Shemot

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womenSeven Strong Women (5774/2013)

Despite fun performances by Hugo Weaving as “Agent Smith” and Gloria Foster as “The Oracle,” I have never liked the science fiction movie The Matrix. Not because of the plot holes, cheesy Biblical names, and overdone special-effect action scenes. Not because of the unoriginal plot, in which a young man becomes of aware of oppression and then leads a rebellion. But because of the disingenuous way the script keeps calling Neo “The One,” when everything is clearly accomplished by a group of six.

It’s a bit like Parshat Shemot, where a young man becomes aware of oppression and leads a rebellion, amid plot holes, Biblical names, special effects and a team of seven women. Midwives Shifra and Pua defy Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn Hebrew babies. Hebrew mother Yocheved hides her baby, then floats him down the Nile to freedom. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby with the help of her handmaid, adopts him and names him Moshe. The baby’s sister Miriam gets Yocheved hired as Moshe’s nanny. Years later, young adult Moshe marries Zipporah, who saves his life en route to his revolutionary work.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks distinguishes between “authority” and “leadership.” Moshe, he says, becomes the authority in charge of the Israelites. Still, many other people act as leaders, taking decisive and meaningful risks. Rabbi Sacks’ distinction reminds me: when God calls Moshe into authority, Moshe insists he knows nothing about leadership. In fact, however, he was birthed, raised and educated to see and resist oppression by a team of leaders: seven self-directed activist women.

Who in your life has quietly shaped the positive ideals that drive you? Whose actions showed you the person you could be? Perhaps you can honor them this week.

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burning bush SedonaVision of Fire (5773/2013)

The burning bush is Moshe’s first spiritual vision. At this time, says Sforno (1475-1550), Moshe is a beginner prophet. In the future, Moshe will talk to God panim el panim — often translated as “face to face,” but also meaning “presence to presence.” In the future, God will simply be present to Moshe’s consciousness. But for now, God appears to Moshe through a supernatural image.

This symbolic image contains information that Moshe must interpret. Some commentators believe this information helps convince Moshe to commit to the path of prophet and leader. Kabbalistic commentator Rabbeinu Bachya (c. 1260-1340) says the image represents Divine energy, which animates the world without consuming it. Rashi (1040-1105) says the image shows that God will be a steady presence for Moshe himself through all burning difficulties.

What brings Moshe to see the bush? One midrash plays on the Hebrew word sneh, bush, teaching that it is related to the Hebrew word Sinai, where all the Israelites saw fire atop the mountain as they received revelation. This suggests that Moshe wanders into a place known for strong vision quest energy. Another midrash says that Moshe encounters the bush as he strays from the flock to chases down a lost sheep — proving that he cares enough about even the least individual to take on selfless leadership. Here, Moshe accompanies an animal with whom he empathizes. Perhaps for a moment Moshe sees as the animal might see through its unique sensory system. To Moshe, the sight seems miraculous and brings him to reflect on the Presence of God.

What will bring you to such reflection this week?

Image: Mallard duck in the shadow of  Cathedral Rock, Sedona AZ, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan

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Evolving Names (5772/2012)

The Hebrew word shemot means “names.” A name might be arbitrary, just a shorthand label people use to identify us. Or a name might contain information about our ancestry. Or it might be an intentional expression of who we think we are and hope to become.

The book of Shemot begins by listing the names of people in Jacob’s family who migrated together to Egypt. Such a list of names invites many personal reflections: With whom do we travel through life? At the end of a journey, do we land with the same name we started with? Does our name provide continuity over time and across journeys?

The book of Shemot continues with a gradual revelation of the name of God. As Moshe stands at the burning bush, about to accept a mission of leadership, he asks God’s name, and God says “I will be what I will be.” God adds that our ancestors did not know the name “YHWH.” But at Mount Sinai, God makes the name known to all the Israelites with the words “I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Mitzrayim from the house of slavery.” In that same location, after the incident of the golden calf, we learn more about the name YHWH: “YHWH is a God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and filled with love and truth.”

What reflections does this revelation spark? Did Moshe need to experience God differently at different times – as inspiring confidence in an open future at one time, and inspiring forgiveness at another? Do the things you need from God change over time? Do any of God’s names offered in Shemot help you name your needs or experience of God? How can encountering God help you better understand who you are?

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Snake-Staff Signs (5771/2012)

God speaks to Moshe at the burning bush: “Tell the Israelite elders that the God of your ancestors appeared to you. Tell them I said that I’m taking you all out of Egypt. The elders will listen to you!”

Moshe asks the obvious question, “But what if they do not believe me and do not listen to me but say ‘God did not really appear to you’?”

God answers by showing Moshe a sign: At God’s instruction, Moshe throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. Moshe recoils, but God asks him to pick up the snake by the tail. Moshe does this, and the snake becomes a staff again.

Traditional commentators wonder: If God meant for this sign to be a symbolic communication to Moshe, what should Moshe have understood?

Some commentators say the symbol chides Moshe for not having faith: “You have spoken badly, like the snake in the garden of Eden, so you deserve to be spanked with this staff!” Others say the symbol encourages him to have faith: “The snake represents Paroh’s belief in his own divinity; but the power to overcome Paroh is in your hand!”

If Moshe is anything like us, the symbol had both meanings for him. When we choose not to act, believing it won’t make a difference, we may chastise ourselves with guilt. However, we can also read our guilt as a sign that we care, and renew our commitment to take action.

January 1 is a wonderful day to revisit the resolutions we made at Rosh Hashanah. Rather than feel guilt for the things we have not yet accomplished, let’s recognize our desire and rededicate ourselves!

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Moshe Re-invents Shabbat  (5770/2010)

From Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible (1909):

The sight of his enslaved people touched Moses unto tears, and he spoke, saying, “Woe unto me for your anguish! Rather would I die than see you suffer so grievously.” He did not disdain to help his unfortunate brethren at their heavy tasks as much as lay in his power. He dismissed all thought of his high station at court, shouldered a share of the burdens put upon the Israelites and toiled in their place. He gained the favor of Pharaoh, who believed that Moses was taking part in the labor in order to promote the execution of the royal order.

Moses made use of the royal favor to lighten the burden laid upon the children of Israel. One day he came into the presence of Pharaoh and said: “O my lord…it is an admitted fact, that if a slave is not afforded rest at least one day in the week, he will die of overexertion. Thy Hebrew slaves will surely perish, unless thou accordest them a day of cessation from work.” Pharaoh fulfilled the petition preferred by Moses, and the king’s edict was published as follows: “To the sons of Israel! Do your work and perform your service for six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” And the day appointed by Moses as the day of rest was Saturday.

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