Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Shemot

In Exodus on December 29, 2010 at 3:01 am

For it is precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, line by line; Here a little, there a little. (Isaiah 28:10)

Is Isaiah’s reading of the Parsha to be understood as “back to basics”?

Time has passed. Joseph and his generation died.  Here is a people perhaps who know of the covenant, but don’t necessarily know the covenant. At Temple, it is said that Exodus marks the transition from personal focus on the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to communal focus on the Israelite people. But does it, though?  “Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him: ‘Put away the strange gods that are among you, and purify yourselves.'” (Genesis 35:2)  Isn’t this as much about the communal experience as the personal one?  Does this support the position that the Israelites, from the time of Jacob, were ever a stiffnecked and imperfect community?  “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed.” (Genesis 17:12)  “In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son.  And all the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised with him.”  (Genesis 17:26-27)  Isn’t the community’s equal participation in the covenant established before Exodus? Why then is Exodus the transition? Is it the difference between a communal lech lecha and a personal one? But can’t we say the departure of Jacob, or Israel, with his family was also a communal lech lecha?

We find Moses, a man brought up as an Egyptian, but raised by his Levite mother,  without trust in God.  Why? Was this to protect his identity? Or had his mother forgotten the covenant? Hertz explains that, in Egypt, “a large portion of the Israelites in time forgot the…religious practices of the Fathers…the greater portion of the people must have kept alive in their hearts the memory and hope in Israel.” What is this must? Hertz bases this assertion on the fact that the Israelites survived assimilation and maintained their separate existence. Isn’t it also possible, as the Torah evidences, that the Egyptians were somewhat xenophobic? Even had the Israelites completely assimilated, wouldn’t the natural suspicions of the native people have kept the divisions alive? Isn’t this part of the story of the Holocaust? Hertz goes on to present the Levites as “foremost among the loyalists” to Israel, “who alone maintained the covenant of Abraham.”  Can we infer that all that was maintained was circumcision?  What else was passed on?  What wasn’t?

“And the daughter of Pharaoh…had compassion on him, and said ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.'” (Exodus 2:5-6) Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved Moses from death, knew Moses’ identity as a Hebrew. “And the maiden went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her: ‘Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.’ And the woman took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son.” (Exodus 2:8-10) It seems Moses’ family had ample opportunity to teach him the history and mores of the Israelite people – readily if Hertz’ assertions are correct – yet Moses’ later conduct says otherwise. Is there an underlying assumption that Moses’ was raised in Pharoah’s household at that time? Why say “Take this child away” and then “she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son”? Would the rights and privileges and expectations of Egyptian royalty have been conferred on him before or after he was brought to Pharoah’s daughter? Moses still recognized his kinsmen later in the parsha. Why didn’t he recognize God? Why did he force God to spoonfeed him rhetoric that he should have already known?  If Moses was raised as an Israelite, and then became Egyptian royalty, could he have been acquainted with Egyptian worship?  Could he have forgotten his upbringing?  Either way, could Moses have started as an idol worshipper?

Is the point of all this to show how far Israel backslid in the intervening years between Jacob and Joseph, and Moses? Moses grows up and becomes a Prophet in the same portion as he is born and weaned. Is Moses “Them that are weaned from the milk, Them that are drawn from the breasts?” as Isaiah says? Does this apply to the Israelites as well, being for the first time without the firm hands of the Matriarchs guiding the household observances (e.g. Rebekah)? That even the women, though loyal to their heritage, were ill-equiped to pass on the knowledge of the covenant? “The women shall come, and set them on fire; For it is a people of no understanding.” (Isaiah 28:11) Such that, first with Moses, and later with the community at Sinai, they need to be fed “the word of the Lord unto them Precept by precept, precept by precept, Line by line, line by line; Here a little, there a little; That they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” (Isaiah 28:13)

Is this so terribly unlike the Jewish experience today?

Does Isaiah also read the inevitable exile (“snared and taken”) as a blessing? “Jacob shall not be ashamed…When he seeth his children, the work of My hands, in the midst of him, That they sanctify My name.” Is exile even being promoted, not just as a blessing, but as a commandment toward the attainment of this condition? Can we call Jacob an exile for being removed from Canaan to Egypt? Can we call Israel an exile for being removed from Egypt to the wilderness? Didn’t Israel finally learn how to pray in Egypt? “And their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.” (Exodus 2:23) Didn’t Israel finally meet their God at Sinai? “And all the people perceived…the voice of the horn.” (Exodus 20:15)

Does Isaiah have the same trouble making sense of the parsha as I do!  Shemot is full of stress and paradox.  You have a people united by covenant but with little memory of covenant.  A woman at once a Levite – “the residue of His people”?  (Isaiah 28:5) – and unable or unwilling to raise her child adequately.  You have a prophet at once inclined towards his heritage yet distrustful of God.  “They are confused because of wine, They stagger because of strong drink; They reel in vision, they totter in judgement” (Isaiah 28:7)?  Is Isaiah’s this frustration?

Anthony Bourdain once visited the Bedouin on No Reservations.  They told him that staying in the desert was the only way to truly cleanse himself of the stored up intoxicants of his life.  Does Isaiah agree?  Is exile the opportunity to detoxify?

How does Rashi read that Moses was checking to see if any of the Egyptian’s descendants would convert to Judaism? I wonder what Rashi’s perceptions of Moses upbringing and abilities were. His assertion that Moses spoke God’s name to kill the Egyptian suggests that Moses was fairly acquainted with his heritage. His statement that Moses was mystified by the burning bush before the angel suggests to me that Moses still didn’t possess the recognition of his ancestors: he had to be reminded first. Is God known by the Tetragrammaton by any of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? I thought they knew him as Shaddai. If this is so, how would Moses…or anyone, for that matter…know the Tetragrammaton? Is this based in the oral tradition?

  1. I think you have a future as a rabbi. Try The Soncino Chumah for a digest of commentators who deal with your questions.

  2. Do you mean this one?

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