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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemot
January 5, 2013 – 23 Tevet 5773

Annual: Ex. 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial: Ex. 4:18-6:1 (Etz Hayim p. 335; Hertz p. 220)
Haftarah (A): Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343, Hertz p. 225)
Haftarah (S): Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Etz Hayim p. 347; Hertz, p. 229)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

The Book of Exodus opens by listing the sons of Jacob who have gathered in Egypt and notes the passing of that generation, as well as the rapid increase in Egypt's new Israelite population. A new pharaoh announces his intent to deal "shrewdly" with the Hebrew minority, which he considers dangerously disloyal. In addition to harsh forced labor, Pharaoh devises a genocidal policy toward his slaves, instructing midwives to murder newborn Israelite boys. The midwives, "God-fearing" women, evade the lethal assignment, claiming Hebrews deliver before the midwives can arrive and intervene. Significantly, the names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are provided. The midwives are rewarded by God for their moral principles and their defiance of Pharaoh.

Several years later Moses kills an Egyptian he sees beating an Israelite slave. When he realizes that the homicide he had thought concealed in fact was widely known, he flees to Midian where he marries Tzipporah, a daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. Tzipporah bears Moses the first of two sons. While Moses is in Midian, Egypt undergoes another change in leadership when the pharaoh dies. God takes note of the suffering of the Israelite slaves, appears to Moses ( now a shepherd in his father-in-law's employ) calls to him from the burning bush. Identifying Himself as "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh," God makes Moses prophet and leader of the Israelites. A resistant Moses argues that he is ill-equipped for the prophetic mission. God instructs him in a number of miraculous portents to use in establishing divine credibility when he confronts Pharaoh. Returning to Egypt accompanied by his family, Moses is, according to a brief and bizarre interpolation in the narrative, "attacked" by God. Tzipporah, joining the midwives, Moses' mother, sister, and adoptive mother as rescuer of the chosen redeemer of Israel, wards off the threat by performing a circumcision with a sharp flint. The text is unclear about whether it is Moses or his son who is circumcised and to whom she refers as a "bridegroom of blood." Moses and Aaron's first audience with Pharaoh to demand his emancipation of the Israelite slaves angers the monarch, who compounds the harshness endured by the slaves by compelling them to maintain their quota of brick-making while gathering straw for the process unassisted. Now hostile Israelites and their foremen complain to Moses that he has only made matters worse. Appealing to God, Moses is reassured that his mission will succeed. The parashah closes with the foreboding divine message: "You shall soon see what I shall do to Pharaoh."

Theme #1: "Beauty is Truth"

"The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months." (Exodus 2:2)

Derash: Study

"How beautiful he was. Literally, not ‘beautiful' but ‘good.' In reference to a grown man, ‘good' can refer to intellectual or spiritual qualities; but with reference to a baby, it can only refer to physical ones." (Ibn Ezra)

"All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him. The reason why this detail was included is that she saw in him an unprecedented beauty and thought that a miracle might be done for him, and he would be saved." (Nachmanides)

"One who explains this to mean that she hid him because she saw he was beautiful is a liar." (Rashbam)

"When he was born, the whole house filled with light." (Rashi)

"Hebrew tov, usually ‘good,' might also here connote ‘robust, healthy.' The entire clause stirs immediate association with a key phrase, seven times repeated in the Genesis Creation narrative, ‘God saw that… was good' (tov). This parallel suggests that the birth of Moses is intended to be understood as the dawn of a new creative era." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

Questions for Discussion

Were Moses' mother's actions unique? Or were her efforts to save her infant typical… and likely repeated by Israelite women throughout Egypt? Does this change our reading of her… or of Moses?

What does Nachmanides (Ramban) add to our understanding? Do not most parents perceive in their newborns a miraculous potential?

Respond to Ibn Ezra: Can "tov" only refer to physical beauty in an infant? Or was Moses' mother inspired by her baby's (necessarily) total lack of sin and corruption? Did she see that he was "beautiful" or "good"? How does this distinction change our approach to this narrative and to Moses' prophetic career? How does Rashbam's concern relate to this question?

Are human beings good by nature? Morally neutral? Is it more important (or desirable, or virtuous) to see the "good" in others… or to perceive their beauty?

Was Rashi anticipating Sarna's insight (or, more likely, was Sarna building on Rashi)? How are the comments connected?

Theme #2: "Well… I'll Be!"

"Moses said to God, ‘When I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask me, "What is His name?" what shall I say to them?' And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.'" (Exodus 3:13-14)

Derash: Study

"In considering God's ‘name,' the importance of the Eheyeh lies in the fact that it is the imperfect of the verb ‘to be.' It says God is, but his being is not completed like that of a thing, but is a living process, a becoming; only a thing, that is, that which has reached its final form, can have a name. A free translation of God's answer to Moses would be: ‘My name is Nameless; tell them that "Nameless" has sent you.' Only idols have names, because they are things. The ‘living' God cannot have a name. In the name of Eheyeh we find an ironical compromise between God's concession to the ignorance of the people and his insistence that he must be a nameless God." (Erich Fromm)

"Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The phrase defies simple translation. It has been taken to mean ‘I am whatever I choose to be,' ‘I am pure being,' ‘I am more than you can comprehend'…It is significant that this name of God is not a noun but a verb. The essence of Jewish theology is not the nature of God (‘what God is') but the actions of God (‘what God does'). What, then, does God's name mean? It may mean any or all of the following: God exists. God is more than we can comprehend. God, our understanding of God, is constantly growing. God is present in our lives. God is with us in our efforts to do what is right but difficult." (Humash Etz Hayim)

"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh can be understood in four different ways of self-definition: 1. ‘I AM WHO I AM' – referring to an eternally unchanging Being… 2. ‘I AM WHO I SHALL BE' – standing for a fundamental constancy regardless of variations… 3. ‘I SHALL BE WHO I AM' – is the idea that evolution is inherent to the essence of God… 4. ‘I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE'… each person has a different idea of Me… These four interpretations are not only different but mutually exclusive. Contradictory possibilities are anchored in this marvelous Ehyeh…" (Gerardo Sachs)

Questions for Discussion

What is the significance of God's essential "namelessness" in Jewish tradition? (Even the Tetragrammaton is a mystery.) Is this a strength or weakness in Jewish religious life? How do you address God when you pray from the heart – that is, not using a set liturgy?

How do Jews with "mutually exclusive" views of God build a religious community? How do we pray and practice together? How might Gerardo Sachs answer this question?

Are you more drawn to the "inherently evolving" or "eternally unchanging" model God? Is a clear theological position vital to your religious and spiritual life? Can a principled uncertainty, a theological humility, a reluctance dogmatically to define God actually be a cardinal principle of Jewish belief?!

Is Fromm's discussion of God as "a living process, a becoming" a useful or workable Jewish approach?

Is it, perhaps, not God, but the earnest believer who is, ideally, "constantly growing"?

Historic Note

Parashat Sh'mot, read on January 5, 2013, describes Pharaoh's unfounded suspicions regarding his Hebrew subjects' disloyalty, and his harsh treatment and ultimate enslavement of the minority Israelite population. On January 5, 1895, a French Jew convicted of treason against France, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was publicly stripped of his rank. Dreyfus was later declared innocent. The anti-Semitism at the root of the Dreyfus Affair was critical to the development of Theodor Herzl's Zionist principles.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Shabbat morning worship this week includes "Birkat Ha-hodesh" – the blessing of the new month (The month of Shevat begins with Rosh Chodesh next Shabbat). It is actually permissible to recite this prayer, asking for a variety of blessings, on any day in the week preceding Rosh Hodesh. The universal practice, however, is to do so on the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh, based on the assumption that Jews gather in synagogues in greater numbers on Shabbat… and reflecting the principle that it is desirable to share in the observance and celebration of mitzvot together with fellow Jews. (See Likutei Maharich, Rosh Chodesh; BT Rosh Hashanah 32b, Pesachim 64b, Menachot 64a.)

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