Sunday, January 31, 2010

Parshah Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

Moshe went up to G-d, and Hashem called to him out of the mountain saying, Thus shall you say (tomar) to the house of Ya’acov, and tell (tagid ) the sons of Israel ” (Shemot 19:3).
Chief of Her Home
Rashi explains that “the house of Ya’acov” refers to the women – to them you shall speak in gentle language, as the Hebrew word tomar (say) indicates. “To the sons of Israel” – the men, Moshe is instructed to communicate the punishments and details of the commandments in words “as hard as wormwood,” implied by the Hebrew word, tagid (tell). According to Sha’arei Aharon, “the house of Ya’acov” refers to the woman, because she is the chief of her home (akeret habayit). The Hebrew term akeret habayit has been translated as “housewife.” However, a preferred translation might be “homemaker,” an appellation more congruent with the original Hebrew term that is intended as a title of honor. Western culture misleads us into believing that a woman obtains her primary fulfillment outside the home, and needs only to take care of domestic chores on the side.The following anecdote serves to demonstrate the absurdity of this outlook: A certain executive once asked his fellow associate what his wife does. The associate responded, “She is in charge of a home for unwanted children.” This sounded like a position of prestige, until it became clear that the children that she was in charge of were her own!
We need to reeducate ourselves to appreciate the importance of the title: akeret habayit. What could be more important than setting the tone in the home for all future generations?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Parshah Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

The Torah calls Miriam “the prophetess” at the splitting of the sea and the Talmud enumerates her as one of the seven prophetesses:
Miriam prophesied that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel. When Moshe was born and the house was filled with light, her father got up, kissed her and said, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” When they put him in the Nile, her father rose, struck her head and asked, “My daughter, what will become of your prophecy?” Therefore, it states, “His sister stood from afar” (Shemot 2:4) to find out what would be the end of her prophecy (Megillah 14a).
According to the Talmud, it is not clear why Miriam was called a prophetess at the sea rather than prior to the birth of Moshe, when she originally prophesied. Etz Yosef explains that only at the culmination of the Exodus did Miriam’s prophecy become totally fulfilled. Rabbeinu Bachaya notes that Miriam is the first person to be named a prophet in the Torah. The first time the Torah mentions the word “prophet” is in regards to a woman, in order to emphasize the great level that women attained at the sea, as it states: “A maidservant at the sea saw more than even Yechezkel ben Buzi” (Mechilta, Beshalach 3). Kli Yakar agrees that Miriam became a prophetess at the splitting of the sea, since the women merited seeing the Shechinah at that time. They played drums and danced in order to draw down the spirit of prophecy, as the Divine Presence only rests upon us when we are filled with happiness (Shabbat 30b).
Rabbeinu Bachaya concludes that important matters in the Torah are often expressed through women. For example, the concept of the World to Come is called “a bundle of life” by Avigail, wife of David (1 Shemuel 25:29). Channah, the Mother of our Prayer, taught the concept of the revival of the dead (1 Shemuel 2:6), and the order of prayer. Reincarnation is alluded to by the wise woman from Tekoah (2 Shemuel 14:14). All these instances show the importance of the role of women in the Torah.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Parshah Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

In this week’s parashah the Jewish people received the first mitzvah: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the Land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be to you the beginning of months, it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Shemot 12:1–2).

The First Mitzvah of Renewal
The Hebrew word for month chodesh also means new. With this first mitzvah to sanctify the new moon, we became renewed as a people. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Kohelet 1:9). In the realm of nature (under the sun) life repeats itself along its predestined orbit. Yet, through the mitzvot we can connect with the otherworldly reality beyond the sun and the realm of nature. Sefat Emet explains that through performing mitzvot, we connect with the source of life, which is continual renewal. It is our ability to renew ourselves through the mitzvot that makes us Jewish. By receiving the first mitzvah, the nation of Israel is born. Our sages teach, “A convert who converted is like a baby newly born” (Yevamot 62a). It is no wonder then, that the first mitzvah through which we became a Jewish nation is the embodiment of renewal (chodesh). Many commentators ask, why the first of the Ten Commandments reads, “I am Hashem your G-d Who has taken you out of Egypt” (Shemot 20:2), instead of, “I am Hashem your G-d Who has created you”? When G-d created the world, He created it for the sake of Israel, [imbuing Israel with the capability to bring all of humanity to perfection] (Batei Midrashot, Part 1, Rabbah d’Bereishit 4). Since the nation of Israel was born through the Exodus, it becomes indeed the purpose of creation. This is why the first of the Ten Commandments refers to the Exodus rather than to the creation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"The Women Were Able to Hear"

The Jewish women in Egypt were able to see beyond their momentary enslavement. Servitude did not drag them down so low that they forgot about the possibility of freedom. In spite of the bitterness of their situation, they were able to envision the future redemption. Therefore, they are praised for enticing their husbands to have relations with them in order to bear children. While the men had given up hope, the women believed in a better future. They saw their situation in perspective and understood that whatever they had to tolerate at the moment, was only a tiny piece in the great puzzle of life.

Parshah Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

“Behold the children of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?” (Shemot 6:12). Sefat Emet explains that there is a direct connection between the prophet’s ability to prophesize and the people’s capacity to listen. The reason why Moshe was of uncircumcised lips was because Israel could not listen to him. It was this inability of the Jewish people to listen, which prevented them from receiving the Ten Commandments directly from G-d. Speech is in exile as long as the receivers are not prepared to listen to the Divine word. The Midrash explains that Israel could not listen to Moshe, because it was difficult for them to separate themselves from idol worship (Shemot Rabbah 6:5). The term for idol worship in Hebrew is avodah zarah, which literally means strange work. Therefore, any kind of compulsion for “strange work” other than Hashem’s mitzvot can block our ability to hear the voice of G-d.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Parshah Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Israel was redeemed from Egypt in the merit of the righteous women from that generation” (Sotah 11b). Learning about the Jewish midwives who played an important role in the redemption from the Egyptian exile can inspire us to help bring about the future redemption.

Who Were the Midwives in Egypt?
“The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second Puah” (Shemot 1:15). Considering the immense population explosion among the Jews during the Egyptian exile, the obvious question arises: How is it possible that two midwives could be sufficient for a nation as great as Israel? Ibn Ezra explains that these two were in charge of all the midwives; for without doubt there were more than five hundred midwives. According to Abarbanel, there were two types of midwives. The Shifrah-type would take care of the baby, and clean it, while the Puah-type would help the woman in labor with her breathing and prayer. Rashi’s explains, based on Sotah 11b that Shifrah, from the language of meshaperet, which means to improve, was another name for Yocheved. She used to take care of the baby after its birth and put it into good physical condition. Puah was another name for Miriam. She used to speak aloud and croon to the baby just as women do to soothe a child from crying. Maharsha explains that the language “…the name of the one…and the name of the second…” is never found in the Torah unless it has previously stated that there were two people. As for example, “Unto Ever were born two sons, the name of the one was Peleg…and the name of the second…” (Bereishit 10:25). Yet, regarding Shifrah and Puah it states, “…the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah,” using the definite article without prefacing that there were two Hebrew midwives. From this, Maharsha deducts that their identities must have been known from another place in the Torah. This is how we know that Shifrah and Puah must be Yocheved and Miriam, the most well known women in their time.