Exodus Commentaries Based on the First Verse

Parashat Shemot  / פרשת שְׁמוֹת֙
Exodus 1:1-6

וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:

The English name for the second book of the Torah is Exodus.  In the Jewish tradition we call it Shemot, which means "names".  Names throughout the Torah are extremely important portals to a deeper understanding of the text.  They also often reveal important and unique characteristics about a person. 

As a way to dive deeper into the meaning of the Hebrew word shem/name I applied a playful hermeneutical substitution cipher called Atbash. The name comes from combining the first (aleph) last (tav), second (bet) and second to last (shin) letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It refers to a non-binding way of interpreting Torah that involves swapping letters in a word based on their order, first letter switches with the last letter, the second letter with the second to last letter and so forth.

Shem (shin, mem) in atbash becomes Bi (bet, yod, pronounced bee).  Bi means "in me". This struck me as suggesting that our name reveals unique aspects of our personality embedded  -בי - within us.  What does your name say about you?  If there is a historical meaning to your name does it resonate with you?  If you were named after someone else do you share characteristics with that person?  Is there another name which you feel better embodies your uniqueness?

A good name is more desirable than great riches.  Proverbs 22:1

Vaera / פרשת וארא
Exodus 6:2 - 9:35

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD.

Two of the most common phrases in the Torah occur in this week’s pesuk (verse).  They are “and he spoke” (וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר / va-ye-da-ber) and “he said” (וַיֹּ֥אמֶר / va-yo-mer).  Since these two words are interchangable should we see this as a simple matter of inocuous word choice and of no import, or does each work convey something different and significant, if not subtle?

In response to those who would see this as unimportant Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, said, “I do not know what’s the difference between VaYomer and VaYedaber, and why sometimes the Torah uses one, and sometimes the other, and if it seems meaningless, it’s your shortcoming.”[Commentary to Va’era, 7:8]  This response is consistent with a general Torah interpretation principle that nothing is superfluous or meaningless.  The challenge is for us to extract the hidden wisdom from these sort of conundrums.  This is what is meant when we say revelation is on-going.

Over the centuries some commentators suggested that “VaYomer (root: aleph, mem, reish)“ is used to address specific individuals, while “VaYidaber (root: daled, bet, reish)“ is used when speaking of or to non specific recipients. Others have suggested that  daled, bet, reish is used to prepare for speech, the frame, opening the connection, and aleph, mem, reish  is the speech act itself.  Maybe, but our pesuk doesn’t convincingly support either of these assertion.

So is there really an difference in value between these two verbs?  It is hard for me to say, in the words of Rabbi Abraham, it’s my shortcoming that a deeper meaning eludes me.  However, given the power of speech to create, to destroy, to heal, to comfort, to confuse, and to empower, it doesn’t surprise that me that there is more than one way to name the process of forming words for the purpose of articulating ideas.  At the very least, I see in these two words allusion to the complexity of speech.

Bo  / פרשת בא
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽ
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them...

Anyone with a basic level of Hebrew knowledge will immediately recognize that there is a problem with the translation of the verse above.  It doesn't actually say, "Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh."  It says,"Then the LORD said to Moses, COME to Pharaoh”.  The Hebrew word in question is בֹּ֖א / bo.  Search the internet and you will find that בֹּ֖א / bo is almost universally translated as "go".

Clearly the intent of the verse is that God is commanding Moses to "go" and speak with Pharaoh.  So why does the Torah actually say "come" and not go?  The classic explanation is that the words "with me" are elided. The sentence should be understood as "God said to Moses, come with me".  This is understood to mean have faith that the invisible God is with you when confronting a challenge in life. This is quite lovely:  in times of danger have faith that God is there with you.

I have a problem with this.  If translators are going to mistranslate  בֹּ֖א / bo why not just continue the mistranslation and include the words "with me"? Certainly we wouldn't want words added to the Hebrew but since translations are always interpretations why not just translate the verse the way tradition wants us to interpret it?

If Exodus was presented only as an oral story (no text to verify spellings) then it is possible that mistranslated בֹּ֖א / bo is actually supposed to be iבֹּ֖ / bo with a vav.  Although these two words sound the same their meanings are quite different.  Bo with an aleph means “come” while bo with a vav means "in him".  Granted, the sentence doesn't really make sense as "Then the LORD said to Moses, “in him to Pharaoh...".  However, since Torah teaches word by word and letter by letter its value is not limited to the coherency of sentence structure. 

Maybe iבֹּ֖ / bo with a vav is cue or hint that just as Exodus is a metaphorical story about freedom from oppressive governments it is also a metaphorical story about the internal oppressive forces, the Pharaoh like saboteurs that operate within us.  We all have these debilitating "inner voices".  When we reframe these internal negative voices as pointers to our weaknesses they can be very instructive.  So who or what are your pharaohs holding you back?

Beshlach  / פרשת בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח
Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

In my commentary on parashat Vayera I pointed out that the verb aleph/א mem/מ reish/ר means “speak”.  I also mentioned that many classic commentaries understand it to mean speaking to specific individuals.  If this is so then who is God speaking to in the verse above? 

It is possible God is talking to other gods or accompanying angels. This wouldn’t be the first time God consulted with other unnamed or unspecified entities.  In chapter one of Genesis God frequently “speaks” to unnamed others, for example 1: 26, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..”.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ

In Hebrew the name for God in this verse  (and in this week's portion) is Elohim/אלֹהים, which is the plural form of God.  So it is possible God is talking to other divine entities.

Alternatively, perhaps God is speaking to himself.  I get the sense that God is a bit confused as to how best to lead/instruct the Israelites as they are fleeing Egypt.  The hint of this for me is in the root letters נ.ח.ם. /nun chet/mem which carries three different potential meanings: change one’s mind, guide and comfort.  It is as if God wants to offer comfort to the Israelites by leading away from war lest they change their mind.  Thus, this verse reflects an internal dialogue God is having with himself. 

Other Gods? God talking to himself?  This is not quite the Torah I was taught as a child.  How about you?

Yitro / פרשת יתרו
Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ כֹהֵ֤ן מִדְיָן֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
Jethro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt.

This week's commentary is dedicated in honor of father and mother -in-laws!  Too often we fail to pay homage to the “in‐laws” and the important role they play in helping married couples create healthy homes.  It was, after all Moshe's in-laws and wife Tzipporah who took care of his sons when God dispatched him to confront Pharaoh.  We also learn later in the parsha that Moshe received sage advice on how to organize an effective governing body from Yitro (see 18:14-23).  Finally, the text suggests that there was a strong bond between Moshe and his father-in-law: ”Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked after the other’s welfare..."

Two quick final thoughts about Yitro.  First, I think it is powerful that the Torah portion in which the defining event of the formation of the Jewish people - the giving of the Torah - is named for a non-Israelite/Jew.  Moreover, Yitro is was not just anybody. He was Moshe's father-in-law and a Midianite high priest!  For me this week's portion shines a bright light on the important and positive role of non-Jews to Judaism. 

Second, it saddens me that there is no mention of Moshe's mother-in-law.  Any creative minds want to take up the challenge to write a midrash about her?  A midrash is a story created to fill in lacunae in the Torah.

Parashat Mishpatim  / פרשת משפטים
Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃
These are the rules that you shall set before them:

In last week's Torah portion Moses received the Ten Commandments and transmitted them to the Israelites.  According to rabbinic tradition, which means it isn't explicitly stated in the Torah, Moses received much more than just Ten Commandments.  This conclusion is derived from an analysis of the usages of the first word, וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ / "_And these_" are elsewhere.  According to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, aka Rashi,  (1040 - 1105) when ever וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ / And these is used we are to understand it as adding to what preceded it.  Conversely, when a sentence begins with just אֵ֙לֶּה / these (no vav in the Hebrew or and in English) it means it is distinct from what came before.  Thus, according to Rashi what follows in this week's portion should be understood as a continuation of or somehow directly related to what came before it.

It would reasonable to assume that now I will discuss the relationship between last week's Torah portion and this week's.  But this is not what I'm going to do.  Instead, I want to keep you focused on the letter vav.  There is actually quite a lot I could say about it. Now all I want to point out how this is an example in Jewish tradition of what  it means to read  Torah literally.  We read Torah letter by letter searching for meaning.  A simple vav or its absence can make a huge difference in meaning.  See https://www.cnn.com/2017/03/15/health/oxford-comma-maine-court-case-trnd/index.html for an example in 21st century law that hinged on an Oxford comma.

Not only do words matter, but when and how we pause while speaking (or writing, i.e. commas) also matter, a lot.  And for that matter, what we don't say also can carry a lot of meaning.

Parashat Terumah  / פרשת תרומה
Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

This phrase occurs no less than 88 times in the Torah.  By all accounts this makes it one of the most frequent sentences or part of a sentence in the Torah, if not the most common.  Either way, memorize it and you have memorized a significant chunk of the Torah.

Just for fun I started playing around with the gematria (numerical value) of the words in this phrase.  Severals times I thought I found some thing interesting. However, each time upon checking my math I discovered mistakes in my calculations.  (I like to say I'm at most creative when it comes to adding numbers.  Give me a column of numbers to add and I'll come up with a different total every time.)  And then I looked at the number of times the phrase shows up and I said to myself, "oy". The phrase occurs 88 times.  Neo-Nazis use the number 88 as an abbreviation for the Nazi salute heil Hitler. The letter H is eighth in the alphabet, whereby 88 becomes HH, or short hand for heil Hitler. 

Gevalt, let me redeem the number 88.  8 + 8 = 16.  16 can be further broken down to 1 + 6 = 7.  Seven is one of Judaism's power numbers because it evokes the seven days of creation.  It also is associated with good fortune because the numerical value of mazal (luck) is 77.   In the Chinese culture 8 is associated with luck.  The 2008 Beijing Olympics opened on 8/8/08 at 8 p.m.  In addition, there are 88 keys on a piano. Okay, I think I've successfully redeemed the number 88.

Finally, since God does a lot of talking with Moses and we are supposed to be created in the image of God is it any wonder that Jews are sometimes considered talkative?  God was talkative and so when we are talkative we are simply being God-like.

Parashat Tetzaveh  / פרשת תצוה
Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

Above virtually every ark there is a light that is perpetually on.  This light is called the nair tamid, which is usually translated as eternal light.  The Hebrew term comes from this week's opening verse, translated above as a light that is regularly kindled.  A close look at the Hebrew לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד / lehalot nair tamid (kindle lamps regularly) reveals the complexity of translating the Torah.

What exactly does it mean to say "kindle a lamp regularly"?  At some point in history it evolved to mean keeping a light always lit/burning, hence the light above the ark that is always on.  However, the phrase could mean that a candle/light is to be lit every morning or evening for ever.  What further complicates an understanding of the phrase is the verb lehalot/לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת.  Literally this means to raise up.  There are other verbs that unambiguously mean to light or to kindle. 

I can think of two possible explanations for the use of lehalot/לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת.  Perhaps it is a double entendre. One meaning is literal, the other spiritual.  In oil lamps when one wants to make the flame bigger (more light) the wick is raised up.  Thus lehalot/לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת literally refers to raising up the wick.  Alternatively lehalot/לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת might be understood as the light is kept burning in order to "lift" up the spirits of the Israelites.

Today the nair tamid serves as a spiritual beacon simultaneous drawing our eyes toward the ark where our Torah lives and lifting our eyes upward and forward.  In a sense this is an embodied metaphor for what it means to be a Jew today.  Torah reminds of our history and inspires upward and forward toward a life of holiness and justice.  The nair tamid calls us to Torah and a life committed to justice and holiness.

Parashat Ki Tisa  / פרשת כי תשא
Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ 
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying

Once again the weekly Torah portion begins with this very common phrase.  In parshat Terumah I had a bit of fun using numerology to parse this phrase. This week I want to dive deeper into the meaning of וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר / vayidabar (he spoke).  Ignoring the first two letters, vav and yod, my attention is on the root letters, daled (ד), vet (ב), reish (ר).

These root letters form an intriguing array of words in Hebrew and Aramaic.  Hebrew is the language of the Torah.  Aramaic is language of the Talmud.  They are very, very similar.  Here is a partial list of words with these root letters.  These are all found in classic lexicons used doing serious study of the Torah and Talmud. 

I think the root letters form three loosely related groups of words:  those related to leadership, communication and nature.  There is one word that does not fit into any of these groups.  Do you see the same connection? A different one?

Leadership:  Join, arrange, lead, drive, to seize, take, leader;
Communication:  To hold communion, converse, to make submissive, persuade, word or utterance, command, speak; 
Nature:  Death, wilderness, pasture, bee, pestilence
?: Inner most chamber of Solomon’s temple (It might be its own group or be part of nature because death was awaiting anyone not supposed to enter this chamber).

It is a stretch but it is not unusual for people to go into nature;  have a near death experience while receiving a divine communication and then returning to assume a leadership role.  Moses fleeing into the midbar and then encountering the burning bush is such an example.  The First Nation practice of vision quests is another example.

Perhaps one reason וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר / vayidabar is so common is because throughout the Torah God is speaking, leading, driving, surrounded by death, encountered in the wilderness, providing sweet sustenance (honey) and is responsible for pestilence.   What do you think?

Parashat Vayakhel / פרשת ויקהל
Exodus 35:1 - 38:20
וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֑ם אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לַעֲשֹׂ֥ת אֹתָֽם׃

Moses then convoked the whole Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do:

This verse represents a good example why reading Torah literally is extremely impractical, bordering on non-sensical.  How is it possible that Moses gathered together 600,000 men, women and children ( Exodus 12:37–38) and managed to communicate anything to them, let alone complicated and nuanced edicts?  Even when we assume that the core of the story reflects a real historical event (in fact, there is some doubt that the exodus ever happened) the logistics of communicating to more than a half million people outdoors at the same time are staggering, bordering on impossible.

The Torah is replete with descriptions of seemingly every day events that simply make no sense if taken literally. Indeed, our every day language is also heavily laced with expressions and phrases that are not meant to be taken literally.  Here are three examples: “so hungry I could eat a horse," “don’t bite your nose off to spite your face," “careful, the walls have ears”. In fact, all languages are rich with multivalent words.  The Torah is no exception.

It is hard for me to defend reading the Torah literally.  Even many of the inspiring and beautiful ethical and moral teachings found in the Bible make little or no sense on examination if read literally.  This leaves two other ways to approach the Bible:  ignore the Bible because it is irrelevant to our daily lives. Since the Bible is arguably the most influential book in the world ignoring it strikes me as reckless and reading it literally is indefensible.  This leaves reading it is a rich, multivalent text requiring study and interpretation.  Unfortunately, we are, by-and large, lazy and so we tend to vacillate back and forth between ignoring the Bible and reading it literally.

Exodus Commentaries Based on the Triennial Readings and important Themes.
Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16

In this Torah portion, God sends the eighth and ninth plagues, locusts and darkness, but Pharaoh still refuses to free the Israelite slaves. God tells Moses that the tenth plague will be killing all the firstborn Egyptians. God commands each Israelite home to slaughter a lamb and spread the blood on their doorposts, in order to protect their firstborns. After the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh demands that the Israelites leave.(MyJewishLearning.com)

Bo: Exodus 10:1 - 13:16

Defining boundaries is one of the persistent challenges the Torah puts before us. Lines of delineation are constantly being drawn. Some lines of distinction, like circumcision, are literally cut in the flesh, while others are figuratively drawn in the sand. Boundaries between sacred and profane time are staked out by the movement of celestial bodies. Bodily functions also serve as markers between states of purity and impurity. The Torah even warns against arbitrarily moving boundaries. It is because the Torah persistently emphasizes the importance for clarity between this and that that the line ".. a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up with them..." (Exodus 12:38), referring to the Israelites exodus from Egypt, is noteworthy. Perhaps the Torah is making the point, lest we want to deny it, that we have always been -for the good- a heterogeneous people.

Beshlach: Exodus 13:17 - 17:16

This is an action and miracle packed Torah portion. The Israelites finally flee Egypt; the Reed Sea splits to allow safe passage for the Israelites but closes over the Egyptians; manna and quail fall from heaven in exact amounts; bitter water miraculously is turned into sweet potable water through the touch of wood; and the Israelites defeat the Amalekites (with the strange aid of Moses’ out stretched arms. Whew, it is hard to keep up with all the action.

Amidst all of this it is easy to miss a subtle but important lesson this Torah portion teaches us. On two occasions the Israelites are told to “go out and gather each day that day's portion only” (16.4) and to gather “as much of it as each of you requires to eat” (16:16). The Torah, through the metaphor of God miraculously sustaining the Israelites with just the right amount of manna and quail each person needs, is teaching that the importance of the value or blessing of JUST ENOUGH.

Yitro: Exodus 18:1-20:23

Yitro (Jethro), Moshe's father-in-law, brings Moshe's wife Tzipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to Moshe in the wilderness. Yitro observes that Moshe is the sole judge of any disputes. He says that this system cannot work in the long term, and helps Moshe set up a new system of law, by training and appointing judges at various levels to judge simpler cases, thus only the most complicated disputes will actually come before Moshe. He refuses Moshe's offer that he stay with the Jews in their journey through the desert, and returns to his own land.

In the third month after leaving Egypt the Children of Israel come to the Sinai desert and encamp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moshe ascends the mountain. God tells Moshe to tell the people to spend three days preparing themselves, and to set up fences to prevent them going near the mountain. On the third day, God reveals Himself in a cloud of smoke and fire, accompanied by the blast of a shofar. God gives the Ten Commandments to the people. The people tremble with fear from hearing God's speech, and ask Moshe to act as an intermediary, relaying the Divine words to them. The portion ends with instructions prohibiting making idols, and instructions for building the altar.

Yitro: Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

This week two events take place that continue to impact us today. First, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, teaches Moses how to create a judicial system of lower and upper courts. It involves choosing capable people who are trustworthy and “who spurn ill-gotten gain” and appointing them as “chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens and let them judge the people at all times”. Our court system is modeled on Jethro’s teaching. The second major event that takes place is the introduction of the Ten Commandments to the world. Need I say more about this?

In addition to these two important events there is another subtle aspect of this week’s Torah I want to highlight. It is named for an important non Israelite priest: Yitro/Jethro. For me this hints at the special role of non Jews within Judaism starting from our earliest days wandering in the desert through today. Judaism is what it is today in no small part due to the contributions of non Jews.

Mishpatim:  Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

You are not to mistreat any widow or orphan. Oh, if you mistreat, mistreat them, and they cry, cry out to Me, I will hearken, yes, hearken to their outcry. (Exodus 22:21-22)
כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַעֲקָתֽוֹ׃

When you see the donkey of one who hates you...unbind it together with him.’” (Ex. 23:5)
כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃

Rabbi Alexandri said: Two donkey drivers who hated each other were walking along the road. The donkey of one of them lay down. His fellow passed by and saw that he was lying down under his burden. He said: "Does it not say in the Torah ‘When you see the donkey of one who hates you...unbind it together with him.’” (Ex. 23:5)  What did he do? He turned back and loaded [the animal] and accompanied [his enemy]. He began to converse with him. He loosened [the scraps] a little from one side, lifted [it] from the other side, and strapped on that side until he had reloaded [the donkey] with him. The result was that they made peace with each other. The other said: "didn't I think that he was my enemy? See how he had mercy on me when he saw me and my donkey in dire straits."

The consequence was that they entered an inn and ate and drank together. They developed affection for each other. (Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 1, translated by Rabbi Sheldon Lewis in Torah of Reconciliation)

Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1 - 24:18

This week’s Torah portion focuses on a variety of details of co-existence that permeated the world of ancient Israel. While we might not relate to the particulars of these interactions what is important is that these seemingly mundane everyday encounters were included in our holy Torah. From this it is possible to infer that holiness, even the Shechinah - the Divine Presence, is present in some way within the most unexceptional social interactions and even unpleasant ones too.

There are two themes, in particular, from this Torah portion that I think are worth highlighting. First, by describing so many different kinds of social interactions, both positive and negative, Mishpatim reminds us that we never lack for potentially meaningful experiences with the people who populate our world. Second, almost hidden away among all the rules and instructions, is a dynamic that is essential to all healthy relationships. In a word, it is sharing. The Torah tells us that “Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules”, to which the Israelites responded, "All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” Moses demonstrates an important quality in a healthy relationship: sharing.

Terumah: Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

This week's Torah portion begins, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved. . . . And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Exodus 25:1-8). And eleven chapters later we read, " 'The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done.' Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: 'Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!' So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done" (36:5-7). The standard joke is that this was the first and last Jewish building project that was oversubscribed

Two themes are central to this Torah portion: Building of the Mikdash (the Holy Place), which is ultimately understood as the Temple in Jerusalem and a place where God will dwell among the people and contributions that come from people whose hearts have been moved to give, that is, voluntary gifts. (abridged d'var Torah by Peter S. Knobel)

Terumah: Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

In this week’s Torah portion God says, “Let them build me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8). In a famous Hasidic saying, the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, “Where does God dwell?” To which he replied, “Wherever you let God in.” Jewish tradition considers every home to be the center of our spiritual lives and referrs to our homes as a mikdash me’at, a ‘small sanctuary.” Just as the biblical mikdash was the sanctuary where God’s presence dwelled, so to our homes are the sacred center of our lives where loving relationships allow holiness to be most present.

There is another answer to this question, which is really a question. In response to the question "where does God dwell" we might ask rhetorically, "where does God NOT dwell? This response reminds us that nowhere is ever void of holiness, or the divine presence. Alas, at times we are either too distracted by affairs of the world or blinded by our mistaken assumptions of what it means to experience the divine presence to notice. Like Jacob famously said "Surely, God is in this place and I did not know it." (Gen. 28:16)

Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

The Torah portion this week opens with the commandment to create the ner tamid – a perpetually-lit lamp in our synagogues.

The Torah does not provide an explanation for this ritual. One commentary (Sh'mot Rabbah, 36:3) explains the purpose of the ner tamid thus: "just as the light of a lamp remains undimmed, though myriads of wicks and flames may be lit from it, so too one who gives to a worthy cause does not make a hole in his own pocket..." The ner tamid then reminds us of the infinite capacity of one flame to ignite innumerable others, without ever diminishing that first light. So too with our acts of giving and generosity.

From here the portion describes in great detail the special garments worn by the priest. 
The Ephod: worn only by the High Priest is an apron made out of six-colored thread, tied with a belt, and has two shoulder pads with two sardonyx stones on them, on which the names of the twelve tribes are engraved.
Choshen Mishpat/ Breastplate of Judgement: Also only worn by the high priest, has four rows with three precious stones in each row, each stone corresponding to one of the twelve tribes.
Urim V'Tummim/ Lightings and Decisions: is placed inside the Ephod, and when worn by the high priest can be consulted like an oracle.
Robe: techeilet color (a shade of blue and very expensive) with "pomegranates" made of thread, interspersed with gold bells on the hem.
Tzitz /forehead-plate: made of pure gold, engraved with the words "Kadosh LaAdonai" (Holy to G-d).

The regular priests wear only tunics, sashes, turbans, and linen pants. These garments must be worn by the priest whenever they perform the sacrifices in the Temple.

Parashat Tetzaveh: Exodus 27:20 - 30:10

In Tetzaveh we read about the detailed special regal garments the priests wore, and the lighting of lamps in the Tabernacle, burning from evening until morning. Tetzaveh describes the detailed instructions for building and furnishing the portable Tabernacle- the Mishkan. God then turns to the sacred personnel who are to lead and inspire. Special garments of the finest materials adorned with gems, with silver and gold. We also read of the lamps in the Tabernacle for which Aaron and his sons are responsible for burning from evening until morning.

The Ner Tamid has become an eternal light in our synagogues as a reminder of the eternal flame lit in the Tabernacle. It reminds us that it’s important not to take our good relationships for granted and to keep the flame alive by tending to them. If you want to be a NER, bringing light to those around you, think about the word NeR - the Nun stands for Neshamah (soul) and the Resh for Ruach- spirit. Together, the soul and the spirit combine to make light, a light for others and for your own life.

Take a moment to think about who is a NeR in your life and how you can more of a NeR to others. Let our flames be full of light and love, our relationships tended with care and respect.

Parashat Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:10 - 34:35

Speak to the Israelites, saying: Verily you shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever does any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever does any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.

The Torah refers to the Sabbath law as אלה הדברים, “these matters.”  The numerical value of אלה is 36 + 2 (דברים is in plural, indicating an additional 2) +  1 (prefix ה indicates a further 1) = 39.  The Ba’al Haturim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher  c. 1269 – c. 1343)  noted that Exodus 35:1-3 contains a total of thirty-nine words, followed by השבת.

The words מלאכה or עבודה appear thirty-nine times in connection with the construction of the Tabernacle (Yerushalmi), and the specific labors prohibited on the Sabbath are the very labors that were performed in the construction of Tabernacle (Shabbat 49b).

The flaw in that approach, however, is that the sages lacked precise traditions about which labors were involved in building the portable sanctuary. Throughout Tractate Shabbat, there is much conjecture and a noticeable lack of firm tradition about this (and other things).

What is the significance of the number thirty-nine?  A clue: the Mishnah expresses the number – forty minus one  ארבעים חסר אחת.  The only other place in rabbinic literature where this expression is used is with respect to corporal punishment. The Torah mandates that an offender be subject to forty lashes (Deuteronomy 25:3). Through skilled exegesis the sages reduced the maximum number of lashes to thirty-nine (m. Makkot 3:10).[11]

Rava makes this point dramatically. He states how perturbed he is that foolish commoners would rise in the presence of a Torah scroll, but not for a Torah scholar. He thought the opposite behavior was more logical, since the Torah scroll insists upon forty lashes but the scholar has reduced human suffering by requiring only thirty-nine (b. Makkot 22b).[12]

Forty minus one: coded language for the ability of the sages to make Judaism less harsh?  That is why the Midrash juxtaposes the concept of thirty-nine, as opposed to forty, lashes, with the notion of thirty-nine primary Sabbath labors (Numbers Rabbah 18).

Shney Luchot HaBrit (Shelach/Isaiah Levi Horovitz,  Rabbi Horowitz was born in Prague around the year 1565)

Another difficulty in the wording of our text is that we would have expected the Torah to use the indefinite article U-veyom hashvii instead of Uvayom hashvii when referring to the seventh day. The latter two questions may be adequately answered by the halachic ruling in Shabbat 69 that a person who is lost in the desert and has lost track of time should observe six days of work and rest on the seventh day, starting his count from the moment he does not remember which day of the week it is. The reasons for this ruling are explained by Kley Chemdah on פרשת כי תשא.

And you shall observe the Shabbat, for it is sacred for you. Those who desecrate it shall surely be put to death, for one who does melakhah on it, that person shall be cut off from the midst of its people.

Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11- 34:35

In this week's Torah portion two very significant events occur, one subtle the other not. As the Israelites are about to complete the task of constructing the mishkan (portable tabernacle) they are reminded that "nevertheless, you must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages..." (31:13-17). Judaism's earliest interpreters of the Torah focused on the word nevertheless, ach in Hebrew in this verse. They wondered why it was used to introduce a reminder to keep the Sabbath and do no work. They concluded that it was to provide a hint that any tasks that were part of building the mishkan would henceforth be prohibited work on the Sabbath. The ancient rabbis were not blind to the fact that prohibiting so many tasks on the Sabbath because of this one word made for a very tenuous argument at best. This gave rise to notion that sometimes pretty weighty aspects of Judaism are like a mountain hanging from a hair.

The not subtle and important event that takes place in this week's Torah portion is the infamous golden calf incident.

Parashat Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11 - 34:35

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn the story of the Golden Calf and read about anger – both God’s and Moses’s - and a recommitment to the relationship between the Israelites and God. The Israelites were asked to trust what they couldn’t see (God) when Moses went up onto Mt. Sinai. As a result, they built the golden calf. Moses was so angry that he broke the tablets and burned the golden calf. Anger is often said to not be a true emotion, rather it is a mask that hides deeper feelings. An interesting exercise when you are experiencing anger is to ask yourself what are you feeling that is expressing itself as anger. Getting to these deeper feelings often helps us to better articulate what is really going on that is upsetting us.

Va’yakhel Exodus 35:1 - 38:20

These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord. Ex. 35.2

This simple and profound commandment is as important today as it was more than 3000 years ago when it was first proclaimed. Alas, as smart and clever as we humans are, we are not smart enough to not work ourselves to death, hence the importance of Shabbat.

There are two kinds of shabbat observances, personal and communal. Personal shabbat practices include activities such as gardening, going for long walks, lounging on the beach, painting, reading, napping and the like. These are terribly important to our individual emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well being.

Then there are communal shabbat practices which include doing specifically Jewish activities such as candle lighting, kiddish, motzi, shabbat dinners (ideally shared with others) Shabbat service attendance and Torah study. Whereas personal shabbat practices are important to our individual well being, communal Shabbat practices are essential to the well being of Judaism. Indeed, I will go further and say that they are more than essential, communal shabbat observance are necessary to the survival of the Jewish people. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it: “More than Jews have kept the sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

Pekudai:  Exodus 38:20 - 40:38
Year 3 of the triennial cycle: 39:22 - 40:38

The Book of Exodus comes to a close with this week's Torah portion.  For weeks we read in extreme detail about the construction of the Mishkan and were reminded unambiguously that the Presence of the Divine will periodically fill the space within the Mishkan. Now the moment of truth has arrived:  The Divine Presence fills the Mishkan. 

When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

What?!  After all of this work is the Divine Presence really hidden by a cloud?  This is just so like real life.  We labor and sweat and hope and pray as we pursue our visions with great clarity and sacrifice and then when we have finally arrived we discover that the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," “the great Wizard of Oz," or the Divine Presence we were expecting is hidden in the clouds.  Once again the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel ring true:  Torah is God’s anthropological study of humanity.  We learn far more about us from the reading the Torah than we do about God.  (HAC)


© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen