Category Archives: Parsha Insights

The Power of Six Women Continued* By Deborah Kornfeld

Six women meet in Parshat Shemot and change the course of Jewish history. The first Torah portion of the book of Exodus introduces us to six “amizot”, six unique and brave women. Each woman in her own way takes a critical part in the grand saga of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

We start the book of Exodus with the challenge of historical memory. “A new king, who did not know Joseph, came into power over Egypt. He announced to his people “The Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us.”(Exodus 1:9). He outlines a plan of oppression and infanticide to rectify this problem. He is thwarted in this endeavor by the first two women we meet in the parsha. Puah and Shifra, professional midwives who work in the Jewish quarter. Pharaoh commands these women to carry out his nefarious plan. They are charged with killing all male Hebrew children. They don’t do it. With the fear of the Almighty and with their own professional ethics, they stand up to authority and commit acts of civil disobedience. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians” replied the midwives to Pharaoh, “They know how to deliver. They can give birth before a midwife even gets to them”. (Exodus 1:19)

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The Death of Shimon Peres by Peter Eisenstadt and Ayala Emmett

President Peres President Abbas and Pope Francis plant an olive tree
President Peres President Abbas and Pope Francis plant an olive tree

The death of Shimon Peres last week has been the occasion of any number of fulsome eulogies and overwrought comparisons.   But the person who keeps coming to mind for us is Moses.

It’s not that we think that Peres was a prophet, ordained by God, or on some kind of a holy mission.   But there are similarities. If Peres did not quite reach Moses’ 120 years, he came about as close as people come these days. And like Moses he has been around forever, in a preternaturally busy political career of some seven decades. And like Moses shaping an Israelite people to enter the land, Peres was one the Founders of a Jewish state on that land. And both men were men of war and men of peace; ruthless and generous; conniving and ingenuous; narrow pragmatists and expansive idealists. And in the end both men were able to transcend their many contradictions.

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God’s Great Do Over: Thoughts on Deuteronomy by Peter Eisenstadt

images-131An essay I read recently by Jacob Neusner, the man of a thousand books, on the creation of the Torah, has got me thinking.

Most of Neusner’s 1000 or so books have been devoted to the explication of the Talmud, and his basic, though controversial thesis is that the complex corpus of documents known as the Talmud need to be read through the perspective of its final redactors. This means for the Talmud, everything it says about the Pharisees, about Hillel and Shammai, is filtered through the biases of those who lived hundreds of years later, which means it’s a poor historical source for the earlier period. And the Torah, for Neusner, especially the book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah to be written, is filtered through the scribes, from the time of the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE to Ezra and Nehemiah, a century or so later, who created the Torah we know today.

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Mourning a Friend by Ayala Emmett

images-130I met Nick Clark in one of the many Torah study groups that convene in synagogues on Shabbat morning before the prayer service. Those who have been to more than one, would attest that no group is like any other, yet they are similar because they all read and comment on the weekly portion, known in Hebrew as Parashah.

While groups have different styles, they all use a mixture of the Torah text and the vast commentary that engages with the text. Over the centuries rabbinic commentaries on Torah have been building on each other offering arguments, debates, illuminations, and new insights.

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How will we Mourn Our Mother Earth?–by Deborah Kornfeld

images-9The destruction of Jerusalem as remembered by Jews all over the world on the 9th of Av is somber and dramatic. Unlike the mourning practices for bereaved individuals which starts with intense mourning and morphs slowly into a new reality, mourning for the holy temple and city of Jerusalem grows in intensity.

As the three weeks before Tisha B’av commence we refrain from merriment, live music , haircuts and weddings, in the nine days we don’t eat meat or swim and we begin to neglect ourselves and then on ninth of Av itself we sit on the floor, read the vivid description of the destruction of Jerusalem in the book of Lamentations, rejecting food, drink, and the comfort of friendship itself.

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Hammered Work—by Michael Aronson

The Menorah made from a sing piece of gold
The Menorah
made from a
sing piece of gold.

We read in this week’s Torah portion, “You shall make a lampstand [menorah] of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece.” (Shemot 25:31). The text emphasizes that all of the structural and aesthetic elements of the menorah are a part of its being. The menorah is one, constructed as an essential unity and not from diverse prefabricated parts.

How difficult would it be to carve a menorah out of a block of solid gold? Perhaps, when God chose Bezalel and Oholiav (Parshat Ki Tissa), He helped them see the menorah within the raw material. They knew what to do on instinct. This would have made things easier.

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Charitable Gifts in the Exodus Journey—by Ayala Emmett

The Tabernacle
The Tabernacle

For the Israelites, a multitude of former slaves, coming out of Egypt was a time in which they had to transform themselves into a unified, covenantal and ethical community. No single act on the journey sealed the deal of becoming a collective with common ties, not the dramatic exodus from Egypt, nor the miraculous parting of the sea, not even receiving the Ten Commandments; yet each act provided a necessary layer for the process of becoming unified.

Last week’s Torah reading Exodus 21-24 offered a signature act in community making as the Israelites entered a covenantal relationship with God and said in one voice “we will do.” In that historic moment the people affirmed their relationship with God and agreed to be an ethical community, to follow a set of rules and laws that would structure their personal and collective life. A critical element in becoming an ethical community was the reminder to the Israelites that they were strangers in the land of Egypt and that obligated them forever to treat with fairness and compassion the stranger, the orphan, the widow and by extension the marginalized, refugees, undocumented migrants, people with disabilities and all those who are victimized and powerless.

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Choosing Life Over Land in Genesis: Following Abraham and Remembering Rabin —by Ayala Emmett

A man who claimed to love God and hate peace, murdered Yitzhak Rabin Israel’s Prime Minister. The shooting took place twenty years ago at a peace rally at the end of the Sabbath known as Shabbat Lech Lecha, [Genesis 12-17], the very Sabbath in which Jews in synagogues around the world read the Torah portion that opens with God’s call to Abraham to literally take himself off from his home and go to the land that God would show him. This dramatic call frames Abraham’s grasp of the ethical obligations attached to God’s promise when he is faced with a dangerous land dispute.

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Who Cried With Sarah?—by Ayala Emmett

Abraham didn’t tell her. Sarah was never consulted. That was the way it had always been, powerful men ruled the public domain and subsumed the domestic sphere making decisions that deeply affected the family and women. Historically and with few exceptions, women life-givers were not invited to offer, resist, or refuse when life-taking decisions were made, when their sons were called to become warriors, to endure danger and face death.

Thinking history/midrash is how we know that when Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, he did it stealthily, early in the morning when she was sound asleep, not suspecting a thing. Abraham woke up his son before dawn, when it was still dark outside, motioned him to get dressed, brought his finger to his lips to caution that Isaac was not to make a sound. When Isaac moved his head in the direction of Sarah’s tent, his father whispered, “Later, you can greet your mother when we return.” Only two young servants accompanied father and son when they left the compound, so Isaac knew that it would be a short journey, a couple of hours and they would be back. On long journeys there would have been numerous slaves, male and female, to carry, cook and set up camp. That day, however, Isaac could tell that his father was tense and deep in thoughts. As the sun rose in the sky and Isaac could see his father’s face, he heard Abraham tell the servants to wait along the road, “we will worship and we will return,” and father and son walked on together toward the Akedah, the binding of Isaac on the alter.

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David Ben Gurion on Deborah: Prophet, Judge, Commander and Poet—by Matia Kam

Deborah Under The Palm Tree by Adriene Cruz
Deborah Under
The Palm Tree
by Adriene Cruz

Ben Gurion opens his discussion on Deborah with a general observation that women’s position in ancient Israel from the time of the forefathers, was not markedly different from that of the surrounding nations. In Jewish tradition it was underscored by the fact that women were not obligated to follow most of the mitzvot and they were denied some privileges in matters such as marriage and divorce and giving testimony. Yet, Ben Gurion thought that Hebrew women had on the whole a better position than women of Canaan, Egypt, Babylon and Aram. In the first biblical story the woman, Eve is seen as the enterprising person and not Adam; the foremothers as well had qualities that the forefathers did not display, Rebecca for example, emerges as more impressive and dynamic than Isaac, and Sarah measures up to Abraham in significant ways.

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