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Parashat Sh’mot: Summary and Commentary through a Social Justice and Reflective Lens

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Sh'mot (names) is the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus and its first parashah, the 13th parashah of the Torah. The first paragraph names Yisrael/Ya'akov and his sons who came down to Egypt; Yoseif, who preceded them; and their deaths; thus, creating a preface for Sh'mot and connecting its unfolding to the conclusion of Breisheet. While it then shifts to an explosion of life, this also references the end of Vay’chi, which mentions that we thrive in Goshen[1].

We are fertile, prolific. We multiply and greatly increase our numbers. Though we are still a small minority, we are perceived as filling the land.

Generations after our ancestors' arrival in Egypt and Yoseif’s death, a "new king" arises to power who seems to choose not to know of Yoseif’s connection to Egyptian history. The king/Pharaoh is not named. The text reports that he feels threatened by our numbers, telling his advisors that our people might join with an enemy army and turn against the Egyptians. His solution is to force us into mandatory unpaid labor for large public work projects, such as building cities for troops (garrison cities) and to care for crops and farm animals. Men mostly work construction, while women and men work the endless fields and herded animals.

Though the hard work is deeply taxing, it does not slow our birth rate. So, the king decrees that our boy babies are to be killed at birth, but girls may live. This plan is thwarted by the two midwives he instructed, Shif'rah and Puah. They use Pharaoh's biases against us to hide what they are doing. They report to him that we, Hebrew women, are more vigorous than Egyptian women, giving birth before the midwife arrives and returning with the baby to the field.

Perhaps because their names are Semitic, some rabbis promote the theory that the women are Yokheved and Mir'yam in disguise. That theory is not supported by the text. They are non-Hebrew women who, with fear and awe of our God, tend to Hebrew women. Their willingness literally and figuratively to midwife our nation into being is rewarded by The Eternal (l.21). Legend has it that not a single child born under their care was lame, blind, or blemished in any way. They were privileged to become the ancestors of priests, Levites, kings, and princes[2].

Despite Pharaoh's decrees, a Levite man and woman, Amram and Yokheved[1], have a third child, a boy. They keep his birth secret for three months. After that, Yokheved carefully constructs a teivah, a small ark, for him, and places it among some reeds near a bank of the Nile. His sister, Mir'yam[3], stays within eye shot to see what will happen.

Pharaoh's daughter, named Bat'yah (daughter of Yah) by the rabbis[4], comes with her attendants to bathe in the Nile close to where the baby is hidden. She hears the crying infant, opens the basket, and knows it is a Hebrew child. Her knowledge does not undermine her kindness. Mir'yam appears and asks Bat'yah if she would like a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby. Bat'yah agrees. Mir'yam fetches Yokheved who is hired by Bat'yah to be a wet-nurse and raise Bat'yah's child. Though the text does not yet name her, it is significant that Yokheved receives wages for nursing her/Bat'yah's child. It signals that Bat'yah values the service she is to provide as a wet-nurse and protector of her child. The child is returned after his third birthday, and Bat'yah names him Moshe. Though the text provides a Hebrew basis for the name, it is Egyptian and means gave birth[5], perhaps pointing to the role Moshe will play in our transformation from a collection of families to a nation. (2.5-10)

Older, Moshe ventures away from the palace to see how his people are doing. He kills an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew and hides the body in the sand. The next day he finds two Hebrews fighting each other. When he questions them about their behavior, he discovers that the murder is known and flees Egypt. He comes to rest at a well in Mid'yan. As with Breisheet, wells and water will be symbols throughout the Book of Sh’mot/Exodus.

Seven women arrive at the well with their father's flock and are harassed by the other shepherds. Moshe defends them and helps them water their sheep. When they arrive home earlier than usual, they tell their father, R'ueil—the high priest of Mid'yan—about Moshe's actions. He instructs them to find Moshe and bring him back to their home to break bread. Moshe accepts R'ueil's hospitality and accepts Tziporah, one of his daughters, as his wife.

Many years later in Egypt, the Pharaoh dies. Yet, our hard work continues. We sigh, possibly in grief, possibly because we know that his death will not change our fate. That causes us to sink deeper into despair. Then moaning begins. First, here and there a few voices. It doesn't take long for all of us to be crushed by reality, and we moan; collectively aching for something different, something we used to know. Unbeknown to us, that aching collective moan reaches The Eternal, causing God to remember God's covenant with Avraham, Yitz'khak, and Ya'akov. The Eternal plans our rescue.

Who, though, can be the right person for the Divine mission? While Torah makes it seem that it was ordained, how did The Eternal know that Moshe was truly ready? Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 2.2 tells us that there was a moment when Moshe was tending Yitro/R’ueil’s herd, and a young lamb bolted. Moshe followed the lamb until he found it at a body of water, drinking. Moshe allowed the lamb to drink its fill, then carried it back to the rest of the herd. The compassion and care Moshe showed for the lamb, and his ability to remain aware of his surroundings to get back to the rest of the flock, are what allowed The Eternal to be confident of God's choice.

On another occasion, Moshe is tending his father-in-law's flock at Khoreiv, “the mountain of God,” when an angel of יהוה appears to Moshe in a blazing fire out of a bush. Moshe gazes at the bush engulfed in flames and not burning. He draws closer to marvel at this wonder. Only then, does The Eternal call to Moshe from out of the bush. The Eternal instructs Moshe not to come closer, and to take his sandals off because he is standing on "holy ground." The Eternal proceeds to introduce the Godself as the God of our patriarchs. The Eternal tells Moshe that God knows that God's people are suffering in Egypt and is ready to rescue them; bringing them out of Egypt to a spacious land flowing with milk and honey. Immediately, The Eternal employs Moshe as God's representative to Pharaoh. (3. I -10)

Moshe's first objection is that he's not up to the task (“Who am I . . . ?”). The Eternal assures Moshe that God will be with him as he goes to Pharaoh and the people with a sign that God is with him. “And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this Mountain.”

Moshe's second objection is that his kinfolk will not believe him. He asks for the

Eternal's name. אהיה אשר אהיה" (Eh'yeh-Asher-Eh'yeh)" is the answer, though this name appears nowhere else in Torah. Rooted in the Hebrew verb "to be (היה)", for me this Name shouts: Existence! I Am That/Who/Which Is (Unfolding).

Upon his third objection, The Eternal gives Moshe personal experience with God's power: Moshe's rod becomes a snake. His hand becomes diseased and is healed. Water turns to blood. These events will repeat in the next few chapters.

Moshe fourth objection is that he is tongue-tied. The Eternal, again, counters by commissioning Aharon to join Moshe in confronting Pharaoh. Only then does Moshe accept his fate. Clearly this is where The Eternal sees something in Moshe that he does not see in himself. What experience do you have on either end of this scenario?

With Yitro's blessing, Moshe gathers his family and returns to Egypt. While on their way, one night it seems that The Eternal seeks to "kill him." The ambiguity as to who is at risk is examined at length in the classical commentaries, although ultimately there are only three answers as to whom him may be. Tziporah circumcises her son, assumed to be Ger'shom, halting the attack. (4.24-26)

Moshe and Aharon meet on The Eternal's mountain. Moshe shares with Aharon everything that was said and happened with God. Only then do they go before the "elders of the B'nei Yisrael." Aharon repeats Moshe's story, and performs signs for the people. Convinced that The Eternal has finally taken note of our plight, we bow in relief and with gratitude. (4.27-31)

Moshe and Aharon next visit Pharaoh, presenting The Eternal's demands for our release. Pharaoh, who has no knowledge of יהוה, denies the request and makes our construction work harder, forcing us to hunt for straw yet still make the same number of bricks. This upsets us and our overseers, who seek and fail to change Pharaoh's mind. Disheartened, we blame Moshe and Aharon for our increased labor.

Moshe is also disheartened, and seeks The Eternal to plead for our relief. In doing so, Moshe also expresses his despair for the mission he's been given.

The Eternal seeks to comfort Moshe, assuring him that the effort has just begun; the effort will yield the promised results. This also foreshadows the next three parshiyot.

This Week's Lessons, Reflections, and Practices

The importance of a person's name: We often take for granted that women are not named in the Torah, to the point it is notable when non-main-character females are named. After listing the males of the first generations, Shif'rah and Puah are the first to be named. (The king does not need to be named because he is king/pharaoh). As midwives who fear/awe our God, they protect the boy babies and facilitate a future for our people. Pharaoh's daughter is not named. Yet, without her willingness to openly ignore her father's decree, Moshe may have stayed in the river, or worse.

Are there people in your life whom you take for granted? Do you know their names? How often do you address them by name? How often do you thank them? Are you one of the nameless or named that others, including family or other intimates, take for granted?

Reflection and Practice for those who need to notice: This week, notice who does what for you and/or how their doing facilitates your purpose(s). What is the narrow place (Mitzrayim) or story (Haggadah) you have constructed for yourself that makes it okay to take without acknowledgement? While our immediate thoughts go to family and possibly friends, there are also all kinds of service people, co-workers, neighbors, and strangers who facilitate our needs and/or works. Notice, and when you are ready, thank.

Reflection and Practice for those who ought to be noticed: If you are someone who does a lot for others, yet rarely gets acknowledgment or appreciation from people that matter, how do you feel about that? What, if anything, are you getting (or hope to get) out of allowing yourself to be taken for granted? What is the narrow place (Mitzrayim) or story (Haggadah) you have constructed for yourself that makes it okay? How do you feel about where you are? What, if anything, do you want to do to change your story and your circumstances? What agency do you seek for yourself?

Additional Reflection: When it comes to whom and what you notice, has your gaze changed over the last year? If so, how and what difference is it making in your life?

Holding Paradox: The image of the bush ablaze and not consumed has always fascinated me, despite the cheap rendering in the movie. It is, by definition, a paradox. The desire and ability to hold the paradoxical (both and) instead of holding the binary/directional (either or) thinking can be quite challenging for many people. In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston wrote "I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that I can hold paradox." I have discovered that my willingness to hold paradox especially paradoxes that make me uncomfortable — is a gateway to peace and, sometimes, healing. My willingness to say yes to both and leads me to accept life exactly as it's presenting itself in this moment, allowing the stress and tension inside me to cease.

Reflection and Practice: What are the paradoxes that keep vexing you? You may want to start with a simple one such as a habit or trait of someone you dearly love that has not changed — no matter what has previously been said or done. Assuming the habit or trait is NOT something destructive to the person, you, or others (if it is, and you have not done so, get professional help), how can you change in relationship to it? Start by examining the meaning you give the habit or trait, the origins of that meaning, and whether or not you really believe that meaning. Go deep, as if you were unrooting a weed without tools. Once you’ve uncovered the root pull it out and unexamined what you have. How can you reframe or change the meaning so that you can live with the feeling that you don't like feeling when that habit or trait shows up, with a goal of dissipating and/or transforming the feeling you feel? When you are ready, try a bigger/more difficult paradox.

In the shadow of being seen: It is amazing that The Eternal does not take "no" for an answer from Moshe. The midrash makes it clear that The Eternal saw something in Moshe that he did not see in himself. He is being asked to take on a major leadership role with absolutely no experience of any kind, including very little life experience. How absolutely terrifying!


A. Think about a time when someone recognized something in you that you did not see, or were not ready to see in yourself. Relive the conversation. Feel, as best you can, what you felt then and name the feelings that you may have not been able to name then. What thoughts are moving through you? How do you feel about what you decided? How does that decision or that situation show up, now? What, if anything, needs to be acknowledged, owned, or healed?

B. The next question is especially for those who may have been or feel they were exploited in such a situation: If the offer made was one you wanted and it came with unsavory strings, how did you handle the situation? How do you now feel about how you handled it? Have you resolved all that happened in a way that allows you to feel good about yourself? If there's something left to resolve, how do you want to tend to it?

In any reflection, if you find yourself with regrets, come back to the present and see yourself now with the blessings you have. Own those blessings and the lesson(s) you learned. See the influence on who you are now and are still becoming. If there is still regret, forgive yourself and be very kind to yourself as you learn to live into the forgiveness.

Breaking open despair: Life is amazing, and suffering is an inescapable part of being alive. One of Frankel's teachings is “that any time we allow a narrow part of the self, rather than the whole of our being, to become our sole focus, we enter a state of mitzrayim[6]." She shares a teaching from Midrash Tanchuma that describes the gradual relinquishment of power and freedom by the Hebrews that was a slow seduction into servitude. Initially, they had volunteered to work alongside Pharaoh and others on his several civic projects. After doing the work on a volunteer basis, all were tricked into continued servitude.

One of the ways that redemption, transformation, or change become possible is through tears. We accept the miserable circumstances in which we find ourselves. We accept our broken heartedness. We accept loss. With acceptance the dam breaks and we sink into despair, embracing and fighting our misery.

The collective acceptance of the miserable state of our lives under Pharaoh (oppression and enslavement) and recognizing that his death would not change our circumstances leads to the powerful collective moan that reaches The Eternal. Having broken open our individual and collective despair, the Israelites/we create the possibility of redemption/transformation.

I recently had a friend confess he feared that grief was becoming a constant companion. I shared with him that I know that grief is a constant companion. He asked, "How can you live that way?" I answered, "I know my heart, my being, to be a guest house[7] for all I experience. So, I feel what I feel and encourage myself to have meals with dear friends, especially on unexpectedly warm days by the water, and to partake of other simple joys."

Reflection: What is your relationship to your grief and/or sadness? What are the simple joys that keep you allow to keep you company alongside your grief and/or sadness?


[1]Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb; The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus. Image/Doubleday, New York et. al. 1999. [2]Frankel, Ellen; The Five books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on Torah, HarperSanFrancisco 1998. [3]Identified, Sh'mot 6.20. [4]Leviticus Rabbah 1.30. [5]Eskenazi, Rabbi Dr, Tamara Cohn and Weiss, Ph.D., Rabbi Andrea L.; The Torah: A Women's Torah Commentary, pg. 312. [6]Frankel, Estelle; Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness. Shambhala, Boston & London 2003. [7]Concept inspired by the Rumi poem "Guest House"


This work is based on commentary created for the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in 5780.

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