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  • A Life and Death Struggle

    Exodus: that foundational story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery and their formation as a nation. Exodus opens with the descendants of Jacob groaning under the yolk of oppression. Their long period of slavery in Egypt is never clearly explained in the Torah and we may well ponder the ‘why’? of this prolonged suffering. Did no divine/prophetic voice urge them to leave Egypt before it was too late? The Torah’s silence on this is indeed perplexing.... But let’s begin our exploration of Exodus with Chapter 1, digging into the biblical text in search of gems of ancient wisdom. Read Chapter 1 of Exodus slowly, carefully. Pay particular attention to details such as i) recurring themes, ii) connections with stories we have read previously in Genesis, iii) the use of names (and the absence of names), iv) surprising elements in the text. Beneath the surface of the narrative, what is God’s Word ‘saying’ to you? How do these ancient, sacred writings speak to your life, to your faith? No doubt you noticed that this chapter is permeated by a theme of fertility, birth, abundant life, unstoppable growth. The chapter opens by listing Jacob’s progeny. It goes on to describe their descendants, the children of Israel, using language found also in the creation account in Genesis 1: ‘fruitful,’ ‘teemed,’ ‘multiplied,’ ‘the land was filled with them.’ Note, too, the explicit references to the scene of birth in vv. 16, 19. And how surprising it is that the center-stage figure in this chapter is not the most powerful man in Egypt (for ‘Pharaoh’ remains unnamed) but two heroic ‘Hebrew midwives’ (who are named in v.15). Their role in facilitating Israelite births successfully dismantles Pharaoh’s murderous plans, and they are twice praised as being ‘God-fearing’ (vv. 17, 21). What else caught your attention in this chapter? Recall God’s command—‘be fruitful and multiply’—to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28) and to Noah (Gen. 9:7). Recall, too, God’s promise to the patriarchs that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5) and as the dust of the earth (13:16). The Exodus story tells the story not only of a growing community of people, but of the unfolding of a covenantal relationship. God blesses his people and holds out a future of great promise. Indeed, they live, grow and thrive in great numbers! And not only do they thrive, they do so amidst oppressive conditions and despite the systematic attempts of Pharaoh to destroy their male young. What can we conclude? Right from the start, the book of Exodus presents a dramatic confrontation between the powers of life and death, between the living God of the children of Israel and the deathly paranoia of an earthly king. This is the backdrop against which Moses, as a defenseless baby, enters the picture (Exodus 2), survives against all odds, and is destined to become a savior, a liberator to his people. Continue to ponder this Torah portion, sharing your insights and questions. Reflect upon a painful period of your life in which, despite hardships, you were able to recognize God’s enduring, lifegiving presence. How were you shaped by this experience? Bibliography: Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York, 2001). Scripture: Richard Elliott Friedman’s translation. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website.

  • I am the LORD

    In the Book of Exodus we find a sequence of tense encounters between Pharaoh and the two Hebrew brothers, Moses and Aaron. The encounters have a larger stage too, for this is really a dramatic confrontation between the egotistic powers of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, versus the Lord God, King of the universe (of whom Moses and Aaron are agents). As the story unfolds in chapters 5 and 6, Pharaoh and God lock horns: Pharaoh to Moses: “Who is the LORD that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go” (5:2). The LORD to Moses: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage” (6:6). Pharaoh poses a question. The Lord provides an answer. And both boldly declare their intentions. Imaginatively and prayerfully ponder these statements. Read the verses around them. What do you notice? How does the text speak to you? Creatively envisage the scenes, the tone of the speakers, the electricity of each moment. In the midrash (ancient Jewish storytelling traditions), an imaginative and insightful story is woven around these verses. According to this midrash, after asking “Who is the LORD?” Pharaoh says, “I will search my records.” And he went into his archives and brought out a list of divinities... “The god of Moab, the god of Ammon, the god of Zidon”... Finally he decreed, “You see, I looked for the name of your God in my archives, and did not find it.” .... Moses and Aaron said to Pharaoh, “Utter fool that you are! Are the living to be sought among the dead? The divinities in your records are dead. But our God is a living God, the King of the universe.” 1 Pharaoh is ignorant, but does he really want to learn the truth? How difficult it can be to embrace a new idea when it threatens our power base or takes us beyond our comfort zone. Pharaoh’s resistance helps us to appreciate the great leap that Moses, himself raised as an Egyptian prince, took in embracing the revelation of the divine name. Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites is bad enough, but Moses also has to contend with rejection from his own people. “They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (6:9). A devastating story forms the backdrop to this verse (pause to revisit it in chapter 5 of Exodus) where Moses’ efforts actually lead to greater suffering for his kinsfolk. Have you ever been in a circumstance where your best efforts not only were unsuccessful, but it seemed that you actually made the situation worse? Here the sacred text is magnificent: “I am the Lord. I have heard the cries of my people. I have remembered my covenant. I will redeem them with an outstretched arm. They will be my people and I will be their God” (6:5-8). Can you taste the power of divine reassurance in this dark moment? Can you allow it to touch a dark moment of your own life? Why not, right now, create a prayerful pause in your day. Call out to God in prayer and remember God’s promise in Exodus 6:5-8. Make an act of trust in our living and liberating God. • 1. The Book of Legends, 64-65. Sources: Bialik & Ravnitzky, eds., The Book of Legends (New York, 1992); Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot (Jerusalem, 1996). Scripture: JPS. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of the Light of Torah website.

  • So, why did the Lord visit Abraham?

    “The Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot” (Gen: 18:1). Just one verse into this Bible story (Genesis 18:1-15) and the Jewish sages of old were already probing and puzzling over the text. What do you think caught their attention? ‘The day grew hot.’ Why would this apparently irrelevant detail be mentioned? Look closely. . . The Lord 'appeared’ (v.1), yet there is no indication that the Lord appears to say or do anything special as is the usual case (e.g., “The Lord appeared and said to so-and-so...”). Nor is Abraham doing anything special to warrant a divine appearance. He is not calling out to God or offering a sacrifice. He is just, well... sitting. Then there is the ambiguous use of pronouns: ‘he,’ ‘him.’ Although 18:1 is the opening of a new chapter, it reads as if it is continuing a previous story. And what is the preceding story? The account of Abraham’s circumcision. In fact, one rabbinic view regards the divine appearance as the grand conclusion to the story of Abraham’s circumcision, rather than the opener to the hospitality story which follows. There are, of course other rabbinic interpretations, but let’s stay with this one and follow it a little further. Ask yourself: why would God be showing up, now, at this moment, if there is no divine command to be issued, no blessing to give, no message to be delivered? Rashi (11th c. Torah commentator), echoing other voices in the tradition, teaches that on this occasion God visits Abraham, not for the purpose of an important declaration or commissioning, but simply out of personal concern. For, having just been circumcised, Abraham is physically recuperating: R’Chama the son of Chanina said: It was the third day since his circumcision, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, came and inquired about [Abraham’s] welfare. Of course, this explanation is not meant to be taken literally, yet what a tender, imaginative portrayal of God’s personal compassion and care for a faithful man. Sometimes this interpretation is used to affirm the importance of visiting the sick, for this is what God did for Abraham. So then, this divine appearance, unlike so many others recorded in the Torah, is not a means to an end, but is given for its own sake; much like friends who get together, not always to accomplish a practical purpose, but simply for the pleasure and comfort of being in each others’ presence. The text tells us “The day grew hot” (18:1). Rashi teaches that God even “bought the sun out of its sheath” so that Abraham would not be troubled by guests, because no one travels during the hottest part of the day. But then, seeing that Abraham was lonely for company, he “brought the angels to him in the form of men.” One story from the midrash (Jewish storytelling traditions) suggests that Abraham was not only physically aggrieved by his circumcision but also experiencing emotional turmoil over the thought that the sign of the covenant might lead to his isolation. “Now that I am circumcised, perhaps [travellers] will no longer visit me?” [Genesis Rabbah 48,9]. To this, God offers reassurance through a divine visitation! As much as these imaginative interpretations make us smile, they also massage our minds and refresh our spirit. We might ask: Has God ever ‘appeared’ to me when I was physically/emotionally/spiritually vulnerable? How might Rashi’s interpretation of Gen.18:1 enrich the way I live my life? • Sources: Freedman and Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah: Genesis (London, 1983); Herczeg, ed., Rashi: The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary, Sapirstein ed. (New York, 1999); Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (New York, 1994); Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, 1989).

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