Who is “Us”?

Who is “Us”?

Dec 24, 2021 By Jessica Dell’Era | Commentary | Shemot

At first, Pharaoh feels sure he’s harming only them. These Hebrews that he’d inherited, who’d came with a story about some Joseph prince—but who cares about ancient history? In Pharaoh’s view, the Hebrews are merely a tool for building out new garrison towns. What is a Hebrew slave to mighty Pharaoh, a living god among his people?

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Guided by the Covenant

Guided by the Covenant

Jan 8, 2021 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Shemot

There is a wonderful midrash in Pesikta Derav Kahana that suggests a profound relationship between the arrival of the manna described in Parashat Beshallah and the giving of the Ten Commandments recounted in the following parashah, Yitro. Just as the manna tasted different to each and every Israelite, Rabbi Yosi teaches, so each was enabled according to his or her particular capacity to hear the Divine Word differently at Sinai (12:25).

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Spiritual Poetry Makes the Good Book Great

Spiritual Poetry Makes the Good Book Great

Jan 17, 2020 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Shemot

For many readers, the Torah is more than the good book. It is a great book. The Torah’s greatness can be attributed to its literary uniqueness (there really is no other book quite like it) and to its remarkable place at the foundation of three major religions.

For me, the Torah’s greatness comes from the way it integrates artistry and meaning. 

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A Turn for the Better

A Turn for the Better

Dec 28, 2018 By Ariella Rosen | Commentary | Shemot

It’s an all too familiar image: an individual in distress calling out, seeking help, as person after person walks by, completely ignoring their plight. Many of us prefer to see ourselves as the exception, the one who would stop and offer a hand, but statistics paint a different picture. In social psychology, the bystander effect describes the direct inverse correlation between the size of a crowd and the likelihood that someone will step in and help in a moment of crisis. In other words, someone in distress is much more likely to receive support from a solitary passerby than from a large group gathered around them. It appears to be the case that human beings are much more willing to step up when we are alone.

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Summoning a People

Summoning a People

Jan 5, 2018 By Arnold M. Eisen | Commentary | Shemot

Two very different stories about who we are as Jews are forcefully presented in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus. One of them—captured in the Hebrew title of the book, Shemot or “Names”—declares that we are the Children of Israel: a nation, a people, defined in the first instance and forever after by our ancestors and the paths they travelled. The other story teaches that we are disciples of Moses, the human protagonist of the book, and, like him, are servants of the God Who called to Moses out of the Burning Bush and bound us in covenant at Sinai.

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The Doing that Comes from Knowing

The Doing that Comes from Knowing

Jan 20, 2017 By Joel Alter | Commentary | Shemot

Among the undercurrents in our portion are the consequences of forgetting and remembering on rescue and liberation, and of seeing and knowing on oppression and death. The Israelites’ fortunes are transformed, and transformed again, so rapidly in our portion’s opening, it seems the Torah wants to signal the tenuousness of circumstances that seem secure. The Torah goes to the trouble of naming the eleven sons of Jacob who relocate to Egypt (Joseph already having been there) and reports that their entire generation passed away. In the space of 11 words—and seemingly no time at all—their 70-member extended family explodes in number and becomes an innumerable presence to be reckoned with in Egypt (Exod. 1:1-7).

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Managing Our Disagreements

Managing Our Disagreements

Jan 20, 2017 By Alex Sinclair | Commentary | Shemot

This erev Shabbat is Inauguration Day. Right after the election, This American Life broadcast a conversation between two old friends, one of whom had voted Trump and one Clinton. These two friends disagree strongly with each other, but, thanks to their friendship, mutual respect, and faith in the other’s goodness, they are able to have a civil, thoughtful, reasonable political conversation.

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Hope and the Unknown

Hope and the Unknown

Jan 2, 2016 By Abigail Treu | Commentary | Shemot

As legend has it, my great-grandfather quit school after the eighth grade. Apparently this decision had little to do with academics: my Grandpa Harry, z”l, was a smart man who went on to become a successful furrier with his own business in Manhattan. No, apparently it had everything to do with social pressure. As legend has it, he walked into school on the first day of the ninth grade, realized that no one at his new school knew him, and walked out.

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The Landscape of Revelation

The Landscape of Revelation

Jan 2, 2016 By Eitan Fishbane | Commentary | Shemot

“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. . .The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?…”

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Cultivating Compassion & Connection

Cultivating Compassion & Connection

Jan 9, 2015 By Mona Fishbane | Commentary | Shemot

At the end of chapter two of Shemot, we find the Israelites groaning from their bondage in Egypt: their cry rose up to God. And, our text tells us, God heard their cry (vayishma), remembered the covenant (vayizkor), saw the children of Israel (vayar), and took notice or knew (vayeda). I want to explore with you the relational and ethical lessons we can learn from these verses in our own lives. In doing so, I am inspired by comments in the Kedushat Levi, the book written by the Hasidic Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. I am grateful to Jonathan Slater and his new book, A Partner in Holiness, for bringing the insights of the Kedushat Levi to my attention.

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Illustrations of Moses in the Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695

Illustrations of Moses in the Amsterdam Haggadah, 1695

Jan 9, 2015 By Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary | Commentary | Shemot | Pesah

Strikingly, Moses is barely mentioned in the text of the Haggadah, despite his prominence in the Torah’s account of the Exodus that begins with this week’s parashah. He is, however, prominently featured in some editions via the illustrations.

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Understanding the Burning Bush

Understanding the Burning Bush

Dec 16, 2013 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Shemot

This week’s parashah, Shemot, begins the saga of the enslavement of the Israelites in the land of Egypt.

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What’s Jewish about Jewish Leadership?

What’s Jewish about Jewish Leadership?

Dec 16, 2013 By Marc Gary | Commentary | Shemot

A few years back, I was sitting in a class for prospective leaders of the Jewish community and yawning. Although the class was organized by a prestigious Jewish institution and gathered together an invitation-only group of accomplished men and women from business and the professions, I kept looking at my watch and planning my escape.

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Morality and Memory

Morality and Memory

Dec 31, 2012 By Matthew Berkowitz | Commentary | Shemot

As we welcome this coming Shabbat, we turn to the second of the Five Books of Moses, Exodus.

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Good for the Midwives

Good for the Midwives

Dec 30, 2012 By Walter Herzberg | Commentary | Shemot

What exactly was the good that God did for the midwives? This question has engaged the commentators throughout the generations.

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Israel’s Quarterback Problem

Israel’s Quarterback Problem

Jan 14, 2012 By Marc Wolf | Commentary | Shemot

Having concluded the saga of the matriarchs and patriarchs, we encounter a pharaoh who does not know Joseph—or chooses not to remember the good things he did for Egypt. The tide quickly turns, and the Children of Israel face a harsh new reality. As if enslavement were not enough to break the spirits of the descendants of Jacob, the pharaoh codifies cruelty into law and seeks to exterminate the Israelite population. The harsh decrees of the pharaoh actually end up setting the scene for the birth of Moses.

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Moses on the Nile

Moses on the Nile

Jan 14, 2012 By Abigail Treu | Commentary | Text Study | Shemot

Here we are given a midrash imagining not only Miriam’s role as a young prophet, but also the emotional turmoil she and her father, Amram, endured as Moses is born and then sent off in his basket down the Nile.

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A Deserved Punishment

A Deserved Punishment

Dec 25, 2010 By Abigail Treu | Commentary | Text Study | Shemot

The only thing juicier than a murder mystery is a murder mystery involving illicit sex. The midrashic imagination has woven a wonderful narrative to excuse Moses of the murder he commits in Exodus 2:12. It is a wonderful story from rabbinic literature that is worth sharing in and of itself.

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Updating Our Mindset

Updating Our Mindset

Jan 9, 2010 By Marc Wolf | Commentary | Shemot

The conclusion of Genesis and the beginning of the book of Exodus coincide this year with not only the end of a secular year, but the winding down of a decade. Of all its nicknames shopped around during the last days of December (the Ohs, Noughties, Aughts, or, as Slate Magazine put it, the Uh-Ohs), “the digital decade” is the one that I find most fitting. The past ten years have brought us blogging, Googling, YouTubing, tweeting on Twitter, and updating our Facebook statuses. Each progressive step (if we really want to call it progress) has brought new meaning to here and now. What these technologies have demonstrated is that we have a virtual obsession with being current—with letting people know exactly what we are thinking, doing, or experiencing.

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The Story of a Nation

The Story of a Nation

Jan 16, 2009 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Shemot

The great thirteenth-century biblical exegete Nahmanides, noting that the book of Exodus is a direct continuation of the narrative that concludes the book of Genesis, asks why it is that Exodus is designated as a separate book of the Torah. He answers by observing that Genesis is the story of families, while Exodus is the story of a nation. Genesis relates the history of Abraham and his descendants, whereas Exodus begins with a description of the transformation of Jacob’s clan of seventy souls into a “numerous and mighty nation,” and then proceeds to delineate the events that befall it.

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