Moses performs some miracles but Pharaoh does not
let the people go
The children of Israel in Egypt multiplied and grew
strong. Now a new Pharaoh rose up who did not know Joseph and he worried that the Israelite nation was too
strong. First he taxed them and then decreed that they were to be slaves. Next, Pharaoh ordered the Israelite
midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Israelite women. But the midwives were God-fearing and told
Pharaoh that Israelite women gave birth before they could arrive and kill the babies. Pharaoh then ordered
the people to throw every Israelite baby boy into the river.
An Israelite couple from the house of Levi gave
birth to a son and kept him hidden for three months. When the mother could no longer keep him hidden, she
wove a basket, laid the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the banks of the Nile. The child’s
sister, Miriam, watched what happened. When Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river, she saw the basket
with the crying child. She took pity on him so that when Miriam asked, “Shall I call an Israelite woman to
nurse the baby for you?” she said yes. Miriam then fetched her mother. When the child had grown, the mother
brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who named him Moses.
When Moses grew older he became aware of his
people’s suffering. One day, he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Moses struck the Egyptian, killing him,
and buried him in the sand. The next day, when Moses tried to stop two Israelite men fighting, one said, “Who
made you a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” The story was out. Pharaoh
too heard it and wanted to kill Moses, who fled to Midian. He married Zipporah, daughter of the local priest.
She bore him a son, Gershom, which means, “I was a stranger in a foreign
Back in Egypt that Pharaoh died, but the children of
Israel remained slaves. God heard the Israelite slaves’ cry of distress and remembered His covenant with
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So, near Mount Horeb, an angel of God appeared to Moses in a fire from the middle
of a thorn bush. Moses saw that the thorn bush was burning but was not consumed. God called to Moses and told
him to remove his shoes because he was on holy ground. When God identified Himself, Moses hid his face in
God said: “I have heard the people’s cries. Now I
will rescue them and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
He instructed Moses to tell the new Pharaoh to
release the children of Israel.
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” objected
God reassured Moses that He would be with him during
this mission. When Moses asked God in whose name he was representing the people of Israel, God replied,
mysteriously, “I Am Who I Am”.
God said that Pharaoh would not agree to release the
children of Israel, but he promised Moses that he would strike down Egypt. After that, Pharaoh would
When Moses asked what would happen if the children
of Israel did not believe him, God gave him some miracles to use. He showed him how to turn his staff into a
snake and how to turn it back into a staff. He demonstrated to Moses how to turn his hand leprous then
healthy again. Finally, God armed Moses with a third miracle – turning water into
Still trying to avoid his task, Moses pleaded that
he was a poor orator. God said He would teach him what to say. When Moses pleaded for someone else to be
sent, God became angry and told Moses that Aaron, his brother, could speak for
Once Moses and Aaron had won the people’s trust,
they went to Pharaoh and delivered an initial request that the people be allowed to celebrate a festival in
Pharaoh, his heart hardened by God, refused.
Instead, he set tougher conditions for the Hebrew slaves. The foremen of the people of Israel blamed Moses
and Aaron for this. Moses complained to God, who promised that He would deal with Pharaoh. When the plan had
run its course, Pharaoh would let the people go.
Commentary on the 13th parsha (portion of the Torah)
The Torah consists of the five books of Moses, the first part of the Old
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are. He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: I love this story,
Methuselah! It’s one of the best in the whole collection. It’s more implausible than most, but what a good
tale! Babes in baskets, burning bushes, sticks into serpents, good guys winning, bad guys punished, loyalty,
getting your just desserts, the whole thing. But, oh, your man,
God, what a character!
MS: I’m getting used to your
lack of respect, Sigmund. But what’s your problem here? Don’t you believe any of
SAS: No, not a word. But
let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and pretend, for argument’s sake, that God exists and that he made
all these miracles happen. What I don’t understand is why he deliberately hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that
Pharaoh will refuse to let the children of Israel go and then punishes Pharaoh. What’s going on here? Is God
bored? Is he playing games?
MS: It is necessary for
Pharaoh to be given a chance to show some mercy. God gives him this opportunity.
SAS: No, he doesn’t. He tells
Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart. How does Pharaoh then get any opportunity to save himself at all?
Is Pharaoh just a pawn in God’s game? I honestly don’t get this. If God’s plan was to rescue the children of
Egypt from their affliction, he should simply have rescued them. He’s all-powerful, isn’t he? Your story’s
got a really serious problem here: it’s the God problem again. He knows everything, he controls everything,
but he doesn’t ever take the straightest path from A to B. Instead he causes trouble and suffering. What’s
MS: My message is that God
knows best, and even under the most intractable circumstances, he shows the children of Israel how he can and
will save them. But they too have to work for it, and deserve it.
SAS: It’s crazy. Moses is
allowed to kill someone and get away with it. Pharaoh has to have his heart hardened, as though it wasn’t
hard enough. Surely the message is that if God likes you, you’re fine, otherwise it doesn’t matter who you
are and what you do?
MS: As usual, you miss the
point. God has promised to look after his people. His plan is to help Moses develop confidence and face
adversity, no matter how difficult. He constantly tests the strength of Moses’ faith, and in so doing makes
Moses stronger and more certain of himself and his purpose. The children of Israel too, are given many
opportunities to liberate themselves, but they too have to learn to have faith and trust
SAS: Well, I’m still sorry
for Pharaoh. His behaviour was manipulated: no opportunity to grow for him. Are you sure that you wouldn’t
like to admit that there was probably some problem in putting this story together from its different
versions, and the more partisan one made it into the official version? It really doesn’t speak well of
MS: You’re asking me to say
that what’s in the bible isn’t true, and didn’t happen exactly as it is written?
SAS: Pretty much. I’ve
already told you that I think it’s a great story. Why would it cost you so much to admit that whoever created
the God character gave him a bit of a nasty streak?
MS: Sigmund, I really don’t
think you approach these texts with the right attitude. You care too much about stories and not enough about
faith and reverence. There’s a reason this body of holy words has lasted this long, and you need to respect
The Parsha we have just read comes from the five books of Moses, the Torah. The
dialogues between Sigmund Albert Spinoza and Methuselah Solomon are about the meaning of the
What we know about Jewish
History, however, is based in fact, and on historical records.
If you’d like to know
more about the real history of our extended Jewish family, read on.
The Jews in England
England has a long history of anti-Semitism and the
“blood libel” originated there. Massacres occurred in London and York in the Middle Ages, and Jews were sent
packing in 1290.
There were probably Jews in Britain in Roman times.
The first documented proof of Jews in the kingdom dates to the Norman Conquest. These French Jews were mostly
moneylenders who came across in 1070 at the request of William the Conqueror.
During the reign of Henry I, a royal charter was
given to Joseph, chief rabbi of London, and his congregants. Amongst other rights, this bestowed upon the
Jews freedom of movement and freedom to trade.
In 1144 in Norwich, during Passover, the first blood
libel occurred. When a boy, William, a tanner’s apprentice, was found dead, the local Jews were accused of
having abducted him, tortured him and hanged him in a religious ritual. The Sheriff of Norwich protected the
Jews because there was no evidence against them. William, however, was viewed as a martyr, and a few years
later local Jews were attacked by mobs and had to flee Norwich.
In 1189 and 1190, during a time of crusading
fervour, Jews were massacred in London following a rumour that this was what Richard I wanted. Then 57 Jews
were killed during attacks at Bury St. Edmunds. Further attacks followed at Colchester, Thetford and
Terrible events unfolded at York in March 1190, when local Jews took refuge in Clifford’s Tower,
the stronghold of York Castle, after looting and murder had occurred at the home of a prominent Jewish
family. Crusaders besieged the castle demanding that Jews convert to Christianity. They were aided and
abetted by local noblemen in debt to the Jews. Rather than succumb to the mob, most of the Jewish men – led
by Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, France – killed their families and then themselves, after a fire had broken out in the tower. Those
that surrendered the next morning were promised they would be spared, but were killed
Some 150 Jews died in the massacre. Their houses
were ransacked for silver and gold and their collections of valuable books stolen before their homes were
burnt. Documents recording financial transactions with the Jews were also
The Ordinance of the Jewry followed in 1194. In
terms of this legislation, all Jewish transactions were recorded and taxed by Richard 1. King John followed
his older brother in taxing the Jews onerously. Persecution under Henry III (1216-1272) saw the Jews having
to wear a badge of identification. Jews were thrown out of towns like Newcastle, Wycombe and Southampton,
In 1255 in Lincoln, a boy named Hugh disappeared and
when his body was found in a well the local Jews were blamed. Under threat of torture, a local Jew confessed
to killing the boy but was put to death anyway. Ninety other Jews were later accused of collusion in the
unproven murder, and 18 of them were hanged.
Edward I expelled all Jews from England in July
1290. The Jews did not return until 1655.
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment
by the Father, Chaya and Ben.
CHAYA: I didn’t know that 150 Jews were killed at York. Do the local Jews commemorate
DAD: What local Jews? Our people have long given the place a wide berth. In fact, it
was believed that the Jews had placed a curse on the city. Some say the curse was lifted in 1990 when Chief
Rabbi Lord Jacobovits and the Archbishop of York, Dr Stuart Blanche, conducted a cleansing
CHAYA: I don’t believe in curses, but I reckon that if ever a town was crying out to
be cursed, it was York. I will never set foot there out of contempt for the rebuilt tower and its dark
BEN: I think Jews should go there to remember our dead ancestors and to honour their
incredible courage when conversion was demanded of them.
DAD: Well, if people want to commemorate the massacre then they must have their
reasons. Why not?
CHAYA: I don’t think we should give the place’s grotesque past too much attention or
add to its infamy by telling and retelling what happened there. If contemporary Jews dwell on the horrors of
York, they will be condemned to relive it endlessly in their imagination. That’s not
DAD: Perhaps, but not to commemorate the events at York would be worse. We must never
forget what happened to our people through the centuries, and we should take the opportunity of sharing our
grief about York with communities in the UK.
BEN: I’ve read that a few Jews live in York. Mostly, they’re students at the local
university. And, by the way, there is an annual commemoration service at Clifford’s Tower run by a group of
DAD: I understand why they would want to do that and I respect them for
CHAYA: I understand it too – what I’m saying, though, is that it brings the horrors of
this ancient catastrophe back into the present. Ceremonies of grief don’t help us to put the past behind
BEN: Such ceremonies look as much towards the present and the future as they do
towards the past, Chaya. Anti-Semitism can raise its head at any time. In today’s England, a number of people
are ready to fall back into the old prejudices. The Blood Libel myth originated in England and was
perpetuated there. We must show that we have not forgotten York and demand and expect justice and fair
CHAYA: They know that already. Today there are laws that enforce justice and promote
tolerance throughout the UK. I don’t think that looking at the past in all its grim details helps us. Maybe
it’s better if we didn’t dwell on all the terrible things that happened in a place like York, and it’s
certainly not fair to hold today’s citizens responsible. This all happened a long time ago.
DAD: And could happen again, for all we know. No, Chaya, I think Ben is right.
Vigilance and a long memory will always serve us best.
CHAYA: But then it’s us that’s keeping the horrors of York alive. We should try to
BEN: Yes, let’s move on to eat. I’m hungry. We can continue this
Every Shabbat we read five
short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and humour, insightful reflections on this life of
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· The fees for circumcision, confirmation, wedding, burial – all come due too
· Better ask the way ten times than get lost once
· Life is a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that. (Sholom
· He who lives in his mother-in-law’s house for thirty days deserves a flogging
· Never mind the remorse; just don’t commit the sin.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we
celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing to changing the world for the better and having
an extraordinary impact on those around them.
Mordecai Anielewicz was the
leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. He was a member of the “Hashomer Hatzair” youth movement. After the German
invasion of Poland in 1939 he fled to Russia and returned to organise clandestine cells, hold seminars and aid
the development of an underground press. From January to April 1943 he worked intensively to prepare the
underground organisation in the Warsaw Ghetto. On April 19, on the eve of Pesach, the last deportation began,
and the uprising broke out. At first the superiority of the resistance was clear, and the Nazis suffered many
losses. Three long days of street battles took place. The Nazis greatly outnumbered the Resistance in soldiers
and weapons, so that the hundreds of fighters, with only hand revolvers, had no chance. However, the Jewish
fighters didn’t surrender, and even survivors in shelters did not leave them despite the calls and promises that
were made. The Nazi forces were compelled to burn houses and go through every shelter in the Ghetto. When the
street fight ended, Anielewicz moved to the headquarters’ shelter at 18 Mila Street. On May 8, Anielewicz was
killed in the headquarters’ bunker together with a few colleagues. In May 16, 1943, after many casualties,
General Jurgen Stroop reported that the Ghetto was defeated and declaimed, “There is no more Jewish suburb in
Warsaw”. The resistance had shown that Jews were courageous fighters even in the face of overwhelming
Leo Baeck was a Liberal Rabbi in Germany. He was the leader of the Committee for
German Jews in 1933 which was organised to represent the community in the coming struggle with the Nazis. He
ended up in the ghetto at Theresienstadt and was destined to go to an extermination camp, but by luck escaped
his fate. After the war he moved to Britain where he served as Chairman of the World Union of Progressive
Judaism. His best-known work was, “Essence of Judaism” in which he claimed that the core of Judaism was
morality and argued strongly for its superiority over Christianity. He made the distinction between Judaism
as a “classic religion” which makes ethical demands, and Christianity as a “romantic religion” which induces
passivity because it is based on emotion, as a result of which faith and revelation are seen as the
fulfillment of the religion.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for joining together
to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week with renewed strength, confidence and
We now cordially invite you to
join us for some coffee and cake.