D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769

D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769 (2009)

Rabbi Maurice Harris

On Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by the sages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’s Egypt just before the arrival of the 10th and final plague, the slaying of the first born of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them, “Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goes through to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins and ends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In the haggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (and I paraphrase):

How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. By Miriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as he floated in a basket down the Nile. … In the birth waters and in the Nile, these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. … The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to the Sea of Reeds.

A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water by a princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrow cavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out the other side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took a closer look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I was reminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this crucial moment, just before the 10th plague brings grief and sorrow to so many in ancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron and spits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”

In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter it as an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and on the side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with a visual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of a holding chamber and into a new existence.

The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this is part of 

Hebrew_Samekh
The Hebrew letter Samech

its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The key word is the Hebrew word for basin – saf – spelled with a samech and a final fay. This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.

Saf is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in the other two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describes baby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by the Pharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basket containing her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reeds is soof, spelled almost identically to saf. In the second instance – the liberation of the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word soof appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from which they emerged.

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A Purim D’var from some years back

D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom.  Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night.  Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.”[1]  Deen is right.  Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child.  The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.

As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero.  The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court.  Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.

Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well.  Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts.  Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.

So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame?  We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness.  The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath.  In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…  And the prophet, Hosea, says about God:  In you the orphan finds mercy.

I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries.  One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable.  God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems.  Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans.  God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans.  Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.

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D’var Torah: Vayechi

I gave this talk at Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR) in 2004.

D’var Torah – Parashat Vayechi 5765 – December 25, 2004

 By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah Portion is Vayechi, the last parashah of the Book of Breishit, the Book of Genesis.  It is the closing chapter of a book that began with the creation of the universe, took us through the drama of the first human beings, through the stories of the first Jews – Sarah and Abraham and their extended family – and finally through the exhilarating and powerful cycle of stories surrounding Joseph.  Breishit opens with the beginning of all things and closes with Joseph and his bretheren dwelling securely in the land of Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing.  The last word of the parashah is the Hebrew word for Egypt – mitzrayim.  The stage is set for the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus – and the drama of enslavement and redemption that form the next chapters of the Torah’s epic story.

You may recall the story of how Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, only to rise from an Egyptian jail to become the second in command of the Egyptian empire.

Yet another example of Hollywood casting white dudes to play ancient Hebrews… I mean, he’s definitely easy on the eyes, no disrespect to the actor, but ancient Hebrews and Egyptians probably didn’t look quite like that.

When we pick up this week, Joseph has reconciled with his brothers, and the entire family, including his frail, aging father, Jacob, has settled in Egypt.  Hearing that his father Jacob has fallen ill, Jospeh brings his two sons, the first born, M’nasheh, and the younger one, Ephraim, to their grandfather.  Jacob proceeds to bless his grandsons.  In a gesture that has become commonplace in this family, Jacob gives the favored blessing traditionally reserved for the first born son to the younger son instead – a moment that I could easily spend the rest of this talk examining, but that will have to wait for another time.

Later in the parashah, Jacob gives his final words to his assembled sons.  Jacob also asks his sons to bury his body in the Cave of Machpela, where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah were buried.  Jacob dies, and Egypt’s finest courtiers accompany the funeral caravan all the way to the Land of Canaan, where Jacob’s sons bury him at Machpela.  After burying their father, Joseph’s brothers go through one more moment of anxiety about their having sold Joseph into slavery.  They become worried that, with their father Jacob no longer alive, Joseph may rediscover his anger at his brothers for their terrible treatment of him.  The brothers reconfirm their reconciliation, and the parashah concludes with Joseph’s last remarks to his brothers.

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