Reminders on the Crooked Path to Freedom

posted on January 1, 2013
Torah Reading

As I read through the beginning of the Book of Exodus (Shemot) I cannot help but be reminded of lessons that continually nag at my heart and soul. I'd like to share just a few of them with you.

1) This week we actively recall and celebrate the courageous actions of Shifra and Pu'ah, the Hebrew midwives who defied the King of Egypt, choosing life above death, thoughtful disobedience over blind submission, and fidelity to Godliness over human delusions of wielding God-like power. May their bravery live eternally (and instantly!) in our mandate to demand nothing less from ourselves.

2) This week we recall the compassion and vision of Pharaoh's daughter, who while seeking a bath by the river happened upon what so many of us blind ourselves to daily: Humanity, a life desperate for attention, care, and love. But our rabbinic tradition teaches us she had the vision to see exactly what was there. She saw a basket, a baby (Moses), and she saw God. And this king's daughter--who was want for nothing--showed deep compassion by saving his life and inserting herself into life's narrative--precisely where it would be easier to decline a role.

3) This week we remind ourselves that God is often manifest in the least expected places. God could have chosen any magnificent space in nature to begin a relationship with Moses, yet, God appears in something quite common to all humanity, something most of us look past every time we walk outside--a little bush. This seemingly odd choice profoundly asserts a truth about one way we ought to walk in the world (halakhah): With heightened attentiveness to the holiness directly in our paths. There is certainly value in reaching for the highest mountain, the perfect spot for prayer, and the quietest space for reflection. But God's choice of a simple bush reminds us that the quest for perfection can too easily obscure the ever-present opportunity for divine/human encounter.

4) This week we celebrate our steadfast commitment to a sacred language, Hebrew. Prof. Richard Elliot Friedman teaches that when the deeply humble Moses attempted to subvert his new status by saying he is "not a man of words, heavy of speech and heavy of tongue", it is because he grew up with Egyptian as his first language, not Hebrew! Moses, our revered teacher and prophet, was scared because he couldn't speak the language of his people. But God reassured Moses and offered him that which is so often needed to tackle a daunting task. He offered him a partner--Aaron. And only together would they conquer Moses' anxiety. Whom will you ask to help you claim the language of your past, present, and future? To whom will you offer your expertise?

5) Finally, a question for this week and every week: Will I be a Moses or Pharaoh today? Will I possess a hard heart that is numb to life, or cultivate a soft heart, open to living.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University where he was ordained, obtained his Masters in Rabbinic Studies, and now teaches Practical Halakhah and Codes.