Parshat Shemot

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וַיְמָרְרוּ  אֶת  חַיֵּיהֶם  בַּעֲבֹדָה  קָשָׁה  בְּחֹמֶר  וּבִלְבֵנִים  וּבְכָל  עֲבֹדָה  בַּשָּׂדֶה
And  they  embittered  their  lives  with  hard  labor,  with  clay  and  with  bricks
and  with  all  kinds  of  labor  in  the  fields 
 —  Exodus 1:14

Moses, Museums and Menorahs.

I must make a confession.  As we read the Torah portion every week, year after year, it is not always easy to have the same interest and excitement in the details as when I heard it the first time as a child. Be it the story of Noah’s ark or the Exodus, when we hear the stories as children they are spellbinding, but as we get older and we already know how the stories end, it gets harder to appreciate their beauty.

Now of course we do not read the Torah for entertainment purposes or to keep us awake in shul! — we read it because it is G-d’s blueprint for His world and it is our textbook for a fulfilled life on this planet. The myriad commentaries and deep explanations keep us inspired and involved, but sometimes I wish we could reclaim the childlike wonder we felt when we heard the stories for the very first time.

This is where the museums come in. One of the easiest ways to bring the Parsha to life is to see artifacts that could have been the very ones discussed in the Torah, and Egypt is a perfect example. Just a couple of weeks ago we travelled to the UK for the Chanukah holidays. One of the places we visited was the Manchester Museum which has a wonderful Egyptian section, replete with mummies and hieroglyphs. What caught my attention there was a rectangular wooden frame next to what looked like a flat loaf of granary bread. These two objects were in fact a wooden brick mould for making Nile mud bricks, and an actual mud brick, made with mud and straw as described in the Torah reading today. I started thinking, who knows … maybe this very brick was crafted by a Hebrew slave, sweating day after day under the hot Egyptian sun with no end in sight.

Back home I headed to the website for the British Museum where I also found examples of Nile mud bricks, dated around 1250 BCE (Exodus was 1312 BCE) and stamped with the name of Rameses II. Although just a photograph of a brick — not very inspiring you might think! — this year as I will read the story of the slaves and their brickmaking, and their desperate pleas for straw supplies, I hope to read it with the  wonder of a young child, able to visualise the heat, the sweat, the cracking of whips, and the mass of humanity, hundreds of thousands of Hebrews, forming bricks, stamping them with the name of the Pharoah and praying to the G-d of Abraham for salvation.

So where does the Menorah come in?

Archaeologists in Israel have come up in the last few weeks with some wonderful finds, interestingly both Chanukah related. The first was actually announced on Chanukah and is “the first direct archaeological evidence of activity on the Temple Mount and the workings of the Temple during the Second Temple period,” according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. It is a small clay seal, embossed with the Aramaic words meaning “Pure for G-d,” and is exactly the type of seal used on the oil jar found in the Chanukah miracle. Unfortunately there are many today who try to deny any Jewish claims to the Holy Land, and even to the existence of our Beit Hamikdash on the Temple Mount. This seal is the first physical, indisputable proof of such Temple activity.

The second find, discovered near Akko just a few days ago is a 1500 year old baker’s tool, for marking loaves of bread with a distinctive trademark. What was the symbol on this baker’s stamp? A seven-branched Temple menorah!

Just like the Egyptian brick, these artifacts bring history to life, the purity of the Temple grounds, utensils and objects two millennia ago and the local kosher bakery in Akko 1500 years ago with its specially marked loaves.

But we don’t really need these archaeological treasures to learn about the chain of Jewish tradition, because that was never lost and buried.  Since the Torah was given to Moses in the Jewish year 2448 we have an unbroken golden chain of tradition, father to son and mother to daughter, connecting the generation of the Tablets of  Stone to the generation of the Tablets of Apple.

Let’s take a moment this Shabbat to think about how lucky we are to be links in that precious chain. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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