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Dvar Torah - Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769

Dvar Torah - Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769

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Published by Maurice Harris

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Published by: Maurice Harris on Apr 13, 2011
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D’var Torah – Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesach 5769Rabbi Maurice HarrisOn Thursday morning this week we read from the Torah verses assigned by thesages to the first day of Passover. The scene is the slave ghettos of Pharaoh’sEgypt just before the arrival of the 10
th
and final plague, the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt. Moses calls together the elders of the people and says to them,“Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering. Takea bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of theblood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shallgo outside the door of your homes until morning. For when the Eternal goesthrough to smite the Egyptian first born sons, God will see the blood on the linteland the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”In recent years much has been written about how the Passover story begins andends with birth imagery, and I’ve talked about this here in the past as well. In thehaggadah we used yesterday at the community seder, we read the following (andI paraphrase):How was the desire for freedom first aroused? By the midwives, Shifrahand Puah, who resisted Pharaoh’s decree to kill every Israelite boy. ByMiriam, who watched over her brother Moses to insure his safety as hefloated in a basket down the Nile. In the birth waters and in the Nile,these extraordinary women saw life and liberation. The waters of freedom open and close the Passover story, taking us from the Nile to theSea of Reeds.A baby, Moses, is given life thanks to midwives and then pulled from the water bya princess – the birth imagery is striking. A nation passes through the narrowcavity of the path that God opens through the Sea of Reeds and emerges out theother side, alive and free. Birth imagery again. What struck me as I took acloser look at the Torah verses we read Thursday morning was that I wasreminded that we have more birth imagery here in the middle of the story, at this1
 
crucial moment, just before the 10
th
plague brings grief and sorrow to so many inancient Egypt, just before the Pharaoh finally summons Moses and Aaron andspits out the words, “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israeliteswith you. Go, worship the Eternal as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!”In that moment when Moses instructed the Israelites to take a lamb, slaughter itas an offering, put its blood in a basin, and then paint the blood on the top and onthe side posts of the doors of their homes, we are confronted yet again with avisual image of a people getting ready to pass through a birth canal, out of aholding chamber and into a new existence.The Torah is full of literary links that tie together these thematic echoes – this ispart of its artfulness and beauty. The text that describes the placing of the lamb’sblood on the doorposts offers us one of these marvelous literary links. The keyword is the Hebrew word for basin –
saf 
– spelled with a samech and a final fay.This is the basin that Moses tells the people to put the lamb’s blood in, and out of which they will take up the blood to paint it on their doorposts.
Saf 
is a somewhat unusual word, and it calls our attention to a key word in theother two moments of birth that I spoke of. In the first instance, which describesbaby Moses being placed into the Nile and then drawn out of the water by thePharaoh’s daughter, the text tells us that Moses’ mother placed the basketcontaining her beloved child in the reeds of the river. The Hebrew word for reedsis
soof 
, spelled almost identically to
saf 
. In the second instance – the liberationof the Israelites after they cross the divided Sea of Reeds – the word
soof 
appears again – this time as part of the name of the body of water from whichthey emerged.Let’s take a closer look at these little Hebrew words,
saf 
and
soof 
, and see whatother connections emerge, and let’s also expand our examination of the birthimagery that is so present throughout this story. What I’d like to suggest is that2
 
we find elements, or at least hints, of death, blood, and rebirth in all three of these key moments in the story.At the beginning of the Passover tale, Moses is a baby marked for death. Whenhis mother and sister send him afloat upon the Nile, they give him over to almostcertain death. Listen to how the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria,retells this moment of the story in his book,
On the Life of Moses
.Moses’ parents … with many tears exposed their child on the banks of theriver, and departed groaning and lamenting, pitying themselves for thenecessity which had fallen upon them, and calling themselves the slayersand murderers of their child… Then, as was natural for people involved ina miserable misfortune, they accused themselves as having brought aheavier affliction on themselves then they need have done. “For why,”said they, “did we not let him die as Pharaoh ordered at the moment of hisbirth? But we, in our affection, have nourished him these three entiremonths, causing ourselves by such conduct more abundant grief, andinflicting upon him a heavier punishment, in order that he, having at lastattained to a great capacity for feeling pleasures and pains, should at lastperish in the most grievous of evils.” And so they departed in ignorance of the future, being wholly overwhelmed with sad misery…So as we see, the story of the rescue and adoption of baby Moses is fraught withthe potential of death. It also offers us an obvious moment of birth, when thePharaoh’s daughter sees the helpless baby and has compassion on him, drawinghim out of the waters and taking him for her own. Let’s listen to Philo’sinterpretive telling of this moment as well:Now the king of the country had an only daughter, whom he tenderlyloved, and they say that she, although she had been married a long time,had never had any children, and therefore, as was natural, was verydesirous of children… And as she was always desponding and lamenting,so especially on that particular day was she overcome by the weight of her anxiety, that, though it was her ordinary custom to stay in doors and never to pass over the threshold of her house, yet now she went forth with her handmaidens to the river, where the infant was lying. And there, as shewas about to indulge in a bath and purification in the thickest part of themarsh, she beheld the child, and commanded her handmaidens to bringhim to her.3

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