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Your Very Own Portion

"Burning Bush" at St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Torah Talk on Shmot 5780

This week’s parashah happens to be my personal favorite section, the portion of Shmot, beginning of the book of Exodus, because it was my own bar mitzvah portion. As you know, we chant the entire Torah over the course of a year in the synagogue, dividing the reading up into a series of weekly portions that begin with the start of Genesis in the fall and continue through the conclusion of Deuteronomy the following autumn. This portion happened to fall on the day I was born, a Shabbat, and therefore it was the portion I learned for my bar mitzvah 13 years later.

Now you would think that since we have had the Torah with us for at least two and half millennia, 2500 years (some would say 3200 years) that no part of the Torah belongs to any one Jew. But when you spend a solid year closely studying one section of the Torah, as our bar and bat mitzvah kids do, and you do so at 12 years of age, you start to feel like this portion is not only special to you but also kind of belongs to you. It becomes your Torah portion, as though you were the first and only Jew ever to come so close to it.

Although as a rabbi and cantor I have studied many Torah portions and have immersed myself in the texts and commentaries of each of the weekly sedras over the years since my bar mitzvah, at some level I still feel that Shmot is my portion. There are several reasons for this. First, I really did spend about two years studying this section with my father, Rabbi and Cantor Baruch Cohon, and he is an excellent teacher. In the course of that time I came nearly to memorize the 124 verses in the portion and to know the ins-and-outs of many of the commentaries on this parshah. And while all of this happened long ago, there has been an annual opportunity to review and re-explore “my” portion, since most years I chant the whole portion in the synagogue.

But the most important reason that Shmot has continued to be such a source of interest and inspiration is the text itself of this first portion of the book of Exodus. It’s filled with outstanding stories both dramatic and exceptionally important.

Shmot begins with the Israelites living well in Egypt—and then a new king arises who “knew not Joseph”, the people are enslaved, Moses is born, and the fabulous tale of slavery, redemption, and freedom begins to play itself out.

Nearly from birth Moses is the most interesting and important person in the Torah, and perhaps in all of world religion. He is courageous, forthright, hot-tempered, humble, persistent, chutzpadik, and in every way a very human hero. At the start of the climactic section of this week’s Torah portion, Moses is herding sheep in the wilderness when he comes upon a famous bush, sneh bo’eir ba’eish, v’hasneh einenu ukal—a bush burning with a furious flame, but unconsumed. God appears to Moses out of that flame, and instructs him to stand up for his people, go back to the Egypt he fled as a fugitive and liberate the enslaved Israelites.

To put it mildly, Moses is reluctant to go. He argues that he isn’t worthy, he says no one will believe him, he tells God he stutters, he comes up with a variety of reasons that he shouldn’t go back to Egypt. When God answers each of his objections with a solution, Moses simply refuses.

God, however, has a certain power to persuade. And of course—this being the Torah, our primary religious text—God is right. By the end of the portion Moses finds himself back in Egypt, his first efforts to liberate the people rebuffed, he himself already discredited in his quest to free his people from domination.

The growth of Moses into the protean liberation figure who redeems the Israelites will take two more weekly portions. But the lesson here in Shemot is that if God chooses a course for you, no matter what your personal feelings, you should probably go along for the ride. For one way or another your direction in life has been selected.

Or perhaps the lesson is even greater. Many times, our reluctance to accept a sacred task, to do what we are urged to do, is simply a combination of obstinacy and fear. We know we should take a new course in life, to embrace hope and promise over the familiar and ordinary failures. But our own inertia holds us back.

May the burning bush illumine a new, sacred path for us in this new secular year of 2020, as it did for Moses so long ago.

One more personal note: five years ago, I stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and saw what the monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery say is the very bush that Moses saw burning but not consumed 3250 years ago. While the identification of that shrub seems exceedingly dubious, and even the location of Mt. Sinai itself is in some doubt, the continued power of the tale teaches us that the meaning of a narrative is often more powerful than the simple facts.

Similarly, our own narratives, our life stories, like our own Torah portions, can have deep meaning, whether or not we turn out to be Moses. Every human story has its own richness, beauty, and power.

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