In this week’s parsha, Moses sets two paths before the Israelites as they prepare to enter the land. If they heed God’s word, the Israelites will be blessed in every way possible and will be established as am kadosh, a holy people to God. If, however, they do not heed God, they will be cursed in every way imaginable. Their communities will be torn apart, their cities ravaged, their flocks decimated, their spirits broken, their hearts to be forever consumed by terror and dread.
The name of God in the Jewish tradition is comprised of four Hebrew letters: yud, hey, vav hey. Unpronounceable, this grouping of letters amounts to the impossible conjugation of the verb “to be” and, if it could be translated at all, it might be read as “is, was, will be.” This name contains the promise and challenge of Judaism: to engage the past in a way that welcomes the full reality of the present so that the future may be beautiful beyond our wildest imagination. Tradition gifts us many tools to navigate this path. One of the most powerful is creative reinterpretation — chidush. Chidush, from the Hebrew root chadash, meaning “new,” refers to an original insight on a passage of Jewish text.
As this week’s parsha begins, Korach—along with 250 chieftains of the community—criticizes Moses and Aaron for devising a system of religious practice in which only a select few are designated for Divine service. Where there was once an unmediated relationship, there are now layers—both physical and metaphorical—between the majority of the people and God. “Kol ha edah kula kedoshim u’bitocham Adonai—All of the community is holy, all of them, and the Divine is within/among them,” Korach and his followers assert. “Why then do you raise yourselves above the community?”
The Haggadah tells of our people’s journey from the suffering of slavery to our wild, sea-splitting-open redemption. Around the seder table last week, our observance of the holiday began with a question: “How is this night different from all other nights?: As we discuss and unfurl into our newfound freedom, our questions about the particular night of Passover blossom into new and potent questions about the days and nights that lie ahead.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, holds two age-old stories side by side. They are deeply interwoven. The story of power, oppression, control and degradation on the one hand. And the story of birthing new life, fresh possibility, liberation and redemption on the other.