Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Recently, my kids and I walked from our home to the park a few blocks away. My son Jeremy decided to roller-skate there, even though he’s still learning how. He’s at the point where he can skate on his own during the smooth stretches of sidewalk, but needs help to keep from falling over bumps. We progressed at the pace of snails. (It took us almost half an hour to reach the park only a few blocks away!)
As we moved along, repeatedly letting go and grabbing hands again, I felt that this pattern was intrinsic to human nature. When everything’s fine, we coast. We feel independent and self-sufficient; we can go it alone. However, when we reach bumps in the road, then we feel the need to hold to one another.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people hit a bumpy part of the road – to say the least. This parasha, Sh’mot (names), which begins the book of Exodus, recounts how we became enslaved in Egypt. In this excruciating time, the portion is filled with stories of people reaching out to one another. The Hebrew midwives risk their lives to save babies (who Pharaoh commanded to be killed). Pharaoh’s daughter rescues baby Moses from the river, and Moses’ sister Miriam steps in to ensure he is reunited with his mother. When he grows up, Moses intervenes three times to help a person in need – twice to help an Israelite who was being beaten, and once to assist a Midianite women harassed by shepherds. And throughout, lots of couples are having children: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and grew…”
As a nation, we too hit a tough stretch these past couple years. In beginning a new book of the Torah this week, we are only days away from a new secular year. Each new year offers the promise of a clean slate. Hope for a new start is often mingled with lingering uncertainty about whether the challenges of the past year will continue.
Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about bad times is that they have a way of bringing people together. I know personally that almost all of my closest friendships were forged in the worst periods of my life. Somehow, in the tough times, you find yourself unable to lie and pretend that everything is okay, and that you don’t need anyone else. In those moments, some of the strongest connections are forged.
This week’s portion recounts that “God saw the Israelites” and was moved to redeem them. What did God see? According to one commentator, “God saw that the Israelites had compassion on one another. When one of them finished his quota of bricks, he would help his friend.”
Each year, we read the story of the Exodus not merely as descriptive of past events, but as prescriptive for the future. Sometimes, the most profound truths in life are also the simplest. When you reach bumps in the road, hold hands.
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December 14, 2010 | 9:45 pm
Posted by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Recently, I was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s home along with many guests. I sat down beside a woman I’d never met. I introduced myself, and she asked, “So what do you do?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I could have provided a number of responses that were completely true, but none told the whole story. I could have said: ‘I’m a stay-at-home mom’ (or a ‘full-time mom’). Or ‘I teach’ (since I teach one course in the fall at the American Jewish University. Or ‘I’m a writer’ (but my book hadn’t been accepted for publication). Or ‘I’m a rabbi’ (but I wasn’t working in a congregational capacity). Or ‘I’m a student’ – since I’m working on a Ph.D. (albeit slowly, when the kids are in school)…
How should I choose between these possible responses? Should I pick the one that sounded most respectable? Or should I pick the one that was closest to my heart?
Before having my second child, the answer to this question would have been automatic. “I’m a rabbi of a congregation.” I could answer without a moment’s pause, and the response was well-respected. But now, I wondered: why was answering such a simple question so hard?
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob’s sons faced a similar dilemma. Their occupation was straightforward: they were shepherds in Canaan. But then they came to Egypt during a famine and were reunited with their brother Joseph, who was a vizier in Egypt. When Joseph prepared to introduce his family to the Pharaoh, he warned them that shepherds were held in low esteem in Egypt. He told his brothers: When Pharaoh asks you what you do, tell him that you’re “breeders of livestock,” which was held in higher regard.
Nevertheless, when the brothers were introduced to Pharaoh, and as expected, Pharaoh asked: “What do you do?” the brothers responded, ‘We your servants have always been shepherds, from our youth until now, as were also our fathers.” The brothers answered honestly without hesitation. They were proud of their profession, regardless of what others (even those in power) might think.
A few days after the dinner party, my daughter provided me the real answer to the woman’s question. One day in the back seat of the car, Hannah said: “I’m a mitzvah-girl.” When I inquired further, I discovered that this concept was one she was taught in preschool. In Jewish tradition, a mitzvah is a commandment. When a child in the class did something good (such as helping a friend) the teachers encouraged them by singing a song, which said that the child “is a mitzvah-girl” or “mitzvah-boy.”
Reflecting on Hannah’s statement, I realized that all the activities I do have one thing in common. Teaching and studying Torah, raising a family, and helping others are all mitzvoth (commandments). I’m a mitzvah-girl. That’s what I’ve always been and what I’ll always be.
The brothers’ simple answer to Pharaoh bespeaks a deeper truth. Whatever our job titles may be, our job description is the same. We are all shepherds of each others’ souls.