Shabbat January 18, 2020, Sh’mot Torah Reading, Exodus 1:1-6:1

This week we begin the second book of the Torah. The names of the
Biblical books we use in English are representative of their contents.
They are the names that were given by the Greek speaking Jews of
Alexandria. This book, which tells the story of the Israelites
leaving Egypt, is called “Exodus.” In Hebrew, by contrast, each
parasha is named for the first significant word in the first sentence,
and each book is named for its first parasha. So this week’s parasha
– and the entire second book of the Chumash – is called Shmot, which
means “names.”

Names, spoken and unspoken, do figure largely in this week’s reading.
It begins with a listing of the names of Jacob’s sons who came to
Egypt with their households and settled there. The narrative moves
quickly, telling of a new Pharaoh (who is not named), who did not know
Joseph and enslaves the children of Israel. There is the story of the
heroic midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who defy Pharaoh’s order to kill
male Hebrew children at birth. It’s a relatively rare occurrence of
women being named who are not identified at all as being connected to
men. Neither Shifrah nor Puah is said to be some man’s wife, daughter,
or mother. Discomfort with their lack of male identification may have
led to the midrash that says they were really Yocheved (Moses’ mother)
and Miriam (Moses’ sister).

The story of Moses’ name is also told. As a baby he is taken from
the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, who raises him as her own. We’re
told she gave him the name Moses because she took him from the water.
That explanation would work only if she were speaking Hebrew, which of
course she would not. In fact, Moses is an Egyptian name and this
Hebrew folk etymology makes no sense in context.

Moses runs away from Egypt after killing a taskmaster set over his
people, the Israelites. He settles in Midian, where he marries and
has a son he names Gershom, from ger, which means “stranger” saying “I
have been a stranger in a strange land.” Does he mean Midian, where
he has self-exiled to, or Egypt which was the strange land of his
ancestors?

We move on to the famous story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Moses
is working as a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro, priest of the
Midianites. Exodus Rabbah, a midrashic work, expands on the simple
statement that Moses was tending the flock. It says that G-d watched
Moses retrieve a stray kid, carrying it back to the flock since the
animal was fatigued. From this G-d concluded that Moses’ kind care of
the flock meant he had the character to lead the “flock” of Israelites
out of Egypt.

Moses sees a bush that is burning but not consumed. The text
originally says that an angel of G-d appears in the bush. However,
when Moses goes to investigate why the bush does not burn up, it is G-
d who speaks to him directly from within it, telling him to take off
his shoes and keep his distance because this is holy ground. G-d
tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and says that Moses will take the
Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses declares himself unworthy of the mission, the first occurrence
of a pattern whereby prophets initially try to turn down the mission
G-d gives them. As Robert Alter says, “Moses has particular cause to
feel unworthy. Having been raised as an Egyptian prince, he has
become an outlaw, an exile, and a simple shepherd.” G-d, however,
assures Moses that he is the man for the job and that G-d will be with
him.

Moses continues to express reluctance to do G-d’s bidding. He asks G-d
how he can convince the children of Israel that G-d has sent him if he
doesn’t even know G-d’s name. G-d replies with the cryptic Ehyeh
asher ehyeh – “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” and says
that Moses should say Ehyeh – I will be – has sent him. Many
commentators have suggested that Ehyeh is an earlier form of the
Tetragrammaton – the four letter name of G-d that is never pronounced.
This is yet another instance of a Name being an important element in
the parasha.

G-d continues to try to alleviate Moses’ reluctance to be G-d’s
prophet, showing Moses “signs” (i.e. miraculous acts) that he will be
able to use to make clear that he has a connection with G-d. Still
Moses demurs, saying that he is not ish d’varim – a man of words.
Rashi interpreted this to mean that Moses stammered. Eventually G-d
loses patience and becomes angry with Moses and in Exodus 4:14 says
that Moses’ brother “Aaron the Levite” will accompany him and take the
speaking part in the brothers’ act. It’s a puzzling introduction of
Aaron, who has never been mentioned before. The story of Moses’ birth
(which is in the first triennial reading) makes it sound like he is
the first child of his parent’s marriage. And why is Aaron specified
as being “the Levite” when Moses must be as well?

Moses gets ready to return to Egypt. G-d tells Moses that he is to
demonstrate signs and wonders to Pharaoh in order to convince him to
let the people go. However, G-d will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that
he will refuse. Moses does not seem to wonder why things will unfold
in this odd way. He takes leave of his father-in-law, Jethro, packs
up his wife and kids on a donkey and sets out.

A puzzling and disturbing episode happens as they travel. While they
are staying bamalon ¬– at a hotel or inn – G-d arrives and tries to
kill Moses. Tzipporah – Moses’ wife – quickly acts, taking a stone and
circumcising their infant son. The action changes G-d’s mind about
killing Moses. She says “Chatan damim atah li” – you are a bridegroom
of blood to me. Is she saying it to Moses or to the child? The rabbis
are split on that. And why did G-d want to kill Moses and why did the
circumcision avert the death sentence?

Rashi says that Moses’ sin was in not circumcising his younger son,
Eliezer, and that it is the child she just circumcised whom she is
addressing, that her statement is shorthand for something like “You
were almost the cause of my husband’s bloody death.” Other
commentators see Moses himself as the Bridegroom of Blood. In that
view she calls him that because she had to shed her son’s blood to
save her husband’s life.

Why hadn’t Moses circumcised his son? The rabbis of the Talmud try to
justify this lapse. Some say that the day he was supposed to leave
for Egypt was the day he should have circumcised his son, and he
didn’t want to delay in leaving while his son recovered, nor to take
him on an arduous journey right after surgery. Others say he planned
to circumcise him while he stayed at the inn, but wanted his family
settled first. It remains a strange interlude, portraying G-d as
capricious and dangerous.

As the narrative continues, Aaron joins Moses and they go together to
present their let-my-people-go proposal to Pharaoh. Pharaoh is
unimpressed, saying he never heard of this G-d Moses speaks of. Not
only does he not let them go, but he tells the taskmasters to make the
work of the Israelite slaves harder. Previously they had been given
straw to mix into their bricks – now they must gather it themselves.
Their quota of bricks is not reduced as their work is increased, a
practice that continues in corporations downsizing today (“We have to
do more with less” is the usual slogan.) The slaves struggle to meet
quotas and the taskmasters treat them harshly.

The parasha ends with the first line of Chapter 6, in which G-d tells
Moses to watch what happens: Pharaoh will force the Israelites out of
Egypt.

Haftarah Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23

The prophet Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah during the
Eighth Century BCE. The book of Isaiah, though, is generally thought
to have had multiple authors over a longer period of time, with later
chapters written during the Babylonian Exile. This week’s haftarah
comes from the early part of the book, the section that is indeed
believed to have been written by Isaiah ben Amoz.

The selection uses agricultural metaphors in a prophesy of both
punishment and redemption. In days to come Jacob will “take root” and
Israel will “sprout and blossom.” The image of botanic splendor is
contrasted with the “drunkards of Ephraim (the Northern Kingdom) whose
glorious beauty is but wilted flowers.” The prophet alternates images
of redemption and reward for those who remain true to G-d with images
punishment of those who are not faithful to G-d’s word.

Two verses from the end of this section of prophesy are appended to
the haftarah so that it ends on a positive note, saying that no longer
will the people be shamed and that G-d’s holiness will be recognized.
The connection to the parasha is likely in the message of redemption
to come, just as Moses is told of G-d’s plan to redeem the Israelites
from Egypt. In addition, the haftarah specifically mentions Egypt,
saying in 27:13 that those in Egypt “shall come and worship the Lord
on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.

Vayechi 5780

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