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Cantorial Comments - Parshat Shemot                          January 18, 2020 - 21 Tevet 5780

01/16/2020 03:14:49 PM


“Little things console us because little things afflict us.”
--Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French mathematician,                                                  physicist, inventor and theologian

Torah is the fundamental blueprint for Jewish life and culture. It teaches us about thoughtful living through law, it teaches us about spirituality and God, and teaches us about who we are by helping us understand where we came from. Often when studying Torah, the majesty of the significance of the text as the underpinnings of the entirety of Western culture, it’s easy to overlook the smaller, more personal stories that are woven into the text. With the help of midrashic literature, our Sages of Blessed Memory left no stone unturned to tease out even more beauty from the tiniest suggestion in the Torah text. This week, it is my pleasure to reprint the teaching of Dr. Joshua Kulp the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem (where I did my first year of Cantorial school) who explores a beautiful little love story in one of these textual “ruptures” in this week’s parsha.
Shabbat Shalom,

The stories of the beginning of Moshe’s life are notoriously laconic. Most of what Jews think they know about Moshe’s early life actually comes from movies, especially the Ten Commandments and the Prince of Egypt. Midrash works to fill in the gaps in the story that are unexplained in the Bible itself. But midrash almost always needs a “hook” on which to hang its story, some sort of textual “rupture” that allows an ancient exegete to suggest that something happened that is not described in the text. The following is an excellent example, one that I’m guessing you might not have noticed before.

At the end of chapter one of Exodus, Pharaoh decrees “every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” Chapter two picks up immediately with “a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son.” From these verses, it sounds like this child is the Levite woman’s first. But a few verses later we learn that this child has an older sister. Where did this sister come from? If the man from the house of Levi just took this wife, how does the child already have a sister (a very clever one, as we shall soon learn)? Here is our “rupture” in the text, some point that makes little sense but allows for the rabbis to insert a story that both solves the difficulty and at the same time sharpens the message we read out of the text.

The story is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 12b. The Talmud notes that Amram (the man of the house of Levi) “went and married.” Why the extra verb “went”? The answer: he went at the advice of this remarkable daughter. The backstory is as follows:

Amram was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing. He arose and divorced his wife. All others who saw this arose and divorced their wives.

His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females.

Amram arose and brought back (i.e. remarried) his wife, and all the others who saw this arose and brought back their wives.

We can see here how the “darshan,” the exegete, has used the opportunity of this rupture to insert a message of courage into the text relevant to his own generation, who in all likelihood faced persecution. (When have Jews not faced persecution?)

But this solution still leaves us with a problem—if this is a remarriage, the text should have said he took back, not married. The Talmud solves this textual rupture with a beautiful story:

Rav Yehuda bar Zevina says: He performed an act of marriage. He sat her on a palanquin and Aharon and Miriam danced before her, and the ministering angels said: “A joyful mother of children” (Psalms 113:9).

Amram did not just go back to sleeping with his wife. He had a second wedding, this time allowing his children to celebrate the couple’s love for each other. Indeed, the Talmud goes on to note that according to its reckoning, Yocheved is 130 years old at the time! But no matter, for with the rekindling of their love Yocheved became again like a young girl, in love with her childhood paramour.

Through this tiny “rupture” in the text, the Midrash provides us with a rich story of the brilliance of Miriam, the courage of Yocheved and the other wives, and a story of the rekindled love of two elderly people who are about to give the Jewish people the greatest leader they will ever have, Moshe.

Dr. Joshua Kulp, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty & Rosh Yeshiva

Thu, October 22 2020 4 Cheshvan 5781