Torah portion: The destruction of memory

“A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And [Pharaoh] said to his people: Behold, a nation — the Children of Israel — are more numerous and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply … for when it happens that a war befalls us, they too shall join our enemies, and fight against us, and leave the land. And so they set taskmasters upon them … to afflict them with their burdens …” (Exodus 1:8-11).

Before the curse of the mallet and the tyrannical command of the lash, before Egypt grew into a horror house of bondage, there occurred a peculiar act of ignorance: “A new king arose over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.” 

Whether this king indeed knew nothing of Joseph has long been a matter of some debate. Historically, it is possible that a new monarchy arose, on the heels of some war, perhaps, which held none of the old allegiances to Joseph and his family. Others argue that this “new” Pharaoh was well aware of how Joseph saved Egypt from economic collapse, but like many a dictator, Pharaoh feigned unfamiliarity whenever it suited him.

One might ask how the fate of an entire people could hinge on the dissipating memory of a single individual? And even so, given that servitude is a crime particularly heinous, don’t the preliminaries leading to one nation’s enslavement of another seem of little import in the greater scheme of a nation’s unimaginable distress? 

But the Torah may have wished to inform us of a powerful idea — that ignorance is always the precursor to persecution. When we forget the humanity of our fellows, when we forget those initial chapters of Genesis, wherein God endows each of us with his very image and breath, that’s when violence is sure to follow. 

Joseph, if we recall, was described as a “man of God,” “a man of wisdom”; (Genesis 41:38-39). his wisdom and compassion save Egypt and its people from the perils of famine, and yet it is this Joseph of whom Pharaoh is unaware. When Moses first encounters Pharaoh, Pharaoh asks mockingly, “Who is this Hebrew God that I should heed his voice?”  (Exodus 5:2). Within a heart of darkness, one finds a heart that also revels in ignorance.  

It is no coincidence, then, that the panacea to persecution is an act of memory. We read later in this week’s Torah portion, “And God heard [Israel’s] cries, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25). In the very next chapter, God sets Moses on the path to rescuing Israel. The restoration of a people is thus linked to a restoration of memory. 

I have long found it fascinating that the culprits in the beginning of Exodus all happen to be men. In contrast, with the exception of Moses, exclusively women carry out heroic behavior. It is Pharaoh and his taskmasters who set to casting Hebrew male infants into the Nile, while it is Egypt’s midwives who interfere. In terms of Moses’ rescue, his father and brother do nothing, rather it is his mother, sister and, finally, Pharaoh’s own daughter who conspire to save Moses’ life. 

Against this backdrop, let us read the following verses describing events in Moses’ early life. “When Moses had grown, he went out to his brethren to see their suffering. And he saw an Egyptian man striking an Israelite man — his brother. He turned this way and that, and seeing no man, Moses struck the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:11-12). In context, Moses turns about to see if there were any Egyptian men who might witness what he intended to do. The subtext, however, is that there was not a man around, beside Moses, who could “act like a man” in the moral sense and save this battered Israelite.  

On the following day, Moses attempts to stop “two Israelite men” who were fighting. The instigator asks Moses acerbically: “Who appointed you a man, an officer, and a judge over us” (Exodus 2:14)? In context, Moses is being told to stay away, to mind his own business. But the subtext is a vanquished whisper: There are no men here, not anymore.

Every last Israelite man had forgotten how to be a man — how to act like a human being. Moses’ brethren resent him because they despise themselves. There was certainly valor among Israel’s women, but for its men, under whip and truncheon, there was only defeat. They, too, forgot Joseph. 

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parsha on his blog,

What is in a Name? Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

This week we begin a new book of Torah — Shemot in Hebrew and Exodus in English. While the word “exodus” means “going out,” the word “shemot” means “names.” So, it should not be surprising that we are sent through a maze of names and journeys in this week’s parasha.

The portion opens with a series of interactions among Israelites who notably remain nameless. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. And their oppressor, Pharaoh, has declared that if an Israelite woman gives birth to a baby boy, he must be killed. And yet, “a certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman” (Exodus 2:1). These two unnamed Levites then give birth to a son, who is also not named. The mother is enamored with her newborn and she hides him for three months. When concealing him becomes impossible, the mother takes the boy and puts him in a tiny basket and hides him in the reeds of the Nile River. The boy’s sister, also unnamed, follows the mother, witnesses her desperate actions, and watches over her brother’s basket.

Why conceal their names? Surely, the four had names by which they were known in their community. Indeed, we come to know these names later in Exodus. Surely, they knew one another not only by their given names, but also by myriad nicknames and pet names. Yet, the Torah reveals not a single one in these opening verses.

Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby in his basket and exclaims, “This must be a Hebrew child” (Exodus 2:6). Her label for the child echoes exactly what we know of him. He was a Hebrew, the son of slaves.

The absence of names in the beginning of this story suggests just how dehumanizing life had become for the Israelites. Stripped of their rights, their agency, their freedom and their identities, the Israelites were truly in bondage.

In a series of twists and turns, Moses is then nursed by his mother, who is called his “wet nurse,” and is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, who is called his “mother.” When Pharaoh’s daughter chooses a name for the boy, she chooses a name recalling the journey that brought him to her, “She named him Moshe, explaining, ‘Because I pulled him out of the water’ ” (Exodus 2:10). Moses comes of age in Pharaoh’s palace, separated from his people and no longer called “Hebrew.”

It is a journey of sorts that returns Moses to his foundational identity as “Hebrew.” Torah tells us that Moses “went out to his kinsfolk” (Exodus 2:11) and sees an Egyptian beat a Hebrew slave. It seems this act of “going out” among his people awakens something dormant in Moses. When he leaves the confines of Pharaoh’s palace and enters into the midst of his people, Moses seems to remember his original name was “Hebrew child.” He seems to remember that he, too, began his life stripped of identity and freedom. Moses breaks free from the identity forced upon him, recognizes the ultimate injustice in the act he is witnessing and kills the Egyptian taskmaster.

After another such incident, Moses flees from Egypt and travels to Midian. Moses’ remembered name leads him on a journey, just as a journey once led him to his name.

One day in Midian, while tending to his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of God appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush. God knows the young man’s name and knows just how to reach him: “Moses, Moses,” God calls (Exodus 3:4). From the bush, God tells Moses who he really is: not a slave, not a Midianite shepherd, not a child of the Egyptian palace, but a redeemer of the Israelite people. 

Moses responds by asking God’s name and God answers elusively, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, I Will Be What I Will Be” (Exodus 3:14-15). Translated into the future tense, we see that God’s name is in and of itself a journey.

As the Israelites’ conditions worsen, they cry out to God (Exodus 2:23). In response to this cry, God remembers the covenant made with the Israelites so many generations ago and once again calls them “My people” (Exodus 5:1).

It is when Moses receives his new identity and when God reclaims the people as God’s own that the real story of journeys and names begins. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, the Israelites are ready for a new future. No longer nameless Hebrew slaves, they take their first steps on their journey toward freedom.

Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation.

Déjà Vu, all over again: Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)

It’s a new year and we are beginning a new book of the Torah — Exodus. Unfortunately, we are dealing with the same old problem. Anti-Semitism, the oldest hatred, rears its ugly head.

Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler, scapegoats the Jews and turns them into the enemy, a pattern that has been repeated too many times over the centuries. Sadly, anti-Semitism is not just a history lesson; it’s also current events.

Mark Steyn of the National Review points out that the “oldest hatred didn’t get that way without an ability to adapt: Once upon a time on the Continent, Jews were hated as rootless cosmopolitan figures who owed no national allegiance. So they became a conventional nation state, and now they’re hated for that.”

Anti-Semitism, the main subject of this week’s Torah reading, can be a controversial topic of discussion. Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, will be the first to tell you. In December, Gutman explained why he felt it was important to differentiate between older forms of anti-Jewish hatred and a newer growing anti-Semitism in Europe, which stems from the tensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Who decides what constitutes anti-Semitism? The very act of trying to differentiate one kind of anti-Semitism from another is itself “simply anti-Semitic,” as U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) put it.

In this week’s Torah reading, what was at the core of Pharaoh’s anti-Jewish outlook?

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land’ ” (Exodus 1:8-10).

Why did Pharaoh assume the worst and think that the Jews posed a threat to Egypt? Did he really believe the Jews would support Egypt’s enemies? Weren’t the Jews always loyal to Egypt? Wasn’t it Joseph who interpreted Pharaoh’s own dreams and guided him through Egypt’s recession and economic crisis? Why did Pharaoh choose to ignore this obvious chapter of Egyptian history?

Conspiracy theories and the incitement of hatred can lead to discrimination against minorities, as we see in this week’s parasha.

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy text, fraudulently claims an international group of Jews seeks to control the world. “The Protocols’” author intended to stir up animosity against the Jews.

Accusations of dual loyalty among American Jews are common in the blogosphere, and some bloggers refer to Israeli supporters as “Israel firsters.” This false claim posits that pro-Israel Jewish Americans put Israel’s interests over American interests. Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center stated that these bloggers “are guilty of promoting dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cooper reminds us that not too long ago, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” made the accusation that American Jews exercise a uniquely malevolent influence over American foreign policy.

These charges have been around since 1920, when Henry Ford said, “Wars are the Jews’ harvest,” and Charles Lindbergh in 1940 condemned Jews for conspiring to plunge America into World War II.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote recently, “The standing ovation [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] got in Congress this year was … bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”

There is a well-known rabbinic phrase, “maaseh avot, siman l’vanim” — what happened to our ancestors in the Torah, is a sign for us, their children. Let’s make sure we carefully read this week’s Torah portion, so that we know how to respond to these false and misleading derogatory statements, and so we can properly deal with this irrational prejudice.

Discovering the Name

The first Torah portion in Exodus is Shemot, Hebrew for “names.” “These are the names of the Israelites coming to Egypt…” (Exodus 1:1).

That might be where we got the name of the parsha, but that is not where the parsha takes us. Namings take place throughout Shemot. Moses gets a new name from the daughter of Pharaoh — her mistaken grammar is a mask for prophecy. In rabbinic commentary, the daughter of Pharaoh receives her name, and of course, God reveals God’s name to Moshe.

Take Pharaoh’s daughter’s naming of Moshe. You remember the story: Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, puts her baby in a little tevah, or vessel, made of papyrus. The word “tevah,” when it appears in the Bible, is usually translated as “ark” — the same word is used for Noah’s floating biosphere. (Perhaps to say: Just as Noah’s ark carried a new start for humanity, so does Moshe’s ark.)

The heretofore unnamed daughter of Pharaoh goes down to the Nile to bathe. She sees the ark stuck in the reeds (the suf) and the crying baby within. She realizes he is one of the Hebrew children, but she pities him, takes him in and finds him a wet nurse. She names him Moshe, saying: “Ki min ha’mayim m’shitihu” (because from the water I drew him out).

Pharaoh’s daughter prophetically sees the fortune of the crying infant and names what he is to do years later — draw the people of Israel through the water of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. He is the Moshe, the One Who Draws From the Water.

According to the sages, this baby boy already had a name. In Shemot, we are told that when the boy was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Ki tov” (how goodly).

Yocheved uses the same phrase God did when He saw the days of creation — “Ki tov” (It is good). Perhaps it is used to say that the story of creation represents the birth of the world, the moral aspect of which had gone so awry, and the birth of Moses symbolizes the rebirth of the moral universe.

Based on Yocheved’s exclamation, the sages say that boy’s name was Tuvya: the goodness of God — “a sign that he was fit for prophecy.” But the sages remind us that the prophecy of Pharaoh’s daughter established the name that even God would use. Moses’ name would not be based on his capacity, Tuvya, but rather his deeds, Moshe.

We don’t know the name of Pharaoh’s daughter until the sages name her: Batyah, the daughter of God. Her compassion and devotion to Moshe made her the adopted daughter of God.

Rabbinic midrash adds a beautiful symmetry to this already mysterious irony: The daughter of Pharaoh names the greatest prophet of Israel, and the sages of Israel name the daughter of Pharaoh.

A modern midrash fills this out. Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, the first cousin of the Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote an extraordinary poem titled, “Unto Every Person There Is a Name” (“L’chol Ish Yesh Shem”), which contains the following lines:

“Unto every person there is a name
Bestowed on him by God
And given to him by his parents….”

As we meditate on this idea of names, of names given and destinies and identities established, questions arise: How is our inner identity established, that living tissue of inner essence, that mutely conscious dimension of our souls which gives continuity to our inner lives? Are we only named by the names people call us, our admirers and detractors together? Are we named by our aspirations or our failings, or by what we have learned as we step and stumble from one to another?

I believe that God has placed a secret name within each of us, and that it is our life’s purpose, at least partly, to know and speak that name with all we do. There are moments in life that define our names. The rest of our lives can be spent living up those moments or atoning for the moments when we have forgotten our inner name.

And in each of these moments of internal naming, where some aspect of our spiritual identity is engraved upon the soul, God is present.

Moshe said to God: When I tell the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent me, they will ask me, “What is his name?”

God says, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” (I shall be who I shall be).

I think of God here, in this context, as being present in our spiritual strivings. God’s inner identity, the unknowable infinite nothingness of the Divine, is not what Moshe is asking. Moshe is asking of the name of the God sending him to this work that will define his life.

God says, perhaps: Don’t ask for me a fixed identity, a name that will ease your anxiety as you go about your life’s work.

Perhaps God is saying: “Get to your work, discover your name and I will be there with you.”

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Captains of Destiny

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us studying the Book of Exodus for the first time this year. Probing the text, I began to think about the Hebrew word tevah (ark) that is found only twice in the Torah — in parshat Noah and in this one.

As Rabbi James Mirel once wrote: "There is an important link between these two mythic tales. In the story of Noah, God uses the ark to rescue all the animals, including the human species. In this instance, Moses, who is to become the vehicle for the redemption of the Jewish people, is kept alive by means of an ark."

"Both narratives depict the ark as being surrounded by potentially destructive waters. In the case of Noah, the waters of the flood, which covers the entire earth, and in this case, the river into which Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew male infants be thrown," Mirel said.

"From this parallel, we can learn that we, too, should consider the ways in which each of us can find a tevah by which to navigate the threatening waters that surround us in order to reach safety and redemption," he added.

I submit that there is another way to cite this rare Hebrew word in order to make a somewhat different point. Namely, are we to merely drift through life — mirroring Noah, who was able to survive during the flood, and Moses, who, we find on his way to being given an opportunity to live in the lap of luxury as Pharaoh’s adopted nephew — or is something else required of us?

It is my belief that God and Judaism’s prophets and sages demand that we not just rock along, dependent on the currents of life to move us from birth to death, but that we place a tiller into the waters of life, grab the helm and steer a course, which will provide us with personal fulfillment and satisfaction while responding to the needs of others who seek — and deserve — our assistance.

Here’s how we can avoid being dashed upon the rocks of despair, becoming stuck in the narrows of bias and prejudice or finding ourselves trapped in the shallows of limited thought and action.

Within this context, here’s the ultimate question which Shemot forces upon us: "Are we willing to risk everything to be the captains of our own destiny, or are we merely content letting circumstances and other people determine the course of our lives?"

If we are activists, we constantly take charge and even — on occasion — attempt to go upstream and thereby willingly confront one mighty challenge after another.

If we are pacifists, we are delighted to easily and simply follow the currents of the headwaters — even if this means that we must always allow others to decide the direction we’ll go … solely dependent on the winds of their opinion which then propel us from place to place. Under these circumstances, it is they and never we who will determine what our eventual goals might be.

Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House of Representatives, often instructed his younger colleagues "to get along just go along." If all a person desires is ease and comfort, that may be good advice. However, if someone decides that the demands and benefits of life require that we must occasionally take a chance, such an individual elects not to be under the thumb of others, but to set off on a self-selected course.

I am convinced that our lives are far more exciting and rewarding when we take charge of our own situations, set our sights on distant shores and then battle our way to reach them.

You see, just as so very little is written in this and in subsequent parshot about the first 80 of the 120 years allotted to Moses, we ought not to think too much about our origins, or where we find ourselves at any given moment. Instead, we need to concentrate on what we wish to achieve, to think about what demanding choices are ours, and to concentrate on the benefits that will be ours and others when we exert ourselves as proactive decision-makers and doers.

After all, as Vancouver’s Rabbi Philip Bregman has taught us: "By speeding through the description of Moses’ early and middle years, the Torah is making the statement that beginnings are less important than endings in life.

"In other words, a human being’s worth is not determined by where that individual came from but what that person ultimately accomplished," Bregman said. "This message has tremendous relevance for us today. Too often we spend our time dwelling on the past instead of focusing on our ultimate goal in life. What really counts is where our experiences lead us and what we have learned along the way."

"This week’s parsha encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about where our own personal journey is leading," Bregman added. "Are we still growing and learning? What is that we seek? Are we moving in the right direction toward a worthwhile destination? Are we basking in the sun of a previous generation’s accomplishments, or are we endeavoring to make our own mark in the world"?

I wish you Godspeed and a bon voyage as you answer those profound questions and then act upon them in the most creative, dynamic and productive ways possible.

Time to Go

This week we start a new book of the Torah — Shemot or Exodus. The word shemot means names, because we start out by naming all the descendants of Jacob who came down to Egypt. But the word exodus means going out (just like the word exit). In this book we will learn about how the Israelites leave Egypt and spend 40 years in the desert before entering the Land of Israel.

Why must they spend 40 years wandering, you may ask? Why couldn’t God just take them straight to Israel? The answer is this: Sometimes you are not ready to go on to the next level. If you try to take a fifth grade math test when you’re in fourth grade, you may fail. In the same way, the Israelites had a great deal of growing up to do. They were used to being slaves. They needed to learn how to become responsible citizens before they could be allowed to possess their land.