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Parashat Shemot

January 13, 2023
20 Tevet 5783
PARASHAT SHEMOT
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

Dear Friends,

We begin the second book of the Torah this week -- the Book of Exodus, Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 – 6:1. Shemot means "names". At first glance, the names in question are those of Jacob’s sons whose family (families) are now living in Egypt. The names are here to situate us and link us to what has come before. Then we are reminded that a Pharaoh has arisen who knew not Joseph and the saga leading to the taking leave of Egypt begins.

At first, we believe that we are about to get a sense of how Moses became the leader of the Israelites, but something amazing and unprecedented happens in this first parasha alongside Moses’s rise. We are told about the six women who make it possible. It is rare to have so many women play such a crucial role in our story and have the story be so clearly present.

In this story about names the first individuals who are named are two women, Shifrah and Puah. They are two midwives who have the temerity to speak truth to power; they tell Pharoah, when told to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, that the Hebrew women are too fast and have finished giving birth prior to their arrival. Anyone who knows anything about the birth process knows that this simply cannot be true. And so we know that these two women hold life very dear. While we never know whether they are Hebrew or Egyptian, we are told that they are blessed.

The next three women in our story are unnamed in this parasha, though we eventually learn the name of two of them, while the third has a name given to her midrashically. First, we have Yocheved, Moses’ birth mother who hides him for three months and then floats him down the Nile. Second, we have Miriam, her daughter, who watches out for her brother from the sidelines. And then there is the Egyptian princess (who is referred to midrashically as Batya, meaning daughter of God) who draws the baby out of the water, knowing full well that he is a Hebrew baby. And it is Miriam who brings her mother back into Moses’s life to nurse and care for him.

And last but not least we have Tzipporah, wife of Moses, who bears him two sons and journeys with him to Egypt after the experience of theophany at the burning bush. She puts herself at risk by journeying with him, as do all of the women in this parasha. Along the way, there is an incident enigmatically described in three sentences where Tzipporah saves Moses' life by circumcising their son.

These women know what it means to act in the world. They know that standing idly by is not an option and that risks need to be taken. They are inspiring. The power that they convey in this Torah portion is unusual in that the risks each takes seem to build upon one another, even if they never actually meet. What strikes me is a sense of implicit community. I ask, what is the source of the strength that they exemplify as individuals and as women? The answer that comes to me is that they are women of conscience and courage. Moses' development as a leader can be seen throughout the second book of the Torah, but these women seem fully formed when we meet them and they are a source of inspiration and hope. Each acting individually makes the ultimate liberation of the people possible.

One need not be a leader of nations or peoples to effect change; rather, our individual actions make it possible for others to build upon what we begin. As we are taught our job is not to complete the task.

Pirkei Avot 2:21: "It is not incumbent for you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it."


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784