Parashat Shemot Erev Shabbat 8 January 2021
Week of 3-9 January 2021
Torah portion : Exodus 1 :1-6:1   Haftarah: Isa. 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23
Theme: G-d amid tension


If there is one observation we can make about the various characters involved in this week’s parasha, it is the tension as a result of the contradicting realities in which they are living. We turn our attention first, to the children of Israel. The book of Shemot opens with the genealogy of the children of Israel who had been welcomed by Pharaoh and his people. In Egypt, they were saved from the ravages of the famine. Under a new Pharaoh, they were enslaved. Despite the death-dealing policies of Pharaoh, fertility and fecundity abounded among them.

We see in the brave midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, carefully treading the contradiction between being employed by the Pharaoh while choosing to defy him by saving the Hebrew boys. The same tension faced Pharaoh’s daughter when raising a Hebrew child right under the Pharaoh’s nose. Of course, Moses faced several tensions and conflicting realities within and outside himself. Being raised by his own Hebrew mother as his wet nurse, while growing up in the courts of the Pharaoh, he must have had to face the tension of having a dual identity: raised a Hebrew and then being returned to an Egyptian household.

Moses too faced tension in his personality being zealous and righteous: killing an Egyptian guard for ill-treating a Hebrew slave and then running away from the crime. He defends the Midianite women in righteousness at the well. He was brave enough to approach the presence of G-d in the bush only to cower in fear as he receives his responsibilities moments later (to the extent that he asks G-d to send someone else).

The story has a turning-point. James Ackerman calls attention to the word “yarad” which means to come down. G-d “descends” (yarad) and intervenes, rescues his people. “Jacob was promised that God will “descend” with him into Egypt (Gen 46:4)…and many years have passed and it is announced that G-d will indeed come down and rescue the people (Exodus 3:8).”

The G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been experienced as free and gracious in saving his people. With these observations, we can make the connection that G-d descends into a situation of a people and individuals enmeshed and entangled in tension, in contradictions, in conflict. G-d too may also be considered caught up in tension himself. Plaut notes that here is a G-d who “appears in the remote mountain of the wilderness yet is not constrained by its isolation.” Here we also find the ineffable G-d who makes himself known. Yet when he does make himself known, he does so with a name that is complex and mysterious. It is no wonder that G-d has chosen to descend into our human reality fraught with tension and contradictions. In the past year, we have seen the best and worst in our own lives, in our communities, in our society. We have seen the nobility of the human spirit, and the pandemic has revealed the stench of human depravity. Yet with all this tension and contradiction, we are reminded by the parasha, that our reality is not too alien for G-d, because he has chosen to descend into our tension-filled and conflict-ridden realities, and quite mysteriously, is at home with them.

For Reflection and Discussion: 1. What tensions, contradictions, conflicts within ourselves, our families, our communities have we experienced in the past year?  2. How can we be more attentive to G-d’s “descent” into our conflicts, contradictions, and tensions? 

Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., “Shemot” in Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: URJ Press, 2006).

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
John Paul A. Bolano, Philippines, Bat Kol Alumnus 2017


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