By Judi Steinman

December 29, 2007 – 20th of Tevet 5768


This parashat is full of names. A baby is named, the tribes of Israel are named, some of the heroines remain unnamed and a new name for G-d is revealed to us.

This parashat also presents one of the greatest leaps of faith recorded in the Torah – the burning bush. I remember meeting Rabbi Lawrence Kuschner in the winter of 1982. He was a guest of the Hillel Rabbi, Michael Paley. Rabbi Kuschner asked us: how long would a person have to watch a flame before realizing that it was not consuming the wood that fueled it? As we watched a fire burning in a fireplace – a frequent occurrence at winter gatherings at Dartmouth College – we realized that one would have to stare at a flame for quite a while before appreciating the fact that the log was not devoured. Rabbi Kushner used the burning bush to teach us about leaps of faith.

What is a leap of faith? What is a miracle? For me, a leap of faith is that moment in our lives when we can either believe that science defines reality or that our experiences can be explained only by expanding our beliefs beyond the limits of science, beyond reality.
The beginning of Shemot describes the beginning of Hebrew slavery in Egypt. This all important event in the history of the Jews is relegated to a few short lines:

The Egyptians started to make the Israelites do labor designated to break their bodies. They made the lives of [the Israelites] miserable with harsh labor involving mortar and bricks, as well as all kinds of work in the field. All the work they made them do was intended to break them.
Of course, the plight of the Israelis is discussed throughout Shemot and leads us to the story of Passover in four months from now, but for now, the whole description of our suffering is rather short and concise.
Another aspect of the Egyptian-Israelite story is that Pharoah originally ordered the two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill any males born to Israelite women. The midwives, being G-d fearing women, lied to Pharoah, claiming that they could not perform this task because Hebrew women were so good at giving birth that the babies often arrived before the midwives got there. Here is a perfect example of when it is okay to lie. In the book Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin recognizes that lying to protect life is a righteous act.

Instead of relying on the midwives to perform his evil task, Pharoah ordered the entire population of Egypt to participate in infanticide. One wonders how the mindset of an entire populace can be manipulated to justify murder. I suppose that one doesn’t have to look any farther than Hitler and the German, Polish, Hungarian and Czecheslovakian public of the 1940s to understand how the same mentality possessed the minds of the Egyptians. Shifra and Puah were the minority, much as the righteous gentiles of the 1940s were rare but important saviors of the Jews. Or were these women someone else? We will learn more about the true identities of these women in a few moments.

I find it interesting that here we are in the parashat named “Shemot,” yet many people have no names in this story. We are introduced to a baby boy and the lineage of his family, but the baby boy’s mother and sister are not mentioned by name in Shemot – they are referenced only in terms of their relationship to the child. We learn later that the mother’s Hebrew name was Yocheved and her daughter’s name was Miriam. According to Rashi, the midwife Shifra was in fact Yocheved and Puah her daughter Miriam. In this instance, we learn that people may be named according to their behavior as well as their lineage.

Pharoah’s daughter knew that the baby in the papayrus vessel was a Hebrew child. She took pity on the baby when he cried. Pharoah’s daughter, despite her compassion to the Jewish baby, is not mentioned by name. She is referred to only as “Pharoah’s daughter.” The baby boy does not receive his name – Moses – until after he has been nursed and weaned from his birth mother’s breast.

Here is some interesting information about the name Moses:
The etymology and original meaning of the name Moses have been long disputed. Some linguists believe that the name is derived from the Egyptian word for water, mo, and the verb to save out of water, `uses‘. Another interpretation relates it to the Egyptian word mes, mesu, meaning child, son.

The Hebrew verb (masha 1253), which is identical in root to the name. Masha means draw, draw out and is used only two times in Scriptures: 2 Sam 22:17 in a Psalm of David that was copied into the Psalter as Psalm 18 (see verse 16), “He drew me out of many waters”. The other occurrence of the verb is in Ex 2:10, where Moses is named, “And she named him Moses, and said, “Because I drew him out of the water”.”

Since it is highly unlikely that the Egyptian princess was speaking Hebrew when she said it, Moses was probably known by the Egyptian word for Draw Out. Then, when he began to play a role in a Hebrew text, his name must have been subsequently translated into Hebrew.
[Paraphrased or quoted directly from Abarim Publications’ Biblical Name Vault at]

Let’s fast forward to the time after Moses discovers his Hebrew lineage, kills an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew to death, and he escapes to Midian. When Hashem sent an angel to appear before Moses, the angel emerged in the Heart (elav) of a fire, in the middle of a thornbush. What an interesting choice of delivery. Line 3 indicates Moses’ reaction – “Moses said [to himself], ‘I must go over there and investigate this wonderful phenomenon. Why doesn’t the bush burn?’” Hagadol Hazeh – he says. Remember, the word gadol was used just a couple of weeks ago for Chanukah – Nes Gadol Haya Sham (or Po, if you happened to be in Eretz Yisroel). The translation says “wonderful phenomenon,” but the burning heart of the bush really was a gadol – something great, and Moses knew it. Well, it got really great, because the voice of Hashem came forth from the heart of the bush. Does it get better than that, a talking, burning bush? It is akin to staring at the ulu tree outside the window here and seeing a fire burn in it and then hearing a voice — THE VOICE – come from its heart. Some people I know see spirits in trees, but not everyone has that ability. Well, I guess the story gets even a little bit better for those of us living in Hawai’i.  Hashem advises Moses to take his shoes off because the place on which he is standing is holy ground.

Moshe’s response to Hashem was, of course, Hineini, Here I am. Although he will resist G-d’s request to go back to Egypt and save the Jews, his first reaction is that of every great Jewish leader – Hineini.

G-d confessed to Moses that G-d has finally come down to save the Israelites from the Egyptian tyrants. One may wonder why G-d waited until now to come down. Why not come down when the baby males were being slaughtered? Why not come down when the backs of Jews were being broken from the weight of labor? Hashem was pretty clear – the cries of subjugation were heard and G-d remembered the covenant with Abraham, Yitzhak and Yakov. Hashem responded to the cries of suffering. In Hashem’s own words, “Right now the cry of the Israelites is coming to Me. I also see the pressure to which Egypt is subjecting them.” So, whenever we pray with the words, “the G-d of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel,” we have the chance to evoke the same response from G-d that the Israelites got when they suffered under the yoke of Egyptian cruelty.

Moses, realizing that his relationship with the Israelites was superficial, at best, asked Hashem for a code word – a name – to bring back to the Israelites as proof that he is being sent by their G-d, not anyone else’s diety. We are back to names. “I will be who I will be.” “Eheyeh asher eheyeh.” Not “ani adonai eloheihem,” as we will hear another time from Hashem. Instead, now we learn that the name is Yud Hey Vav Hey – this is the eternal name – zeh shemi – that will be passed down from Moses to you and me today.

So yes, the parashat began with the names of the sons of Yakov, but this is really the name that occupies our minds – the name of G-d.
The next thing that Moses says to G-d is rather astounding, when you consider the fact that Moses already has taken a leap of faith – he believed that the bush with the burning heart was something great and he has gotten G-d’s shemi to use as a password with the Hebrews back in Egypt. Now Moses says to the talking, burning bush: “They will not believe me.” Basically, he is saying, your name isn’t enough, my belief in you isn’t enough, give me something like this bush so that they will take the leap of faith, too. Hashem eventually provides Moses with a few reptilian magic tricks geared towards mystifying the general public, helping them take the leap of faith into the realm of believing.

One more funny thing with names in this Parashat. When Moses fled Egypt, after he killed the Egyptian, he found himself defending seven sisters who were being harassed by shephards at the well. Here, the sisters’ father’s name was Reuel. We all know that Moses eventually married one of these daughters – Tzipporah – and that her father’s name was Jethro (or Yitro). Later on, there will be an entire chapter named for Yitro, as he gave birth to our modern justice system. In the seventh reading of Shemot, he is referred to as Yitro as well as El-Yeter. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Reuel means “G-d is his friend.” One interesting reason why his name may vary at different points in the story is that at one point, he consulted with Pharoah, imparting information about tossing the Jewish-borne males into the Nile. Unlike his co-consultants Balaam and Amelek, Jethro repented in his participation and ultimately was rewarded by Hashem.
So, one lesson that I come away with is that we may go by many different names in our lifetimes, and we may be all those names at once. The Torah teaches us to remember all the names from whence we came, but also to generate new names when we reach new phases of our lives. Our names reflect who we think we are as well as who we want others to think we are. I grew up being called Judi by most everyone, but some people with whom I have experienced great friendships came up with nicknames for me – my dear friend Patti calls me Judelles, my friend Roberta calls me Jude EYE (since I spell it with an I not a Y), my grandmother – of blessed memory – called me Leahla, and my father – of blessed memory – called me Ju-Ju-Be. My husband, who I fell in love with when he was called Paul, has come to identify himself as SHAUL BARUCH, a name that he was given by my brother when we got married. The Rabbis tell us that one of the reasons why the Jews were taken out of Egypt is because they kept their Hebrew names while they were slaves. So perhaps our names help Hashem know who we are as much as they help us identify one another.

When G-d called Moses from the burning bush, Hashem repeated his name twice – “Moshe, Moshe.” We are certain as to whom G-d was calling. We can change our names, we can use different names, but we must always be listening to hear when G-d calls us.

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