Yom Shlishi, 18 AdarI 5781
Tuesday, 2 March 2021
Parashat Shemot 2012

Parashat Shemot by Rabbi Danny Rich
13 January 2012

In last week’s parashah, the last of the Book of Genesis, the deaths of Jacob and his favourite son, Joseph, were recorded.

The death of Jacob, whose name had become Yisrael, is related in great detail, including the blessings of his own children and of his grandsons, the issue of Joseph.  Joseph’s death is told in a single sentence which records his death, his embalming and the placing of his body in a coffin.

In Jacob we have a man greatly concerned with the particular, with the internal, with the machinations of a large, pastoral family in Canaan.  For reasons beyond his control, Joseph represents the opposite.  He is forced to function in another culture - that of Egypt, and rises to power as he dispenses corn to the unfortunate of many nations.

In Jacob and Joseph we see the tension between the local and the big time, between the particular Jewish and the universal ‘Diaspora’, between devoting one’s time to the family (admittedly a large one) and the affairs of state.

Sometimes the choice is forced upon the Jews, and the Book of Exodus (which we begin reading this Shabbat) places the Jewish people outside of its tribal land in the mighty empire of Egypt.  The story of initial success followed by slavery, liberation, the desert experience, and the return to ancestral pastures is well known but perhaps less in our consciousness is the struggle of those Jews in Egyptto retain their inherited culture and yet participate in the wonders of their newly adopted land.

Such a struggle was to be the hallmark of much of Jewish history from the dispersion under theRoman Empire until today.  The very choice of names may reflect where a family or parents are on the continuum between the particular demands of tradition and the pressures to conform to the prevailing cultural norm.

Some newspapers do a survey of ‘The Top Ten Children’s Names of the Year’. Varying communities will have differing results but I wonder whether there will be more Jewish ‘Kates’ than ‘Rachels’ and more Jewish ‘Williams’ than ‘Aarons’ in 2011/12.

I am not sure that the results matters but of this I am confident: the mission of the Jew is to take the best of the particular but apply it to the universal, and it is this effort which is the raison d’etre of Liberal Judaism.