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  • Exodus Interrupted

    Read Exodus 6:1—7:7 slowly, carefully, and preferably with a friend. The narrative describes God preparing Moses for the great event of liberation from Egypt. The dialogue between God and Moses is intense. But you will notice that it is suddenly interrupted in 6:14 by a genealogy, after which their dialogue resumes. Notice how the dialogue between God and Moses is suddenly interrupted in 6:14 by a genealogy, after which the dialogue resumes. What is the point of this interruption? What is the point of this interruption? Certainly, family trees are common in the Bible, but why now? And why does it not provide a full list of Jacob’s descendants (for after naming the households of Reuben, Simeon, Levi it stops)? Is this simply an editorial accident in the text? These are some of the intriguing questions raised by Jewish commentators. Join the conversation, bringing your own observations and questions. Remember that in Light of Torah we work with traditional Jewish approaches to Scripture, and so we apply ourselves prayerfully and imaginatively to excavating God’s word in search of spiritual meanings buried within the text. What did you find? In the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions), the voice of Rabbi Ya’akov focuses on 6:13 and the meaning of “He commanded them” (or “he gave them orders”, NRSV). The order to be given to Pharaoh is clear. But what was the order for the Israelites? The text doesn’t say, but the midrash concludes that God was calling for the involvement of the Israelite leaders and it is for this reason that the text begins naming the heads of tribes. Following this midrashic lead, then, we can imagine Moses and Aaron going from house to house, calling for partners in the liberation to follow. Despairing of a response from the tribe of Reuben, they move on to the tribe of Simeon. Unsuccessful there, they seek support from their own tribe, the Levites. At this point the genealogy stops, suggesting—say some Torah commentators—that Moses and Aaron recognise their aloneness in this mission. For “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit” (6:9). The truth dawns: it is just the two of them...and God. At this point Moses’ dialogue with the Lord continues; but note the shift compared to that which preceded the genealogy. This time Moses is not sent to speak to the Israelites, he is simply told to confront Pharaoh with precisely the words that God places in his mouth. God’s proactive role is more pronounced and Moses’ role as God’s prophet is emphasised. This is not going to be a humanly orchestrated uprising. This is going to be a divine showdown where God acts decisively, gratuitously, for the sake of his people. The drama builds, and God is leading the way... Where do you find yourself in this sacred story? Can you relate it to an experience of call-and-response in your own life’s journey? Bibliography: Lichtenstein, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People (New Jersey, 2008); Sarna, ed., JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1991); Rashi: Commentary on the Torah (New York: Mesorah, 1999). Scripture: JPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we continue with the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Vaeira (Exodus 6:2 - 9:35), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom.

  • An Awakening for Moses

    This week, we commence the Book of Exodus and select this verse as our focus: "Now it was some years later, Moshe grew up; he went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers" (Exodus 2:11, Fox). When we first encounter Moses in Chapter 2 of Exodus, he is a helpless child hidden among the reeds on the bank of the river. Within 16 verses, he has been saved, raised as an Egyptian prince and has fled to Midian. Having just intervened to kill an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave, he now flees in order to save his own life. Ever wonder why Moses turned his back on his place of privilege to stand in solidarity with the enslaved Hebrews? The text simply reads, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor” (2:11, NRSV. Compare with Everett Fox’s translation above). Surely it was a familiar sight to Moses. What made this time different? From the sages of old, to Torah scholars and students of our own day, many have pondered this passage. According to Rashi,[1] Moses “focused his eyes and heart to share their distress.” Rashi’s interpretation, says one commentator,[2] takes into account the use of the Hebrew words ra’ah (‘to see’) and be (‘in’). Thus, the text can read, “he looked into their burdens.” Says an Australian student of Torah,[3] “What strikes me about Rashi’s interpretation is that Moses saw their suffering not only with his eyes, but also with his heart.” Did Moses act so strongly because he saw with ‘eyes of the heart’? Then again, can we pass too quickly over the violence of his response? Ponder this passage and join in the Torah discussion. Moses refuses to stand by in the face of injustice, but he is not the only one to do this. The courageous disobedience of women is also a key theme in these first chapters of Exodus. We find a Levite woman who hides her son amongst the reeds, thus dangerously contradicting Pharaoh’s edict. The infant’s sister (Miriam) colludes in this challenge to Pharaoh’s authority. Then Pharaoh’s daughter finds and saves the baby, willingly contravening the authority of her father. Each of these brave and proactive women creates a ripple of defiance that will swell into the movement of the exodus. The emerging message might be understood as this: it requires only one person to take a stand against injustice for the river of liberation to start flowing. In the Talmud we find this saying: “Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua says: The earth rests on one pillar, and a righteous person is its name, as it is stated: 'But a righteous person is the foundation of the world' (Proverbs 10:25).” (Chagigah, 12b). Reflection Describe a time when you saw something or someone with ‘eyes of the heart,’ or when you ‘looked into the burden’ of another. Who is a ‘Moses figure’ in our own times? How can we teach our children to be obedient to God and ‘disobedient’ to the pressures of malevolent influences? Creatively entering into the narrative of this week’s Torah portion, and drawing upon your life experience, express your view as to what might have been going on within the mind and heart of Moses as he made the transition from ‘prince of Egypt’ to ‘liberator of slaves.’ Notes: 1. Rashi: esteemed Torah scholar; 11th century 2. Nehama Leibowitz, 1996. 3. Mark David Walsh, Bat Kol parashah commentary, 2007. Bibliography: Herczeg, ed., Rashi: Commentary on the Torah, Vol.2 (New York: Mesorah, 1999); Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996); parashah commentaries of Bat Kol Institute, 2007; Sefaria website: © Teresa Pirola, 2013. This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of Light of Torah website. Download the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. This week, we commence the Book of Exodus. The reflection above refers to Parasha Shemot (Exodus 1:1 - 6:1), the Torah portion for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

  • 25 Homiletic tips for Next Christmas, 2023

    Can Christians find the words to honour Judaism at Christmas time? Jesus was born a Jew. He was born in the first century of the common era, in the midst of Jewish family life, steeped in the traditions of Israel as expressed in the cultural customs of Jews of his day. Scripture tells us that his place of birth was “in Bethlehem of Judea” (Mt 2:1; 2:5, NRSV), the town linked to David, Israel’s great king, and that he was circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21), in keeping with Jewish ritual practice. From infancy, Jesus’ very body was marked by the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. In the ‘hidden years’ of his childhood and adolescence, Jesus would be raised in the teachings of Torah. He would learn that he belonged to a people with a magnificent calling, who had received “the sonship and the glory and the covenants and the law and the worship and the promises” (Rom 9:4). Nearly two thousand years later, the Second Vatican Council would reiterate these words of St Paul regarding his Jewish kin; words that continue: “theirs are the fathers and from them is the Christ according to the flesh"… (Rom 9:4-5).[1] What does all this tell us? Jewish people, Jewish kinship, Jewish traditions and Jewish sacred texts are integral to the Christian telling of the nativity of Jesus Christ. The universalist claims of Christian faith do not eclipse the particularities through which God’s Word is revealed. Christ did not enter our world “like a meteor that falls to the earth and is devoid of any connection with human history”.[2] Rather, Jesus was born in a specific time and place, embraced as the kin of an identifiable people, living in their ancient homeland, whose collective memory is expressed in the Hebrew Scriptures and passed down generationally, from parent to child. Thus, Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel. Put starkly, we Christians cannot know who we are, without turning to the Jews (cf. Isa 2:3; Jn 4:22; CCC, 528 [3]). Our deepest memory is the memory of Israel.[4] Christian self-understanding remains profoundly linked to the story and faith of Israel. I felt moved to write this reflection after perusing a sample of 25 recently-published Christmas messages emanating from Catholic leaders across Australia. Surprisingly, the word “Jew” or any related term (Judaism/Hebrew/Israel) could be found in only three of the 25 messages, employed mostly in a positive or neutral sense, although one referred to “Jewish leaders” conspiring to bring about Jesus’ crucifixion. I hasten to add that all 25 messages (typically a page or a 4-minute video) also spoke words of wisdom, insight, pastoral concern and unquestionable goodwill. Indeed, in the exercise of digesting them all in one sitting, I marvelled at the rich diversity of personality, spirituality, catechetical focus, pastoral style and sensitivity to local concerns. Still, the overall silence regarding the Jewishness of Jesus in these and other high-level Catholic messages at this time of year is troubling. It reveals a wider pastoral concern: that we Christians need help in expressing the Jewish content of the Nativity story and the mystery of the Incarnation, in a way that honours the story of Israel, and that shows gratitude for Jewish covenantal fidelity, without supersessionist intent and without allowing modern-day geo-political disputes to stifle the voice of scripture and faith. The chosen focus for many a Christmas message is contemporary social and justice issues: the nearness of God to us amidst flood, fire, war, climate change, pandemic and every manner of human suffering. This is a vital point and usually beautifully articulated. Yet, as Scripture attests, there is no Emmanuel, God-with-us, without the mystery of Israel, the long-attested historical involvement of Jewish lives in the designs of God. For us — as for the shepherds, angels and magi — this calls for wonder, praise and gratitude. If there is ever a time for Christians to speak warmly and respectfully of Jewish tradition and of the magnificence of the history of Israel (with all its struggles and ambiguities that are part of every human community), surely it is the season of Christmas, as we contemplate the fact of a Jewish child, the miracle of God’s presence “according to the flesh”, and a salvific revelation that would be inconceivable without the story of the people of the Covenant centre-stage in our Scriptures. If there is ever a time for Christians to highlight the irrevocable, steadfast love of God for Israel, a truth that pervades the Hebrew Scriptures and grounds the Christian proclamation, surely it is at Christmas when we open our hearts to divine love Incarnate. Without appropriating Judaism for supersessionist purposes, there are words by which Christians (and not only church leaders) can honour the enduring witness of Jewish communities to God’s faithfulness, then and now. Twenty-five suggestions follow this article, any one of which could be woven into a Christmas message, homily, catechesis or conversation. It is important that we do this, not only for reasons relating to historical and biblical perspectives that define Christian identity, but also in response to the Church’s call to reconcile with the Jewish people. Our post-conciliar, post-Nostra Aetate task is to heal the tragic legacy of centuries of Christian antisemitism that sought to deny Jesus’ Jewishness, to portray Israel solely in terms of infidelity and as an obsolete religion replaced (superseded) by the Church. Even a few carefully chosen words in a Christmas message can contribute to the healing of the relationship between Christians and Jews and give expression to the reality of ‘God-with-us’. Homiletic tips for Christmas 2023 Twenty-five statements that acknowledge the Jewish roots of Christianity and the enduring covenantal life of the Jewish people: The child in the manger is a Jewish child. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, Joseph and Mary were Jews; the Apostles, “as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people” (Nostra Aetate, 4). Jesus is “born under the law” (Gal 4:4, NRSV), that is, born as a Jew, and circumcised on the eighth day (see Lk 2:21; CCC, 527). Jesus is presented in Scripture as deeply ‘familied’: he is a descendant of Abraham, a son of Israel, a son of David, son of Mary and, according to Christian testimony, Son of God. Like so many Jewish parents, then and now, Mary and Joseph envelop the infant child Jesus in familial love, and in the faith stories and ancestral traditions of the Jewish people. “Jesus, a son of the Chosen People, was born, lived and died a Jew (cf. Rom 9:4-5). Mary, his Mother, likewise invites us to rediscover the Jewish roots of Christianity. These close bonds are a unique treasure of which Christians are proud and for which they are indebted to the Chosen People.”[5] “Christ, the Son of God, became flesh in a people, a faith tradition and a culture which, if better known, can only enrich the understanding of the Christian faith.”[6] Through Christian eyes, Jesus is unique as the Messiah and the Son of God. But let’s not remove him from his history or isolate him from his kin. To be a Jew is to be ‘familied’ to other Jews and Jesus is of “Abraham’s stock” (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4; Mt 1). This newborn child, Jesus, will soon be circumcised on the eighth day; his very body will be marked with the sign of God’s covenant with Israel. According to Christian faith claims, Jesus is the promised one of Israel. He is the Messiah who lights the way of justice and peace, in continuity with the prophets and Scriptures of Israel. “Jesus' human identity is determined on the basis of his bond with the people of Israel, with the dynasty of David and his descent from Abraham.”[7] “One cannot understand Jesus’ teaching or that of his disciples without situating it within the Jewish horizon in the context of the living tradition of Israel; one would understand his teachings even less so if they were seen in opposition to this tradition.”[8] “From her origins, the Church has well understood that the Incarnation is rooted in history and, consequently, she has fully accepted Christ's insertion into the history of the People of Israel. She has regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as the perennially valid Word of God, addressed to her as well as to the children of Israel.”[9] “Actually, it is impossible fully to express the mystery of Christ without reference to the Old Testament.”[10] The Hebrew Scriptures take shape in the life of Israel and continue to be interpreted, lived and held as sacred by Jewish communities today. Jesus was grounded, literally, in his Jewish homeland – his feet made footprints in the soil of Nazareth, splashed in the Sea of Galilee and trudged rocky trails going up to Jerusalem. “Thus [Jesus] became an authentic son of Israel, deeply rooted in his own people's long history.”[11] Pope John Paul II reminded us that “that the Church of Christ discovers her ‘bond’ with Judaism by ‘searching into her own mystery’ (cf. Nostra Aetate, 4)”.[12] As we contemplate the Nativity scene and the mystery of the One who “pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1.14), we cannot but encounter the time-honoured story of Israel and our indebtedness to the Jewish people. Watch any Nativity play and notice that, until the entrance of the magi, almost every character is a Jew. The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament (cf. Jn 4:22; Mt 2:4-6).”[13] “The Christian must know that by belonging to Christ he [or she] has become ‘Abraham's offspring’ (Gal 3:29) and has been grafted onto a cultivated olive tree (cf. Rom 11:17-24), that is, included among the People of Israel, to ‘share the richness of the olive tree’ (Rom 11:17).” A Christian who has this firm conviction “can no longer allow for Jews as such to be despised, or worse, ill-treated.”[14] Jesus was born into a troubled and dangerous world, of a people who knew persecution, suffering and exile. Sadly, still today, antisemitism persists in the world. The Christmas message of ‘God-with-us’ calls us to solidarity with vulnerable humanity, and to stand against every form of racism, antisemitism, bigotry and prejudice. We Christians are committed to living the Christmas message of peace to all, even as we look expectantly towards that future Day when Christ will come again, bringing all things to completion. We also know that God continues to steadfastly love and walk with the Jewish people, who offer a distinctive Jewish witness to the word of God as the reign of God unfolds on earth. In this way, Jews and Christians together participate in God’s saving activity in the present, and they share messianic hope, albeit understood in different ways. At Christmas time, as we Christians ‘dig deep’ into our 2000-year-old collective memory, we must surely find immense gratitude in our hearts for the Jewish people, then and now - for the gift of their Scriptures, their belief in the God who saves, their families and Torah traditions, and their immense contributions to the world. Notes: [1] As quoted by Nostra Aetate, 4, accessed at the Vatican website; emphasis added. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from ecclesial documents in this article are from the Dialogika website of the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations. [2] Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 11 April 1997. [3] The coming of the magi “means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Saviour of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website). [4] The term “Israel” has multiple meanings. It can refer to the name given to the patriarch Jacob in the bible, or to one of the twelve tribes issuing from his descendants, or to the biblical land, or to the political nation state named Israel (either in its ancient or modern context). “Israel” is also a theological reference to the Jewish people, from their origins in history to their ultimate destiny in accord with God’s design, and this is how it is used in this article unless the context indicates otherwise. [5] Pope Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 14 September 2012, 20. [6] Benedict XVI, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 21. [7] John Paul II, Address to the PBC, 11 April 1997. [8] Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable”, 10 December 2015, 14. [9] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [10] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [11] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. [12] John Paul II, Synagogue of Rome, 13 April 1986. [13] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 528, Vatican website. [14] John Paul II, Address to PBC, 11 April 1997. By Teresa Pirola, ThD, a Sydney-based writer and faith educator. Published January 2023 by This article may be reproduced for non-commercial use with acknowledgement of author and website.

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