Machshavot HaRav: Reflections from Rabbi Waxman


The Exodus Revisited


Two weeks from tomorrow night, we shall sit at our seder tables, having had the first cup of wine, an appetizer of dipped vegetable in salt water (per a suggestion of Ron Wolfson, we go beyond the celery and boiled potato—a Litvak custom—and have salad—same blessing, and a lot more filling) and heard the 4 questions and we shall then arrive at the beginning of the text of the Haggadah’s exposition: “Avadim Hayenu L’Pharoh, We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Had not the holy One liberated our people from Egypt, then we, our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”


Is this a statement of historical fact or is this part of a foundational story which has but tenuous roots in the reality?


This past Monday, I had the privilege via a webcast of watching and listening to Professor Richard Elliott Friedman, a distinguished Bible scholar, now teaching at the University of Georgia—for many years he was at UC San Diego--. He reviewed some of the challenging theses of his new book: The Exodus. In it he discusses the problems of validating the biblical story. He points to a number of problems. For instance, there is no trace of a massive group crossing the Sinai 3,000 plus years ago (but then again, surveys have been far from complete and sands have a way of burying evidence), and secondly, the numbers involved—600,000 men of military age with their families—would have produced a line of march that would have stretched for miles. (As he observes, if  they marched 8 across the first contingent would have been standing at Mount Sinai, while the rearguard would still have been in Egypt.) Moreover, there is no Egyptian record of such an unprecedented event. (Then again, Egyptian Pharaoh’s were loath to record their defeats.) Was there in fact an Exodus?


His conclusion: yes, but a qualified yes. Egyptian records clearly indicate tin the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE the presence of a variety of Asiatics. (Yes, our ancestors were deemed to be Asiatics.) Could it be that our progenitors were among this mix? Professor Friedman asserts that there was a cadre who were in Egypt and left: the Levites, who brought with them the name of God, YHWH, which merged with the classic designation of El. Among proofs he offers is the parallel between the battle tent of Ramses II and the Tabernacles as it is described in the book of Exodus, the similarity of Egyptian barks with the ark of the Covenant—both of which are found in Levitical sections of the Torah--, and the names of key Levitical figures, ranging from Moses to Pinchas (Phineas) to Hur (derived from the Egyptian god Horus) are Egyptian in origin. (The only Israelites bearing Egyptian names are Levites.) Moreover, he points to the fact that 52 times---all in Levitical sources of the text—there is a command never to mistreat an alien, which makes sense only if there was a recollection of what it meant to have been maltreated as an alien. There is more to his argument, but for the moment that should suffice to offer you flavor of it. It is a fairly persuasive argument, though part of me would like to believe that more than a group of Levites migrated out of Egypt; that ancient Israel was more than a group of former Canaanites who rejected eating pig and opted for a form of Monotheism and then merged with the Levites, granting them not territory, but a special exalted status..


If nothing else, Friedman’s thesis would make for some interesting discussion at the seder table. You have a couple of weeks to cram.


Shabbat shalom.






Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel


High Tech Road Studs


A quartet of Israelis, Shahar Bahiri, Gabriel Jacobson, Michael Dan Vardi, and Daniel Yakovich claimed the 2017 Intelligent Infrastructure Challenge of Highway UK and were selected to participate in the exclusive intelligent Mobility program at Telfonica’s London-based start-up accelerator Wayra. What have they done to merit this recognition?


Valerann, the company which they have created, is a cloud-based road digitization system. The Israeli technology is based on replacing existing reflective road studs, which line British roads, and are embedded there every 10 to 15 meters to highlight lanes, bumps and crossings, and to replace them by installing wireless plug-and-play “smart studs” which have sensors that will collect and transmit raw data to control units on nearby poles and send that data to the cloud. This process will enable the central post to have a real-time map of road conditions. Moreover, with LED illumination the studs can be remotely altered to change color or to flash, to warn of an accident and/or to guide emergency rescue vehicles.


According to Jacobson, who serves as the CEO, since the studs are changed every few years, they can be gradually replaced with the new smart studs.


Though focused for on the moment on the UK, the company is working towards a proof-of-concept project in the Washington, D.C. area. Moreover, according to the CEO, several Japanese companies have expressed interest as have the Israeli operators of Highways 6 and 20, the 2 major toll roads in Israel.


Jacobson noted that while some highways do have traffic monitoring systems, they use a hodgepodge of technologies from different providers and its data to analyze the data collected. “It’s very inefficient and complex for road authorities and for companies that manage toll roads. Our system, by contrast, will provide all the important insights operators need to optimize traffic and reduce accidents. We are trying to streamline the entire process.”


The expectation is that the first fully functioning system will be in operation by year’s end.






Payrush LaParshahah:

 A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion


This Saturday (March 17th) we begin the book of Leviticus with the portion of Vayikrah (Leviticus 3:1- 4:35). It is also Shabbat HaChodesh with its own special Maftir (Exodus 12:1-20), which recounts preparations for the first Passover. And by chance it is also Rosh Chodesh, the first of the new month of Nissan and hence this becomes one of only 3 Shabbatot in which Torah readings are taken from 3 different scrolls. (Yes, on Simchat Torah 3 scrolls are used, as well. Award yourself a gold star if you can figure out the other 2 without a google search.)


4:1 YHWH spoke to Moses saying: (2) Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of YHWH’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them—(3) If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a purgation offering to YHWH.


Introduction (4:1-2) The name of this sacrifice, chatat, is derived from the same root as the word chet (sin); “it means that which cancels out sin.” The English “purgation” (purification or decontamination) succinctly captures the ritual’s function. The analogy between the Tabernacle and the larger world—microcosm and macrocosm—means that such acts have even wider ramifications. In a symbolic sense, one is restoring order to the world as a whole.


The chatat follows upon any accidental—not deliberate—violation of certain ethical and ritual prohibitions, of things “not to be done” (4:2,13, 22, 27). The person who brings the chatat then “shall be forgiven” (4:20, 26. 31, 35).


This offering takes different forms depending on the social status of the transgressor. The different steps indicate greater degrees of responsibility and culpability, with infractions by priests being subject to the most stringent procedures. The rules thus emphasize accountability rather than privilege. (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, “Vayikra: A Call to Approach God” in Tamara Cohen Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Dr. Cohn Eskenazi earned her doctorate from the University of Denver where she served on its faculty as well as director of the Institute of Interfaith Studies. She also cofounded Denver’s Jewish Women’s Resource Center in 1982. In 1990, she became the first female to be appointed to a tenure-track position at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. In 1995 she became a full professor of Bible at that school. In addition to editing and being a contributor to this volume, she is the author of In an Age of Prose: A Literary Approach to Ezra-Nehemiah (1988) and Telling the Queen Michal Story (1991). More recently, she was co-author of the JPS Commentary on Ruth (2011) and has completed the commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah for the Anchor Bible Series, which will soon be published. In 2013 she was ordained as a rabbi by HUC-JIR.)



Sun, March 18 2018 2 Nisan 5778