd like to be a Sephardi.  I'm not even talking about eating rice on Pesach.  I get this feeling on many of those Shabbatot when the Sephardi version of the haftorah is considerably shorter than ours, especially on the Torah reading of B'shlach when they have 31 verses and we have 55.   And that brings us to this week's haftorah, when we don't read the same thing at all. 

The Ashkenazic custom for the haftorah of Shmot is to read from chapters 27-29 of the book of Isaiah (22 verses), while the Sephardim read from the beginning of the book of Jeremiah (also 22 verses, no advantage there).  So, the question is why?  Those passages from Isaiah compare the future redemption of Israel with the exodus from Egypt.  The material in Jeremiah describes how he was appointed a prophet by God.  In other words the Ashkenazim have chosen a prophecy about the future redemption which will parallel the redemption from Egypt.  The Sephardim emphasize the role of Moshe, and how it parallels the role of Jeremiah.  Sadly, they both of these messengers of God will experience the scorn and wrath of a people which is not ready or willing to hear their message.  As God tells Jeremiah, 'You will oppose all of Judah, including its kings and leaders, its priests and people. They will fight you, but they won't win (Jeremiah 1:18-19).'

So, this is a good week to discuss the special role of a prophet in society.  We know from the response to their deaths that Aharon the priest (The entire house of Israel wept for thirty days, Numbers 20:29) was more popular than Moshe the prophet (The Children of Israel wept for thirty days, Deuteronomy 34:8).  But why?  It has to do with their respective roles.  Reb Aharon Lichtenstein OB"M and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contributed essays to a book called To Stand and Serve, which is about being a cohen.  They both give us some insight into this issue.

Reb Aharon explained: The cohen's role is to guard the rituals fastidiously…The guiding principle of his service is to provide routine and regularity…In contrast, the prophet's primary role is to bring down fiery new messages from above.  His role is to induce change.  He is a vibrant character infusing spiritual meaning into their lives and vitality into their service (p. 24).  Simply put, prophets are a catalyst for change.  People don't like change.  Most people find solace in the stability of religious services.  We like to think that we've been doing things the right way and continuing the practices of our ancestors.  Priests provide that comfort; prophets make us uncomfortable.  We'd rather not shake things up.

Rabbi Sacks adds to our image of the prophet.  He observes:  The prophet sees God in redemption, in vast movements of history like the Exodus from Egypt…The prophet is sensitive to the moral tone of society.  He (or she) lives among the people…The prophet knows that the fate of the nation is tied to its morals and morale.  His is an unusual role—in but not of society, an insider and outsider at once (p. 29).  The prophet is a gadfly pointing out the shortcomings of the community and of its individuals.  Almost by definition a prophet can't be popular.

Moshe discovers this truth very early in his ministry.  He is greeted initially with enthusiasm and faith.  The verse records:  Then the people of Israel were convinced that the Lord had sent Moshe and Aharon. When they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped (Exodus 4:31).  Moshe must have thought. 'Wow!  This job is a piece of cake!'  But it didn't take long to bring him back down to earth.  When the Egyptians piled on more work, the following is recorded as the reaction to the Jews seeing Moshe and Aharon leaving Pharaoh's palace:  May the Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us (5:21).  And it only got better over time, later in the desert Moshe informs God:  What should I do with these people? They are ready to stone me! (17:4). What a great job it is to be a prophet!

God knows this.  Jeremiah is, therefore, informed:  For see, today I have made you strong like a fortified city that cannot be captured, like an iron pillar or a bronze wall. You will stand against the whole land--the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah (Jeremiah 1:18).  God provides the thick hide which a prophet must have to survive.  But this is the only way to deliver the message of change and progress.  People want to hold on to the familiar, even if the present reality is rotten.  That's why the Jews continually whined that they wanted to return to Egypt, and that's why centuries later they closed their ears to the warnings of Jeremiah. 

It's a thankless job, but a necessary one.  Often the nation, to move forward, must embrace a new idea or reality.  This helps to explain why so few Jews listened to the Zionist warnings during the 1930's.  People like the status quo.  Change is uncomfortable.

Well, there have been many situations, which awakened my jealousy over the years.  I thought that I would have preferred a lot of life styles over the one I was living.  But I never envied the Prophets.  However, the Jewish nation remains strong and vibrant today because of their courage to inspire the people to evolve when necessary.  We await the next Moses or Jeremiah, but I pity their lot.    

     His goal is to induce change