D’var Torah: Rabbi Ira Korinow (Va’era)

Parashat Va-era – Exodus from Egypt: Fact or Fiction?

by Rabbi Ira Korinow

Last week when we began reading the Book of Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus, we read of Moses’s birth and God’s choosing him to free the Israelites from Egyptian bondage.   This week in Parashat Va-era we read of the first seven of the ten plagues brought upon Egypt.  The stage is set for the saga of Y’tzi-at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.  This story has generated several epic Hollywood films and is unquestionably our preeminent narrative marking the birth of the Jewish nation.  It is mentioned each day in our liturgy and is the raison d’être of our Jewish existence.

When the Etz Hayim Humash was published in 2001 by the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis, it was strenuously criticized around the world for suggesting that the Exodus may never have occurred.  Professor Lee Levine, a Conservative rabbi and professor in the Department of History and the Institute of Archeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that there was no archeological evidence of Jews having been in Egypt or the Sinai and what little evidence does exist in Egyptian writings is negligible and indirect (see Etz Hayim Humash, page 1341).  Imagine… the quintessential story of the Exodus from Egypt might never have occurred!

Since then biblical scholars have continued to debate this issue.  Some feel that one cannot come to a conclusion based upon what is not found.  Others feel that more likely there was a small Semitic group known as Levites that left Egypt.   This band of Levites grew into the Jewish people and subsequently wrote their origin story which became what we now call the Exodus narrative.  This is, of course, supported by the fact that Moses (a Levite) had an Egyptian name as did other Levites mentioned in the Torah.

Was the Exodus fact or fiction?  Arguments exist on both sides of the question.  Even if one believes that Jews were never slaves in Egypt and that the Exodus may never have occurred, why did this story gain such prominence in Judaism and why should we continue to read it today?  Let me suggest that the lack of archeological, historical evidence does not mean that there are not important lessons to learn from this epic story.  The lack of historical truth does not imply a lack of what I like to call Truth with a capital “T.”  The Truth that the Torah contains is Truth which may be emotional, spiritual or psychological Truth.  It is Truth to guide us to live a more meaningful life.  Just because the Torah may not be a historically accurate account of our origins, that does not diminish the Truth of its insights.

Indeed, whether we believe the Torah is historically true, given by God or words written by humans, we should turn to the Torah, knowing we can derive much needed guidance as we confront difficult issues in our families, in our communities and in our world.

Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill, currently the Interim Rabbi at Temple Israel in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Schechter Alumni Parent

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayehi)

What’s So Special about Ephraim and Manesseh?

Parashat Vayechi brings the book of Genesis, as well as the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period, to a close. Jacob is coming to the end of his long life, and he offers closing remarks, sometime in the form of blessing, other times as rebuke, to his sons.

Interestingly, he blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as well: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” (48:20)

And those are the words we invoke to our sons on erev Shabbat before offering them the Bircat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.  To our daughters we say “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” There seems to be quite a disparity in status here.  Do not Ephraim and Manasseh pale in comparison to the four Matriarchs?  Are we men getting shortchanged?

The teaching of Yalkut Yehudah (Yehudah Leib Ginsberg, an early 20th century Denver rabbi) provides an insight into this choice of Ephraim and Manasseh:

“Why specifically this blessing for the children? Because Ephraim and Manasseh grew and were educated in Egypt, without a Jewish environment.  And despite this they maintained their Jewishness and were not defiled among the Egyptians. And because Jacob knew that Israel was fated to be dispersed among the nations, he gave this blessing to the future generations who would be raised in the Diaspora.

“And therefore with the entrance of the Shabbat queen, which guards over the people of Israel, we bless the children, who will preserve the spirit of Israel.”

Ephraim and Manasseh faced a unique challenge.  They did not grow up in a Jewish environment, yet somehow retained a sense of who they were.  Perhaps their father Joseph, who also maintained his Jewish identity in Egypt, despite outward appearances, instilled that in them.

We face the same challenge:  to preserve the spirit of Israel, the Torah and traditions of Israel while we are confronted with the allure and temptations of the surrounding culture.  It is easy to get caught up and lost and forget who we are. So we want our children to be like Ephraim and Mannaseh, to maintain their Jewishness in the face of compelling centrifugal forces that can easily pull them away from Torah and Jewish life.  So we provide them with a Jewish home and Jewish education, and bless them on Shabbat. Ultimately we have to let them go out into the world, hopefully with the tools, knowledge and commitment to enable them to withstand the enticements that that world poses to them.

May all of our children be like Ephraim, Sarah, Rebecca, Manasseh, Leah and Rachel!


Rabbi Michael Swarttz is a parent of a Schechter alumnus, Nadav, the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Director of the Cotton Leadership Institute of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Dan Liben (Vayigash)

All of us have done things we regret.  People apologize; they promise never to act that way again.  Yet, how do we know if they have really changed?

Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuva, teaches that if a person who has sinned is presented with the same circumstances and opportunity to commit that sin a second time, but doesn’t, then you know that his repentance was complete.   However, unless that opportunity presents itself, how do you know?

Joseph was desperate to know regarding his brothers.  He couldn’t risk revealing his true identity to the scoundrels who betrayed him in his youth, unless he really believed that they had changed.

So, in last week’s parsha, Joseph created an elaborate set of circumstances that provided them with the perfect opportunity to repeat the crime: to rid themselves, this time, of Joseph’s little brother, Benjamin, the remaining child of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel.  It would be so easy: let Benjamin take the fall for the theft for which he had been framed, and they can all go home, scot-free!

This week’s parsha opens with Judah speaking to Joseph on behalf of his other brothers.  In a dramatic speech of breathtaking honesty, compassion and courage, the longest oration in the book of Genesis,  Judah refuses to take the bait.  Instead, he offers up his own freedom in return for Benjamin’s.  Where once, he had taunted his father Jacob with Joseph’s bloodied coat, leading the poor man to believe his favorite son was dead, now he has only compassion for his father, and for the special love that Jacob reserved for Rachel’s children.  Jealousy and anger have been replaced by acceptance and compassion.  It is this scene that explains most clearly why Judah supersedes his older brother Reuven in family leadership, and why the Jewish people as a whole carry Judah’s name.  In this climactic scene, the often murderous strife between brothers that has characterized every generation in the book of Genesis, is put to rest and a familial loyalty takes root that makes possible the birth of the Jews as a people.

And as for Joseph?  Having answered the question of his brothers’ repentance at last, Joseph is free to drop the heavy mask behind which he had been hiding, and to reclaim his identity as a son of Jacob.  May we find Joseph’s perseverance to seek out the truth, and Judah’s honesty and courage to face it.

Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent