There are many ways to interpret Torah, as we’ve discussed in various contexts. One is the obvious one—the interpretation focuses on what is or what seems to be the literal message of the passage. That’s called pshat. And there are other ways, too. There is also gematria, where we count words or passages based on assigning a number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. When we know what the number is, we can often draw connections to other ideas or mitzvot in the Torah.
But here I want to focus on another method of interpretation—a technique called gezera shava. In gezera shava, we look at how often a phrase or a word appears in the Torah; if a phrase or a word occurs only once in the entire Torah, for example, that may mean that there’s something significant about the phrase or word. And if a word or a phrase appears frequently, it doesn’t seem to have as much interpretive weight. And if identical phrases, or sentences, or terms appear INFREQUENTLY, we look for what meaning they might share.
This week’s parsha, parshat Yitro, which we read in its entirety, contains a phrase that has appeared in the Torah before, making it a gezera shava. Moshe’s father-in-law advises him to delegate some of the work he’s been doing. Yitro points out that Moshe is the only person the Israelites rely on, and that dependence is ultimately going to exhaust Moshe. It’s good advice, something that all of us can learn from. That we can’t do it all. But when Yitro observes Moshe, he is quick to pronounce judgment. According to Yitro, the situation is not good. Simple words, in both Hebrew and English. Lo Tov. Not good. And Moshe, wise man that he was, knows that he’s got to change his approach to ruling. So, what about that phrase lo tov? It’s so simple that you might think that it appears repeatedly in the Torah. Yet it does not. In fact, that phrase appears only one other time in the entire Torah. You may be able to figure out where is its earlier occurrence.
Well, the answer is that lo tov appears in Breishit—when God sees that Adam is alone, God declares that that situation is lo tov, not good. So this is a perfect opportunity for gezera shava. And then the question becomes: What might these two examples share? What can we learn from bringing them together?
We might notice that, in the first case, God the father is pronouncing judgment; in the second case, Yitro the father-in-law is pronouncing judgment. But I think we can also go beyond that. God makes clear that it is not good for a person to be alone. And he creates Chava, Eve. Here God is making a statement about the value of family, about the value of intimate partnerships, of love. A partner can provide balance, can help one to shift perspective, can pick you up when you’re down. When Yitro exclaims lo tov, he is declaring that it is not good for rulers to rule alone, for rulers to be alone. That every ruler needs partners, people with whom she or he can share not only the responsibility but also the weight of leadership. Yitro makes clear that justice cannot be the sole province of one person, even someone as wise as his son-in-law Moshe.
So here in these two lo tovs we see the mirroring of family and community, of the personal and of the political, of the private and the public. It is not good to be alone, not good for a society, a community, and not good for the individual. And we know that, for Judaism, the line between family and community is never absolutely delineated. Never clear-cut. Here gezera shava teaches us that it is not good to be alone, and that we are never alone as long as we have each other.
This week’s parsha is full of some of the most memorable scenes in the Torah. We know that the Israelites have now escaped from Egypt, and we see the Egyptians who chase after them destroyed in the Yam Suf. The song we hear celebrates not the death of the Egyptians OR the splitting of the sea, but rather the Israelites’ faith in God AFTER the sea splits.
These miracles are followed by yet another miracle, one that we are quite familiar with: the miracle of the manna. The passage that describes this miracle is somewhat ambiguous. Here’s what it says:
What is ambiguous about this section? It seems clear that God is going to provide food for the Israelite AND that the people must harvest that food on a daily basis. That part is pretty clear. But the ambiguity is in the last part of the sentence: WHAT, exactly, is the test that God is providing to the Israelites?
Think for a moment about what YOU think that test might be.
Our Eytz Hayyim offers a number of possible interpretations of God’s statement. The ABOVE-THE-LINE commentary tells us that there are two interpretations of what the test might be. The first possible test is the very fact that we have to treat the manna a certain way—that is, that we have to gather it each day and not store it, for example. That we have to gather only as much as we need—no more and no less. That interpretation seems to be the most literal understanding of God’s statement “TO SEE WHETHER THEY WILL FOLLOW MY INSTRUCTIONS OR NOT.” And, as we just read, we know that the Israelites fail this test, with some taking more than they need and some taking less. That’s not surprising, given that they had never experienced such a miracle before. The second possible interpretation, according to our Chumash, is that God is deliberately letting the Israelites suffer their hunger so that they can recognize their dependence on Him for sustenance and survival. God’s provision of the manna makes clear that they cannot survive without Him.
These interpretations each have their defenders.
Yet, BELOW THE LINE, which we know is written by HAROLD KUSHNER, we read two or maybe even THREE OTHER possible interpretations. Rabbi Kushner doesn’t tell us which he favors, but he does mention that some scholars think that the test lies in the fact that the people have no choice but to eat the same thing every day. That the manna is actually a DEPRIVATION, and the question is whether the “grumbling” Israelites can be content with it. Here too we know that they fail. And if we think about how we feel about matzah on the sixth day of Pesach, we can probably all relate.
Though Rabbi Kushner offers that explanation, he immediately follows it with another, a second view which is almost the opposite of the first one. There he notes that if people have all that they need without having to make any effort, will they remember to thank God for it? Will they remember, in other words, to be grateful? When we bensch Berkat HaMazon, we are thanking God for what God provides for us. And, beyond food, whether rich or poor, we have an obligation to express our dependence on God. And then Kushner adds another observation, which may or may not be a third interpretation: he notes that it is possible that the test is whether the people will have the faith to trust that the manna will come EVERY DAY, and not just the first day that they experience it. This idea is similar to the very first interpretation that I mentioned—will we trust enough that we don’t try to store it or take more than we need for our “daily bread”?
These are all—both the above the line and the below the line—reasonable interpretations of what God means when he tells Moshe that He is going to test the Israelites. But I want to offer YET ANOTHER interpretation. See what you think. The Israelites are hungry. God provides quail and manna—meat and bread—on a daily basis. They don’t have to do anything except pick it up and eat it. The Israelites, as I mentioned, don’t need to DO ANYTHING. There’s even a double portion on the sixth day to prepare for Shabbat. They don’t need to cook it or work to get it, and there’s nothing else there that they can combine it with. Their needs are taken care of. There’s even a midrash that tells us that the manna was such a miracle that it could become whatever food the person craved at the time.
What would that mean? To me, it would mean that the Israelites—however hard their life in the desert was—have free time. Think about being on vacation. What’s one of the nicest things about being on vacation? Your meals are provided for—and that then leads to free time. Which makes it a vacation. Especially, I’m sure, for those who provide meals and do the attendant work before and after a meal.
So perhaps the test involves that free time. Perhaps the test revolves around what the Israelites DO with that free time. Do they use it productively, to bless God, to pray, and to become a real community? Or do they waste their time with complaints and envy and a nostalgia for the past? I think we know the answer to that question. I guess that’s human nature. But it does make me think about the concept of “free time.” How do we spend it? How do YOU spend it?
I had to get rid of the bowling app on my phone because I played it so much. I realized that I was wasting precious time doing it. I wonder if anyone else here has little habits that lead to lost time. How constructively do we use our time? I know so many people here are volunteers for this shul. Others of you volunteer OUTSIDE the shul—spending time reading to kids, for example, or donating your time to a soup kitchen. MANY of you take care of grandkids, and that is a wonderful way to spend time. And time here in shul—whether it’s a morning minyan, or an evening service–that time is NEVER wasted. So, it’s important to think about whether there are ways that we can improve on how we use our time. Whether there are ways that we can better use our time to serve God and to serve others.
And I am guessing that some of you might be thinking: WHAT FREE TIME? Am I right about that? Maybe you feel that you have precious LITTLE time to do the kinds of things that you wish you could be doing. That you are running from one thing to another. Maybe you envy the Israelites who didn’t have to run to Zayde’s for kosher chicken. Here I think it’s important that all of us ask ourselves what are our priorities. How do we want to live our lives? What matters and what doesn’t? Should we be simplifying? Should we be dropping activities that we have typically done in the past but that no longer serve us? Is it time for us to imagine a different kind of time? What might that look like?
The brilliant Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” These are beautiful words. Let us resolve to learn from the shortcomings of the Israelites who had everything that they needed but failed to recognize it. Let us resolve to appreciate what we have, and to follow the advice of Emerson to guard our precious spare moments. Let us resolve to use those moments wisely—to see them as “the brightest gems.” Let us use wisely the blessings—Especially and Including TIME—that we have.
Moses announces the tenth plague to Pharaoh, the slaying of the firstborn sons of Egypt. God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh does not respond to his final ultimatum. Once Pharaoh sees his own family affected, he permits the Israelites to leave the country.
The way Pharaoh responds to the tenth plague gives us insight into his relationship with the people he rules. Pharaoh not only enslaved the Israelites, but he also enslaved his own plague-stricken people by his lack of concern for their welfare. He could not care less about the fact that his own people -- the Egyptians -- were suffering blow after blow.
Only when the angel of death is at his door is he willing to let the Israelites go; when only the people suffered, Pharaoh was not moved in the least. God then commands Moses to instruct the Israelites how to prepare the sacrificial meal that is to occur immediately prior to the Exodus. The people are to take a lamb, slaughter it on the 14th day of Nisan, at twilight, mark the doorposts of their houses with its blood, and eat the lamb on the eve of the 15th. On the same night, God strikes down all the first-born of Egypt. God further commands the Israelites to observe this festival -- the 15th of Nisan, Passover -- for all time.
It is well-known that the Hebrew calendar is lunar (more precisely lunar-solar). The author of the Sefat Emes understands the Hebrew lunar calendar as a metaphor for the miracle of outliving our persecutors. Whereas others may survive only when the sun shines upon them, the Jews have survived and managed to spread light, as the moon does, even in the darkness.
This portion forms the basis of our Passover Haggadah. A good strategy to spice up your Seder would be to read parts of this Parsha from a Chumash such as Etz Chaim with commentaries. This can be an adjunct to the Haggadah itself.
Exodus 12:24-27 emphasizes this in the commandment, "You shall observe this as an instruction for all time . . . you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, `What do you mean by this rite (ma ha-avodah hazot lachem)?' you shall say, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt .’
The phrase, "What do you mean by this rite?" is placed into the mouth of the wicked child in the Passover Haggadah. Often, we dismiss this question and view the child's inquiry more as a challenge rather than a request for more understanding. Yet, embedded in his comment may be a thought worth pondering.
The word, "avodah," derives from the very same word as "avdoot," slavery. The child's question is, therefore, "What makes servitude to God any better than servitude to Pharaoh? I thought the whole point of leaving Egypt was to be free and now it turns out we are "avadim," slaves, again!"
If we understand the child's question in this way, the "wicked" child is presenting a challenging question. One way to respond is to suggest that Egyptian bondage was purely utilitarian. Pharaoh has no interest in the welfare of the slaves. In contrast, being a servant of God is a means of becoming who we were intended to be at creation; and this requires discipline, which is meant not to crush us (as was Pharaoh's intent) but to focus our energies so that we can become a holy people.
The Haftorah somehow casts the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as a positive figure since he will wipe out Egyptian society! I suppose, as Abba Eban once stated, “The enemy of our enemy is our friend.” Maybe we should re-install the missing NUN in our Ashrei!