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“A Matter of Choice,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

When we open the book of Exodus, the Israelites are actually not yet slaves. To the contrary, they seem to have been doing very well. The text informs us that the legacy of Jacob and his sons numbered 70, a propitious number representing wholeness on a large scale. Each are named, including Joseph, all of whom had made their home in the area of Goshen in Egypt.

It may have seemed that the promise to the ancestors would now be fulfilled by the descendants.

Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation
אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה כִּֽי־לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִֽׂימְךָ֥ שָֽׁם
(Gen 46:3)

The birth rate for the ancient Israelites increased exponentially.

…the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם

But God’s assurance did not include that the path before them would be easy. New leaders can turn a whole world’s sense of security around and upside down.

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
וַיָּ֥קׇם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף

Whatever achievements Joseph’s family accomplished no longer mattered. Instead, the king made a detrimental and consequential choice on how to respond to this group of people, whom he regarded as outsiders and not worthy of respect. The Pharaoh decided to demean and dehumanize them.

And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… (Exodus 1: 9-11)

It didn’t have to be that way.

Mussar, Judaism’s practice of cultivating ethical and moral behavior, calls that decisive choice making, a b’chira בחירה. It is the moment when one can cultivate one’s own qualities of character and inclination to determine the direction one will take. The implication applies to more than oneself and has the potential to create misery or positive possibility even as the focus is on oneself.

We know the impact on the Israelites. They experienced great cruelty and suffered under the weight of oppression of taskmasters.

But the story is not just about the evil of Pharaoh. Embedded in the narrative is other decisive choice making by those we may assume have far less power than Pharaoh. These are those who find the best in themselves to create a righteous opening by their actions. The midwives defied Pharaoh’s decree to murder the male Israelite babies. Pharaoh’s daughter rescued the baby in the basket not knowing who he is or will become. Miriam, the baby’s sister, followed him down the river and suggested a Hebrew nursemaid who happened to be the baby’s mother to care and feed the newly discovered child.

In the face of ruthless choices, there are others who rise above the cruelty to ensure benevolence and compassion.

We enter this narrative as part of our own history. We witness the choices leaders make,and at the same time are reminded that our inspiration for how we respond can come from the kinds of choices made as the book of Exodus unfolds.

It will be a circuitous route to redemption, and still we know that the choices we make can help advance us toward it.

Shabbat Shalom


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Rabbi Elaine Zecher