Shemot: A story, which can challenge our assumptions

At the beginning of 2011, while protests were happening in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a joke did the rounds, which claimed that the Jews had warned the Egyptians that they would refuse to rebuild the pyramids if they got destroyed by the violent protests which swept through the country. This joke may be related back to this week’s
Torah portion in which we read that as the Israelites became numerous Pharaoh began to persecute them, and ‘they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses’.

This week we begin the book of Shemot, also known as Exodus, and the first of half of the Book as a whole focuses on the persecution of the Israelites by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with their eventual escape from slavery to freedom. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are the bad guys at the start of this book. Pharaoh worried that if the Israelites continued to multiply one day they could be a fifth column joining their enemies in a future war. And so he responded by making ‘their lives bitter with hard slavery, in mortar, and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field; all their service, which they made them serve, was with rigour’.

And yet almost at the beginning of the book we get a short little story, which can challenge our assumptions about the Egyptians. Having failed to check the growth of the Israelites through hard labour, we read that ‘the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other Puah’. Pharaoh told them that when they were helping the Israelite women during their labour if they gave birth to ‘a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live’. The ultimate ruler of Egypt, a man considered to be a god, gave Shifrah and Puah a direct instruction and yet we then read: ‘the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive’. They even lied to Pharaoh to defend their actions.

In studying this story, the commentators have been primarily concerned by the identity of Shifra and Puah; were they Israelites or were they Egyptians who served the Hebrew community? In reading the text it seems unlikely that they were members of the Israelite community. For one, it is hard to believe that Pharaoh expected Israelites to kill members of their own people. But in terms of the text the statement that ‘the midwives feared God’ seems superfluous if they were members of the Hebrew community, but highly relevant if they were Egyptians rebelling against their Pharaoh.

Shifrah and Puah provide us with the first example of civil disobedience, but more importantly, they demonstrate that not all of the Egyptians were necessarily evil and wicked. As we read the first half of the book of Shemot it is easy to negatively characterise all of the Egyptian people, but Shifrah and Puah show that this was not true of everyone, they call on us to be more nuanced in our view of the Egyptians. And they set a secondary example as the first righteous gentiles, risking their own lives to save others.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Danny Burkeman) 

CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=383344

Have no fear – be Strong!

The Torah portion Va’yechi is the concluding parasha of the first book of Torah, B’reishit. It ends the narrative of the founding mothers and fathers of our folk and faith, and also concludes the complex and compelling story of Joseph. As such, it has many aspects of endings, including Jacob’s death-bed blessings given to his sons and grandsons plus explicit instructions regarding his burial. The parasha also contains a poignant exchange between Joseph and his brothers which echoes old duplicities but results in peace among them. Finally, the parasha tells of Joseph’s death and his final request, “When God has taken notice of you (i.e. the people of Israel), you shall carry my bones from here.”, fore-shadowing the events that will unfold in the next book of the Torah.

Despite all these endings, how this parasha begins is truly unique. All other por-tions in a Torah scroll start at the beginning of a line of text, and/or after an open space that indicates the start of a new block of text. Vayechi, meaning “and he lived”, starts right in the middle of a line. There is no clear indication where the previous portion ended and this one begins. The very structure of the Torah text impresses upon us the unavoidable continuity that characterises our lives. Past events influence future happenings. Present conditions cast new light on previ-ous circumstances. Future considerations determine present actions.

This Torah portion is a perfect match for the beginning of a new (secular) year that comes with so many uncertainties. The rise of anti-Semitism world wide, the horrible fires in Australia, and the possibility of a war in the Near East are only three of the many horrors that have cast their shadows on our future.


“Have no fear!” is Joseph’s answer to his brothers, when they are in fear of their future. Friends, we don’t know what 2020 will bring. We are somewhere in the middle of something, not able to see what is coming next. However fear cannot be our answer. Instead, I invite you to take the following words to your heart, which we recite when we end a book of the Torah, as we do this Shabbat:

Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik
Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source: Rabbi Jack Luxemburg)

Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another

Heaven and earth touched each other

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, describes the first part of the journey of the biblical Jacob. Fleeing the wrath of his brother, whose birthright he purchased and whose blessing he stole, Jacob is “heading for the exits (Vayetzei).” As the now iconic story unfolds, Jacob stops for the night and has his famous dream of a ladder with angels going up and down between heaven and earth. God appears to Jacob in the midst of his dream and repeats the covenantal promise to Jacob as promised to Abraham
before.

It is remarkable that this didn’t happen in a safe environment, in a tent, or a regular place of worship. It happened in the ‘nowhere‘, a place where
literally heaven and earth touched each other.

Last Shabbat, we went out to have Shabbat together in the Botanical
Gardens, and while I doubt that this was a moment comparable to Jacob‘s, it was still special and it brought together family, friends and  people we had never met before. It was a wonderful way to confirm our covenant with the Eternal and to open ourselves to new ways and new encounters.

I hope we have more of those special services in the future.

Shabbat Shalom –

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Toledot: It is about seeing—and not seeing.

Our parasha reports how Isaac was tricked by Jacob, taking advantage of his father‘s blindness, into giving him the blessing of the firstborn.  But was Isaac really blind? Was he really not able to notice that it was Jacob and not Esau who stood before him?  History is sometimes made by averting our eyes.  Many people think that miracles are about God working magic.  But according to Genesis miracles are about lifting up the eyes.  They are about opening the eyes and seeing what is already there. So miracles are more about us seeing things rather than God’s magic.  Miracles are about noticing the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

So how do we understand Isaac’s not seeing?  If he is blinded by choice because it is too painful to verbalise what one son is doing to another or how his wife is conspiring against him or how he is favouring one son over another, then what might  the miracle be that he is unable to see? 

The miracle  is in the sequel.  It is in next week’s portion.  That miracle is the dream of a ladder going to heaven.  This miracles occurs because Jacob is now running from Esau.  Such is the history that is created by Isaac
choosing not to see.

We can’t see everything and some things are too painful to see clearly.  The truth must sometimes be concealed and that we must, as a matter of faith, veil our eyes. Our rabbis teach us that we learn from Isaac how to lead a life of faith.  We can look at the world and all its pain.  We can look at our own lives with all the difficulties and say, there is no God; there are no
miracles.  Or, you can see Nature in all its wonderful colours, and say, “I believe!” Faith is a matter of averting our eyes from our daily pains and seeing instead the sometimes less frequent joys and blessings.  It is about seeing—and not seeing.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Adrian M Schell

Knowing that We Are Blessed

As Abraham reached the twilight of his years, our Torah portion informs us that “the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way” (Genesis 24:1).

The Rabbis were perplexed by such an assertion. No surprise! Do you know anyone on earth who is blessed with everything? Some people may give the impression that they “have everything.” But when you scratch the surface you will find that we all carry burdens- physical, emotional, and
financial. We live with disappointment, with pain, with hopes not realised and goals never achieved.

So what about Abraham? As Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides) suggests, Abraham was blessed with riches, possessions, honour, and
longevity (Ramban on Genesis 24:1). What for me is missing in this list is love, family and friendship.

Last weekend, when we were sitting around the tables that were so richly filled with cakes and sweets for the High Tea, and also on Shabbat at the brocha, after the service, I felt that we are a blessed congregation. Not so much because of the food, which was lovely, but because of being a real community, where friendship and togetherness are not only nice terms on paper, but a lived reality.

When the Torah says that the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way, perhaps it not only meant the many blessings Abrahm enjoyed in his life-time, but also anticipated the many blessings Abraham‘s children—us—would some days enjoy: a rich tradition, friendship and community.

 Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Adrian M Schell