Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with the Children of Israel prospering and increasing in Egypt, when a new king sits on the throne. Threatened by their growing numbers, this new Pharaoh enslaves them and orders the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all male babies at birth. When they do not comply, he commands his people to cast the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile.
A child is born to Yocheved, and she puts him in a basket on the river, while the baby’s sister, Miriam, stands watch from afar. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the boy, raises him as her son, and names him Moses. As a young man, Moses leaves the palace and discovers the hardship of his brethren. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and kills the Egyptian. The next day he sees two Hebrews fighting; when he rebukes them, they reveal that they know about his murder from the previous day, and Moses is forced to flee to Midian. There he rescues Jethro’s daughters, marries Tzipporah, and becomes a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.
Hashem appears to Moses as a burning bush, and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand: “Let My people go.” Moses’ brother, Aaron, is appointed to serve as his spokesman. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron assemble the elders of Israel to tell them that the time of their redemption has come, but Pharaoh refuses to let them go, and even intensifies their suffering. Moses returns to Hashem to protest: “Why have You done evil to this people?” Hashem assures Moses that the redemption is close at hand...
Torah of Awakening: Jewish Meditation Teaching
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה אֵ֣ת יַעֲקֹ֔ב אִ֥ישׁ וּבֵית֖וֹ בָּֽאוּ׃
These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with their household…
- Shemot (Exodus) 1:1, Parshat Shemot
Rabbi Bunam taught on Psalm 147:
“In Psalm 147 we read, ‘הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב – healer of broken hearts…’ Why are we told that? It is because it is actually a good thing to have a broken heart, as it is written:
זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרה לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים לֹא תִבְזֶֽה׃
Sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; a contrite and crushed heart, oh God, you will not despise… Psalm 51:19
“But further on in Psalm 147 we read, ‘וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָֽם – and binds up their wounds…’ Meaning, God does not entirely heal those with broken hearts, but only eases their suffering, so they not be tormented and dejected by their brokenness. For dejection is not a good thing. A broken heart prepares a person for true service of God, but dejection corrodes it. We must distinguish carefully between the two, as we must distinguish between true joy and mere careless levity; they are so easily confused, yet they are as far removed from one another as the ends of the earth.”
Simḥa Bunam’s teaching points out a subtle truth: that while the suffering of “dejection” can be dangerous to our spiritual life, some amount of suffering, what he calls a שָׁבוּר לֵב lev shavur, a “broken heart,” is helpful, perhaps even necessary. This is because without the reminder of some emotional pain, the tendency is to “fall asleep” spiritually and forget all about the constant effort required to be present. We could more precisely define שָׁבוּר לֵב, “broken heart,” as Presence-In-Suffering, while “dejection” would be unconscious suffering, being taken over by negativity. Cultivating a broken heart, then, is a practice; it is a way of relating to our suffering with consciousness.
A total absence of emotional pain, however, can be a hindrance, because then we have no opportunity to practice שָׁבוּר לֵב lev shavur. If our tendency is to fall asleep when life is easeful, we will likely be asleep when adversity comes along, at least until the moment when we allow the adversity to “wake us up” and pierce through the callousness of our hearts once again. We can see this dynamic playing out in the parshah:
וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמֹות֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה – These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt… The Children of Israel went down into Egypt out of necessity – there was a famine, and they needed nourishment. At first, Egypt was a place of satisfaction, and only gradually did it become a place of great suffering…
וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם – And they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor… Eventually, when their suffering broke through the callousness of their hearts and ripened into prayerfulness, they became motivated to escape Egypt and return home.
וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים
The Children of Israel were groaning from their labors and cried out; and their cry for help from the labor rose up to God.
Similarly, when our experience is pleasant and easeful, it is easy to sink into “Egypt” without even knowing it – meaning, it is easy to drop into a lower state of consciousness, taking the easefulness for granted, lacking gratitude and appreciation for the gift of Being. But eventually, adversity will come along, and with it a new potential emerges: the suffering itself can wake up from our “bondage” to callousness, breaking open the doorway of the heart. But why should easefulness give rise to this callousness of ego?
וַֽיְהִ֗י כׇּל־נֶ֛פֶשׁ יֹצְאֵ֥י יֶֽרֶךְ־יַעֲקֹ֖ב שִׁבְעִ֣ים נָ֑פֶשׁ וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הָיָ֥ה בְמִצְרָֽיִם׃ – And all the souls that went out from Jacob’s loins were seventy souls, and Joseph was in Egypt… Joseph – יוֹסֵף Yosef – comes from הוֹסָפָה hosaphah, meaning “increase.” Joseph represents the power of proliferation, of becoming more, and this is the tendency of the thoughts in our minds. Of course, thought is a wonderful thing, just as Egypt was a salvation from famine at first, thanks to Joseph. But when thought becomes so incessant that we lose connection with the space of awareness within which thought arises, that is, we lose Presence, then we’ve become stuck in Egypt, in Mitzrayim, the place of narrowness. Then, when adversity comes, the degree to which we’ve become trapped gets revealed with the reactivity that arises, and the suffering that comes along with it.
But, not to worry – suffering contains within it its own solution! The force of our suffering can motivate “Pharaoh” to “let go,” if we become present with it – this is the hint of the ten plagues. Meaning: consciousness that has become trapped in identification with thought – called “ego” – is can be motivated to let go of its identification when it becomes present and fully feels the suffering that it unconsciously created. The key is not to get rid of our suffering, but to use suffering in the right way: be present with it, accept it fully, let it do its job and ultimately let it go. In that openness to whatever arises in our experience lies the key to liberation – this is meditation. The suffering may persist for some time, but eventually it burns itself out, just as Pharaoh eventually relents after the plagues.
Of course, we need not wait for a broken heart to wake up; we can practice the art of Presence regardless of our momentary experience. Give thanks for the great and constant blessing of Being, root your awareness in your body, let go of the stream of thinking, and know yourself as the Light of Presence that you are…
Read past teachings on Shemot HERE.
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