Jacob shall come to take root,
Israel shall blossom and bloom.
They shall fill the earth with their fruit
Like a medlar when it sends forth its runners.
The opening verse of this week’s Haftarah parallels that of Exodus 1:7 that follows the statement that Joseph, his brothers and all their generation die:
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.
What seems like a triumph of life over death or of continuity sometimes interpreted as such (e.g. Shemot Rabbah 1:7), is set against the subtle backdrop given by the moniker for the parashah and the book it begins: shemot – names. As Seforno (C.16th, Italy) highlights, from a small group of named individuals that enter Egypt come a nameless mass: A case of quality over quantity. A people strong in numbers but lacking in direction and identity, only barely surviving due to the collective names – Israelites or Hebrews – God being reminded of the merit or their ancestors, not of this generation.
It is one thing to flourish in numbers but what is more important is the quality of a People.
Perhaps that might provide us with food for thought for this Shabbat at the head of a year that will contain two significant elections: the general elections in Israel and then the UK. When we cast our votes, will we consider it significant or will cynicism or apathy assuage us from exercising our right?
A second thought on this theme regards the role of leadership. Joseph / Jacob provided clear leadership. Moses needs to convince the Israelites to follow him but in the end they do. In the wilderness their personality develops but what generally ensues is destructive: Whining and moaning on occasion overflowing into all out rebellion. Indeed, from this point on, our ancient ancestors are rarely unified.
As Progressive Jews, we may see that as strength and actually strength of Judaism per se. Our strength is found in tension rather than unity of thought. It is to debate and to consider a variety of opinions that provides a society with strength rather than one that is polarised or utterly unified, which in any case is often bought about by force.
Instead of human leadership or singularity of thought, Moses and Isaiah provide the only unity that truly matters, a time when they are told or foresee when the Israelites will gather in the wilderness or at the mountain to worship God.
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue
Ordained at Leo Baeck College 2002
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.