Monthly Archives: January 2018

B’Shalah 5778: Sweet Bitter Waters

Between the Reed Sea and Sinai comes Israel’s first trek and camping adventure. At Marah they find only bitter waters, but at Elim they are blessed with twelve springs and seventy date palms. What a difference decent food and water make when you are out in the wild! Anxiety about sustenance can quickly erode all good will—gratitude for the recent liberation, and excitement for the blessings ahead. Three thirsty days after chanting the song of the sea, Israel rapidly spews out a querulous litany of complaints. Thirst and hunger displace any capacity for exalted spiritual themes, reducing the people to their most primal instincts for physical survival.

Or so you would expect. While Israel does indeed complain in the wilderness, it is also there that they hear the divine voice. As Isaiah says, “A voice calls out in the wilderness,” and it is in this place of privation that Israel achieves its greatest insights. There seems to be a link between physical discomfort and spiritual breakthrough, and it begins with the bitter waters of Marah. Continue reading

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Bo 5778: Is He Unhinged?

Pharaoh is getting flustered, acting erratically and not making much sense. His servants have asked him, “Don’t you realize that Egypt is lost?” One senses that he is rattled by their condescending tone. Then he summons Moses and explodes, “Go, serve the Lord your God–who are the ones to go?” It’s a bit grotesque to watch. This powerful man suddenly has no power, but he hasn’t quite realized it yet. So he resumes interrogating Moses about who exactly is on the roster to worship God. This elicits one of the greatest lines attributed to Moses—“We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe the Lord’s festival.”

In my movie mind, I imagine Moses standing up tall—looking Pharaoh in the eye, and making his proud declaration of intent. All-of-us-are-going. We love reading this text—it shows that Moses, and thus the Torah, and thus Judaism, has an inclusive ideal of worship. Regardless of gender or generation—all Israelites are required to worship God properly. At least that is how we like to read it. But Pharaoh is not stirred. In fact, his response sounds unhinged. He utters three phrases which don’t quite add up to a coherent statement.

JPS renders his confusing response as, “The Lord be with you the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief.” Each year I read this line and wonder what he is trying to say. I’m not alone, of course. Let us consider two Midrashic readings, one quite reasonable and yet incomplete, and the other far more expansive, not quite convincing and yet far more satisfying. Continue reading