Parshas Shemos

A New Book Begins:  What’s the book called?

We finished the book of Genesis and are embarking on the second book of the Torah; The Book of Exodus.  In this book, we encounter the first era of persecution that our nation experienced.  We read of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea, and of how Hashem miraculously led our people from slavery to salvation.  The story of our people making an exodus from Egypt is a focal point of this book, and seemingly an apt title for it.

In Hebrew, the book was named, Shemos, which means names.  The very first verses in the book tell us  the names of many of the 70 descendants of Jacob who were with him when he left the land of Israel and made the journey down to Egypt.  This narrative of the names lasts no longer than five verses, and yet, this was the name chosen by the Sages for the entire book!  It would seem, at first glance, that the rest of the world got the name of the book correct, by calling it Exodus, and that we missed our target.

The very first question asked by Rashi, one of the greatest commentators on the Torah, may shed some light on why our Sages chose to call this book “The Book of Names”.  Rashi asks why the Torah mentions the 70 offspring of Jacob at this point in the story, if the Torah had just counted them by name in the past Torah portion; just a few chapters prior?  He answers that it is to show us, the Jewish people, just how much Hashem loves us.  When we love something, we tend to count it repeatedly, making sure we are certain of its number.  Every miser knows exactly how many coins he has, and every Jewish Bubby knows exactly how many grandchildren she has.  The bubby will know more than just the number of grandchildren; she will know the names of each of them.  Counting and calling someone by name is an affectionate display of love.  Think of two young people, totally in love with each other, gazing into each other’s eyes and just repeating the name of their beloved.  Hashem calls the Children of Israel by name as a term of endearment, to display the great love that He feels toward them.

This book speaks of a people who were persecuted, exploited and tortured by the strongest empire of that era.  We suffered greatly at the hand of the ancient Egyptians, with little hope of ever altering that existence.  Not a single slave had ever escaped from Egypt before.  But then something extraordinary happens.  Hashem, our Father in Heaven, takes note of our suffering and enters the scene.  He punishes our tormentors and redeems us from the depths of suffering.  It is in this book that God makes known to the world the special place that the Jewish people have in His thoughts and in His plan for the world.  And it all starts by God calling us by name; by counting us each by our first name to indicate just how much He loves us all.  The Book of Names, is a beautiful portrayal of one of the deepest themes in this book.


The Book of Exile and Redemption

There is another name given to this second book of the Torah.  In Talmudic literature, it is referred to as “The Book of Exile and Redemption”.  The great sage, Nachmanides, or Ramban asks the following question:  He says that this book definitely begins by discussing the first exile that we endured, with its tortures and humiliations.  It then relates how Hashem took us out of Egypt, triumphantly, amid great miracles.  But that story actually comes to a close at the halfway point in the book, at the end of chapter 20.  There are still 20 chapters left in which the book describes in great detail the building of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was the portable Temple that was built in the desert as a place of service to Hashem.  If the theme of the book is about redemption from Exile, then the book should close at Cahpter20, why go on for so many more chapters?

Ramban answers with a profound concept.  He says that redemption can never be complete until one is fully restored to his or her previous level of greatness.  During the lives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the great Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah, the Divine Presence of Hashem would rest in their homes.  A unique cloud was affixed atop the tent of Sara, indicating God’s closeness.  When Sara passed, the cloud left, but it came back when Isaac married Rivkah and took up his residence in that tent.  This was the level of the Jewish people, to be a place of Godliness, where Hashem’s presence could be felt in this world.  Even though the Jews were liberated from slavery, they were not yet fully redeemed.  That only occurred once we completed building the Tabernacle and the Divine Presence dwelt among us.  Once that is accomplished, the book comes to an end.


The Cycle of Jewish History Repeats Itself

When you look at the past of our people, you will notice certain themes that tend to repeat themselves.  Our story in Egypt began when the great Pharaoh, alongside his right hand man, Joseph, invited Israel and his family to come down to Egypt.  They flung open the country doors and welcomed the whole Jewish family to join them as special guests.  The very best land was offered with assurances of economic support and stability.  The Jews began to prosper and flourish.  They achieved success and their numbers multiplied.  But then Egypt, the host nation, becomes wary of them.  Perhaps fueled by jealousy, perhaps by one of the other inexplicable causes of baseless hatred aimed at the Jews, the attitude of our hosts changes and we are no longer appreciated.  Slowly, gradually, anti-Jewish legislation is passed.  It starts off with a mere curtailment of rights and freedoms, but eventually evolves into outright genocide.  This has been the story of our people and this is the model which we experienced in our very first exile, the one in Egypt.

At first, Pharaoh seeks council from his advisers on how to deal wisely with the “Jewish problem”.  They hatch the idea of forcing harsh physical labor upon us.  But even at this very first stage, there was a sinister and conniving method of deployment.  It all began by Pharaoh proclaiming his intent to build large storage spaces and he offered generous wages for anyone who volunteered.  Even the king himself joined the labor force, to show just how important this project was to him.  He made sure to take note of the addresses of all of his employees, so as to ensure that they received their wages on time.  Gradually, the king stopped coming to work and the wages began to dwindle.  Eventually, all of the Jews who had registered for work were forced to come and work for no wages at all. If the Jews failed to show up to work, the Egyptian police knew exactly where they lived and how to find them.

When this proved ineffective in stemming the population growth of the Jewish people, the Pharaoh sought other, more direct, yet discreet methods.  He summoned the two Jewish midwives who assisted in delivering the Jewish babies.  The Torah tells us that their names were Shifra and Puah, who our Midrashic sources teach, were actually the mother and sister of Moshe, Miriam and Yocheved.  They were commanded by the king to kill all of the baby boys.  For two God fearing women, compliance was not an option.  They defied the king’s order and excused themselves by saying that the Jewish women began giving birth before they could arrive to assist.

Once this plan failed, Pharaoh resorted to open genocide, commanding His people to openly cast baby boys into the Nile River, to cruelly drown them early on, and nip the “Jewish problem” in the bud.  Baby Moshe was one such baby, placed by his mother in the river inside a little basket, and from there he was saved by the king’s daughter.

If the narrative just mentioned seems familiar, that’s because it is!  It has been our story for the past 2000 years.  A country welcomes us in with open arms, treats us well and accords us all the liberties and freedoms of its own citizens.  But then things tend to sour.  And those who had once been warm and welcoming, become nasty and mean.  They strip us of our rights, persecute us and try to kill us.

We as Jews in the Diaspora, have had many names affixed to our name “Jew”.  We had been Egyptian Jews, Persian Jews, Greek Jews, Roman Jews, Spanish Jews, German Jews, Polish Jews, British Jews, and American Jews.  It has always been our first name that changes, the title describing where in the world we find ourselves.  What type of Jews we have been has been a transient matter, but the constant is our name at the end.  Jews.  That is always a title that we’ll carry with us.  That is our truest identity, and one which will never change.  It is our name of permanence, by which the world will always view us, and it is a title of honor through which we must always see ourselves.


Humility Created the Humblest of Men

There is a particular point in the narrative that is important to note.  Prior to the birth of Moshe, the Torah tells us the following:  A man went forth from the house of Levi and he took (as a wife) a daughter of Levi. (Exodus 2:1) This verse describes the marriage between Moshe’s parents, Amram and Yocheved.  The Talmud teaches that this wasn’t actually the first time that they had married.  You see, they had been married before and had two children together, Miriam and Aaron.  Once Pharaoh passed the law that all Jewish baby boys were to be cast into the Nile and drowned, Moshe’s parents to be, decided to separate from each other.  For what was the purpose of bringing more life into this world just to have it so harshly snuffed out.  So, they divorced.  When the rest of the people saw these great leaders abolish their marriage, many of the people followed suite and terminated their own marriages.

A young Miriam, six years of age, approached her parents and questioned their behavior.  She asked, “Is your decree not harsher than that of Pharaoh?  Pharaoh has deprived boys of life, but your conduct has denied both boys and girls from having a chance at life”.  They took the words of their young daughter to heart and remarried.  That is the union referred to here.  It was a remarriage and an acknowledgement that they were incorrect.  It was their six-year-old daughter who saw the situation correctly.  This is the backstory behind the birth of Moshe.

Friends, it can’t be easy to be admonished by one’s old child.  Certainly not when you are the great leader of the generation and the child is just six years of age.  It takes a good deal of humility to admit that she is right and that we are not.  To not only admit it but to go ahead and alter our behavior on a big life decision, now, that takes humility to a whole new level.  This was the humility displayed by Moshe’s parents.  So, it is no wonder that toward the end of Moshe’s life, he is praised by the Torah as being the humblest of men to have ever lived.  The miraculous story behind his birth came about through tremendous humility and that became engraved in the identity and character of our great leader Moshe!


A Name is Chosen: Moshe

The Torah tells us that it was Pharaoh’s daughter who named our greatest leader.  She names him Moshe, “for from the water I drew him in” (Exodus 2:10).  There are two questions that are important to address:  First, the baby spent the first years of his life in his own mother’s home, as she was the one who had been hired to nurse the young infant. Surely, the baby’s birth mother gave her young boy a name of her own choosing.  According to some of our sources she names her baby, Tuvia, which means good to God.  There are several other opinions as to what name Yocheved chose for her young baby, but everyone agrees that choose a name of her own she did.  So, then why does the Torah never use Moshe’s birth name, opting instead for the name given to him by the Egyptian princess?

The law of the land was to kill all Jewish baby boys.  For the princess to violate that law, was a direct defiance of her father, and placed her in great jeopardy.  But she was filled with compassion for this young baby and at risk to herself, she did what she knew to be right.  She stood up to tyranny and saved a life and gave this young baby a safe home in which to grow up.  The Torah valued her self-sacrifice so much, that it only uses the name that she chose for the baby and not once does it use any other name for Moshe.

Here is another question, and it gets into some of the grammar in the Hebrew language.  She names the baby Moshe, “because it was from the water that he was drawn in”.  The term Moshe, in Hebrew, means someone who will draw out others from the water.  But if her intent is to depict in his name what had happened to him, then a more fitting name should be “Moshuy”- meaning he who was drawn in from the water, not “Moshe” which implies drawing someone else out?

In the name Moshe, that she chose, the Egyptian princess was teaching the young lad an important lesson for life.  He had been the recipient of tremendous kindness.  Someone drew him out of the water, saving his life while at the same time putting their own life at risk.  She is teaching the boy she is raising that it mustn’t stop there.  You can’t be the beneficiary of a stranger’s good will and not pass the kindness forward.  Moshe’s very name instructs him to go out and seek those who are in trouble, and draw them in from the threatening water that surrounds them.  To just be saved, but never in turn save someone else would be a fail for Moshe’s life mission.  This was the charge she put him to in his very name.  And that is exactly what happens.  Time and gain, Moshe sees the suffering of the oppressed and steps in to save them.  As a young man, Moshe the prince, sees a Jewish slave being brutalized by an Egyptian slave driver. He gets involved and saves the victim.  When he arrived in the land of Midian, he encounters the daughters of Jethro being harassed at the well by the local shepherds and he intervenes to protect them.  As a leader of the Jewish people, Moshe always intercedes on behalf of the people, and is even willing to negate himself so as to protect them.

It was from his early infancy that Moshe was taught the lesson of protecting the weak and endangered and that is a legacy that he carried for the rest of his life.  After all, it was his name, Moshe!


Points to Ponder

Why would Hashem orchestrate it for Moshe to be raised in the palace of Pharaoh?

Why out of all places does God choose a burning thorn bush to reveal Himself to Moshe?

God spent seven days trying to convince Moshe to go on His mission to the Jewish people and to Pharaoh.  Why was Moshe so reluctant to go?

Why does Hashem instruct Moshe to ask Pharaoh for 3 days in which to bring offerings in the dessert, if the intention was clearly to leave Egypt permanently?

Why was it important for Moshe to remove his shoes by the burning bush?  What is it about shoes that dictates they not be worn on sacred ground?

Does Pharaoh know that baby Moshe is Jewish?

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