Shabbat candles: 4:13 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:23-23 (Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:17 p.m.
We are taught that the Israelite slaves were liberated because they never changed their names, and indeed the story begins with Shemot, the names of the Children of Israel, Bnai Yisrael — the first time identified as a nation — who came down to Egypt. Joseph and his brothers have died. A new Pharaoh arose who doesn’t remember Joseph. Pharaoh has to undo Joseph’s good name by “forgetting” about all the positive things Joseph did. The Egyptians see the Israelites as numerous, and plan to “deal astutely with them” lest the Israelites multiply and take over the country [Exodus 1:9-10]. Faced with disinformation and being defenseless, the Jews are enslaved. Pharaoh demands that Jewish midwives kill the baby boys.
In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah the midwives are called hachama, wise women. The Talmud explains in a beautiful twist on a rabbinic query, Ezeh hachacham? Haro’eh et hanolad. Who is wise? The person who sees the baby being born, the person who has the foresight to perceive the developing events. Midwives Shifra and Puah were the first to see what Pharaoh’s plans were really about and in a sublime example of moral courage and at great risk they stand up to power and defy Pharaoh. Rashi identifies the two midwives as Yocheved (Moshe’s mother) and Miriam (his sister) and their names reference their actions. Shifra was meshaferet et havlad, she made the infants beautiful and smoothed their limbs. Puah was poah u’medaberet l’vald, she cooed and whispered to the babies.
Rabbi Yaakov Ruderman of the Ner Yisroel Yeshiva explained that the true greatness of people is found in low profile actions that reveal their true commitments and character. So it was with these midwives who, despite the danger, took care of these newborns with sensitivity and devotion.
Miriam stands steadfast by the river, over her baby brother as he is placed in the basket, where he is discovered by Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter. Bitya names him Moshe, “because I drew him out of the water” [Ex. 2:10]. According to Rabbi Abraham Grate, the word rachtzah (washing) at the seder is expressed in the feminine to remind us of Bitya’s actions in reaching out in the water.
A rabbinic teaching tells us that God decreed that because Bitya took in a child that was not her own, calling him her son (Moshe can mean “child” in Egyptian), God took her in and called her God’s daughter (which is what Bitya means). She hears both the cries of the baby and, the Midrash teaches us, that of another young child — his brother Aaron who doesn’t know what will happen to Moshe. It is at this moment, says Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz, that the redemption of the Jews began because one brother was crying for another.
Nechama Leibowitz teaches us what made Moshe suited for his role was how he behaved on three different occasions: First, when he saw an Egyptian hitting a Jew. Despite growing up in the King’s palace, the “pintele yid” (his inner Jewish spark) allowed him to see classic anti-Semitism at work, and he intervened. Second, when he saw two Jews fighting, Jew versus Jew, he intervened and spread ahavat chinam, love for its own sake. And third, when in Midian he sees non-Jews being harassed by non-Jews, he intervenes, as well, his deep caring for justice for all of humanity is aroused, as it was for his brothers in Egypt. He may be running from his circumstances but he can’t stay uninvolved. By the third instance, his values are a hazakah, a continuing presumption of permanence. ‘
As a form of hakarat hatov, gratitude, Moshe kept the name bestowed upon him by Bitya who, tradition teaches us, later became part of the Jewish people. God calls him to the Burning Bush as “Moshe,” a sign of endearment and confirmation of his name.
And God’s name? Moshe asks what shall I tell the Jewish people you are called? God says, “I Will Be What I Will Be,” I will stand with the Jewish people and be present in their lives, bringing redemption [Ex. 3:14-15]. God is often known as simply Hashem, “The Name.”
What Shemot teaches us is that ordinary people have the capability of living up to their names. When our enemies seek to dehumanize us, even to the point of replacing names with numbers, the Torah reminds us that ultimately we can assert our humanity and revive our names through actions that lead to Redemption.
At great risk, these Jews kept not merely their names and their Jewish identity but their human essence. Despite the attempts of Pharaoh to eradicate us, thousands of years later — we are here. Our challenge today is to re-embrace our names spiritually so that our identity as Jews will lead to our continued faith in God and the ultimate Redemption.
Adena K. Berkowitz, a visiting lecturer at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is a founder and the scholar-in-residence of Kol HaNeshamah, an Upper West Side congregation.