Archive for Shemot

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 books that I might not get around to reading; this week, I’ve been listening to The Fifth 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 invariably 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 fault, 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 examine 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 Aharon have confronted Pharaoh with the demand that he let the people worship God in the wilderness, Pharaoh responds by increasing their workload- but the people blame Moshe 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 Pharaoh’s presence. And they said to them, `May the Lord look upon you and judge, for you have 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 Moshe and Aharon started to take risks to make things better- and blaming them for Pharaoh’s oppression shows the desperate need of the people to believe that they has some small measure of control over their circumstances. It’s easier to be angry at the proximate 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 for 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 another 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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