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Torah Sparks

January 17, 2004 — 23 Tevet 5764

Annual: Ex. 1:1 — 6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 4:18 — 6:1 (Etz Hayim p. 335; Hertz p. 220)
Haftarah: (a) Isaiah 27:6 — 28:13; 29:22-23 (s) Jeremiah 1:1 — 2:3

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


1:1-14 — A list of the names (Hebrew, shemot) of 11 sons of Israel (Jacob) who came to Egypt with their families (Joseph was already in Egypt). The beginning of the enslavement and the affliction of the Israelites.

1:15-22 — Pharaoh’s plot to kill all Hebrew males at birth and the heroic disobedience of the midwives.

2:1-10 — The birth of a son to a couple from the tribe of Levi. The baby was hidden by his mother for 3 months then placed in a water-tight basket in the river. He is watched by his sister until he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him and, ultimately, named him Moses.

2:11-22 — Moses observed an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew slave and, seeing no witnesses, Moses killed the Egyptian. The next day Moses observed two Hebrews fighting and tried to intervene. Moses immediately recognized from the reaction of the attacker that his murder of the Egyptian was known. Fearful of Pharaoh’s retribution Moses fled to Midian where he became a shepherd, married and had a son.

2:23-25 — The Israelites, suffering in their servitude, cried out. God heard them and recalled the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

3:1-10 — Moses is serving as a shepherd for his father-in-law, the Midianite priest, Jethro. An angel of God appears to Moses in a burning bush and God speaks to Moses. In Moses’ first prophetic experience God tells Moses that he will lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

3:11 — 4:17 — Moses expresses anxiety and doubt about his worthiness and ability to accomplish the task that God has chosen him for. God encourages and reassures Moses and gives Moses signs by which the Israelites will recognize that Moses is, indeed, God’s messenger. Moses refuses God’s assignment 5 times and God provides 5 counter arguments until Moses finally accepts the task.

4:18-23 — Moses seeks and receives permission from his father-in-law to return to Egypt to witness the condition of the Israelites. God advises Moses to return and he does so along with his wife and family. God instructs Moses as to how he is to act with Pharaoh.

4:24-31 — Tziporah, Moses wife, circumcises their son. God tells Aaron to meet with Moses and Moses tells Aaron all that God had revealed. Moses and Aaron assemble the elders of Israel and Aaron tells the elders what God had promised and show them the signs and the elders are convinced.

5:1-6:1 — Moses and Aaron’s first confrontation with Pharaoh fails. Pharaoh retaliates by oppressing Israelites even more harshly. The Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for making their plight worse. Moses complains to God who reassures him that he will see what God will do to Pharaoh.

Selected Text

Moses said to God: “When I come to B’nei Yisrael and I tell them Elohei (the God of) your  ancestors has sent me to you and they ask me ‘What is His name?’ What do I tell them?” God said to Moses: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, tell B’nei Yisrael this, Ehyeh sent me to you” God then tells Moses to “say to B’nei Yisrael, YHVH, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob sent me to you, zeh sh’mi l’olam, this is My name forever.” (Ex. 3:13-15)

Discussion – A Rose by Any Other Name

Bemoaning their fate by reason of the fact that that their family names had predetermined their destiny, Shakespeare has Juliet ask: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet II:1) While Shakespeare may have doubted that there is a connection between the essence of a person and his/her name, Jewish tradition has a different view.

K’shmo ken hu, As one’s name so is the person.” (I Samuel 15:25). Our name reflects both how others view us and how we view ourselves. A midrash teaches that each of us has three distinct names: one that we are called by our parents, one that we are called by others and ehad mah she’karu lo b’sefer b’riyato, one that is a name of our own creation. (Kohelet Raba) Rabbi Yohanan went further and claimed that a person’s name actually determines that person’s destiny. (Berakhot 7b) Thus, in Jewish tradition, names are significant, we have many names and our names are a reflection of our reputation and character. Interestingly, we find that this is also true of God’s names.

Sefer Shemot (literally, names) reminds us of the importance of names: peoples names, the names of places and even the name of God. In the famous story comprising Moses’ first prophetic experience, the revelation at the burning bush (Ex. Ch. 3), Moses expresses serious doubts about his ability to carry out the task to which he has been assigned. Moses’ inquiry (above) of God is: What is Your name? God’s response was a most enigmatic one; however a close look may help provide an answer. “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (I will be what I will be, or, perhaps, I am what I am) … say to B’nei Yisrael, YHVH, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob sent me to you, this is My name forever.” (Exodus 3:13-15).

In next week’s reading (Va’era) God tells Moses: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Ex. 6:3) God’s unique name, YHVH was, however, made known to the patriarchs (see Gen. 15:7, 28:13). What therefore does this statement mean?

Rashi notes that the verse (6:3) does not say that God did not make the name YHVH known to them but, rather, that the patriarchs did not know (fully understand and appreciate) the meaning of that name. God’s name, YHVH, the name we never pronounce, refers to God’s faithfulness in fulfilling promises. Thus, as Rashi notes, the patriarchs could not have appreciated this attribute since God’s promiseshave not yet been fulfilled.

Additionally, the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, is known as the shem hovayah, the name of existence, of being. YHVH is related to the verb “to be.” Thus, this unique name gives us a sense of God’s essential nature: Gods eternal existence. The patriarchs did not fully appreciate this aspect of God.

Sparks for Discussion

  1. The names of Jacob’s sons who went down to Egypt are known to us from Genesis. Why does the Torah repeat these names yet again, in the opening verses of Exodus? For one possible explanation see Rashi on Ex. 1:1.
  2. What can we learn of Moses’ future role from the name he was given by Pharaoh’s daughter? (See Ex. 2:10 for a derivation of Moses’ name). Why does the Torah not tell us whether Moses parents had given him a name in the first three months of his life?
  3. There is a custom to change one’s name at a time of serious illness. Others changed names upon immigrating. Israel required many of its officials to Hebraicize their family names. Some have changed names for professional purposes (e.g., movie stars). What other reasons do people have for changing their names? What concerns do such changes reflect?
  4. The midrash relates that one of the reasons that the Jews, after their enslavement in Egypt, merited redemption was that they retained their Jewish names. (Vayikra Raba 33). What purpose does a Jewish name serve? How does such a name preserve our identity? Do you know the meaning of your Hebrew name?

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