January 5, 2018


1.5.2018 Weekly Torah Portion

Of all the rich imagery and noteworthy scenes in this week’s parsha, the beginning of the book of Exodus, there’s one in particular which is at the forefront of my mind. After Pharaoh’s edict to have all newborn males killed, Moses’ mother, unable to bear what will become of her son, places him in a basket, hoping for the best for her child. The well-known, epic series of events which follows – Pharaoh’s daughter discovering and naming the boy, Moses growing up and then leaving Egypt, God calling to Moses who then returns to lead the Israelite people out of slavery – is, at this point in the narrative, up in the air. There’s a brief moment in the story where all we’re left with is a vulnerable child, only protected by a basket, with his sister, Miriam, watching from afar, an unknown outcome ahead. Miriam, a few verses later, then takes action to help her brother – she isn’t just a passive observer, but subtly finds a way to ensure her brother’s safety and care.

Three associations come to mind for me out of this moment, one traditional and two personal. The first comes from the Hebrew noun used for the basket, “tevah.” This is the same word used to describe Noah’s ark at the beginning of the book of Genesis (and is, in fact, the only other time the word is used in the Torah), and the thematic connection is clear. In each case, life hangs in the balance as a structure drifts through the water, left exposed in a dangerous situation. Noah and his family, of course, don’t have a relative watching them from outside the ark, but it’s also clear from the narrative that God is guiding the ark, seeking to fulfill the covenant made with Noah to keep Noah and his family safe. Though seemingly distant, God’s role as caretaker is real.

The second association comes from my experience in the past two weeks. My paternal grandmother passed away recently, December 23rd, and much of the past two weeks has been occupied by dealing with this loss, both emotionally and logistically. As I’ve been getting my feet back under me this week, the imagery from the funeral remains present. I still see my grandmother’s casket being lowered into the earth, surrounded by her family and those who love her. I’m surprised to have an association with Moses in the basket emerge, but the link also makes sense – though one situation is at the end of life and the other is at the beginning, there’s a simple structure protecting a body, a transitional moment, and uncertainty ahead. My grandmother has left this life, and I don’t have any clarity about what, if anything, is “next” for her. Yet, we gathered together from across the country to say our goodbyes and pay our respects, looking on as she moved out of this life, taking whatever actions we could to show our love.

A third association: my wife, Sarah, is 23 weeks pregnant today, due to give birth on May 4th, hopefully bringing a healthy child into the world. We have two sons, yet each pregnancy is its own independent experience, with its own hopes and anxieties, its own uncertainties and excitement. The imagery of a nascent person, in a safe, confined space, moving to an unclear and yet ultimately safe and loving environment comes to mind for me as well. In this situation, I again find myself in Miriam’s place, watching both with eagerness and some trepidation from afar, and also taking whatever actions I can to provide care and show love.

Each of these associations share a common theme – they’re each a liminal moment, an in-between time, transitioning from one stage to another, with another party at a distance, both an observer and an actor. In reflecting on each of these scenes, I’m thinking about what I can do to honor my grandmother’s memory and what I can do to care for my family. I also find comfort that I have people in my life filling Miriam’s role for me, both looking on and taking action to help me, just as I am seeking to fill that role for others. I pray for myself and for each of us that we’re able to see how we are often, if not always, both Moses and Miriam. Each of us is continually moving from one moment to the next in our lives, protected by those who love us, and each of us has the opportunity and obligation to care for the people in our lives whom we love and who need us. May we always feel that love and care, and may we have the courage and strength to provide it when needed and called for.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Matt