Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Shmot

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The Search for Meaning

By Michael Chessen

The Torah portion Shmot opens the book of the same title, known in English as Exodus, but more literally translated as "names". Whereas the opening sections of Torah portions always dictate their titles, few readings seem to subsequently contradict this initial justification to the degree that Shmot does.

While the Torah opens the story of Israel's Egyptian bondage by restating the names of the heads of the twelve tribes, the protagonists of the narrative to come are strikingly nameless. The parents of Moses are only identified as "a man from the house of Levi who went out and married Levi's daughter"(Exodus 2:1). In sharp contrast to Genesis' account of the birth of the future heads of the twelve tribes, the circumstances of Moses' birth do not provide him with a name. Only upon his reaching the status of a "lad", though still an infant, does he belatedly receive a name from the "nameless" daughter of Pharaoh, who "bore" (moshe) him from the water.

The most striking omission of name, however, would have to be that of God Himself. While the people of Israel obviously "know" the God of their fore-bearers despite his apparent concealment in the midst of their bondage, Moses nevertheless feels a need for a means of "naming" or "defining" the inherent nature of the Almighty. God's reply that Moses tell the people that "I Will Be Who I Will Be" (transliterated by Rabbi Areyeh Kaplan as YHVH) makes for less of a definition than an expressed intent of action.

The concept of "concealed providence" as an inherent aspect of exile or "galut" is something which Rabbi Yissocher Frand sees Jacob foretelling us when blessing Joseph's sons at the outset of the exile. Jacob here invokes not the name of God, but His "angel who has redeemed him"(Genesis 48:16). Whereas Abraham and Isaac had primarily benefited from God's direct providence, Jacob, in preparing his descendants for the nature of exile, more fully introduced the concept of indirect guidance from above. Clearly, this type of providence is difficult to discern, and therefore, severely tests our faith. However, beyond a test of our spiritual mettle, there would seem to have been an additional important factor here in the divine plan for the Exodus. Maimonides states that on Passover, every individual is to see his or herself as having personally been redeemed from Egyptian bondage. The very undefined nature in the opening reading of Shmot perhaps sets the stage for one to "paint" one's self into the scene and more fully and directly appreciate the meaning and significance of our redemption.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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