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Captains of Destiny

Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

by Rabbi Allen I. Freehling

December 26, 2002 | 7:00 pm

This week's Torah portion, Shemot, finds us studying the Book of Exodus for the first time this year. Probing the text, I began to think about the Hebrew word tevah (ark) that is found only twice in the Torah -- in parshat Noah and in this one.

As Rabbi James Mirel once wrote: "There is an important link between these two mythic tales. In the story of Noah, God uses the ark to rescue all the animals, including the human species. In this instance, Moses, who is to become the vehicle for the redemption of the Jewish people, is kept alive by means of an ark."

"Both narratives depict the ark as being surrounded by potentially destructive waters. In the case of Noah, the waters of the flood, which covers the entire earth, and in this case, the river into which Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew male infants be thrown," Mirel said.

"From this parallel, we can learn that we, too, should consider the ways in which each of us can find a tevah by which to navigate the threatening waters that surround us in order to reach safety and redemption," he added.

I submit that there is another way to cite this rare Hebrew word in order to make a somewhat different point. Namely, are we to merely drift through life -- mirroring Noah, who was able to survive during the flood, and Moses, who, we find on his way to being given an opportunity to live in the lap of luxury as Pharaoh's adopted nephew -- or is something else required of us?

It is my belief that God and Judaism's prophets and sages demand that we not just rock along, dependent on the currents of life to move us from birth to death, but that we place a tiller into the waters of life, grab the helm and steer a course, which will provide us with personal fulfillment and satisfaction while responding to the needs of others who seek -- and deserve -- our assistance.

Here's how we can avoid being dashed upon the rocks of despair, becoming stuck in the narrows of bias and prejudice or finding ourselves trapped in the shallows of limited thought and action.

Within this context, here's the ultimate question which Shemot forces upon us: "Are we willing to risk everything to be the captains of our own destiny, or are we merely content letting circumstances and other people determine the course of our lives?"

If we are activists, we constantly take charge and even -- on occasion -- attempt to go upstream and thereby willingly confront one mighty challenge after another.

If we are pacifists, we are delighted to easily and simply follow the currents of the headwaters -- even if this means that we must always allow others to decide the direction we'll go ... solely dependent on the winds of their opinion which then propel us from place to place. Under these circumstances, it is they and never we who will determine what our eventual goals might be.

Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House of Representatives, often instructed his younger colleagues "to get along just go along." If all a person desires is ease and comfort, that may be good advice. However, if someone decides that the demands and benefits of life require that we must occasionally take a chance, such an individual elects not to be under the thumb of others, but to set off on a self-selected course.

I am convinced that our lives are far more exciting and rewarding when we take charge of our own situations, set our sights on distant shores and then battle our way to reach them.

You see, just as so very little is written in this and in subsequent parshot about the first 80 of the 120 years allotted to Moses, we ought not to think too much about our origins, or where we find ourselves at any given moment. Instead, we need to concentrate on what we wish to achieve, to think about what demanding choices are ours, and to concentrate on the benefits that will be ours and others when we exert ourselves as proactive decision-makers and doers.

After all, as Vancouver's Rabbi Philip Bregman has taught us: "By speeding through the description of Moses' early and middle years, the Torah is making the statement that beginnings are less important than endings in life.

"In other words, a human being's worth is not determined by where that individual came from but what that person ultimately accomplished," Bregman said. "This message has tremendous relevance for us today. Too often we spend our time dwelling on the past instead of focusing on our ultimate goal in life. What really counts is where our experiences lead us and what we have learned along the way."

"This week's parsha encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about where our own personal journey is leading," Bregman added. "Are we still growing and learning? What is that we seek? Are we moving in the right direction toward a worthwhile destination? Are we basking in the sun of a previous generation's accomplishments, or are we endeavoring to make our own mark in the world"?

I wish you Godspeed and a bon voyage as you answer those profound questions and then act upon them in the most creative, dynamic and productive ways possible.

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