This week, we start the book Shemot, with a parasha also called that. In English, Shemot is called Exodus, which is really a Greek word meaning “road out.”
In Hebrew, Shemot means “names”. The parsha is called “Names” because it opens by reciting the names of Jacob’s sons; the sons are the heads of the tribes of Israel at the time of Joseph’s death, when the period of physical slavery and hard labor began. You may recall the Torah counted these names before, as we went into Egypt. We count again with the start of this new period in our national life. It’s just like on a hike – at the start, you count the number of Scouts leaving camp and every so often you count again, to make sure you have everyone.
A new Pharaoh comes to power who did not know of Joseph. (Some rabbis say this means that the Pharaoh whom Joseph served decided it would suit him to forget about Joseph and how he saved Egypt from the famine.) Pharaoh sees how numerous and strong the Jews have become and fears that, if Egypt is attacked, the Jews will join the enemy. So Pharaoh tries to reduce the Jewish population by ordering the midwives to slay all the male children. The midwives refuse to do so. Pharaoh’s advisers warn him that a redeemer is coming to the Children of Israel, so Pharaoh orders that all male children (even the Egyptian boys) be thrown into the Nile River.
Jacob’s granddaughter, Jocheved, a daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram (who is also from the tribe of Levi and is her cousin) have a son. They hide him for three months, then put him in a basket and set him afloat on the river. Pharaoh’s daughter Bithia sees the basket floating, brings it to shore, and finds the baby. She adopts him, and calls him “Drawn from the Water” or, in ancient Egyptian, “Moses.”
Now we’re back to the title of the parsha, Shemot – “Names.” The hero of the story has a name with a water connection. And since we know we’re going on a hike (I told you we were taking the “road out” in the first paragraph) water might have an important place in our story for the next few weeks. After all, what’s the first thing on your hike list? A full water bottle!
Moses grows up in the royal palace. As an adult, he sees an Egyptian striking a Jew, and he strikes the Egyptian. Pharaoh finds out about this incident and wants to kill Moses, so Moses flees. He goes to the land of Midian, and is sitting by a well (you know, a hole in the ground with water). The daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, are trying to water their sheep, but other shepherds interfere – Moses drives them away. The girls take Moses to meet their father, Moses decides to stay, he marries one of the daughters – Zipporah – and they start a family.
While Moses is herding sheep, he encounters the Burning Bush, where an angel appears to him. He goes over to see it, and God calls out to him, saying that he should remove his shoes because the place is holy. God instructs Moses to return to Egypt to deliver the Jews from slavery. Moses tells God he does not think he is the right person for the job – he asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” He says the people will not believe him. He points out that he has a speech impediment.
God shows Moses that he will have divine help. God has Moses grasp a snake, and it becomes a staff. God has Moses bring his hand to his chest, and it becomes as if Moses has leprosy; when he brings his hand to his chest a second time, the disfigurement goes away. God says that if the people do not believe the first two signs, Moses will pour water (did someone say “water”?) from the Nile onto the land and it will become blood. As to Moses’s speech difficulties, God replies that his brother, Aaron, will be with him and can repeat Moses’s words to Pharaoh and the Children of Israel.
Moses returns to Egypt, where he tells Pharaoh and the Children of Israel that God orders Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel leave to worship God in the wilderness. This angers Pharaoh, who tells Moses to leave things alone, and orders that in addition to making bricks using straw they have been given, the Children of Israel will now have to gather their own straw and still make the same number of bricks as before.
Now the scene is set. God has given an order, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, and he refuses to obey. It’s like water over the dam.
Derech Tzofeh is brought to you by the National Jewish Committee on Scouting. ©2018 Nelson R. Block. Prior Derech Tzofeh are available at www.jewishscouting.org and on Facebook at The National Jewish Committee on Scouting and The Jordan Block Shabbos Observatory.