The Road not Taken


This week’s parashah begins with a description of God’s travel itinerary with regard to the journey of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’ But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea. (Shemot 13:17-18)

It seems that God leads them through a crooked route (akuma) lest they have subversive thoughts about going back to Egypt. It is clear in this week’s section that, at this point, the Hebrews were still ambivalent about the walk to freedom. They were not utterly convinced that this journey was worth it. In fact they were quite ready to believe that they had been seduced from one place of relative security to one of sure death. The memory of the hardships in Egypt was beginning to fade and their past seemed brighter than it had actually been while the uncertain future terrified them.

And if God could not prevent his people from having such thoughts, he could make it harder for them to act on them. Thus their journey reads like a graph curve (the modern meaning of the word akuma) which records their wanderings but also their ups and downs

In fact, to quote Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, God even provided them with ‘an academic space’, in which, precisely, to do their thinking. Paradoxically this crooked route in the wilderness gave them the freedom to think and ask their own questions. What looked like a strenuous itinerary proved in fact to be the more desirable option.

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that ‘there is no such thing as a sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow. The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another. Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.’

When frustration appears and when we feel that things are too slow, it is perhaps worth remembering that questions and doubts are the desirable prerequisite steps before a change is possible.

Shemot – a Poem


While researching for my previous post, I came across this beautiful poem by Zelda. Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky (June 20, 1914 – April 30, 1984), widely known as Zelda, was an Israeli poet. I find this poem contributes to our understanding of the concept of name and hope you like it too.

Each of Us Has a Name

by Zelda (trans. Marcia Falk)

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

You can read more about Zelda on The Jewish Women Archive

Shemot – What’s in a Name?


Shemot is the name of this week’s Parashah; it is also the name of the second book of the Torah which we are about to start this week. The name Shemot follows the tradition of naming a book or portion after the first significant word – here ve’eleh shemot, ‘and these are the names’.

The name of the previous book, Bereishit (‘in the beginning’), seems clear. Bereishit deals with beginnings: the beginning of the world, of man, of a family, of a faith in a single God…

Does this mean that Shemot is about names? Sure enough, right from the start the parashah lists the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt with Jacob to join Joseph, all seventy members of Jacob’s family. Then things get more complicated.

– Soon the name of Joseph is forgotten in Egypt, although he had been Pharaoh’s right hand – ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph’ (Shemot 1:8)

– We are given the names of the Hebrew midwives – ‘ the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah’ (Shemot 1:15) – but the Midrash tells us that in fact they were no others than Yocheved and Miriam (Moses’ mother and sister).

– Pharaoh has no name and is always designated by his function: ‘a new king’ and Pharaoh.

– Moses is named by Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name we never learn) and whose name (to draw out) parallels the role he will play for God and the Jewish people

– Most important is the passage where Moses asks God about his name, and God answers:

And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? What shall I say unto them?’ And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ (Shemot 3:13-14)

A name is a connector. When one has a name one can be called; their name makes them real. One of the first things people want to know when they hear of a birth is the name of the baby. Similarly, as a teacher, one of my first tasks is to learn the pupils’ names within a few days so as to be able to call them directly.

Pupils like to be called by their first names and hate it when I am wrong. Fortunately this does not happen too often but I vividly remember two such episodes. Once I got ‘Melody’ mixed up with ‘Harmony’. On another instance, I called a ‘Haicha’, ‘Fatima’. In both cases the girls were frustrated and expressed their discontent. We like to be remembered and acknowledege and being called by our name is part of the recognition process.

However God’s answer, i.e. the name he gives himself, is anything but straightforward. Commentators usually agree that a better translation of the passage quoted above is ‘I will be that which I will be.’ Interestingly, although it is the name God gives for himself, it is one we never use.

So is Shemot really about names? Isn’t it rather about identity, about who we are and who we choose to be? Our identity, both as part of the Jewish nation and as individuals, is never fixed forever. It can disappear or be forgotten but, as God’s name suggests, it can also change and evolve.

Asarah BeTevet – the Other Tragedy


The fast day of the 10th of Tevet symbolises the first of a series of events which led to the destruction of the First Temple; that day marks the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Persian King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE.

‘Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the 10th day of the 10th month Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the 11th year of King Zedekiah.’ (Kings II, 25:1-2)

The prophet Yeheskel [Ezekiel] was instructed by God to turn this day into a day of memory:

‘O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.’ (Yeheskel 24: 2)

Yet the date also marks an event for which the people of Israel fasted not one day but in fact three, namely the completion of the Torah’s translation into Greek, ordered by Ptolemy.

The resulting translation was considered a tragedy. If you are familiar with a foreign language and enjoy watching films or TV series in the original version, you will know that things get lost in translation. In addition Ptolemy wanted to Hellenise the Torah. He wanted it in his library along with the other classics of his time. Not a catastrophe you might object.

But by moving the Torah from the House of Study to the Greek Library, the whole process of reading and studying Torah the Jewish way was threatened. Reading Torah is not merely about perusing an ancient text. Reading Torah involves a confrontation with what others have written and still write about it and how it has shaped their lives, not just their intellect. It connects us to the Jews of the past and the Jews of today, to their lore, wisdom but also difficulties and struggles. When Torah study is carried out the Jewish way, the learner is challenged and might be led to change in the process.

In Pirkei Avot (1:6), the sages do not tell us to ‘find a teacher’ but urge us to ‘Make for yourself a teacher’. They incite us to connect actively to a tradition that began at Mount Sinai and is still vibrant today in the Houses of Study as well as in its more modern versions. They encourage us to seek relationship, not independence and intellectual neutrality.

To Repeat Or Not To Repeat


אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן: בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת --וְדִי זָהָב

Last year after I suggested a riddle on Devarim, interesting comments came up concerning the two Hebrew names of the fifth book of the Torah, namely Devarim and Mishneh Torah.

Although Mishneh Torah literally means the repetition of the Torah, it is not really what this book is. A number of laws are omitted here (the laws of the Temple service for instance), others are new (the laws of divorce and yibbum – levirate – to state but a few) while others are expressed differently (Aseret ha-Dibrot or the Ten Commandments for instance).

So why this name?

In a lecture I listened to a couple of days ago, the speaker attempts to explain what Devarim is, or rather what is specific about this book.

Part of the answer is provided in the very first verse: “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan-that is, in the Arabah-opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab” as opposed to the expression found in previous books; “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe lemor. And Hashem said to Moshe”

Moshe was adressing a new generation of Israelites; people who had been born in the desert, who had not been present at Mount Sinai when their parents had received the Torah and but also people who were about to enter the land of Israel and put God’s words into action.

To quote Rabbi Sacks “Moses was preparing the Israelites for a new mode of existence”. Therefore this book reads like the first commentary of God’s laws as taught by Moshe Rabbenu himself.

I couldn’t help but notice that this very special distinct status is reflected in the very name of the book, Mishneh Torah. Mishneh (whose Hebrew letters are exactly the same as Mishnah) suggests the first commentary of the Torah and announces more commentaries to come while Torah reminds us that we are reading God’s sacred words, albeit in an unusual form.

As should still be the case today, a different audience implies different wording and emphasis. Thus Moshe is repeating what God had said previously but in a way that takes into account the people he is addressing; a lesson for teachers of all kinds.

Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim


קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

This week’s parshah is situated right in the middle of the Torah; we can therefore imagine that its themes and messages are central to Judaism.

Unsurprisingly two well-known verses are found in this portion:
– Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy. (Vayikra 19:2)
– Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Vayikra 19:18).

The first one refers to the mitzvot between man and God: religious discipline, studying God’s laws and obeying the commandments. The second one concerns those between man and man, especially loving our fellow being.

The correct equilibrium between the two is difficult. One may focus on spiritual development to the detriment of the people around them. Conversely it is also possible to care for the whole world while forgetting that one’s inner life is part and parcel of our human condition.

The parshah invites us to take the time this Shabbat to look into our lives and question our choices. It also reminds us that one commandment doesn’t go without the other and that in order to love our neighbor, we must learn how God teaches us to do it and trust his laws.

Parshat Vayetze


וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’

We all have or had dreams, especially as children and teenagers. Yet sometimes, as we grow older, we tend to look at our former dreams with benevolent nostalgia while we are convinced that realism dictates that we put them aside.

Whenever we are tempted to surrender youthful dreams and only see them as impractical hopes, we should remember Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s words:

The fact of the matter is that a person can dream when he’s asleep and can dream when he’s awake. But only the dreams that one dreams when he/she is awake can become transformed into the visions which change reality.

In this week’s parshah, when Yaakov wakes up from his dream, he realizes that God is everywhere around us, not just in our dreams and prayers – the most common interpretation of Yaakov’s dream is that it is an allegory of prayer.

May we be persuaded that we can move from dreams to visions and from visions to reality as long as we keep in mind that God is “everywhere around us”.

Last year’s parshah post: Emotion-Packed Parshah