Shemot Twenty-Three: Agricultural Holidays

The list of laws continues, with further regulations that seem to ultimately be concerned with what it means to be a good human being. While one would hope that the majority of these things would be innate and stem from common sense, having them canonized like this demonstrates the importance of just and moral conduct in Tanakh.

“You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shall you bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice (Exodus 23:2).” This admonition is extremely powerful. It teaches that we need to act with integrity in all situations. We are responsible for not following the crowd when they’re doing something wrong, and for staying in touch with our individual moral compasses for guidance in the face of adversity. While it’s always challenging to be the person standing apart from the crowd, the commandment to do so is literally from God in this case.

In this chapter, we also have the origin of the commandment of shmita. “And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In the manner you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your oliveyard (Exodus 23:10-11).” Shmita is the practice of letting the land lie fallow every seven years. This is a commandment that only pertains to the land of Israel itself, and is not practiced in the Diaspora today. Ironically, this year happens to be the shmita year, and it’s the first time that I’ve been in Israel for this event. It’s amazing to see the care with which people treat a biblical admonition regarding agriculture, something that we don’t usually think about otherwise. Shmita for me is about mindfulness, and about recognizing that the earth can’t give of itself unconditionally forever. Just as God needed a rest on the seventh day, and as we do each week, the land requires this time of rest in the seventh year.

This chapter seems to have a lot of calendar references, because we also learn about some of the festivals. “The feast of unleavened bread you shall keep; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Aviv, for in it you came out from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty; and the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of your labors, which you sow in the field; and the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labors out of the field (Exodus 23:15-16).” The first festival mentioned, Pesach [Passover] happens to be coming up at the end of this week. The ancient Israelites had their calendar in rhythm with the seasons and the agricultural cycle, and for them, the spring holiday was the beginning of the year. It seems fitting to me that the holiday that represents the redemption of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt would fall at this time of renewal for the world.

Shemot Twenty-Two: Interactions Between Men

The rules continue. We learn about punishments for thieves, for the destruction of fields by animals or fire, and what happens if something happens to a man’s property that he has lent to another man. Clearly, the Torah is interested in regulating human interactions that might be viewed as mundane. However, because they’re important enough to be mentioned here, I see it as indicative that there’s something divine in these interactions between men. Does it have to do with honor? Community building? Mutual respect? Regardless of the reason, I love the idea of seemingly innocuous relationships having divine potential within them. This teaches that there’s holiness in everything, if we treat it as such.

“And if a man entices a virgin that is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins (Exodus 22:15-16).” Here, we have an ancient Near Eastern version of women’s rights. While it doesn’t exactly punish the offender, this does show that a man can’t do whatever he wants to a woman with no retribution. There is some responsibility that must be taken in order to ensure the woman’s protection.

“You shall not suffer a sorceress to live. Whoever lies with a beast shall surely be put to death. He that sacrifices to the gods, save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed. And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shall you oppress him; for your  were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherlesss child. If you afflict them in any way, for if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry, My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:17-23).”

In these verses, we have some of the most famous and enduring admonitions in the Torah. These are the foundations of the way that the Jewish people treat the fringe members of society. We care for those who on the surface do not contribute to society, because we remember what it was like to be the oppressed minority. These values extend to today, demonstrating the enduring collective memory of our slavery in Egypt.

Shemot Twenty-One: An Eye for an Eye

Having received the ten commandments, the people are now given more rules that they must follow. The chapter begins with regulations about personal slaves. I find it interesting that this is being discussed so soon after the people leave slavery in Egypt. Weren’t we supposed to learn from that experience that slavery is bad? Instead, we see that slavery was an enduring part of Israelite culture. However, unlike the Egyptians, the Israelite slave owners had regulations to ensure that they treated their slaves in a humane manner.

“If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing (Exodus 21:2).” Here, we learn that slavery isn’t a permanent state. Unlike in Egypt, where the people served for generations, an Israelite can’t keep a slave for his or her whole life. They have a limited term of service, and cannot be kept in eternal bondage. However, if the slave doesn’t wish to leave his master, he can then be kept forever. A society in which even slaves have rights strikes me as remarkably progressive for the time in which this was written. It shows that even though they were subject to the will of their masters, they were still seen as human beings. While today, this would be scandalous and a clear human rights violation, it was definitely revolutionary for the ancient Near East.

In addition to slave law, we learn about punishments for many transgressions. “And he that smites his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death. And he that steals a man, and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death. And he that curses his father or his mother, shall surely be put to death (Exodus 21:15-17).” What strikes me as interesting about this section is that killing ones parent and cursing them carries the same weight and punishment. While obviously neither are acceptable, are they really equivalent? Many commentators say that cursing in this case is threatening, or wishing evil upon someone. While maybe this isn’t always a death sentence, being this disrespectful to a parent is apparently an unforgivable sin.

Later on in the chapter, we are given some of the most famous words of Tanakh. “But if any harm follows, they you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-25).” This premise of reciprocal punishment is employed by cultures around the world. It stands on the idea that in order for the punishment to fit the crime, one must mirror the other. For example, if a man breaks another man’s hand, his hand must be broken in return. This concept still exists today in much of the Middle East, and sometimes manifests extremely violently. Is this the way to handle things? Or are other biblical concepts, such as turn the other cheek, the ones that we should follow?

Shemot Twenty: 10 Commandments

Mount Sinai is full of fire and smoke and thunder and lightning, and now, God begins to speak to the people. The words that He chooses to say to them are the ten commandments. I find it interesting that the words that God shares with the people begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It’s as though God is introducing Himself to the people. Is this really necessary? Don’t the people know who God is, and what He did?

So, the ten commandments:

1. I am the Lord your God (etc.)

2. You will have no other gods before Me (this encompasses not making images, or worshipping idols)

3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain

4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy

5. Honor your father and mother

6. You shall not murder

7. You will not commit adultery

8. You will not steal

9. You will not bear false witness against your neighbor

10. You will not covet your neighbors’ house, or his wife, etc.

Of all of the commandments that God eventually gives to the people, why are these ten the first ones, and the ones delivered directly to them? Do they all have equal weight? What does it teach us that these are meant to be the priorities of our relationship with God?

“And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood far away (Exodus 20:15).” Clearly the direct encounter with God was a terrifying experience for the people. It’s understandable that they stood before God in fear and awe, given the circumstances of this revelatory moment. What does it mean for us? There’s a midrash that says the souls of every Jew that would ever be born were present during the giving of the commandments at Mount Sinai. Therefore, these words were said directly to us. This experience is one that we had on some level. Our souls have stood before God. How do we perceive this concept, and what it means for us in our lives?

Shemot Nineteen: A Holy Nation

Moses has taken Jethro’s advice, but now he seems to be out of the picture. Instead, the people leave Rephidim and come to Sinai, where they camp before the mountain. Now, they engage in the preparations for revelation. “And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying: ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will listen to My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then you will be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and you will be to Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exodus 19:3-6).” Here, we have the source for the Jewish people as chosen. God tells Moses that He has selected this people for a special mission and purpose. For me, the whole concept of Jewish peoplehood is based around this idea that this people has something unique to contribute to the world, which stems from being a holy nation. It’s about being held to a higher standard both externally and internally, and living up to this principle.

Moses tells the people about God’s word, and they agree to do as He has spoken. I’m not quite clear on what this means, as it doesn’t seem like they’ve been asked to do anything at this point. They’re told of their special status, but none of the laws and commandments have been given yet. What, therefore, are they agreeing to?

Moses returns to God and tells him that the people are on board. Now, God reveals His plan to come and speak to the people so that they will hear Him, and believe in Moses forever. In order for him to do so, Moses has to instruct the people to purify themselves, and to stay off the mountain. They do so, “And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled (Exodus 19:16).” We are told that the whole mountain trembled, and God came down in smoke and fire, and Moses went up to the mountain to meet with Him. Moses is clearly the intermediary between the people and God, but if the whole people are holy, why is this necessary? What role is this holiness meant to serve in the community, and in the greater world? Are we the Moses’ to the global community, just as Moses stood between the people and God?

Shemot Eighteen: Lessons from Jethro

“Now Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her away (Exodus 18:102).” This opening verse teaches us that Zipporah was not with Moses the whole time. The last explicit mention that we have of her was back when she performed the emergency circumcision on the way to Egypt. We aren’t told when she was sent away, or why. Was Moses displeased with her in some way? Or were the circumstances in Egypt so dangerous that he didn’t want his wife and children exposed to them? Additionally, how did Jethro know that this was an appropriate time to return them?

So, Jethro brings Zipporah and the boys to Moses. “And Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and bowed down and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent (Exodus 18:7).” I’d just like to point out that it seems like Moses is a way better son-in-law than he is a husband and father. He races to see Jethro, but we’re given no information about his reunion with his wife, or his sons. However, the two men clearly have a good relationship. Moses updates Jethro on all of the recent events, including the Exodus from Egypt. “And Jethro said: ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of Pharaoh; who has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is grater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them (Exodus 18:10-11).'” Jethro is not an Israelite, and indeed is introduced as a Midianite priest, making him an idolator. However, we see that he acknowledges God as great, and even sacrifices to Him. In this, I believe that we are being taught that a person doesn’t have to be Jewish in order to be righteous. Jethro clearly has honor and respect amongst the people, regardless of his background. I imagine today, in intermarried families, it’s not exactly common for the non-Jewish in-law to participate in Jewish ritual. It’s not an issue that I’ve had to face, so I don’t have fully formulated thoughts on it. How can the model of Jethro be incorporated into interfaith issues?

Continuing in the close father-in-law/son-in-law bond, Jethro watches Moses act as a judge to the people, and notices that Moses doesn’t delegate. He takes all of the responsibilities on himself, and Jethro, himself a leader in his own tribe, offers advice. “You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone (Exodus 18:18).” Jethro instructs Moses to create a system of leadership, with different responsibilities for different parties. In this advice, he touches on a key point that many people don’t take into consideration at the beginning of their careers. Being the only competent person burns you out very quickly. By hoarding leadership and responsibility, a new leader stifles the potential of his or her group or organization to grow and succeed beyond their personal tenure. Jethro understood this, and Moses, as a willing listener, was able to change his ways in order to create a sustainable leadership structure for the Israelites.

Shemot Seventeen: Amalek

First the water was bitter. Then there wasn’t any food. Now, the Israelites are at Rephidim, and there isn’t any water for them to drink. They protest against Moses as a result, and he gets frustrated. “And Moses cried to God, saying: ‘What shall I do to this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Pass on before the people, and take with you the elders of Israel; and your rod, wherewith you smote the river, take in your hand and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you will smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink.’ And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel (Exodus 17:4-6).” This seems to be an intervention, and appears to have had more to do with the reputation that Moses had among the people than the water itself. By specifying that the elders saw when Moses struck the rock and brought forth water, Moses was able to reestablish his position of power and leadership in the eyes of the people.

The people have barely been satiated, and the next crisis occurs. “Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim (Exodus 17:8).” Amalek, the enemy of Israel, the descendant of Esau, attacks the people in the wilderness. Moses appoints Joshua as the commander of the people, and he leads them in battle while Moses goes to the top of the hill. “And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed (Exodus 17:11).” With Joshua fighting with his soldiers, Moses in this moment appears to be the metaphorical strength of the people. When his arms are up, they are inspired, and win. When they’re down, the people are disheartened.

And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven (Exodus 17:14).'” The Jewish people have the commandment to simultaneously remember what Amalek did to us, and to wipe out the memory of Amalek. In short, we remember to forget so that we don’t forget to remember. Amalek has become the total representation of evil in Jewish tradition. He has transformed from a person to a tribe to a concept. Every enemy of Israel becomes a spiritual descendent of Amalek. We encounter him in several other places in Tanakh, and sadly, encounter his offspring still today.

Shemot Sixteen: Shabbat in the Wilderness

Having complained and gotten their own way at Marah, the people continue on their travels and go to Elim, and then to Sinai. Now, the complaining streak continues. “And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into the wilderness, to kill the whole congregation with hunger (Exodus 16:3).” Thirst having been taken care of, we’re now on to complaints of hunger. Once again, God listens to the people, and tells Moses that He will cause manna to rain down from heaven.

The people are instructed to gather enough for their use each day, and a double portion on Shabbat. On all the other days, if the people gathered more than their daily amount, it would rot overnight. However, the Shabbat portion stayed fresh for two days. This is where we derive the tradition of having two challahs on the table on Shabbat, as a representation of the two portions of manna that the people enjoyed in the desert.

Although the people were getting their way once again, this time it came with a rebuke. “And Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel: ‘In the evening, then you will know that he Lord has brought you out from the land of Egypt; and tin the morning, then you will see the glory of the Lord; for He has heard your murmurings against the Lord; and what are we, that you murmur against us (Exodus 16:6-7)?'”

The people eat quail meat in the evening, and manna in the morning. However, they don’t listen to the instructions about only gathering enough manna for daily use. “They did not listen to Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and rotted; and Moses was angry with them (Exodus 16:20).” I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for a leader to deliver explicit instructions, from God no less, and to have them ignored and thwarted at every turn. I personally would be screaming at this point, asking the people how they could keep complaining and messing up when they were told exactly what to do. But Moses is far more patient than I am, which probably explains why he’s the leader.

The people experience Shabbat in the wilderness; something that they didn’t have as slaves in Egypt. “See that the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day (Exodus 16:29-30).” This is (to the best of my knowledge) the first recorded observation of Shabbat in Tanakh. It’s fitting that this happens after the Exodus, because people without control over their own time can’t choose when to rest. Now, however, they are commanded to rest, just as God does, on Shabbat. Resting from the wandering was probably a tremendous luxury, and I can imagine the people looking forward to the seventh day and preparing the food for two days instead of one, just as we do today.

Shemot Fifteen: Song of the Sea

The people have made it safely through the sea on dry land, and the Egyptians have been covered by it. We open in the moments immediately following this. “Then Moses sang and the children of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying: I will sing to the Lord for He triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea (Exodus 15:1).” Here, we have the introduction to the Song of the Sea, the praise that the Israelites sing to God as a result of Him saving them once again. This text is very controversial within some Jewish circles because it involves a great deal of anthropomorphization of God.

For example:

“Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, Your right hand, O lord, dashes in pieces the enemy (Exodus 15:6).”

“And with the blast of Your nostrils the waters were piled up (Exodus 15:8).”

These metaphors that describe God as having human body parts are something I can easily understand. While some commentators have taken issue with their inclusion, saying that they lead to misconceptions about God, I find it completely natural that we as human beings need to describe God in terms that we can relate to. By giving God attributes that we can grasp on some level, He becomes more real to us, but not necessarily less divine.

At the end of the Song of the Sea, we are told that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing you to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea (Exodus 15:19-20).” This brief refrain of the song has become the catalyst for much of the imagery that we have of Miriam. Amongst the many things inspired by this show of feminine worship is the following song by Debbie Friedman:

After the people finish singing, they continue on their journey. They spend three days going forward into the wilderness, but they don’t find any water. “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah (Exodus 15:23).” And now, we have the first moment of rebellion against Moses. It’s shocking to me that it’s been literally three days since they witnessed the parting of the sea, and in theory are still reeling from the circumstances of their departure from Egypt. How can they start complaining, or have a lack of faith, so soon? After years of wandering the desert I understand, but after three days, how can they be so fickle with their loyalties? Nevertheless, God comes to the rescue right away. He shows Moses a branch to throw into the water so that it will become sweet instead of bitter.

“And He said: If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, and will do that which is right in His eyes, and will give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you (Exodus 15:26).” For the first time, the relationship between God and the people becomes conditional. The people need to listen to God in order to continue to enjoy His protection. Would this have happened no matter what, or is this statement made because of the immediateness of their complaints and doubts?

Shemot Fourteen: Israeli Elections and Crossing the Red Sea

The people are finally out of Pharaoh’s grasp (or so they think). While the people are camped near the sea, God tells Moses that once again, He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will come after the Israelites. We are finally given an explanation for (at least this instance) of God’s decision-making regarding Pharaoh. This time, we hear that God wants Pharaoh, and all of the Egyptians, to know that He is the Lord. I personally think they’ve grasped this concept by now, but maybe that’s just me…

Anyway, Pharaoh begins to regret his decision. “And he made ready his chariots, and took his people with him. And he took six hundred chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and captains over all of them. And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel; for the children of Israel went out with a high hand (Exodus 14:6-9).” The people are still camped by the sea, and they see Pharaoh coming. Understandably, they’re afraid, and start to panic.

“And they said to Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt (Exodus 14:11)?'” The people, who have just experienced the wonders of God, and have finally been released, immediately want to backtrack in the face of their first adversary. It’s understandable that they’re scared, but their lack of faith at this point is hard to see. Moses promises that people that God will fight for them, and God commands Moses to lead the people into the sea. “And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel will go into the midst of the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:16).”

God’s presence in the form of the pillar of cloud goes in between the Egyptians and the Israelites to provide an additional layer of protection. Then, Moses stretches his hand over the sea, and God caused the sea to part. “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left (Exodus 14:22).”

The Egyptians chase the Israelites into the sea, and we all know what happens: the wheels of their chariots get stuck, and once the Israelites make it through, the sea closes on the Egyptians, killing them all. God saves the people, and as a result of this latest triumph, the people fear and respect God.

It’s interesting for me to be reading this chapter today, the day following a controversial Israeli election. At this point in Tanakh, the Jewish people are at the beginning of a journey that we live out every day. This is literally their first day of freedom, and of self-determination. They are taking their first steps towards the Promised Land, with nothing ahead of them but a dream. All of the wandering that they will endure, all of the suffering and learning, growth and rebellion, that they will experience, is because of this dream: self determination in the land of Israel. Yesterday, I was blessed and honored to join my fellow Israelis in exercising our right to vote as citizens of an independent, sovereign Jewish state. The Israelites leaving Egypt could only dream of the homeland that awaited them somewhere beyond the sea. Likewise, generations of Jews longed for a mythical Israel that they felt connected to in spite of never having seen it themselves. Today, we Israelis live the dream of all of those who couldn’t be here. The journey to freedom that began at the sea is our foundation, and yesterday the Jewish and democratic State of Israel reemphasized the miracle that is our existence.