Weekly Reading Insights:
Shmot 5780

Overview of the Weekly Reading

To be read on Shabbat Shemot, 21 Tevet 5780/Jan. 18

Torah: Exodus 1:1-6:1  Haftorah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (because its opening verse parallels Ex.1:1)

is the 1st Reading out of 12 in Exodus and it contains 6762 letters, in 1763 words, in 124 verses

The Egyptians afflicted the Jews with forced physical labor, and decreed drowning all Jewish newborn males. Moshe was born. His mother hid him in a basket in the Nile, where he was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh's daughter. One day, when already adult, Moshe killed and buried an Egyptian supervisor who beat a Jew. The next day, realizing his deed was public knowledge, Moshe fled to Midian where he married one of Yisro's daughters, Tzipporah, and they had a son, Gershom. The Jews cried to G-d because of the slavery. G-d's angel appeared to Moshe in the form of a burning bush. G-d told Moshe that he would redeem the Jews, and that Moshe should relay this to Pharaoh and to the Jews, even though Pharaoh would not agree to let the Jews go. Moshe begged G-d to appoint a messenger besides himself. G-d decided that Aharon, Moshe's brother, should be Moshe's spokesman. Moshe began his return journey to Egypt with his wife and sons. Tzipporah circumcised their second son, Eliezer, when stopping at an inn. In Egypt, the Jewish elders listened to Moshe, saw the signs, and believed in G-d's promise to free them. But after approaching Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon were rebuked and thrown out of the palace. Pharaoh instructed to harden the Jews' labor. The foremen blamed Moshe for the Jews' misfortune. Moshe told G-d that the situation had worsened. G-d answered that in the end, Pharaoh would force the Jews to leave his land.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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There are two broad ways to connect spiritually to G-d, to relate to Him. There is the "from Above to below" way, where G-d sends energy (it could be a second wind, or an angel in the guise of a person, or some divine providence) to help us, and we are supposed to take that strength and run with it to change the world for the better. This is compared to studying Torah. The Torah is described as name after name of G-d, and in studying the Torah we call to G-d and call down G-d's strength to help us. There is also the "from below to Above" way where we strengthen ourselves (pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps) using our own innate talents and abilities to transform a situation. This is like an offering to G-d from us. This is compared to doing the commandments, where you take something physical and use it for a holy purpose. We see these two methods described in this week's portion:

The first verse of Shemot says, "And these are the names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt: Yaacov; each man and his household came." The HaDrash Veha'eyun suggests an interesting interpretation. In general, we see that when individuals who are filled with Jewish fervor and spirit uproot themselves from a small town to a big city where there are many distractions and activities that are the opposite of a pious life, they usually stay attached to the traditions of our forefathers and the observance of the commandments. Unfortunately, that is often not the case for their children. Little by little they can drift towards the culture of their new environment until in the end they move away from Judaism completely. The Torah comes to inform us that this was not the case with the children of Yaacov. Even in impure Egypt, with its promiscuity and idols, they remained faithful to their origins and to the holiness of the land they came from. This is the inference of the words, "each man AND his household." There was no change in the home. Not only did the elders stay observant, the children did too.

What was their secret? Why do we almost expect that spiritually the situation will disintegrate, while with our forefathers and in some isolated situations here and there, the future generation not only survives, but thrives?

Sometimes, G-d helps the person from above. This is the meaning of the words of the first verse, "And these are the names of children of Israel who were coming to Egypt." The kabbalists explain that the body is too small to contain the entire soul. The majority of the soul stays in heaven. The part of the soul that is in the body is called "the name," since just like a name is something external to the person, so too, this little bit of soul, the name, is something remote and out of the ordinary to the body. Similarly, just like a name does not describe our essence, but only has relevance to people outside of us, the parts of ourselves we are ready to share with others, so too, this little bit of soul is not connected to the essence of the person, but it animates the body so it can relate to the physical world. Only the "names" of the Jewish people, the smaller parts of the soul, were in the negative environment of the impure land of Egypt. The great majority of the soul stays in heaven and is not affected by what is around it. When a Jew is in a difficult situation he can draw strength and inspiration from knowing that his anchor and essence is protected and can be drawn upon even in the most difficult challenges. G-d is helping from Above.

We also have another way that the spirits of people in a difficult environment can thrive, from below to Above. The verse that describes Moshe's encounter with the burning bush says that the bush was burning but was not consumed. This is connected to what the Midrash says, that divine fire burns but does not consume. Why was it a bush specifically that was the focus of this divine experience? Because a Jew, who is by nature self-effacing, is compared to a bush-the shortest and most meek of all trees. For a Jew to survive in a negative environment, he has to be "on fire" with enthusiasm for G-d and His Torah. Just like a fire always reaches above, so a Jew has to always desire to draw closer to G-d. What do we learn from the words, "but was not consumed"? That even with this great enthusiasm, we have be wary not to burn ourselves out, or worse, to lose our grip and connection with the world we live in and our purpose here. We have to remain a "soul IN body."

No matter where you find yourself, you have to remember these two sources of spiritual connection and strength. A Jew is always connected from on high and from below. A Jew can always draw from the "well" above and reinvest him- or herself with enthusiasm and fire to connect to G-d and that will automatically push away evil from the surroundings.

Soon after this Shabbat are the Yahrtzeits of the Rambam and the first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. The Lubavitcher Rebbe speaks about the connection between the Torah portion of Shemos and the passing of a righteous person. The book of Bereishit, and especially last week's portion, Vayechi, speaks the descent to Egypt and the beginning of the exile. Even though the promise of redemption was mentioned, the focus is on descent. That is not the case for Shemos. Even though at the beginning it speaks about the difficulties of the bondage, very soon it sets the stage for the redemption. The Parsha contains the birth of Moshe, the mission given to Moshe to free his people from the slavery of Egypt, and even the beginning of the redemption in Moshe and Aharon's demand from Pharaoh, "let my people go." Similarly, the death of a righteous person is a movement from exile to redemption. The soul in the body is limited. The soul after a person's passing is free and not limited in how it connects to G-d. May the souls of the righteous be defenders for the Jewish people now and always.

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


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Mystical Classics
Ultimate Understanding

From the Ohr HaChaim commentary by Rabbi Chaim (ben Moshe) ibn Attar

Moses' achievements were directly related to the condition of the Jewish people whom he represented. Since the Israelites descended to the 49th level of impurity, Moses achieved only the 49th level of bina, intellectual insights, out of a possible total of 50 such levels.

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