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Vayigash Sh'mot / Approaching Sh’mot

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

In the Summer of 2019, I was approached by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to be one of five women commentators on the Torah for 5780. I was thrilled to learn that I was specifically asked to comment on Sh’mot/Exodus.

The stories and themes of Sh'mot are some of the best-known stories in English literature and continue to inspire oppressed and distressed people around the world. Yet, most people approach the text focusing on what has already been said with an emphasis on grandeur of spectacle for us as a people — which is important, and not the full story.

A few years ago, I began to break down some of the metaphors and explore what it means to view the supernatural occurrences as signs and wonders, instead of the more common plague narrative, thereby deeply claiming "What does this all mean to me?" As I moved into this journey, I was reminded of Estelle Frankel's book, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Shambhala 2003). Along the way, I will be sharing her insights and those of other teachers/healers, as well as my own thoughts, feelings and experiences.

Sh’mot has a lot to say about what it means to experience oppression; what it means to claim our humanity in the face of oppression; what is required to ready oneself and one’s people for freedom; what it means to be free; and that freedom is not as simple or easy as it may seem. Of course the opposite of this is what it looks like to struggle with responsibility and the seduction of routine.

The metaphors and allegories are rich with life lessons, including the psychological and spiritual journeys with trauma, loss, change, transformation, celebration, and liberation. I invite you to join me in mining these well-known stories to uncover hidden gems of personal meaning, which may aid us in transforming our individual stories within the varied collection of Jewish lives and experiences.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity and support I received from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality to deepen my connection to this text and to explore the lessons I knew and did not know are here, waiting to be shared in our real lives. I especially want to thank Rabbi Jonathan Slater who gave me the space to hold the fresh grief of my Mom’s death and deep desire to explore a text I deeply love.

The metaphors and allegories are rich with life lessons...

The Bridge from Breisheet Our first creation story is different from many other creation stories in that it starts with the creation of the whole universe, then this particular place we’ve come to call Earth. We move with The Eternal from chaos to continuous separation and distinction. Once we humans are created, we are given responsibility to oversee and preserve The Eternal’s creation (Breisheet/Genesis 1.28).

The family stories are a new distinction, filled with all kinds of very human emotions that lead to the selling of Yoseif into Egypt...

The Eternal becomes deeply disappointed with humans as our worse tendencies emerge. The Eternal decides to destroy humans, and enlists the assistance of Noakh (Noah). At his birth, his father Lemekh as he names him, prophesies: This one will provide us relief from our work and the toil of our hands (Breisheet/Genesis 5.29). Mishna Tanchuma says Noakh invented plows, scythes, and all kinds of tools that were helpful to humanity. In various midrashim, he is reported as being kind despite the ridicule he faced as a child and as a man, which is why The Eternal thought him to be righteous. After the Flood, when the Teivah/Ark reaches land, Noakh exits and is stunned by the devastation. As The Eternal is deciding not to destroy humanity again, Rebbe Nachman of Breslav says that Noakh in his shock speaks: Master of Compassion, what have you done? To which The Eternal responds: Foolish shepherd, where was your compassion when I told you my plans?

There are ten generations from the exile of the Garden of Eden to Noakh and ten generations from Noakh to Avram. I imagine that the stories shared to this point in the Breisheet are among those passed down through the ten generations that lead to Avram, who will become Avraham. This story, though not among what we have read points to the internal legacy that reaches Avram.

The story of Avraham and Sarah, Hagar, Yish’mael, and Yitz’khak leads to the Yaakov and Yoseif stories. The family stories are a new distinction, filled with all kinds of very human emotions that lead to the selling of Yoseif into Egypt, where he develops his own relationship to The Eternal and uses his God guided wisdom to save his family and bring a region through a devastating drought and famine.

Sh’mot begins roughly 400 years after the family has settled in a very fertile area near the Nile river called Goshen near the garrison cities of Ramseis and Pitom. From this point forward, B’nei Yis’rael, moves toward becoming a nation and a people. Sh’mot is the story of our transformation.

As for process, I mostly use transliterated Hebrew instead of the traditional anglicization of names for people and places. I will summarize and provide commentary of the narrative or content of each parshah, followed by reflections and, when possible suggestions for practices. Summaries will be in first person plural. I look forward to your thoughts, experiences, and feedback. Comments are welcome and encouraged.

Sabrina Sojourner Shaliakh Tzibur 24, Tevet, 57

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