Parashat Shemot

December 21, 2010

D'var Torah

This week’s portion, Shemot, which opens the book of Exodus, is a very rich one. And while we often refer to it as “Exodus,” this book and the portion in Hebrew is known as Shemot—“names.” The portion begins with a listing of the sons of Israel (Jacob) who have now become the tribes. It first pays tribute to a time that has now passed, as it notes “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). We note that even though we bestow upon this new Pharaoh the same title, the tides have shifted, and we should not be deceived by the title of his name.

And then, our great hero comes forward—well, floats forward and is drawn from the water. This is Moses, of course—his name signifying being “drawn out” of the waters. His name, like many who came before him, is created to depict his auspicious beginnings.

Flash forward: After Moses has already stood his ground in dealing with the travesties he sees going around him in Pharaoh’s slave camps, Moses witnesses the burning bush and God appears and begins to speak to him. God calls Moses’ name twice (3:4), to which Moses responds “Hineini (here I am).” Perhaps, this is a parallel to last time God’s called someone twice by their name, as done to Abraham in Genesis 22. With any regard, I am constantly reminded that the Torah does not waste space, and anytime there is a repetition of a word or a name, it is a rather significant moment. And, all the better, here we see this in a portion called “names”!

I think one of Moses’ greatest attributes in his leadership is that he is never too sure of himself. As God asks him to go forward to free his people, he questions back, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (3:11). And, later in the portion, he shows his own humanity alongside the divine presence saying “Please, Adonai, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). I can certainly empathize with Moses, as I have often felt this way myself as someone who likes to carefully craft my words before presenting them.

God assures Moses to feel secure in the fact that he will have God’s presence with him at all times. God has heard him, seen his anxiety, and almost wants him to just take a deep breath and begin to move forward. Moses’ feelings of uncertainty continue as he asks, “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 God’s name?’ What shall I say to them?” (3:13). In one of the most powerful and evocative moments in the Torah, the name of God is proclaimed as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (3:14). This name of God is not clearly translatable. It can be read as “I Am That I Am,” “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be What I Will Be,” amongst many other variations. And, thus we are presented with the ultimate name of a presence that truly cannot be named or encompassed in its totality. We, like Moses, are often looking to God as a parent and seeking validation for the things we encounter in our lives. This is the great and mysterious gift that Moses has handed down to us for us to grapple with and experience.

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