Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of January 8-15, 2021
“From Generation to Generation:
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ’07
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Dor holekh, v’dor bah, v’haolam l’olam omedet” – “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the world remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4)
After listing the generations of the descendants of Jacob who had moved to Egypt, a poignant passage reads: “Arose a new king of Egypt who did not know Joseph…” I am struck by this acknowledgement of both memory and loss. What happens when one generation dies and another is born? How do we preserve the legacy of those who have died? How do we right the injustices perpetrated by our elders? How does this manifest both personally and collectively?
Having witnessed the passing of my parents more than twenty years ago, I have watched the disintegration of my immediate family. Once upon a time, we all gathered; cousins knew each other and celebrations were joyous. After my parents died, the joint family reunions stopped. A set of great-grand-children know not their relatives or their stories and most know not their Jewish heritage.
As a hospice chaplain, I meet many families who are more dysfunctional than this. Yet, I meet many who are engaged in legacy projects to pass on memories. With the advent of technology, families who are dispersed can meet online and re-discover long-lost connections. alerts people to members of their family who were unknown to them. The DNA search goes on to answer the questions of identity: Who am I? Where do I come from? What are my roots?
Why does it matter? Personally, family identity grounds us with roots; grounds us in a narrative that is meaningful either as inspiration to follow in someone’s footsteps or to overcome their missteps. We resonate with family stories in literature, on TV, in movies. We take massive numbers of photos and post them on social media to say, “This is who I am; this is who we are. Remember us!” Recently, with the death of Rabbi Yocheved Mintz’ son Jeffrey Adam Mintz, watching his funeral, we learned about her family’s history and the legacy that her son left behind, which revealed a meaningful and poignant narrative. We were given a mechanism to remember him and his contributions to the world.
In the aftermath of Chanukah in our tradition, our holiday that celebrates fighting for our national religious identity, we encounter the beginnings of that story in Torah. With Shemot, we enter into the story of the Exodus, which culminates in the Passover narrative, the transformation of the twelve tribes of Jacob into the Children of Israel. We play on the name of our last patriarch moving from Yaakov to Yisrael, expressing the movement from a family story to a national one. We notice our name change, from hanging on the heels of inheritance to the forging of a nation that wrestles with both God and identity from then to now.
In a drash that confirms my distress at the way that Joseph impoverished the Egyptian people to fill the coffers of the Pharoah, Rabbi Arthur Waskow muses that perhaps God is punishing the Jewish people with enslavement as an act of restorative justice for the Egyptians and a way of transmitting a new value system. Perhaps, the Exodus story creates an understanding of how wealth is to be re-distributed, by giving us laws that make sure that the widow, orphan and stranger have a safety net, that makes sure that women are given their inheritances, that makes sure that slaves are to be treated humanely.
In Shemot, we encounter the struggles for freedom that will be encountered by the Israelites and we consider that the narrative is moved by the women. From Shifra and Puah, the midwives who defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Israelite first born sons, to Miriam who convinces her mother to save Moses and stands with Moses and Aaron to lead the new nation in formation, to Batya, Pharaohs daughter who rescues Moses from the Nile and raises him, to Zipporah who Moses marries and supposedly preserves him by circumcising their child and brings Moses into relationship to Yitro her father who trains him in leadership skills in the desert.
Lying dormant in the narrative for centuries, it took the feminist interpretation of Torah to bring forth the power of these women. Their legacy was almost lost. Like the Burning Bush that Moses passes day after day but never sees, their stories were told year after year, yet never fully encountered. I wonder if the legacy of my parents and the dissolution of my personal family will result in a future story buried beneath the surface of my generation’s narrative in America.
Time will tell. My family has a family tree; the Jewish people have a tree of life. The narratives continue, weaving families together and creating the tapestry of the legacy of the Jewish people in modernity. May we continue Shabbat gatherings and Torah study across geography, reading the full Exodus narrative in the months ahead in preparation for the Seders to come. May the burning bush become our metaphor for mindfulness as we encounter our continuing legacy as a people.