New Year, New Book of Torah

17 February 2023
By: Rebecca Chess


A few weeks ago we began reading the Book of Exodus, Sefer Shemot. The parasha begins in Egypt, years after the Joseph story, a new Pharoah reigning and the now numerous Israelites are forced into slavery. A story we know well. One we as Jews will grapple with in just a few short months again at Passover. 

Over the past weeks, anticipating this moment in our Torah reading cycle I have begun thinking about the broader themes of the book of Exodus and pondered what are the major themes of this whole book of Torah? What should I look out for as we read this story that takes us from slavery to the golden calf to receiving the Ten Commandments?

Exodus explores ideas like oppression and slavery, power, and control, resilience and empowerment, change and growth and spiritual fortitude. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron learn to be leaders in this book. Israel as a community and as a nation is formed, and each individual character goes through immense change and growth, learning how to work together and how to worship God. 

As we start this book that asks us to dig deeply into our values – to ask ourselves questions about our formation as individuals and as members of communities and of societies —  we begin a new secular year. 

And this year, as we begin reading this book, the State of Israel has gone through a political transition. Benjamin Netanyahu has been once again elected as Prime Minister and in just the first couple weeks of his party’s return to power there are clear signs that Israel’s government will implement a far right agenda. Just a few days ago, the new governing coalition released a plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system that would severely reduce the Supreme Court’s power and could end up dealing a death blow to the Palestinian Authority while granting right wing ultraconservative/orthodox Jews greater autonomy over expanding settlements in the West Bank. 

Like many of you, I struggle with how to stay in relationship with the State of Israel as an even more extreme right wing government takes power there. It makes me feel hopeless for the change many of us pray for in Israel. I fear for what it means for those on the margins, those who already face violence and oppression in Israel/Palestine. The same questions I have always grappled with feel so much louder today.

How do I relate to this state that pushes against the changes I wish to see there? How do I take responsibility for a representation of Judaism that is so far from my own (and many of my peers, community, and those I serve) beliefs? Do I have to? And what can I do to help from so far away?

In the book of Exodus, I see the discipline and fortitude it takes to fight for change. It can be easy to want to hide, and to ignore these questions; the sense of responsibility I have to the State of Israel but I (and you) must commit to fighting the urge to slip away into life in North America. Instead, I will use doubt and fear as a call to action to remain engaged. I will learn from the resources around me, stay up to date on current events. Financially supporting organizations, especially the grassroots organizations that NIF funds, is the best way to support our values and help enact change while living abroad.  When I can, I will financially support organizations in the State of Israel that strive for religious freedom and equality, that support Palestinians and other residents of the State of Israel that may be affected by these potential new polices. I will use my voice by speaking to my friends and my community to stand up for my beliefs and the futures I hope for. 

I struggle with knowing if I have the right answers to these questions. I sometimes get stuck in my hopelessness, my fear and my frustration. The book of Exodus demonstrates that we have to find the courage to push through our doubt and fear. Moses, doubtful of himself as a leader for his difficulty with speech, finds his voice to ask for freedom from Pharoah. He learns how to uphold his values and protect his people even when Godself wants to give up after the building of the Golden Calf.  Moses uses his voice to argue with God to not give up on them. Moses embodies the ultimate marks of a good leader, courage in the face of fear, perseverance in the face of doubt. The government of the State of Israel may not represent my values, the direction the country seems to be barreling towards may incite dread in me but I have a responsibility to the many people and community of Jews that also wish for change. To see an Israel that values diversity, that prioritizes safety for all its residents.  

Being an Israelite and further being a leader of the Israelites means to confront the most challenging of relationships, questions, and impossibilities despite fear, doubt  and frustration. Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus, offers countless moments where our leaders exemplify courage, conviction, and dedication as the mark of leaders. I encourage you to join me as we enter this year and this book of Torah. To challenge yourself to look hard at your values and how you plan to uphold them for the next year, how to remain true to yourself, how to continue to hope amidst your worry and fear.

Rebecca Chess

Rebecca Chess (they/them/theirs) is a Rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. They are currently participating in NIF’s Elissa Froman Social Change Fellowship, a year-long opportunity for future rabbis and cantors to engage in social issues effecting Israel. She has a passion for teaching and creating radically inclusive Torah study which they do at The Torah Studio.