Monthly Archives: January 2016

Shabbat Bishalah: Now What? Finding Our Way in the Wilderness

[First published as JTS Torah Commentary]

From the air, Eretz Mitzrayim, “the narrow land” of Egypt, reveals itself as a vast expanse of sand and stone broken only by the twisting dark line of the Nile. I saw this first hand as a student in 1985, but you can look as well through satellite photos. On either side of the great river, a thin strip of green extends for a few kilometers to the east and west. The Nile looks like a mighty green cobra whose tail points at the first cataract near Sudan, and whose broad triangular head is the delta fanning out to strike the Mediterranean Sea.

The splitting of the sea, bekiat Yam Suf, is a mirror image of Mitzrayim. Instead of a vast expanse of desert with a river running through it, a vast expanse of water with a pathway of land magically leads from one side to the other, me‘avdut l’heirut, from slavery to freedom. The split sea is an instant inversion of Israel’s captivity in Egypt; the passage is a reversal of fortune and a moment of national rebirth.

The splitting of the seais certainly dramatic and worthy of its famous song. But the thrill quickly passes, yielding to the terrifying solitude of the desert. In the growing swell of murmurs, the essential questions bubble up. They come out as complaints—what will we eat or drink? Are we going to die here? Why did we ever leave Egypt? Behind these complaints lies the greatest question of the Torah—what follows freedom? How do we survive? Now that we are free, what purpose will we find in life beyond mere survival? Thousands of years later, these remain the core questions of Jewish identity. Continue reading

Shabbat Bo: Might Undermined by Right

Sobek Shehedi Examine Egyptian iconography and you can’t miss the frightening creatures that populated their imagination. There are snakes and alligators, jackals and hippopotamuses which, though cute in contemporary consciousness, were terrifying to the ancient people who lived along the Nile. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit, Ancient Egypt Transformed, I learned about the integration of animal images into the depiction of the pharaohs. An early basalt head of a king shows a snake on his forehead and the pharaonic wig evoking a rearing cobra; King Senwosret III is depicted as a sphinx, and a head of the god Sobek Shedeti blends human features with the unmistakable snout of a crocodile. The curator explains that Egyptians used such depictions to honor and pacify these terrifying creatures, and perhaps even to harness their power for human purposes.

I wanted to experience the Middle Kingdom directly as we explore the of Israel in Egypt in the opening chapters of Exodus. Having stood nose to nose with these intimidating images, I returned to the parashah and noticed that most of the animals involved in the plagues were just the opposite—little things that are far from frightening. Frogs, and lice and locusts—these are little creatures, easily crushed. Even the “mixed horde” (ערב) may have been insects or scorpions rather than giant beasts. The Torah selected the slightest of things to overwhelm Egypt. Pharaoh first feels that he can crush such little creatures—including the Israelite slaves. But like the weakest and smallest of insects, they can possess overwhelming power when united. Continue reading