Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Shemot – 5781

Parashat Shemot – 5781

January 8, 2021

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt with Jacob…. [t]he total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Exodus 1:1, 5)  This beginning to the Book of Shemot – of Names  – reflects strongly on how we see K’lal Yisrael, our sense of how we form community.  Rashi and Ramban both say that by enumerating their names it illustrates how dear they each are to G-d as they are compared to the stars. G-d brings out and brings in by name and by number. “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these? [W]ho sends out their host by count, who calls them each by name…” (Isaiah 40:26)

I have always found great resonance in the idea that we represent ourselves by name and by number; as individuals each with our own unique gifts and contributions to be made to the greater whole, and with the strength of community. In Shemot Rabbah we read that the names of the sons/tribes are not always presented in the same order. “Because [the Tribes] are the roof of the world. One who arranges a roof properly places the wide end of one board next to the end of the next board which is not equal to it. Scripture places these Tribes before the others, and at other times places the others first.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:6)  Each individually has a strong point and a weak point. Together they complement each other as the boards on the roof of the world complement each other to give it strength.

But what happens when individuals and community are not in balance? When we either are so focused on creating a cohesive communal existence that we marginalize individuals in need within our community, or, when there are individuals who are both out of sync with the community and whose presence negatively impacts community.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla in his commentary on the Parashah as part of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible points to the verse, “G-d looked upon the Israelites and G-d knew them,” (Exodus 2:25) as recognition by G-d of not just collective suffering, rather that G-d took notice of each unique voice in pain. Kukla points out that oppression begins with effacement of individuality. Redemption from our oppression begins here in the Parashah “with a wild, uncontainable assertion of individuality of voice when the people cry out in a harmony (or perhaps caucophony?) of unique voices (See Exodus 2:24-Torah Queeries, pp. 76-77). Kukla sees similarities between the Jewish people crying out and LGBTQ liberation; an uncontrollable crying out of dissimilar, individual voices at the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Kukla also discusses the idea of passing; to appear as something we are not. While he does find times in which passing can signify positive advances – e.g., marrying the partner we each choose for ourselves – Jewish tradition teaches that there is great value in refusing to pass and insisting upon looking and sounding different. He reinforces the idea that the reference to Names at the beginning of the Parashah signifies individuality and the lifting up of diverse voices.

My teacher Dr. Ronald Brauner in his book, Thinking Jewish: The Art of Living in Two Civilizations, seeks to uphold Judaism’s communal ethos against what he deems to be Americanism’s fealty to liberty as exemplified in the sanctity of the individual. Jewish tradition teaches “it is the welfare of the collective which substantiates the well-being of the individual…I’ve discovered that ‘me’ can be very lonely and that despite all the protestations of freedom, autonomy and self-reliance, there’s still something missing…[w]ithout belonging to something greater than oneself, there is an emptiness, a gnawing unconnectedness, perhaps even a purposelessness.” (Brauner at pp. 117, 118)

I in no way see Kukla’s lifting up the individual and Brauner’s advocacy for the primacy of communal purpose to be conflicting positions. We simple have an on-going struggle to find a balance that addresses both the needs of individuals within community, and the need to come together as community.

This has been perhaps my greatest struggle as a pulpit rabbi. Without putting it front and center on our website, my Shul has worked to present ourselves as a place for the disenfranchised. Yet, we have had two instances in which individuals suffering from mental illness have been persistently disruptive to our cohesive community. In both cases neither I nor we asked them to leave. However, I did lay out a set of expectations in how they would need to act and be part of our community. At that point, both made the choice to leave the community feeling victimized by me and our congregation.

The reality is that everyone in my Shul is looking for a sanctuary; emotionally safe space where they can share life, and be a part of something bigger than themselves. That two people who were highly disruptive to the community made the choice to leave the community does not leave me feeling good about how events transpired.  I fear and am fairly certain there will be a next time in which an individual with an acute need for community will be welcomed in, only to tear at the fabric that holds our synagogue community together.

Notwithstanding this great dilemma we will go forward knowing that wherever our spiritual journey will lead us we will go forth by both name and by number.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.