When we talk about religion our minds jump to notions of God and theology, or perhaps religious practices and ceremonies, or to a list of do’s and don’ts for the faithful to follow. The realm of civil law is relegated to the mundane world of the practical, not the lofty spiritual plane. Here again, Judaism demonstrates unique qualities.
This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, describes the reaction of b’nai yisrael when the confrontation with Pharaoh and his army becomes a reality. The Torah says, “… the people were frightened, the Children of Israel cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe, ‘were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?!’” (Shemot 14: 10-11) How could they suddenly complain and question Moshe’s motives? We must also ask ourselves, if we were there, how would we have reacted?
Parshat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, records the final dialogues between Moshe and Pharaoh. The ensuing last three plagues of destruction, brought on the Egyptian nation as a consequence to Pharaoh’s stubbornness, resulted in the liberation of the Jewish people. What is remarkable, and almost unnoticed, in the parsha, is the reaction the Jewish people had toward their tormentors. Equally attention grabbing is the reaction the Egyptian populace had toward the Jews.
This coming Monday, January 20, is designated as Dr. Martin Luther King Day across the United States. It has been officially observed in all 50 States since 2000. Dr. King’s life focus revolved around the commands of the Torah that we refer to as mitzvot between individuals and other people, מצות בין אדם לחברו. This is not to say that the mitzvot between humanity and God, מצות בין אדם למקום, were not important to him but how we treat our fellow human beings reflected to him a person’s true inner core.
We are all familiar with the practice that after we read the verse שמע ישראל we immediately say ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד before reciting the rest of the שמע. Where did this practice come from? This intervening statement is not found any where in the Torah. The answer comes from this week’s Torah portion, ויחי, Vayechi.
How did the sages and rabbis at that time know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Maccabee’s victory was divinely assisted? What allowed them to create an annual eight-day commemoration with Rabbinic mitzvot? A close look at the על הנסים”,” “For the miracles,” the special insert into our daily prayers during Chanukah, will shed some light on this question.