Stars, Sand and Sefer Shemot

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eli Reiter

Rashi uses the well-worn simile of Jews and stars to explain the counting of the Jews in the beginning of the parsha.

Although the people counted have passed away, Hashem loves them so much that he counts them again after they pass, lihodia chibosom =to make known how precious they are, shenimshilou likochavim = that they are similar to stars.

Why are stars a good analogy? The tribes are being counted posthumously, but stars are vibrant gas clusters. Their lives are bright but relatively short. If Jews are precious and many in number, sand would be a better metaphor. Sand survives in the harshest of conditions, the sea. Sand is insoluble, whether in a large group as part of a beach or a stray grain in the ocean. Even in the worst conditions, like being enslaved in Egypt, the Jews were incapable of dissolving and still rescued by Hashem. Sand may be a more appropriate to the narrative of Sefer Shemot.

Stars have exploded and died, yet we see their light many years later. (For some context, my favorite star, the sun, is nearly 93 million miles away.) By the time we earthlings see a star shining, it may have been dead for years. It’s a sad but astounding fact: The galaxy we see is an astrophysical graveyard, a testament to what the universe was, not is.  A tapestry for nostalgia.

And yet. It’s not nostalgia, with its purposeless rumination. We actually see the stars and enjoy them. They’re living, at least from our point of view. The bad news is light years away.

Hashem is counting us not simply because He cares about us, although that is obvious. He counts us posthumously to show that we as humans are effective and important in life.  How we act, what we do, etc.  Every action creates a ripple in the ocean. A small splash is all it takes. The creator moves on. Some catalysts dissipate while others grow into waves.

The light we shine exists for a long time after we die.

Rashi brings a passage from Isaiah to back up his case: “He brings forth his legions in number, calls them all by name.”  Leading up to this pasuk, the navi describes G-d as the center of the universe and an all-powerful being. All people, though, are “a drop in the bucket” (40:15). “He can cast away islands like dust.” But we, as Jews, are like stars.

Stars collapse and explode. Bits of carbon and nitrogen fly out and become part of gas clouds and then they form other ingredients of life. We’re in this universe and the universe is in us. By being stars, we’re connected, relevant, and participants in the world around us. That’s what we are as Jews.

This also touches upon the theme found in Sifrei Bereishit and Shemot of maase avot siman libanim. Our forefathers’ actions foreshadow ours. Our circumstances follow them, and how we respond in turn effects later generations. We make a difference for hundreds of years after our biological lives ends.

Eli Reiter (SBM 2015) is a recent graduate of Hunter College. He also hosts the long running storytelling show Long Story Long.

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