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Stephanie D. Kolin
Parashat Sh’mot

Stephanie D. Kolin  |  January 5, 2018

They’re calling this weather we’re having a bomb cyclone. Have you ever heard a scientific term more determined to cause panic than a “bomb cyclone”? And yet, if there were any designation that could out-intimidate a bomb cyclone, it would be the other scientific name for this storm: “bombogenesis.” A name that intimates destruction of biblical proportions. As last week, we finished reading the book of Genesis and this week, we begin reading the book of Exodus, bombogenesis feels eerily relevant to our Torah cycle.

Here’s how it’s described by Jeff Masters, the director of meteorology and co-founder of Weather Underground- He says: A bomb cyclone is a low-pressure system that intensifies very rapidly . . . When a storm has its pressure rapidly fall . . . it’s going to drive stronger winds, because . . . the atmosphere doesn’t like to have different pressures, so . . .  the wind will flow from high pressure to low pressure to try and balance out the difference. As the winds grow stronger, he terrifyingly continued, you’re also going to be pulling in more water vapor from the periphery of the storm into the center . . . and you get increased precipitation (hence the snow all day yesterday). At the same time . . . it’s able to pull in Arctic air from northern Canada (hence the temperatures today and tomorrow that make it physically painful to go outside).

Bombogenesis, indeed. An all-encompassing storm with bitter cold and driving winds, and blinding snow. A storm that is damaging and relentless.

And then we read this week’s Torah portion, bomboexodus, as it were. We find our people in Ancient Egypt, at the whim of a small-minded Pharaoh who is paranoid that we will rise up and attack him. And so “vayasimu alav sarei misim l’ma’an anoto.” “He set over them taskmasters in order to oppress them - us.” He taxes us financially and physically, demanding we build his endless cities, taunting us with few resources to make the bricks, driving us with whips and starving our bodies. When our people continue to grow and thrive despite all this, the winds increase and the snow drives harder, and he demands that the midwives kill all our baby boys. And when they refuse, like the wind blowing from the high pressure system to the low pressure system, Pharaoh lashes out harder still, demanding that all Egyptians throw our baby boys in the river. The storm is now all around us, pounding on us relentlessly.

We say that the moments in Torah are not history, but rather memory – human truths that happen over and over again. And I would suggest that it is not just this weather or our sacred narrative that feels unrelenting, but rather that each of us sits, at times, maybe even now, inside what feels like an insistent storm that swirls around us, with no respite.

This week, the Jewish community has seen great loss – young people who are gone far too soon, loss of entire families in a tragic plane crash. World news to make our heads spin. And maybe you are sitting here in your own personal unrelenting storm - in your family, in your work life, or in your heart it feels like the winds just won’t let up, like some paranoid Pharaoh has set decree upon decree on you, and you’re not sure how to find the calm in the storm.

I want to offer that woven into our narrative this week is not just the storm, but also a model for maybe, maybe, how to weather our darkest days. We look especially to Yocheved, Moses’ mother. Here she is, having given birth to a beautiful baby boy, who she can’t bear to give over to Pharaoh’s decree. And somehow, facing what is probably the darkest days of her life, she finds the strength to take a radical action of hope. She builds a seaworthy basket, places her baby inside of it, kneels down, and sets it on the river – not for death, but for a chance to live. And she decides, against all odds, to believe that this chapter is not her last chapter. To believe that maybe someone will find her baby, draw him from the water, and raise him as her own, that maybe they will all survive this unbearable moment. I don’t know from where she draws her strength, but I know that we have something to learn from her, this woman who casts hope upon a river.

I remember a time when I was living in Boston, it was right around this special ritual that only comes every 28 years, called birkat hachama, the blessing of the sun, in which we stand there at dawn, waiting for the sun to rise, and when it does, we offer a blessing that we only get to say once we witness day break – and if the sun is obscured by clouds or rain, you don’t get to do the special ritual. And I was in a particularly sad place. And I sat with my dear friend, Reverend Dan Smith, and I said to him – Dan, what if the sun doesn’t come up? What if the storm doesn’t relent and this darkness is the new reality, and there is no blessing? And he took my hand and he said – Stef, the sun always comes up again. And one day, your heart will be ready to see it, and you will feel the warmth on your face, and a new chapter will start. And it was hard to believe he was right. But he was right.

In fact, the very structure of Torah charges us with a radical hope. Parshat Shemot goes from Exodus Chapter 1, verse 1, through Chapter 6, verse 1. Now, it should clearly end at the last verse of Chapter 5 – it’s strange that it would continue into the first verse of the next chapter. So, there is a rule that a Torah portion cannot end on a verse of despair – on a death or bad news. The last verse of chapter 5 is Moses crying out to God how bad things have gotten.

He says: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; lo hitzalta et amecha, and still You have not delivered Your people.” . . .  It is the despair of an unrelenting storm. So we aren’t allowed to end there. Instead, we tack on one more verse, chapter 6, verse 1: Then God said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might . . .”. The promise of a next chapter.

And so whatever may be your storm right now, whatever may feel overwhelmingly sad or hard, we pray for the courage of Yocheved to believe, against all odds, that we will survive this moment. We access the wisdom of the rabbis to never end on a verse of despair and even where there is darkness, we pray for our own chapter 6, verse 1. In the face of devastation, we pray for chapter 6 vs. 1. Under the weight of emotional exhaustion, we pray for chapter 6, vs. 1. To renew in us hope that there will be a next chapter for us, too, and that whatever storm we face today - That the sun will rise again, the winds will die down, the cold will give way, and we will again step into the light.

Shabbat shalom.


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