Parshat Va’eira

Friday, January 12th

In the middle of our parsha, there is a strange non-sequitur.  God lets Moshe know that though he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh will refuse to let the Israelites go, ultimately He would redeem them Himself, and then God gives Moshe and Aharon specific instructions about what to do when they speak to Pharoah.  But in between these two instructions, for no apparent reason, the Torah states “Moses was eighty years old and Aharon eighty-three, when they made their demand on Pharaoh.” (Shemot 7:7) What purpose does this verse serve and why does it come here? Ibn Ezra says this is coming to emphasize Moshe and Aharon’s high spiritual level.  All other prophets only prophesied when they were young, while Moshe and Aharon, alone among the prophets, merited to prophecy when they were advanced in years.  Sforno similarly suggests that this verse is here to demonstrate the virtue of Moshe and Aharon, but he offers a somewhat different reason.  He says it shows us that in spite of their advanced age, they were still alacritous and eager to do God’s will.

In some ways, Sforno’s interpretation reflects even more positively on Moshe and Aharon than Ibn Ezra’s does.  After all, the fact that Moshe and Aharon prophesied at an old age might set them apart from other prophets, but that’s a distinction that’s really in God’s control.  Their ability to prophecy was more of a gift from God than anything of their own doing. However, their willingness to get up early in the morning to speedily fulfill God’s will, at an age when no one would have faulted them for sleeping in a little bit and taking it easy, is entirely to their own credit.

As a society, we tend to valorize those who are healthy and alert at an advanced age, as if that were a great virtue, rather than simply a great blessing.  We would do better to praise (and to emulate) those who, whatever health challenges they may experience, like Moshe and Aharon, continue to devote their energy and their time to the service of God and of their fellow human beings.

Rabbi Garth Silbertstein

Parshat Shemot

FRIDAY, January 5th

The opening chapters of the Book of Shemot are remarkable in that all the heroes of the story (except for Moshe) are women.   We read about Shifra and Puah, two midwives who heroically resist Pharaoh’s demand that they murder newborn Hebrew boys. We read about how Yochebed hides her infant son and then, when it becomes impossible to hide him from the Egyptians any longer, how she puts him into a basket in the river holding out hope that he might be rescued.  We read about how Pharaoh’s daughter saves the boy from the river, and, by adopting him as her own, also saves him from Pharaoh’s decree against the Hebrew babies. We read about how Miriam arranges for Moshe to be raised by his biological mother, to insure that Moshe will grow up with a connection to his family and his people.  Later we will read how Tzipora saves the day when her husband Moshe (or son—the text is ambiguous) is attacked by an angel, by quickly circumcising her son, thus putting a halt to the angelic attack.  It is only through the courageous actions of these women, both Israelite and gentile, that Moshe is able to rise to the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

When we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, we often emphasize the heroic men—Moshe and Aharon, and gloss over the female heroes of the story, but the Torah goes out of its way to show the heroism of the women in the story.  Their heroism, which is mostly demonstrated in less public ways than that of the men in the story, and is largely focused in areas that are traditionally seen as women’s sphere—childbirth and child-rearing, is no less important or noteworthy than the more public heroism of the men.

Today we live in a world where women are able to occupy more and more roles that had in the past been the exclusive province of men. The progress towards equality of rights and of opportunity for women and men is undoubtedly a positive thing. However, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the professional and communal roles have been traditionally occupied by men are somehow intrinsically superior to those that have been traditionally occupied by women, just because, out of our own biases, we have attached more praise and prestige to those roles.

Those women and men who choose to dedicate themselves to caring for and raising the next generation, whether in their own families or as professional educators and caregivers, are every bit as important, praiseworthy, and even heroic, as our most celebrated public figures.  Indeed, as the opening chapters of Shemot demonstrate, the survival and redemption of our people depend on them.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Vayechi

FRIDAY, December 29th

After the death of Yaakov, Yosef’s brothers, fearing that perhaps Yosef had only been kind to them for their father’s sake, send word to their powerful brother asking him to have mercy on them.  In their message to Yosef they refer to themselves as “the servants of the God of your father (עבדי א-לקי אביך),” defining themselves in religious terms as people who serve God. However, immediately afterwards they go to Yosef and say “behold, we are your slaves (הִנֶּ֥נּֽוּ לְךָ֖ לַעֲבָדִֽים),” using the same Hebrew word for servant or slave in both cases.

Which is it?  Are they servants of God or are they servants of Yosef?  Yosef responds to his brothers by asking rhetorically “Am I in place of God?” While this would appear on the surface to be a disavowal of the right to judge, this phrasing perhaps contains a subtle rebuke of his brothers for promising to be his slaves when their loyalty rightly belongs to God.

I would like to suggest that the brothers’ declaration that they will serve Yosef as slaves is no mere foreshadowing.  Even if this declaration didn’t by itself make the brothers into slaves, it showed not only Yosef but also Egypt that they were willing to live as slaves, thus paving the way for the oppression to come. The enslavement in Egypt was at least in part both a natural consequence and a fitting punishment for our ancestors’ willingness to substitute a human master (their brother Yosef) for God.  By offering themselves as slaves to Yosef in the hopes that he would protect them, the brothers were buying security at the price of their freedom, substituting subjugation to human rulers for the service of God.

Throughout our lives we have moments when we can choose to serve God or to serve human masters.  Those human masters could be political leaders, our employers, or simply people whose good opinion we crave.  When we make our well-being and happiness dependent on mortal human beings and the institutions they build, we are, like Yosef’s brothers, condemning ourselves to servitude.  However, when we place our trust in God, we can emancipate ourselves and become truly free.

Rabbi Garth Silbertein

Parshat Vayigash

FRIDAY, December 22

Our parsha this week opens with the famous moment when Yehudah stands up to Yosef (whom he does not yet realize is his brother) to plea for Binyamin’s freedom and to offer to give himself up to save Binyamin.  Yehudah begins by asking permission to speak, saying “Please do not be angry with your servant.”  Rashi says that from the fact that Yehudah asks Yosef not to be angry, we can infer that Yehudah spoke harshly, in a way which he could reasonably assume might provoke anger in Yosef. Rashi’s assumption seems to be someone wouldn’t say “don’t be angry” if they weren’t behaving in a way that might provoke anger.

But this is not the first time in the Torah that someone speaks this way. In parshat Vayeira, Avraham uses the same phrase when pleading with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorra.  Interestingly, Rashi does not say anything there about Avraham speaking harshly, though Avraham’s words to God as recorded in the Torah speak for themselves.  However, the same logic ought to apply.  If we can infer that Yehudah was speaking harshly to Yosef, because he asked Yosef not to be angry, presumably we can also infer that Avraham must have been speaking harshly to Master of the World, since he felt the need to ask Him not to be angry.

Moreover, while Yehudah might imagine that the human, fallible vizier of Egypt could become unjustifiably angry even if he wasn’t intending to speak harshly, Avraham knew he was speaking to the One who is all good and all knowing, so he could not possibly imagine that God would be angry unjustifiably.  He must have been speaking in a way that he knew might be legitimately offensive.

Both Avraham and Yehudah present us with examples of a person standing up for what he believes to be right, and having the courage to speak clearly and forcefully, without being cowed by the power and status of their listener (in Avraham’s case that listener being the Creator Himself).  However, it’s worth noting they both take care to preface their direct, even harsh arguments with words of appeasement, asking permission to speak, saying “please do not be angry.”

Often when we find ourselves disagreeing with or upset by the actions or decisions of people in positions of authority, or even of God Himself, we tend to pursue one of two options—either we don’t say anything and we silence our misgivings, out of fear or out of respect, or we go to the opposite extreme and openly rebel, allowing our legitimate complaint to take the form of attacks and insults.  We would do well to follow instead the example of Avraham and Yehudah, by voicing concerns clearly, forcefully, even harshly, but making clear that no disrespect is intended, and that we seek to maintain a positive relationship with the one to whom we are speaking, whether that is another human being, or the Holy One blessed be He.

May we all be blessed with the courage to speak up for what is right, and the graciousness to do so in a spirit of respect and love.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein