We start to read a new Book for the weekly reading, i.e. “Shemot – (the) Names” in Hebrew, called “Exodus or the flight from Egypt, the house of slavery” in usual translations and traditions. In Hebrew, it is usual to refer to the first words of Biblical Book: “Ve’eleh shemot Bney Yisrael = these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming from his household” (Shemot/Exodus 1:1).
We enter the history and destiny of a peculiar and small Jewish rooted family. They entered Egypt out of hunger, were saved by Joseph, their son and brother “on sale” who saved and redeemed them. He made them honored, respected and protected by Pharaoh.
In Hebrew, the title also underlines how eleven brothers entered a foreign country that, at first glance, welcomed them and provided them with a lot of wealth in the fertile region of Goshen.
To begin with, the sons of Israel were accepted. There might have been other troubles or famines, as time passed. Then, a new Pharaoh showed up and he did not come to know Joseph.
The problem we have to face is that Jews are either too few, or too many -multiply or disappear. They usually come and go by leaving a region. History has also shown how they very often were victimized, plundered and massacred. One point should be highlighted.
The Book of Shemot (Names) prolongs the history initiated in the Book of Bereishit (Commencement) -Genesis of all the universe, beginning with the creation of the world, planets, sun, moon, stars, vegetables and animal creatures and finally the humans. The Jewish tradition insists on that aspect. After thousands and thousands of years and long series of ages unto ages, the Jews continue to be trained and taught that micro-groups of ten-twelve peoples can suddenly grow to millions after some centuries or eventually collapse or be eclipsed in some circumstances.
Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem into the humble family of a carpenter with a prestigious priestly and Davidic backgrounds. He started with three Galilean disciples, then 12 that extended to 70 or 72. In the end or at least in our generation, there are seemingly millions of disciples . They appear to be incredibly split.
On the other hand, they did disappear, as Jewish inspirited, from some regions, often for the identic reasons for rejection or collapse. This is why it is important to take into account this Book of Shemot because it obliges to humble ourselves: Shemot means “Names” and the Jewish people were conceived as in the image and likeness of God-Elohim (Gen. 1:27) (HaShem – the Only Name) and they only belong to This Name or aim to testify to this Holy Name. The Jews have no other reason to exist than to engrave God’s Presence into society and individuals that can appear to have “no soul”. This allows another connection to “Shem”, Noah’s son who is the ancestor of the Semites, dwelling in a place “there (sham)” where The Name is present.
Then, Exodus, from Greek “going – way out”, explains the development of a nation in a hostile context. They came to be blessed with food and wealth. They got forced into bondage and seem to be satisfied with their slavery when God decides to save them against their will. We hardly can figure out today what happened by the time of Moshe/Moses. This account is more than relevant, consequential and far-reaching: this week, we track back to the roots of a call to permanent freedom, defined release from bondage and the extravagance of being born to be constantly free over and over again.
This implies other invariants: relations with the pagans and the Gentiles, to feel obliged to some sort of reluctance to move up, to be compelled to admit that freedom is worthier than any brick-building or any involuntary tasks ordered by hating rulers.
There are some similarities – definitely normal if we quietly consider historic developments – between the birth of the Jewish boy Moshe, saved from killing all Israelite newborns and being adopted by the sister of Pharaoh (Shemot 2:5-11) and the birth of Jesus, the murder of all the Jewish babies ordered by Herod. He fakes being willing to praise the newborn. He basically wants to know where he was born in order to slay him (Matthew 2:1-12).
Then, another Joseph (son of Jacob, (Matthew 1:16)) is told in a dream: “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt.” Thus, Herod became furious and ordered the slaughter of the two year old and younger male babies in Bethlehem and its vicinity, citing Prophet Jeremiah (31:15): “a voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and she could not be consoled since they were no more.” The Church recalls the “Children massacred by Herod” soon after the Nativity of Jesus. When Herod died as a tyrant, Joseph “took the child and his mother and went to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), but fearing Herod’s son, they settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:21-23).
There is a fathomable similarity between the two accounts: to fathom consists to measure “with outstretched arms” as God always did and does. Exodus 6:6 (or Deuteronomy 4:34) is cited in almost every single Jewish prayer: “bizro’a nituyah = with outstretched arm (I will redeem you)”. In both cases – commemorated at the same time, with parallel and dissimilar views – Jews and Christians firstly recall the birth and saving of Moshe and, on the other hand, the birth and saving of Jesus. In both cases the will to power is so resolute, violent and mighty that murders appear to be more adequate than life.
Of course, it was totally bizarre to the then-enslaved Jews to be granted the protection of the one man whom they considered as the son of Pharaoh. Again, we face “appearance” vs “being” as when Joseph appeared to his brothers as an Egyptian manager. Yes, our generation never experienced the singularity of the reading of this week because we went through thousands of years of pagan hatred and two millennia of estranged bewilderment with the other monotheistic communities.
Too often, the Jews settled in various parts of the world with the impression that – remaining somehow or totally faithful to the Jewish traditions – they would be protected by some sort of rulers. This is a tragic bluff that deceived generations.
In this account, we see how Moses is fully aware of the fact that he is a foreigner (his first son is Gershom = (I) was a stranger there). Is it the chronicle of a liberation process? We might be tempted to make comparisons, all through history. Exodus is and remains unique as it climaxes with Pessach / Passover and the going-out from bondage to delivery.
There might be more. God can be reduced to a set of ordinances, some of which we comply with and systematically select those we accept or reject. This is the dialogue between God and Moses at the bush that does not burn up “has’neh bo’er ba’esh vehas’neh eynenu ukal” (there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed – Ex. 3:26). God said to Moshe: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”. The root of the word “S’neh – thorn bush” is connected to Aramaic/Hebrew (different spelling): “sina – hatred, removal”.
Indeed, God is different, totally alien to whom we think we are when we disguise, hide ourselves or try to be high-profile in this world. Such a bush allows the changing of any moment or instant into a time or measure of eternity. Similarly, it gives the opportunity to mutate any jealousy into the process of wiping out of wickedness.
This is what Rabbi Yehiel Michal of Zlotshov explained when he said that Abraham had accomplished all the 613 Mitzvot / Commandments. He declared that Abraham loved God more than any other human, idea or concept. This corresponds exactly to what Moshe progressively discovered: he had been “dressed” as a foreigner to his own people; still, he did return to them because God constantly renews His Divine Love and trust that is presented to the human beings as a call.
From Abraham, Isaac, Jacob down to Joseph and the 12 sons of Israel, Jews have been alien (they do not enjoy the same rights as the local citizens) even if Machpelah is theirs as the “the burial site bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite” (Gen. 50:13). There are tons of small or big nations that hate each other for racial, cultural, social, economic reasons.
This week, we have to face a real and kernel reason: the Jews only exist to attest that, from nil, God calls to being, enhancement, unexpected growth and freedom. Eretz Yisrael is given to the twelve sons of Israel as a permanent lease for life. Thus, Judaism is bringing forth non-perishable seeds of reality, survival and a hopeful process of continuity.
Two texts from the Talmud are very similar: Treaties Nedarim 39b and Pessahim 54a.They explain that before God created heaven and earth, seven counselors were discussing with Him to know whether it made sense or not to launch the process! These pre-existing advisors were: The Torah (Law, both Written and Oral), Teshuvah (penance), Kisse HaKavod (Throne of Glory), Devir (Holy of Holies), Gan Eden, Gey Hinnom (Gehenna) and Shem HaMashiach (Name of the Messiah).
They appeared step by step, through the process of historical development. But one thing is constant, endures and questions us at the present. Even back in Eretz Yisrael, how do we prove to be “seeds of freedom”? Moses was thus given a password to speak to the enslaved Jews: God has a Name: “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (Shemot 3;14).
This Name continues to convulse and reshuffle our daily lives and paths. Say it may correspond to “I am Who I am” – frankly, it sounds stiff; correct, but inelastic and “aloof”. God is merciful… The bush that burns without consuming reveals that God’s Name means: “I will (not ‘shall’) be/come the Who to the fullest of Who I will be/come“. This sounds jet-set stylish, but read again, please: it is a motion without automatics; or “I will become/develop to exist to the fullest the One (Who)I will live to the full“.
With Exodus, we face a new creation project as read each Shabbat: “Vaychulu hashamayim vehaaretz – heaven and earth were achieved” (Gen. 1:31). Not finished: “yachulu” echoes an action on the move to the full, as the kallah (bride) who begins her life-long path with her special one.
Someway, Jesus embodied what God proposes to any Jew and believer: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:20).Indeed, we start, this week, a huge trip with the go-getting Name of the Lord!
Av Aleksandr (Winogradsky Frenkel)