But the Fighter Still Remains – Parshat Shemot 5781

I am a fighter. Not in the boxing ring, and not even with other people usually; I’m a fighter for justice, for what I believe in, and for what I want to accomplish. Like lots of kids, I had my own obstacles early on in life. I struggled to make friends easily, and I often felt on the outside of large groups. I always seemed to be on the periphery instead of experiencing those tight connections others were making. This also manifested itself in my grades and school performance. In my pre-college academic career I was a B average student, and my high school guidance counselor didn’t think I’d get into the University of Michigan.

At some point I realized that each time one of these obstacles came at me, I had a choice. I could let the internal and external negativity affect me. I could let it get me down and stop pushing myself forward. Or I could fight hard, learn coping strategies, and work my way into the place where I wanted to be. This wasn’t easy, and there were and still are plenty of times when I feel like throwing in the towel, when I feel like I don’t have any fight left in me. Somehow there’s always a new spark of energy, a new drive to fight.

This week we read Parshat Shemot. This parshah serves as the turning point from the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh, one who isn’t so keen on the Israelites, decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

In the wilderness, Moshe comes across an odd sight. He sees a blazing fire coming out of a bush but not consuming the bush. As Moshe takes note of this spectacle, God calls out to him to remove his shoes, respect the sanctity of the moment, and hear God’s promises.

Plenty has been said about the fire, but what about the shrubbery itself? Interestingly, the exact plant is often understood to be a thorn bush. Why would God choose a type of bush which by nature pushes others away? Why not an olive tree or a sycamore? Ancient philosopher Philo teaches that the bush burning and not being consumed symbolizes the Jewish people, perpetually attacked and endangered, but perpetually surviving. The thorn bush, the humblest bush, is just doing what it needs to survive, and it comes back, it is not consumed.

Parshat Shemot is just the first in a long line of narratives about the Israelites (later the Jewish people) in which we will be met with fire, yet not consumed. The call of God from the bush is the reminder to us all that the earth we stand on is holy because we are holy, and the fire of others cannot consume us. 

Witness – Parshat Shemot 5780

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How do you really understand discrimination and oppression until you see it? With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day coming up on Monday, we celebrate his enormous work in civil rights, and at the same time awake to the sobering reminder that even to this day we forget our common humanity.

For better or worse, our view of the world is based largely on assumptions and second-hand information until we witness the world with our own eyes. And when you’re finally exposed to the facts, they might change the reality you’ve known up to that point. I didn’t fully understand the suffering of the indigenous people in Guatemala until I went and saw it in person on my trip a year ago. Up until then, it felt disingenuous to speak out about causes that I hadn’t verified first-hand. I’ll admit it’s partly because perhaps I didn’t want to imagine the cruel reality. In this way, we allow ourselves to be blind until the truth is staring back at us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, we begin to see how miracles are going to play out in the text and what it takes to believe in them. First there’s a reminder that a new king has taken over Egypt, one who does not know the goodness the Israelite nation brought. The story continues with the fear this new king felt because the Hebrews seemed so different. But he doesn’t see them with his own eyes to confirm his suspicions. The king doesn’t engage one-on-one with the Israelites, he simply makes a xenophobic judgement call and then bans them from procreating without verification of any facts. Of course we know how the narrative continues – with Moses being rescued from the Nile, his life in the palace, and his rise to leadership.

When you think about it, it’s really Pharaoh’s daughter who is the savior of an entire nation. Why? Because she witnessed something with her own eyes. There are several conflicting viewpoints on how she may have felt about her father’s rule. Rabbi and Jewish mystic Isaac Luria believes that she went along with her father’s policies until, in chapter 2, verse 5, she comes down to the Nile to bathe and sees the endangered Hebrew child. Until that moment, the plight of the Israelites and these “foreign” people had all been an abstraction, so she was able to believe the worst in them. However, when she sees the tiny, helpless Moses in the river, she recognizes her common humanity with his people.

Pharaoh’s daughter acts because she sees the truth: people are people. As we once again approach Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, perhaps this is a reminder for all of us in all times. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to others when we see them as different. Instead, if you’re able to empathize and identify yourself in someone else’s story, you are instantly linked through your humanity. And by doing so, Pharaoh’s daughter does in fact change the world.

Weighing the Options – Parshat Shemot 5779

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“You won’t know unless you try.” It’s that little bit of encouragement used for helping a friend who’s feeling nervous about a new experience or a child who’s about to taste sweet potatoes for the first time. When in life does the fear of what might happen or what might be unpleasant hold you back from doing what could actually bring positive rewards? In most cases it depends on your ability first to weigh the consequences of the action to evaluate potential outcomes. In other words, what result would be bad, what result would be good, and is either one worth the risk?

The Torah is constantly teaching us this lesson as our patriarchs and the Israelite nation come into their own. Especially in this week’s parshah, Shemot, we see this lesson come to life. This parshah serves as the turning point between the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh who isn’t so keen on the Israelites decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and starts his own family.

The circumstances surrounding Moshe’s birth are intense, as you can imagine. Pharaoh has made a decree that all baby boys should be put to death, thus reproduction among the Israelite community slowed quite a bit. According to the midrash, many Israelite couples even went as far as splitting up so that they wouldn’t procreate and have to watch a male child be put to death. In fact, when Moshe is born we learn that his parents are recently married, which doesn’t really make sense since we know they have two older children, Miriam and Aaron. So how, in those days, could they be newly married?

The midrash fills in this puzzle by explaining that Miriam thought this separation was the wrong choice. It teaches that Miriam persuaded her parents to return to each other by saying basically, “You are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only threatens the males; you eliminate the possibility of any child. Pharaoh’s decree may not be carried out, but your decision not to have children certainly will be.” Miriam is able to convince her parents to reunite, and Moshe was born, luckily for the Israelites.

When you’re tasked with weighing potential outcomes, it’s hard to know which decisions will have major implications and which ones minor. Miriam’s strength and conviction in insisting that we must consider all repercussions of our decision making illustrates this point perfectly. If you don’t look at an issue from all sides, you might miss the decision that would change the world.

The Nature of Nurture – Parshat Shemot 5778

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I get emotional when I stop to think about my beautiful daughter growing up. Each phase, even the tough ones, are precious and so fleeting. I look forward to each new milestone she will achieve, but still mourn the passing of each day as she grows out of her younger self and relies less on me. Obviously she’s still a child and will depend on me for many years to come, but early milestones like weaning and transitioning to solid foods meant that for the first time in her existence it wasn’t my body directly nourishing hers. I was simultaneously sad this specific bond was broken and proud that we’d come so far together and were both ready to move on to the next phase. As a mom, I was sentimental yet satisfied that I did what I needed to do in order to care for, nourish, and sustain my baby.

In Parshat Shemot, Moshe’s mother Yocheved is faced with a difficult choice. The parshah, which begins the second book of the Torah, illustrates for us how skewed our own perception of self can be, and it serves as the turning point from the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in Egypt as a new pharaoh who isn’t so keen on the Israelites decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite. He flees out of fear for his life, marries a Midianite woman, and becomes a father. It then takes an unusual interaction with God for Moshe to become a leader to his true people and confront his former grandfather figure with the support of a God he has only recently learned about.

At the beginning of the text, Moshe’s birth itself is an impossibly difficult parenting moment. Yocheved knows that if she keeps her son, he is likely to be murdered, given Pharaoh’s decree. However, she exhibits incredible faith and hopefulness by letting her son go, putting him in the Nile, and praying that some kind soul finds the baby, takes pity on him, and takes him in. When Pharaoh’s daughter does find Moshe in the river, Moshe’s sister Miriam, who had been watching the path of the basket, offers to have a “Hebrew woman be his wet-nurse.”

Pharaoh’s daughter is often the focus of this section, since she is the one who acts on her pity and rescues the baby, but it’s really all three women who conspire to sustain and support this child and allow him to thrive. Yocheved acts on faith, Pharaoh’s daughter shows compassion, and Miriam uses quick, intelligent decision making.

Parshat Shemot brings to light the notion that a parent or guardian has to make tough decisions all the time, and the right decision for one family isn’t necessarily the same decision another family would make. We can only strive to be as bravely hopeful as Yocheved, as compassionate as Pharaoh’s daughter, and as keenly observant as Miriam when it comes to doing what is right for our children and our community.

A Change is Gonna Come – Parshat Shemot 5777

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Today we watch our nation undergo a major transition in leadership. On the one hand, it’s perfectly normal. It’s a quadrennial tradition, part of the fabric of our country. On the other hand, parts of this transition feel anything but normal. For eight years we’ve lived as citizens of the Obama administration. We had the routine of President Obama, a well-polished speaker who placed great focus on the “Torah” of hope and change for a better future. Whether or not he was the candidate you voted for, by the time he left office, he was at least the status quo, and we knew his policies and politics. In contrast, now we stand on the brink of a transition where there are many, many unknown variables.

This is obviously not the first transition of power we have witnessed, and it won’t be the last, but it does remind me of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemot. Our parshah, which begins the second book of the Torah, illustrates for us how skewed our own perception of self can be. This parshah serves as the turning point between the leadership of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to that of Moshe. Shemot leads us quickly through the change in leadership in Egypt as a new Pharaoh who isn’t so keen on the Israelites decrees that all males born should be put to death. Thankfully the midwives ignore this decree, and Moshe is kept alive. As an adopted Egyptian, Moshe joins the palace, but later learns he’s an Israelite.

There are two parallels in particular between the presidential inauguration and the narrative of Shemot that stand out to me. Chapter 1, verse 8 of the book of Exodus states, “And there arose a new king over Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.” This verse clearly speaks to the unease that comes with the transition of power to a new leader who does not know and cannot sympathize with the experiences of a particular minority. This new king was out of touch, and that was more than a little unnerving to those living under his leadership. And the first thing this king does is legislate strict rules and laws against the groups he does not understand. Instead of trying to get to know them, understand them, or even relate to anyone else outside himself, he simply places restrictions on their lives.

Later in the story we learn specifically of Shifra and Puah, the two midwives who resisted and disregarded the new pharaoh’s laws. They stood strong and tried to save as many of the Israelite babies as they could, including Moses, who ends up as the leader of the resistance. The bravery of Shifra and Puah then inspires the bravery of others. Their desire to stand up and fight is the model for resistance. Take what you will from these analogies; however, I am not trying to compare and contrast Biblical and modern leaders. To me, this is much more an illustration of how we as a society adapt, evolve, resist, and rally under new leadership.

Transition can be difficult and scary, a point I’ve brought up before in these writings. This week we had to transition back into the outside world after seven days of being stuck in our home following a crazy snowstorm that blanketed Portland. While we were only snowed in for a week, it doesn’t take much to throw your routine out of whack. It was a difficult morning remembering to pack up the diapers and milk for the baby, get the preschooler dressed and fed, and have everyone out the door on time. Then again, sometimes that reset is helpful. It may offer a new perspective or reveal ways you can make the routine even smoother and more efficient.

As we prepare for this major political transition, may we take it as an opportunity to re-examine our own routines, our own struggles. Perhaps this is the time to grow. As author and speaker Karen Kaiser Clark says, “Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely.” Shabbat shalom.