Grilled By Foremen: Shemot 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: What are proper ways to speak up to our leaders when they provide insufficient leadership? How can we prevent emotion from obscuring legitimate criticism?

The initial encounter between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh at the end of this week’s Torah portion leads to a heavier workload for the Israelites – and the Israelite foremen, who oversee their fellow slaves, focus their anger on Moses and Aaron.

Text: “Now the overseers of the Israelites found themselves in trouble because of the order, ‘You must not reduce your daily quantity of bricks.’ As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, and they said to them, ‘May Adonai look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers – putting a sword in their hands to slay us.’” (Exodus 5:19-21)

Commentary #1: “[The foremen said to Moses:] ‘You have also caused us further harm. Until now, we were working for the king, building his cities. At least we had some respect. But now, any Egyptian who wants us as slaves can simply take us. Any Egyptian can kill us without fear of reprisal.’” – Sifethey Cohen

Commentary #2: “People smell with their noses, not their eyes! [Note: The Hebrew for “loathsome” literally refers to scent.] This may be just an expression or even the author’s oversight, but I rather think that the contradiction is purposeful: the people’s officers misspeak because they are upset. We frequently do that.” – Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah

Commentary #3: “Had this instantaneous and spontaneous reaction of Israel been employed in later periods of Israel’s history, when many fraudulent leaders appeared on the scene, we would have avoided many false messiahs and the subsequent disasters they brought upon the Jewish people. The reason there is no criticism of Israel’s complaints to Moshe and Aaron is the complaints were legitimate, proper, well-placed, and deserved. It is only unfortunate that future generations did not react in the same way.” – Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, More Torah Therapy

Follow-Up Questions: Each commentator adds a different level of understanding to the foremens’ complaints – Sifethey Cohen explains why the foremen believe that the slaves’ lives are in imminent jeopardy; Friedman focuses on the foremens’ piqued emotions, which lead them to use a curious turn of phrase; and Rabbi Bulka credits the foremen for standing up to Moses and Aaron, the kind of practice that may have saved Jews in similar situations in subsequent generations.

Do you agree with the foremens’ claim that Pharaoh’s new directive makes the Israelite situation infinitely worse? Were you in the foremens’ position, would you have spoken differently to Moses and Aaron? Were Moses and Aaron a proper target at that moment? What lessons can we learn about working with leadership during difficult times?

Emanu-El Happenings: I wish all of you the best in 2016, and I’m happy to say that we’re beginning the year with a very busy January. I encourage you to look through our publicity for all the details, but for now, make sure to mark your calendars for Friday, January 22nd at 8:15PM and Saturday, January 23rd at 9:30AM. This is a program called “Shira Uv’Racha”, “The Blessing of Song”, and we’re so pleased that Dara Rosenblatt, now a Cantorial and Jewish Education student at Hebrew College, will return to Charleston to lead us in services and to add to our insight of how our prayer experiences can come alive. You don’t want to miss it.

The Big Inning at the End: This year will mark the 25th anniversary of one of the rarest seasons in baseball history. In 1991, both the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins rose from last place in their respective divisions to play each other in the World Series, with the Twins prevailing in seven remarkable games. We all love to watch the underdog succeed against all odds; will a team that finished in last place in 2015 make a magical run in 2016? The great thing about the start of the new year is that, for now, anything is possible.

Shabbat Shalom!