Archive for Shemot

Shemot: The Renewal of Hope

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling . . .  (Shemot/Exodus 2:13)

Happy 2013!

For those also attuned to the calendar of Torah readings, we’re also starting something new this week, with the beginning of the book ofShemot, the story of Moshe leading the people to freedom and Mt Sinai. As many of you probably remember, Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s household and only became aware of the suffering of his people as a young man: the Torah says that he went out and saw an Egyptian captain beating a Hebrew, so Moshe killed the Egyptian, but “on the second day,” he saw two Hebrews fighting and tried to break up the conflict. (Cf. Shemot chapter 2:11-15)

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, in his book on Moshe, points out that the language of “on the second day,” connects the two incidents. He brings earlier commentaries to posit that perhaps the men were fighting over the proper response to Moshe’s daring act of rebellion against their Egyptian masters. One man understood Moshe’s act the previous day as the beginning of of the end of slavery, and a call to cast off their oppressor. The other man thought that Moshe was a fool who would get them all killed, because there was no hope of circumstances ever changing against the will of a great earthly power.

Now, this reading of our text relies on several interpretive leaps, but there is logic to it: by naming the day upon which the two Hebrews fought “the second day” or “the day after,” the Torah clearly links the two incidents, so it’s not such a stretch to say that the conflict itself may have been related to Moshe’s earlier action. Seen this way, the image of the two Hebrews fighting is a reminder that there are two approaches we can take to the problem of living lives of hope and action: we can believe that what is will always be, or we can choose to hope, and with hope, begin to change what must be changed.

There will always be a tension between pragmatic accommodation to the world as it is and an idealism which sees what might yet be. That’s the fight between factions in Egypt, but it’s also the struggle in every community and indeed within most individuals to balance our hopes and dreams against a sober view of the odds. Yet please note: the story ends with the Israelites marching out of Egypt, triumphant and free. The Israelites who scoffed at Moshe were wrong, which leads to the present day question: who among us who persists in cynicism is equally wrong? What might we achieve if we took the side of Moshe and really believed that justice can be made real and those who are low can be raised up?

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Sh’mot: Sense of Self

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Sh’mot

“The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Yosef being already in Egypt. . . . “
(Sh’mot/ Exodus 1:5)

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef.” (1:8)


This week we begin a new book of the Torah, Sh’mot- literally, “names,” from the recounting of the names of the sons of Yaakov in the first verse. Verse five seems fairly straightforward: the total count of Yaakov’s children and their families was seventy when they came down to Egypt to live under Yosef’s protection. Our friend Rashi points out that we don’t really need to be told that “Yosef was already in Egypt,” because Yosef and his family were included in the total of seventy, and besides, everybody already knows that Yosef was in Egypt, so why bring it up?

Good question!

Rashi’s answer is subtle: the verse mentions Yosef among the seventy descendants of Yaakov and again as “in Egypt” because it’s making the point that it was the same Yosef, as it were, who tended Yaakov’s sheep as a boy and then became Prime Minister of the great empire, all the while being steadfast in his goodness.

Now, we might have a discussion about exactly how admirable Yosef was over the years, but the traditional rabbinic understanding is that he is Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous one, so I think Rashi is saying that it’s especially praiseworthy that he retained this moral orientation while reaching the highest levels of power and status. According to Rashi’s interpretation, Yosef had an inner life, a core identity or grounding in moral principles that gave him a durable sense of self, whether he was a brash young boy or a commander of nations.

Now, let’s compare this to the next verse quoted at the top, about Pharaoh, who “did not know Yosef.” Rashi now brings a rabbinic debate about whether this was really a new king, or just a king who made new and unexpected decrees. In either case, Rashi doesn’t believe that the Pharaoh didn’t know who Yosef was. Rather, he acted as if he didn’t know who Yosef was. In other words, the Pharaoh, whether old or new, chose to disregard the legacy of the man who saved Egypt.

Comparing these two interpretations, perhaps Rashi is trying to make a larger point about the choices that people face: one can let the external circumstances of life draw you one way or another, or one can maintain a steadfast set of internal orientations, which in turn determine how one reacts to events. Are you like Pharaoh, choosing to forget that which you may have known just recently, as long as it’s tactically advantageous, or are you like Yosef, who (according to this reading) retained his moral compass even in a foreign land, even under extreme duress, and even when there was no power on earth who could hold him accountable for transgressions?

Pharaoh knew darn well who Yosef was; but in the Pharaoh world of instrumental values, loyalty meant nothing if power was at stake, so forgetting was easy. Yosef, on the other hand, chose to forgive when nobody could have stopped him from taking vengeance; he thought of others, and thought of the person he wished to be. That’s hard, but that’s the challenge of life itself: to know and nurture and realize the spirit within, so that we become who we truly are, children of Israel and inheritors of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Shmot: Recalling the Ancestors

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

This week’s Torah portion: Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Greetings from snowy Poughkeepsie!

This week we read the famous story of the “burning bush,” where God appeared to Moshe and commissioned him to confront Pharaoh with the demand for freedom. As Nechama Leibowitz points out , Moshe demurs several times, protesting that he is unworthy of this great responsibility. (See the second link for the relevant verses and her learned perspective on this question.)

Among the answers Moshe receives to his protestations is a phrase which will be familiar to those with at least a little experience of traditional Jewish liturgy:

“And God said further to Moshe, ‘Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov, has sent me to you . . . ‘ ” (Shmot 3:15, and cf. verse 6.)

This phrase, “God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya’akov,” is quoted daily in the opening paragraph of the Amidah, or standing prayer, a core part of the daily and holiday liturgy. In fact, the Amidah is so basic to Jewish spiritual practice that in classic rabbinic commentaries it’s just called tefillah, or prayer. This, in turn, raises the question: why would God’s answer to Moshe, when Moshe was trying to wriggle out of his appointed tasks, be something that we’d turn around and use as our pathway to prayer itself?

As I see it, Moshe’s sense of unworthiness at the moment of theophany [revelation of Divine Presence] is not unique but paradigmatic. That is, we are to learn that if even Moshe was utterly humbled and discomfited by a deep spiritual experience then surely we too may have those feelings without shame or guilt- it’s a normal part of spiritual growth. Note, however, that this idea is actually contained in the words that were spoken to Moshe- God is identified as the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and this is not only reminds Moshe that he is a Hebrew and thus connected to the fate of his people, but also reassures him that just as the ancestors, each with their unique personalities and imperfections, could nevertheless have a relationship to the Divine, so could Moshe.

That is- when Moshe protests “who am I that I should to to Pharaoh?,” the answer is: you are you, just as Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov were themselves, each with their own faith but also their flaws and blind spots, which did not keep them from their spiritual destinies. In turn, when we, in our own prayer, praise God as the God of our ancestors, we are recalling not just the three patriarchs (and in many versions of the Amidah, the four matriarchs as well) but also Moshe, who was overwhelmed and frightened and humbled and confused, but who went forward from the bush, one step at a time, to achieve great things. That’s the key point, to me: we recall our ancestors not so that we will be exactly like them, but to be reminded that flawed people can nevertheless hear the call of the Divine and be transformed.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Shemot: The Day of Redemption

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This week we begin the book of Shemot/Exodus, and there are two
traditions for which haftarah we read: Ashkenazim read from Isaiah and
Sefardim read from Jeremiah. We’ll look at the Ashkenazi haftarah
today, but I actually like the Sefardi one a little better- maybe next
year we’ll look at it.

In any event, the prophet Isaiah, in the first part of the book that
bears his name, alternates between castigating the people and
consoling them- but when he consoles, he uses beautiful images to
convey hope:

“And in that day, the Lord will beat out [the peoples like grain] from
the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt; and you shall be
picked up one by one, O children of Israel!

And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed
who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of
Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, in
Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 27:12-13)

You can see from the verses above an obvious connection to the Torah
portion- just as God took the people out of Egypt the first time, so
too will there be a great redemption from all the lands where the
Israelites have scattered in that era. The image of the Israelites
being “beaten out” of their exile like grain seems rather stark, but
it conveys a loving attention to each person, being collected as a
farmer collects grain. In other words, even though “redemption” in
Biblical terms means the people as a whole returning to their land,
the prophet says: each individual is important and will not be forgotten.

In the second verse above, Isaiah links redemption to the shofar,
saying that the “strayed” or “lost” [ha'ovdim] will be returned along
with the “expelled” [ha'nidachim.] To me, this suggests that t’shuvah,
or return to our spiritual core, our soul-roots, is always an open
possibility no matter how we “got off track.” Sometimes I just drift
from spiritual awareness- I’m so busy or so distracted by all my tasks
that I’ve lost connection with my own soul and don’t even know it.
Sometimes I’m “expelled”- that is, something (a loss, change, event,
disruption, etc) knocks me into a reactive, fearful or resentful
state- but either way, we are always called back to connect with our
deepest selves, a place of reverence for the Source of Life and an
orientation towards compassionate action.

We don’t always have a shofar to remind us to come home to most
centered self- but we do have reminders: daily prayer, meditation,
study, the practice of gratitude. “That day” of redemption can be
today- if your heart is open.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Shemot: True Beauty

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Speaking of arduous labor, this week we begin the
book of Shemot, or Exodus; the story opens with the Israelites in Egypt
and a new Pharaoh oppressing the people and setting taskmasters over
them. We meet Moshe, who grows up in the palace but soon flees Egypt
after striking an Egyptian captain. Moshe flees to Midian where he has
the famous encounter of the “burning bush,” where God appoints him to
confront Pharaoh and bring hope to the people.

Moshe doesn’t particularly want this commission, and argues with God
that perhaps someone else should be appointed. Finally, God agrees
that Moshe’s brother Aharon can serve as his mouthpiece and partner:

“[God] said, ‘Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levite? I know
that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you,
and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 4:14)

Rashi emphasizes how much it is to Aharon’s credit that he will greet
Moshe with great rejoicing upon Moshe’s return to Egypt- after all,
one might think that an older brother would resent a younger one for
having achieved such a high position (think Fredo Corleone) but Aharon
is portrayed as humble and wise in this regard.

This leads to our connection with the practical aspects of Judaism.
Rashi concludes his comment on the verse above by connecting Aharon’s
support of Moshe’s appointment as prophet to Aharon’s own appointment
as the “High Priest’ after the giving of the Torah. More specifically,
Aharon’s humility, his good-hearted acceptance of his younger
brother’s prominence, is linked to the bejeweled breastplate he wears
as Kohen Gadol [High Priest.]

To put it another way, Rashi sees the priestly breastplate as symbolic
of Aharon’s humility- in this view like an adornment of the heart-
which is most evident in how Aharon rejoices over his brother’s
spiritual achievement. This symbolism is brought into contemporary
Judaism by the “breastplate” which hangs over and decorates a Torah
scroll; in fact, most of the decorations on a Torah scroll are
evocations of the garments of the High Priest. (Cf. the Torah portion

Thus, we arrive at an interesting junction: the silver plates in front
of a Torah scroll recall not only the grandeur of the High Priest, but
the humility and lack of ego and resentment which made the first High
Priest worthy of the office. A beautiful decoration is linked to a
beautiful perspective: that we should rejoice in each other’s
achievements without envy or spite, which in turn reminds us that
beauty is more in actions than in objects.

Happy Winter Break to all,


Leave a Comment

Shemot: True Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where it’s almost winter! This
week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, or Exodus, which
starts off with a recollection of how the Israelites ended up in
Egypt, and quickly proceeds to a description of painful oppression
under harsh rule. Moshe is appointed by God to bring a message of
liberation to the people, and in his famous encounter with the Divine
Presence at the “burning bush,” Moshe hears that God has taken note of
how the Israelites are suffering under slavery:

“And the Lord continued, ‘I have marked well the plight of My people
in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters;
yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.’ ” (Shmot/Exodus 3:7)

The opening words of God’s proclamation, translated by JPS as “I have
marked well,” are a doubling of the Hebrew verb “to see.” In Biblical
Hebrew doubling- in this case,”ra’oh ra’iti”- brings emphasis to the
action of the verb. Thus, another translations has been “I have surely
seen,” which also captures the alliteration of the Hebrew. The
sentence goes on to say: “I am mindful of their sufferings,” which
again is subject to translation choices: “ki yadati” could also mean
“for I know [their pains].”

So the question is- how is it that the Torah portrays God as saying
that only now is their Divine notice of suffering and pain? Did God
not see or know before this? How, then, would the Torah understand
God’s transcendence if God’s knowledge is limited?

Rashi tackles this problem by implying that “for I know” means a
choice to do more than hear or know passively:

“This is similar to: ‘and God knew’ [cf. Exodus 2:25]. That is to say:
for I set My heart to contemplate and to know their pains, and I have
not hidden My eyes, neither will I block My ears from their cry.

Now, Rashi’s comment doesn’t really solve our theological problem,
because it still begs the question: so why did God decide to pay
attention now, and not earlier? Did God not know, or not care?

On the other hand- I think Rashi is telling us something about the
nature of compassion which is more practical than abstract theological
problems relating to Divine cognition. Rashi’s comment says that God
knew about the suffering (how could God not know?), but at some point
made a decision to pay attention, to contemplate, and to be fully open
to the reality of another’s suffering- which, to me, is much less a
description of how God knows something than a prescription for how
human beings should open themselves in order to truly see the reality
of other lives. Rashi seems to be implying that we will only arouse
ourselves to relieve the suffering of others once we truly understand
it, and thus acts of compassion and justice also require a decision to
open oneself emotionally- to remove the blocks from one’s eyes and
ears and set one’s heart in the proper direction.

We are all made in God’s image, which means that we can make the
choice to really see and truly understand the emotional, material, and
spiritual needs of those who suffer. It’s so easy to see, but not pay
attention; to know, but not care; to hear, but not respond. To walk in
God’s ways is to truly see, to truly hear, to truly know, and to set
one’s heart towards healing and justice.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Shmot: Responsibility and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

One of the small consolations of a long commute is the chance to listen to audio
that I might not get around to reading; this week, I’ve been listening to The
Discipline, a book about organizational development by the noted theorist Peter
Senge. He
describes a game in which participants take on the role of retailer,
distributor, and
manufacturer, and maps out how certain perfectly reasonable decisions will
produce bad results for the whole system. More than that, what struck me was his
comment that after running this game for more than 20 years with executives and
business students, another almost invariable result is that when the system
starts breaking
down, participants look for somebody to blame- it must have been somebody’s
somebody’s incompetence, that led to shortfalls in supply or demand.

The point, of course, is that it’s easier to look for somebody to blame than to
how our own thinking and behavior may have contributed to the problem in front
of us.
Nor is this a new phenomenon: at the end of this week’s parsha, after Moshe and
have confronted Pharaoh with the demand that he let the people worship God in
wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload- but the people blame
and Aharon for provoking him rather than admit that no amount of obedience will
win the
king’s mercy. It’s quite amazing to me that after Pharaoh has been killing their
boys for
some time now, the people hold Moshe and Aharon responsible for Pharaoh’s
contempt, as
if things had been just fine till they came along:

“They met Moses and Aaron standing before them when they came out from
presence. And they said to them, `May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you
brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his
servants, to place a
sword into their hand[s] to kill us.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 5:20-21

I don’t meant to blame the victim; it’s not an unreasonable decision to obey in
the hope
that things won’t get worse. My point is that the situation was already bad when
and Aharon started to take risks to make things better- and blaming them for
oppression shows the desperate need of the people to believe that they has some
measure of control over their circumstances. It’s easier to be angry at the
source of disorder than to step back and realize that what needs to change is a
whole way
of thinking- in this case, what needed to change was the faith of Israelites, or
lack thereof.

The signs and wonders that Moshe performed were as much for the Israelites as
Pharaoh- to show them that a new day was dawning, and to strengthen their
courage for
the upheavals to come. Major changes require patience, vision and courage; these
are, in
fact, things we do have some small measure of control over. It’s easier to blame
than to look at ourselves; but if we can find the fearlessness to do so, it’s
entirely possible
that signs, wonders, and miracles await.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

A summary and more commentaries can be found here:

Leave a Comment

Shmot: These Are the Names

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shmot

The Book of Exodus, or Sh’mot (“Names,” from the first significant
word of the first verse), begins in a way which immediately
establishes narrative continuity with the end of Genesis:

“And these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt;
with Jacob, each man and his household came: Ruven, Shimon, Levi,
Yehudah, Yissachar,
Zevulun, and Binyamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. ” (Exodus

Both modern and medieval commentators note that this book of the
Torah begins with the conjunction “and,” which seems to imply that
Exodus is picking up just where Genesis left off: with the sons of
Yaakov in Egypt, living under the care of their brother Yosef. Now,
of course, it’s a few generations later, and Egypt is about to turn
from a place of refuge into a place of dire oppression. The story of
Exodus is even more poignant with this reminder that the Israelites
went down to Egypt voluntarily, to find sustenance during a time of
famine and danger.

Another question raised in the classic Torah commentaries concerns
the necessity of naming each son of Yaakov. As our teacher Rashi
points out, the 11 sons were each named just a few chapters ago, in
Genesis 46. Rashi goes on to quote an earlier midrash:

Although [God] counted them in their lifetime by their names, The
Holyb One counted them again after their death, to let us know how
precious they are, because they were likened to the stars, which The
Holy One takes out [From beyond the horizon] and brings in by number
and by name, as it is said: Who takes out their host by number; all
of them God calls by name (Isa. 40:26). (Rashi on Exodus 1:1)

Notice the implication of this midrash: if God (in the words of
Isaiah) can care for every star in the sky, and call it by name,
then so too is each person precious and unique, called by name out
of love, even after death. It’s a beautiful image of a caring God,
Who doesn’t let individual human lives get reduced to statistics or
the sweep of history.

This is especially powerful given the brutal story which is about to
follow, in which we learn of the deaths of countless Hebrew babies-
and, let us not forget, every first-born in Egypt, along with the
entire Egyptian army. These victims (let us assume that at least
some of the Egyptians were innocent of their king’s madness) don’t
get called by name in the text, yet perhaps this first verse of the
book reminds us that no matter how big the story is, real people
suffer one at a time. Maybe Exodus lists the names of the sons of
Yaakov to remind us that each Hebrew slave had an ancestor who
dreamed of a better life for his descendants; each nameless death
was a whole life, a person who came from a loving family and whose
death caused intense grief.

At its best, religion can teach us to experience the world, as much
as we can, from God’s perspective. As Rashi points out, to the One
Who is our Divine Source, each of us has a precious name, a unique
individuality, a whole personhood. From God’s perspective, there are
no numbers attached to stories of human suffering- unlike the
newspapers I read yesterday, which tell me that “28 were killed in
Honduras,” “thousands homeless in Pacific Islands,” and “Bagdad
explosion wounds 19.”

As humans, we get so easily overwhelmed by the amount of suffering
in the world; it’s easy to forget that each of those numbers
represents a person with a name. Perhaps if we in the human race
felt the pain of the world – and the love of humankind – as the God
of Exodus does, with attention to each person’s individuality, their
goodness and their grief, we’d care for each other with much greater
measures of justice and mercy.

Very Important PS!
The story of Exodus (a cruel ruler oppressing and murdering other
peoples within his country) is happening right now, in Sudan.
Hundreds of thousands of people, each with a name, each with a story
and a suffering heart, are being displaced in the Darfur region. The
Conservative Movement, along with many other Jewish organizations,
is supporting efforts to convince the United States and other
powerful nations to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the
genocide. To learn more, please go here:
< >.

After all, the Jews were the ones who coined the phrase, “never
again.” Let’s prove we meant it.

Leave a Comment

Shemot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shmot (Ex. 1:1-6:1)


The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives refuse to obey, and the baby Moshe is hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in a burning Bush, and receives instructions to go back to Egypt. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.


“Now Moshe was tending the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. ” (Exodus 3:1)


Moshe has been away from his people in Egypt for a while, and it’s time for him to return. God meets Moshe out in the wilderness, in the form of the famous burning bush, while Moshe is tending the flocks of his father in law.


One ancient midrash finds significance in Moshe’s profession as a shepherd:

    The Holy One tested Moshe by means of the flock, as our sages have explained: when Moshe was tending Yitro’s flock out in the desert, a lamb ran off, and Moshe followed it, until it found shelter under a rock. There it found water and stopped to drink. When Moshe approached the lamb, he said: “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he put the lamb on his shoulder and walked back with it. The Holy One then said: because you showed such compassion tending the flock of another person, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine. Thus it is written: “Now Moshe was tending the flock. . . ” (Midrash Shmot Rabbah, 2:2; adapted from Braude translation.)

There are several levels to this midrash. The first is merely that it “solves” the problem of the apparently superfluous mention of what Moshe was doing when he encountered God’s Presence in the burning bush. The ancient rabbis assumed that every word of the Torah had something to teach us, and so if the Torah teaches that Moshe was a shepherd, we might learn that he had to demonstrate his compassion for animals before he was found worthy to become a leader of people.

Thus we also learn that all sentient beings deserve compassion; Judaism calls this principle tza’ar balei chayim, or “the pain of living creatures,” and has traditionally taught that it is just as wrong to cause unnecessary pain to animals as it would be to cause unjustified pain to a human being. Furthermore, the midrash teaches that compassion must be a primary trait of Jewish leaders; in this text, it is not Moshe’s charisma or bravery or physical strength that qualified him to become the leader of Israel, but his empathy, his tenderness.

Finally, I think this midrash is about integrity, in its deepest sense, the sense of all parts of a person’s personality coming together in a whole. When looking for a leader for the enslaved Israelites, God seems to want a person who will act out of his core values, somebody who has compassion “hardwired” into his being. This, to me, is the significance of looking for a little animal way out in the desert: nobody else was there, nobody else could have been impressed by this. Moshe treated a little lamb because that’s who he was (in this midrash), not because he wanted to curry favor from any individual or group.

The psychologist Erich Fromm taught that that what we call love not an emotion, per se, but is an “orientation of character” that we either have towards all things or we don’t really have at all:

    Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. . . If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, “I love you,” I must be able to say, “I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.” [He goes on to say there are different contexts for love, such as erotic love, parental love, and so on.] (The Art of Loving, p. 42.)

I would compare Fromm’s teaching to the image of Moshe tending the lost lamb out in the desert; we might say that because Moshe truly demonstrated that he had an “orientation of character” of love and compassion, God could entrust him with the guidance of the people. Thus we are challenged: are we the same person when “out in the wilderness” as when we are in front of our friends and family? Do we treat everybody the same way, or reserve our love and compassion for a select few?

There’s no doubt that achieving this level of moral and spiritual integrity is a long and hard task; looking at our text, we might also be reminded that this is the work that brings us to the place of God’s Presence.

Leave a Comment

Shemot 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who fears the growing Hebrew tribe; he issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives refuse to obey, which allows Moshe to be hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in the Burning Bush, Who directs him back to Egypt to free the people from Pharoah’s grip. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.

“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives- the first was named Shifra and the second was named Puah- and he said: ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthing stone, if it is a son, you shall kill it, and if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they allowed the boys to live.

The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said: ‘Why have you done this thing, that you have allowed the boys to live?’

The midwives said to Pharoah: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are extremely vigorous, and before the midwife can arrive, they have already given birth!’ ” (Exodus 1:15-19)


The king of Egypt fears that the Hebrew nation is a fifth column in his country, so he enslaves them with backbreaking labour. However, that in itself didn’t negate the demographic threat of a growing people, so he plots to kill the baby boys, in order to arrest the birth rate of the Israelites. Two brave women defy Pharoah’s brutality, and become the first heroes of the Exodus story. Because they feared God more than the earthly authorities, Shifra and Puah are rewarded by God with “houses,” but the commentators disagree as to what exactly that means.

Genesis is filled with flawed heroes: Avraham is ready to sacrifice his son; Rivka plans Yaakov’s stealing of the birthright away from Esav; Yosef begins his adventures quite unaware of his own arrogance. Shifra and Puah, on the other hand, seem like truly outstanding moral figures: at great personal risk, they defy Pharoah, for no other reason than their religious convictions. We might have expected them “just to follow orders,” as men and women have done countless times in similar situations, from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Yet they don’t- somehow, they overcome fear and complacency and actively resist the immorality at the core of their society. Their truly heroic stature was first pointed out to me in a dvar Torah given by a young Torah scholar, Sasha Zacharia, on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. Sasha saw Shifra and Puah as the inspiration for the women and men famous in history for their acts of conscience: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Scharansky, and so on. (I don’t remember if that was her list exactly, but you get the point.)

Sasha also raised an interesting question: would the midwive’s stature as moral heroes have been even greater had they not lied to Pharoah, but instead committed “true” civil disobedience? ( I.e., the kind of civil disobedience in which they do not lie, but instead accept the consequences of their actions in order to demonstrate the evil against which they protest. ) One could argue that the highest level of conscience in a corrupt society involves an active confrontation with the authorities; we might think of the prophet Natan confronting King David (2 Samuel 12), or Martin Luther King’s marches into the Southern police dogs, or the brave students of Tianamen Square. Yet there is a certain moral calculus involved- if Shifra and Puah had told the truth to Pharoah, they doubtless would have ended up jailed or dead, and then would not have been able to save the otherwise doomed baby boys. The example from history that comes to mind is Harriet Tubman, smuggling escaped slaves out of the American South to freedom in the North- secrecy was the only way to preserve the life-saving network of the Underground Railroad.

A further question regarding the extent of the midwive’s greatness comes from a rabbinic disagreement regarding their identities. The ancient rabbis identify Shifra with Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, and Puah with Miriam, Moshe’s sister. (Cf. Rashi on verse 15.) Perhaps they wanted to add to the list of reasons we revere these women: not only was Miriam, for example, a prophet in her own right, and the leader of the women at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:20-21), but now we may also say that by her hand all the miracles of the redemption were wrought, for had she not saved the baby boys, Moshe and Aaron could not have survived to lead the people out of Egypt. By making a midrash that Miriam was Puah the midwife, Miriam becomes a much greater figure- she and Yocheved assume the status of the mothers of the entire Israelite people, for they saved it from extinction.

However, this midrash- that Shifra was Yocheved and Puah was Miriam- could be said to reduce their great act of conscience to civil resistance in order to preserve their people. If Shifra and Puah are “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being Israelites themselves who happen to be midwives, then one could say that yes, they are still heroes, because they could have “sold out” their people and obeyed Pharoah’s orders, but then their greatness comes from loyalty to their people overcoming personal self-interest. This makes them no less brave, but in this case their bravery is that of soldiers risking all to defend their country- completely understandable, evidence of great personal character, but not necessarily evidence of a great “fear of God.”

The other possibility, argued by the contemporary writer Ellen Frankel in her book of feminist Torah commentary The Five Books of Miriam, is that Shifra and Puah were not Israelites at all, but Egyptian women. They were “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being midwives to the Hebrews.
[ed. note: This is supported by the ambiguous Hebrew: Miyaldot Ivriot which can be translated equally as: Hebrew Midwives (ie. Adj. + noun) or Hebrew's Midwives (ie. noun + noun). This debate appears in the classical midrash.]
Evidence for this latter interpretation is the fact that they were called into Pharoah’s chambers, which might have been unlikely had they been part of the slave people, and Pharoah’s acceptance of their comparison of the Egyptian women to the Hebrew women. If they had been Egyptian women, they would have known the difference, but as Hebrew women (who presumably did not serve the Egyptians) they might not have been able to offer that alibi. As Frankel puts it, if Shifra and Puah deserve our praise as Jewish heroes, “how much more” do they deserve our praise if they were Egyptian, and willing to risk it all for babies who were not of their people!

Seeing Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women recasts their act of “conscientious objection” as not only moral heroism but exemplary spiritual vision. This is what it means to fear God: to see not categories or labels but only human beings, made in the Image of the Divine – no matter how different they are, no matter how distant, no matter how much you’ve been taught to hate them, no matter how much they are the “other.” For if Shifra and Puah were Egyptian women, then perhaps they, no less than Abraham, deserve to be counted among the very first true monotheists- for they saw the suffering and injustice among the despised slaves, and were willing to cross barriers of politics, race, class, religion and language to act as God’s partners in the redemption of the world. Their “fear of God” began as conscience but fulfilled itself in holy actions, preserving life where death reigned, and bringing hope to the desperately oppressed.

Leave a Comment


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers