Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

It’s a time of change. The country’s new administration has no value for the life-saving achievements of the past.  A group of “others” is labeled a possible security threat and is kept under harsh control.  And a group of women mount a peaceful and effective resistance against tyranny.

Welcome to the book of Exodus. 

A new Pharaoh fears the resident – and very fertile – Children of Israel as a potential fifth column in time of war.  He enslaves them and tries to weaken them further by ordering the midwives who deliver the Hebrew babies to kill newborn males immediately upon birth.  They don’t, protesting the Hebrew women give birth before they even get there (riiiight).  He then instead enlists the entire Egyptian people in killing all Hebrew baby boys by drowning them in the Nile.  A Levite woman gives birth to a boy and, after 3 months, sets him in a basket in the reeds along the Nile.  Pharaoh’s daughter adopts the foundling, and his watching sister arranges for his mother to be his wet nurse.  Thus, the future leader of the Hebrews, renamed Moses, grows up as a prince in the royal palace.

As a young man, Moses, demonstrates two strong character traits: a desire for justice and a temper.  The latter gets him into trouble, not for the last time, when he kills an abusive Egyptian taskmaster.  He flees to Midian, where he rescues the seven daughters of Jethro from abusive shepherds at a well (of course, where else?), marries one of the daughters, Zipporah, and works for his father-in-law for several decades as a shepherd.  At the age of 80, he sees a bush that burns and is not consumed.  He hears the voice of the Lord for the first time, summoning him to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.  In fact, the entire plot of the Exodus, from Ex. 3:7 through 12:36, is laid out for Moses in Chapter 3, verses 15-17.

Moses now shows that he has developed another characteristic since leaving Egypt: humility.  He feels unworthy of the assignment and incapable of speaking adequately. He makes excuse after excuse to get out of it.  Finally, the Lord, who has been teaching him some elementary signs-and-wonders for effective presentations, irritably ends the discussion by saying his older brother Aaron will speak for him, and that’s that.  They manage to convince the Hebrew elders that the Lord has sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt. However, Pharaoh is not impressed and, instead of letting the slaves go into the wilderness for a 3-day religious holiday, increases the slaves’ workload.  Naturally, the slaves complain to Moses who feels he’s been hung out to dry.  The Lord reassures him that everything is just now being set in motion, as we’ll see next week. 

This portion is notable for the activities of several determined women.  The two midwives, Shifra and Puah, are thought to have been the leaders of a midwives’ network, whence their outsized influence (Ibn Ezra).  Many commentators identify Shifra and Puah as Hebrew midwives, specifically, Moses’ mother Yocheved and sister Miriam.  Abravanel identifies them as Egyptian midwives to, not of, the Hebrews, which makes more sense to me.  Pharaoh could not expect Hebrew midwives to murder their own. (See Or maybe they were Semitic but not Hebrew; I’m told that Shifra is an Aramaic name and Puah, Ugaritic.  In any event, they “feared God” (a term typically used in describing sympathetic non-Hebrews) and let the boys live.

Other defiant women: Pharaoh’s daughter knows the baby is a Hebrew, yet she defies her father.  Little Miriam (aged 6) dares to approach her to offer her mother as a wet nurse.  In the Midrash, Yocheved and Amram dare to risk having another baby, despite Pharaoh’s decree, because Miriam scolds them.  Yocheved apparently dares to teach Moses his identity while she is his nurse.  And, much later, Zipporah, the wife of Moses, saves his life by circumcising their son on the way to Egypt when he has not (Ex. 4:24-26). 

Speaking of female defiance, I just saw Hidden Figures, a film about three defiant, brilliant, highly effective African-American women who worked for NASA, based on the nonfiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It was inspiring and infuriating, as stories about defiant women so often are.  I saw a group of middle school students at the theater when I was there.  They saw the film as a field trip.  I caught up with one of the teachers and commended her on the choice.  I also told her of some memories the film evoked for me, memories of watching the early flights in school on TV, and memories of grad school in chemistry. 

You see, one of the continuing issues for Katherine in the movie was that the ladies’ rooms in her building were for whites only, so she had to walk (run) a half-mile to get to a toilet she was allowed to use.  I am not African-American, but female chemistry graduate students were kind of rare in grad school then, so we also had “facilities” issues.  As I told the kids’ teacher, there were only three toilets (two restrooms) available for us in the department’s 3 or 4 connected buildings, so the first thing we did when a woman visited was show her where they were.  My first year, we were planning to “liberate” a spacious men’s room when the administration learned of the plan and quickly converted it for us.  The new Science Center for undergrads was also built with insufficient facilities, so that had to be corrected. 

The teacher asked what school.  I replied, “Harvard, in the ‘70’s.”  She was stunned.  “Harvard?!  In the ‘70’s?!” she kept saying, again and again, as I told her my stories.  I don’t know what surprised her more, the school, or how relatively recent this was.  By the way, I recently learned about The Great Harvard Pee-In of 1973 (with fake urine) led by an African-American attorney-turned-activist named Flo Kennedy, which apparently took place shortly before I arrived.  But that was a different part of the university.  Ah, memories.

Shabbat shalom,


Q: How many midwives does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two. One to sit there and wait for the old bulb to fall out of the socket naturally with no intervention, and one to give emotional support.

A woman in labor started shouting, “Didn’t, Can’t, Couldn’t, Wouldn’t, Shouldn’t”, and the midwife just nodded happily and said, “It looks as if she’s having lots of strong contractions.”


Dilbert on PowerPoint Presentations



Parshas Shemos On 1 Foot

Moshe: Ssso this burning bush ssstarts talking to me and asssks me to take off my shoess….and then it shows me these sssigns and then –

Aaron: Bottom line it for me

Moshe: I’m the new leader of the Jewissh People.

Aaron: With that lisp? Yeh, and I’m a priest
Moshe does some nifty tricks with staff.



Burning Bush    Monday, August 26, 2013 – 10:30 PM

It’s a very hot August afternoon and Sarah is taking her daily walk. As she nears her local shul, she notices that the shrubbery outside the entrance is on fire. She bangs on the gabbai‘s door and when he opens it, she tells him that he should call the fire brigade before the fire causes any damage. 
The gabbai dials 911, identifies himself, gives his location and explains the situation. 
“Do you mean to tell me,” says the emergency operator, “that there’s a burning bush on the synagogue lawn and you want us to put it out?”




You are hereby summoned to fulfill your civic duty as a juror for
A Trial of Biblical Proportions            

Sunday, November 15, 2015 | 10:00 AM               
We all know the story of Moses leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, as he catalyzed the birth of a nation. But long before becoming God’s messenger, Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave. Join us for a unique event that brings together biblical scholarship and courtroom drama as we explore Moses’s guilt or innocence on the charge of murder.

The trial begins with a text study led by Rabbi Norman J. Cohen, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Midrash at Hebrew Union College. You will then enter the “courtroom,” where renowned legal analysts Dan Abrams and Alan Dershowitz will serve, respectively, as prosecutor and defense attorney. The trial will be presided over by the Honorable Judge Alison J. Nathan. And then, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you will cast your votes. What will the verdict be? 

Defense: Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law, Emeritus
Prosecutor: Dan Abrams, ABC News Chief Legal Anchor 
Honorable Federal Judge: Alison J. Nathan

The Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center  |  One East 65th Street  |  NYC 10065  |  212.507.9580


On Sunday November 13, more than 1500 members of the jury exonerated Moses of all murder charges laid against him by the Temple Emanu-El Skirball district prosecutor. A great many thanks to everyone who participated- from the early risers in line to our returning guests, Judge Alison Nathan and Alan Dershowitz, and this year’s newcomer, Dan Abrams.

(BTW, The November 20, 2016 trial was The People vs. King David.  2014’s was The Trial of Abraham.)

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