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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Shemot

Parashat Shemot

Tevet 21, 5980 – January 18, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; Isaiah 29:22-23

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Shemot, which is Hebrew for “names.” This is our thirteenth Torah reading for the year, and it is the first parashah in the Book of Exodus – a section of the Torah which also shares its title with this parashah. These “names” are a reference to the seventy souls who came to Egypt – Jacob, his wives, his sons, and his grandchildren – and the period of exile that would begin in their time. The opening line of Exodus reads as such:

“These are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt…”

(וְאֵ֗לֶּה שְׁמוֹת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַבָּאִ֖ים מִצְרָ֑יְמָה

This is an interesting literary tactic to link the narratives from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Exodus, because it is an identical phrase to an earlier verse in Genesis from Parashat Vayigash (46:8). But right out of the gate, one can sense that this book has an entirely different feel – a new Pharaoh is presiding over Egypt, Jacob has died, the security and tactical statecraft that Joseph provided dissolved with his passing, and a growing tension is mounting between Egyptian society and the growth of the Children of Israel. An ominous phenomenon is also developing – the Jews are prospering and growing in number, and this is apparently threatening for the local population, but the Jews are too valuable to let leave. So, Pharaoh begins a campaign to stymie Jewish growth by enslaving them and secretly instituting a policy to kill all male newborns. This is what sets the scene for the introduction of Moshe, the redeemer of Israel, whom Maimonides describes as the “master of all prophets.”[1]

Speaking of “names,” the name Moshe (in English, Moses) – the Torah tells us – is derived from the phrase: (מִן־הַמַּ֖יִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ): (min ha-mayim mishitihu), meaning “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10) I think we’re all somewhat familiar with the story of Moses being placed in a wicker basket down by the river, amongst the reeds, and retrieved by his sister Miriam. There is a Rabbinic position, found in the Talmud (Sotah 11b), which relays that the Hebrew midwives mentioned in (1:15) – Shifrah and Puah,[2] who refused Pharaoh’s command to drown the male newborns, were actually Moshe’s elder sister and mother: Miriam and Jochebed. I mention this because both Miriam and Jochebed were under the employ of Pharaoh, and were maidens to Pharaoh’s daughter (Princess Bisyah). Miriam was the one who “prophesized that her parents would give birth to the savior of the people,”[3] and her job as a midwife within the household of Pharaoh is what positioned her to decide how to take action. We read this is (2:4) when the Torah states: “His sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would be done with him.” Put another way, Miriam was to decipher how G-d was to save Moshe. This is significant, because the name Miriam (spelled מרים) is related to the Hebrew word for sea (ים), which is obviously analogous to water (מים). We are told that “She [Miriam] called his name Moshe,” because she is the one who drew him from the water, and this is a detail of the narrative that alludes to how the destiny of the two siblings will be linked. Hebrew names are often likened to mission statements – the essence of your name is indicative of your character, your purpose, and the tools with which you are gifted to carry out your divinely ordained task. So, this begs the question: why does Moshe’s name correlate with his being drawn out of water? And what does this have to do with the themes we are presented with in Parashat Shemot?

Chaim Miller, in his weekly lecture series Torah in Ten, relates that water “represents the power to conceal.”[4] He elaborates on this point by describing how, when someone is standing on dry land – looking into a body of water – the visibility isn’t very good. You can’t see very far or discern what lies in the depths. In this respect, water blocks and water conceals. Moshe’s greatness, and his purpose, is derived from the fact that he is to exist on the interface between dry land and water[5] – between the seen and the unseen world of G-d. There are many pivotal moments throughout the Book of Exodus that revolve around water – the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the rock Moshe strikes, and (in this parashah) Moshe sits by a well, where he meets his future wife, and settles in a land where he is to have his first prophetic vision – but these events are positioned at the beginning of a greater theme about how the Israelites learn to effectively exist between a reality that should remain concealed and a reality that can become revealed. This balance, between land and water, between the seen and the unseen, is actually found within the human relationship to nature. The Hebrew word for nature is teva (טבע), meaning “sunk.” Nature is the fabric within which G-d conceals himself under a sea of patterns, phenomena, and various forces. There are aspects of G-d that have “sunk” into the material world, “sunk” beneath the realities that appear to function on their own. This is one of the reasons why the Book of Exodus is filled with miracles, because miracles are a bending of nature – they prove that the foundations of its existence, and the laws governing its activity, are breakable. This is attributed to the notion that G-d, as the creator and protector of the natural world, has total mastery over the laws that govern nature and therefore has control over all natural phenomena. In the Torah, during instances when G-d demonstrates mastery over nature, the name Elohim is used, which is also connected to the divine attribute of Justice (or Judgement).[6] It is certainly interesting that the image of G-d, Tselem Elohim, has often been used as a theological premise that aims to elevate humans out of (and above) nature, when this name of G-d (Elohim) refers to natural forces. To take this even further, commentators note that the name Elohim has the same numerical value as the term ha-teva (הטבע), meaning the nature.[7] Nature is a medium through which the Israelites learn about qualities of G-d; the development of their identity is linked to this “name.” This is, perhaps, one assertion for why they are intended to wander around the wilderness for forty years after they have been enslaved, forced to assimilate, and essentially made nameless. G-d’s concealment in nature is an important theme that flows throughout the Book of Exodus, and Moshe’s insight into this world is what comes to define a variety of his leadership. Moshe can see into the depths, into nature, into a vision of truth beyond the surface of the water – even into the heavens (שמים).

Names give people their identity, their mission, and their purpose. Without names, the natural world loses its complexity, its uniqueness, and its wonder. This is why it’s so important that we make the effort to learn about our local flora and fauna – to learn their names. This is how we learn to value nature, to not homogenize it – to not enslave it. Perhaps this is why the Torah doesn’t list the names Adam gives to the animals, because that is part of our job and our function as a species to continually name nature. This is how we come to respect its diversity, its synergy, and its harmony. We must continually perform a task that Adam once did – a task that we are destined to repeat as we come to understand the wonder of Tselem Elohim. The beginning of this parashah describes how “a new king arose in Egypt, who did not know of Joseph.” (1:8) In other words, Pharaoh didn’t know of Joseph, and didn’t know of Joseph’s greatness, because he didn’t know his name. This was the start of a process whereby the Jewish people were stripped of their individuality, their purpose, and their identity. After Moshe is shown the burning bush, and is instructed to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of his people, he asks: “What is your name?” G-d responds: “’I Shall Be As I Shall Be. And He said, ‘So shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I Shall Be has sent me to you.’” (3:14) Moshe’s education in the meaning behind this “name” is the genesis of his redemptive power, and the starting point for his role as a leader. I suppose my favorite part of the story, is that during Moshe's first prophetic vision, “G-d called out to him from amid the bush and said, ‘Moshe, Moshe…Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.’” G-d needed Moshe’s feet to be on the earth, on the ground to hear his name. Perhaps we can learn to do the same.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and catch you next week!

Topics Include: Moshe’s name as it relates to water, nature and Tselem Elohim, learning the names of local flora and fauna

Works Cited

Miller, Chaim. “Torah in Ten: Shemot”

Accessed on January 12, 2020

Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (Mishneh Torah) 7:6

Accessed on January 10, 2020

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 7:6 also Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith (Principle 7)

[2] Quoting the Talmud: “It is taught in a baraita according to the one who says that they were a woman and her daughter, because it is taught in a baraita: With regard to Shiphrah, who is referred to in the verse, this is really a reference to Jochebed. And why was she called Shiphrah? Because she would prepare [mishapperet] the newborn. Alternatively, she is referred to as Shiphrah because the Jewish people increased and multiplied [shepparu verabbu] in her days, due to her assistance…The baraita continues: With regard to Puah, who is referred to in the verse, this is really a reference to Miriam. And why was she called Puah? Because she would make a comforting sound [po’a] as she would remove the child from the womb of the mother. Alternatively, the word Puah is related to one of the verbs that describe speaking, as she would speak [po’a] through divine inspiration and say: In the future, my mother will give birth to a son who will save the Jewish people.” (Accessed at

[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.297 as found in the Talmud (Sotah 12b-13a)

[4] Miller, Torah in Ten, Shemot

[5] Miller, Torah in Ten, Shemot

[6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.39

[7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.39

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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