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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Shmot - The Exodus Begins



Parashot Shmot is the gate that welcomes us into the incredible journey of B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, from disparate tribes and clans in bondage in Egypt to becoming Am Yisrael - the People of Israel, a free people sojourning to the promised land where they will establish their new society built on God’s commandments. It is an incredible saga that serves as the basis for Jewish existence, the core narrative and understanding of who we are as a people that God will lead us out of Egypt to keep the commandments in the land of our forefathers and mothers. The Exodus story and its many themes also become core tropes of Western storytelling, evidence of the enduring power and impact of the story. 


There are numerous reasons why this story has remained powerful for millenia, and each individual portion has already had volumes written about it. For me, the parallel narratives, one individual as Moses grows from Prince of Egypt to shepherd to leader of the Jewish People, one collective as disparate and disconnected tribes come together to form a nation, are what makes this story so compelling. While the collective experience is what will be ultimately most consequential, Moses as a leader plays a central role, serving as the anchor for the Israelites as they waver in their faith in God and in their collective mission as they face the numerous challenges that their years of wandering will present them. 


Moses’ bonafides as a leader are far from assured when we are first introduced to him in Shemot. He is the youngest child of a Hebrew family, sent down the river to grow up in safety in Pharaoh's court, avoiding the cruel edict of killing all Hebrew male children. He does not grow up among his people. Yet, somehow he understands that he is one of them. We know this because of his empathy for his people’s suffering, as he kills an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moses then flees to the desert, slowly leaving behind his Egyptian childhood and moving towards the future leader he will be. For all of my fellow children of the 90’s, you can all imagine the scene in the Prince of Egypt as Moses removes all the trappings of princedom: his wig, necklace, pendants. 


Once in the desert, Moses settles with the Midianites, a desert tribe. He marries a local woman, Tzipora. Even as he builds a home, Moses knows that he is not home among his own. He names his first son Gershom, meaning stranger. Even as he comes into his own as a man, Moses recognizes that he is far from home, that something is missing, that he has some unfulfilled potential. 


The turning point, the instigating action, Moses’ moment of clarity that shows him his path forward comes in the form of a bush. The bush is one fire, but not consumed. From the bush, God speaks with Moses, telling him that the cry of the Israelites has been heard in the heavens and that God has selected Moses as his representative that will go before Pharaoh to free God’s people. 


Moses is, understandably I think, skeptical. His first response is mi anochi ki elech el par’oh - who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? (Exodus 3:11) Moses knows that he will not be welcomed by his fellow Israelites. He was a member of Pharaoh’s household who had some level of complicity in Hebrew slavery - what sort of authority of leadership could he demand from people who viewed him as such? He is a stranger to his own people. 


He is also a stranger to the God of Israel because he then asks God: when I get to the Israelites and say that God has sent me to free you and they ask him what is God’s name, what do I say? In one of the most profound theological statements, to my mind, in the Torah, God introduces himself to Moses as eheye asher eheye. This phrase is extremely difficult to translate from the original Hebrew. So much so that many translations of the Hebrew bible do not attempt to do so, simply printing the English transliteration of the Hebrew phrase. The most well-known translation is ‘I am that I am’. Yet, that misses the profundity, the immutability and consistency suggested in God’s nature. The most loyal translation, to my mind, comes from the Koren Jerusalem Bible that translates this to ‘I will ever be what I am now’. 


Moses is given his mission, strengthened by the knowledge that he will not walk alone, that the God of Israel, that who will ever be as it is now, walks beside him on his path. Moses is invited to return to himself, to his people, to his God. It is through this journey that Moses will become the great leader that we know he became. 


Moses, like so many of us, is made up of so many identities, so many experiences, split between worlds. His journey to leadership and his fulfilling of that role so nobly in his life can and should be a lesson to us that these backgrounds, made up of disparate parts, are not weaknesses, rather strengths. When we feel ourselves pulled between who we were born as, who we think we should be, who we want to be, what the world demands of us - it can feel like an insurmountable task to make some sense, to come to some sort of solid ground when we are pulled between so much. Moses sets the example, that where we come from or where we start is far less significant than who we commit ourselves to being. 


Once we find that path, even though we are skeptical, even though at times we will question whether we are the right person to undertake the task, our job is to commit to it, to give ourselves completely to work in front of us, bringing all that we ever were and all we will ever be to maximizing our contribution and purpose in what we do and who we are. This is easier said than done, not all of us is so fortunate to encounter a burning bush who tells us what that path is, but Moses reminds us that we are all capable, we all have the ability to do just that. 


Shabbat Shalom.

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