Parashat Shemot 5778

Cantor Gershon Silins – 5 January 2018

This week’s portion, Shemot, occurs as the old secular year winds down and the new one begins. We leave the world of Genesis with the resolution of the drama of our founding family. Joseph dies in Egypt, honoured by all, having revolutionised Egyptian society. He has saved Egypt from famine and strengthened the central government, while rescuing his father and brothers, leaving his family well provided for in the land of Goshen. After the struggles of our patriarchs and matriarchs, what a relief that now everything is prosperous, peaceful and calm! And as this next chapter – and book – begins, we see that world disappear into history: “And Joseph died, and his brothers, and all that generation.” We are told the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt as heads of households, now becoming tribes, inheritors of the religious traditions of their ancestors and beneficiaries of Joseph’s success Egypt, bearing the names they carried with them from their homeland, to which the body of Joseph has been returned. Through Genesis, the biblical narrative had been moving towards a conclusion, which, at the end of that book, it had finally reached.

As Shemot opens, the children of Israel increase in number, and as they do, they become something new – they are no longer seen as a collection of individuals but as a people. This people’s success was a product of the beneficence of the central government. But with this week’s portion, and the new book of which it is the beginning, everything turns around. There is a new pharaoh, and he is not an ally but an enemy, and the welcome that had greeted Joseph’s extended family turns into suspicion and oppression. A new figure, Moses, appears on the biblical landscape. And things quickly go from amazingly good to horribly bad.

This aspect of the story seems familiar to us in our own day. We find ourselves in a different world than we expected to be in. Dramatic turns in politics and culture are accompanied by significant and unpredictable changes in our own lives as well. Time and chance have happened to us all.

Although the change in the secular calendar is arbitrary, the advent of the new year does give us an opportunity to reflect on what we expected, what we hoped, and what actually happened in the year that has ended. Even if we cannot know what would have happened if we had made different choices or if the ones we did make had worked out differently, while we are all still wishing one another a happy new year over the upcoming weeks, we can hope to achieve some self-awareness, beginning to come to terms with the life we actually have, not the one we might have expected or wished for. Who could have predicted the life of Moses? Of all the turnabouts in the story, none is more dramatic than his development from a foundling with a suspicious background to a political and religious leader whose influence on the world is arguably greater than anyone else in history.

Let us hope that this New Year brings us many changes for the good and few awful surprises, and may we be wise enough to know which is which.

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