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D'var Torah (Torah Thoughts), Parsha Shemot

When I sat down to work on this d’var, I was struck by how timely this week’s parsha, Shemot, felt. In it, we read the story famously associated with Passover in which Pharaoh ordains the death of all first-born Israelite boys. This leads to baby Moses being sent down the Nile in a basket. He is raised by an Egyptian princess, and only learns of his Israelite identity later in life after he strikes an Egyptian taskmaster who was hurting an Israelite slave. Moses runs away for fear of retribution for his action, and God speaks to him in the form of a burning bush to tell him that he is an Israelite, and he needs to go back to Egypt to ask Pharaoh to let the Jews be free. Moses’ ensuing interactions with Pharaoh bring about the ten plagues and the ultimate redemption of the Israelites from slavery into freedom.

So why did reading the Passover story in January feel timely to me?

Well, the Jews in Shemot are given a “fresh start,” as their redemption from slavery marks a new chapter of their lives and of the life of the Jewish people as a whole. As this is the first Shabbat of 2018, all of us are also embarking on our own fresh starts. More personally for me, having just returned from studying abroad, I find myself currently presented with the clean slate of a new year and the prospect of reentering life at UChicago after being away from Hyde Park for 6 months. Reentering this life has been more daunting than I expected: going back to class was harder than I thought it would be, and living in a new apartment without the very charming orange hue of Max P was also strange. There can be something about fresh starts that, while exciting, almost feels too free, or so full of possibility that it’s a frightening prospect to think about how to best take advantage of the opportunity to start anew—or in UChicago Econ-speak, how can you optimize newness?

I don’t think there is a correct answer to that, and while it is true that there is room for fear in the openness of a fresh start, I think there is also a lot of room for inspiration and personal growth, trite as that may sound. While coming back to school has been strange for me, being away from this place also gave me perspective and a chance to think about how I want to take advantage of starting anew here. And yes, the Gregorian calendar is kind of arbitrary and in reality has basically nothing to do with Torah readings, but as Jewish college students we are constantly forced to reconcile the interaction of our Jewish lives and the life of the secular world around us. So in this spirit of Shemot-meets-2018, I encourage you to spend some time this Shabbat reflecting on what a happy and healthy fresh start to 2018 will look like for you. (Also, as Hillel’s Student Leadership Board president, I feel obligated to make a slight plug that there are a lot of wonderful events coming up at Hillel in 2018—Black Tie Mega Shabbat, a self-love event on Valentine’s Day, a “High Tea and Hamentaschen” study break on Purim, to name a few—and maybe your fresh start can involve enjoying some of those too!)

But Hillel aside, I’m so looking forward to 2018, fresh starts and all, and if we haven’t met yet, do feel free to introduce yourself! Wishing you all a very happy and healthy 2018 filled with meaningful new beginnings. Shabbat shalom.

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