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Parashat Shemot

January 5, 2024
25 Tevet 5784
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1


Dear Friends,

As we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot (names), we encounter so many different acts of courage. The variety of courageous acts in this portion are the many ways in which we can overcome our fears, do what is right, do what is difficult, do what is unexpected, and possibly realize that even seemingly small acts have the capacity to make a difference. When we look at all of them together, a pattern emerges, one where taking action even in what may appear small ways can make a difference.

After being told that there was a Pharoah in Egypt who knew not Joseph and by inference what he had done for Egypt, we are told that the Hebrews had multiplied. Having children in a land not your own is an act of courage; so it begins with the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refuse to kill the newborn baby boys, followed by a mother willing to put her child in a basket and float him down the Nile, a sister who has her baby brother’s interests at heart as she watches him, and an Egyptian princess in full view of her servants retrieving the baby from the Nile. The episode ends with Miriam having the courage to offer the princess someone to care for the baby until he is weaned. All of these early episodes in this Torah portion are acts of courage by women, who for the most part are named.

We do not know if Moses, living as a prince of Egypt, intentionally planned to kill the taskmaster when Moses saw the taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. We could have a discussion on whether Moses’ violence toward the task master was an act of courage, impulse or a sense of justice. Was Moses being courageous when he protected Yitro’s daughters at the well against the rowdy shepherds? After all, he was a stranger to all.

Then once he is married to Zipporah and becomes a shepherd over his father-in-law’s flocks, does that transition demand a different kind of courage from Moses? Change of work and lifestyle takes courage that may not always be visible to others. Then we have the burning bush. It begins with Moses simply stopping to notice. That shift of focus from his assigned task of watching sheep to seeing what is going on around him has often been characterized by the rabbis as Moses passing a test. It takes another type of courage to allow that which is new and different in.

The entire exchange at the burning bush can be understood as an act of courage by Moses. He could have run away with his sheep. He could have said yes much sooner. Instead we have a meeting where it is clear from the outset that Moses needs to be reassured and the only way to do that is to keep the Divine engaged in communication. It is also clear by God continually invoking the patriarchs that their story was known to Moses -- an indicator that the people throughout their time in Egypt had kept their story alive. How often do we hear how important it is to tell our story to the next generation? The power of story and the telling of story with all of its complexity is a matter of courage as well. Knowing the story of our matriarchs and patriarchs, we know that there were high points and low points. We know that they were not perfect and sharing that and passing that on is another kind of courage. The word courage always brings to mind the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. His bravery asserted itself when his concern about someone else trumped his own fear. We live in a time where we could be consumed by fear. It is not an answer.

The courage displayed in this Torah portion is all about individuals going beyond their comfort zone. Some are tentative, while others appear fearless but none of them fail to act. Taking a step in spite of our fears -- that is courage. May we be blessed to be courageous in ways large and small in this new secular year.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784