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Women and the covenant of hope – Parshat Shemot – 5774

Women and the covenant of hope

This week’s Parasha begins with a list of the names of the people who came down from Egypt.  In fact, Chapter one is filled with name after name of the various families of the tribes.  We then hear about Pharaoh plan to strip the people of their identities, to rid them of their individuality and to make them into a nation of slaves, numbers, simply another bolt in the machine of Egypt’s building project.  We know what happens in history when people become numbers, when they are forced to give up their individuality, thoughts, passions and freedom.  We have seen it in all the ‘isms’ and of course the tragic events that began in Germany in the 1930’s.  Unlike the divine intervention we saw explicitly in the book of Bereshit, at the start of the book of shemot, God has seemingly ‘disappeared’, he has apparently abandoned his chosen people and left them in the hands of a supreme totalitarian dictator.

It should come as no surprise that the people under such circumstances have simply given up, despair penetrates every fiber of their being, there is no future no past , just the present reality of death, work and an impossible existence.  Their ability to function as dignified, free thinking individuals has been cruelly ripped away.

And yet Chapter 2 presents us with an astonishing narrative of anonymous individuals, women, who by all rational reckoning should be on the brink of suicide.  They do not conform to the model Pharaoh has set out for them.  They break out of their expected moulds and go against the decree at every level.  Miriam, Yocheved, Bat Pharaoh, the midwives, all in their quiet unassuming but immensely profound way move from the mode of conformity and obedience, to actively and autonomously rebelling against the dictators decree. They seek in the midst of a totalitarian regime to be individuals, creators, actors who  through their deeds change the entire course of history.  This is no small feat, it is what Avraham did years before by breaking the mould set for him by his culture, society, and family.  To be radically different, to be dangerously courageous, to  be hopeful in the face of extreme despair, this is what being a Jew is.  And the ones who do this, the only ones to remain individuals despite the threat to their lives, were the women in Egypt.  As we are told ‘In the merit of the Righteous women we were saved from Egypt’.  The women here, and Moshe later, embody the very notion of Brit – covenant. God for all intense and purposes has disappeared, and so the women recognise the imperative to act for themselves instead of waiting for a divine act of mercy to save them.

The act of defiance against the oppressively collective regime of Pharaoh is an act where the individual in all his glory and dignity reigns supreme.  It is an act that ‘forces’ God’s hand and ensures that he ‘hears the cries of the people’.  When man acts against collective oppression, when he defies the despair of his reality, when he begins the journey to tikkun olam, God has no choice but to play his part as covenantal partner in the drama of history.  And so he engages in the world, he comes down to save the people. Yet he does not do it alone, he seeks the help of mankind, continuing the paradigm of the woman’s action we saw in chapter 2.  His choice? the very man whose life has been a journey in rejecting oppression, injustice and intolerance.  The man who is a truth seeker, who breaks away from the conformity of his upbringing, whose  individuality has led him to seek truth wherever he can find it.  A man, whose thirst for knowledge-answers and truth, is not quenched, even after a divine encounter – Moshe.

Moshe – the unlikely leader and his move from a mode of ‘Having’ to a mode of ‘Being’

Moshe is an unlikely choice for leader.  Whenever I think if the film ‘The Kings Speech’, I can’t help but see an uncanny parallel with Moshe.  A quiet, lonesome individual who is forced, through no will of his own, into a position of leadership, whose inability to speak stems from childhood traumas.  It is no coincidence Moshe, at the age of weaning – around 3 – was moved from one culture, language, mother, family, to another.  The exact age of speech development.  Speech, language, is a reflection of my inner world, my identity.  It is an expression of my own individuality and ability to express my desires passions and thoughts.  And yet Moshe does not have speech, in some very real sense, he does not own himself, he is owned by others, by two mothers, who both make a claim on him, by the Egyptian culture that has been transposed onto him,  by the totalitarian regime that he unwittingly has become a part of.  Even when he escapes, flees, runs to midyan, and encounters Yitro (the paradigm of truth seeker), he still cannot move to the mode of just ‘being’  His inability to understand who he is, to find an inner peace is reflected through the narrative at the burning bush.

א וּמֹשֶׁה, הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ–כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן; וַיִּנְהַג אֶת-הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר, וַיָּבֹא אֶל-הַר הָאֱלֹקים חֹרֵבָה.  ב וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ ה אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת-אֵשׁ–מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה–אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:  מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.  ד וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה–וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.  ה וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ–כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא.  ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֱלֹקי אָבִיךָ, אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלקי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב; וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה, פָּנָיו, כִּי יָרֵא, מֵהַבִּיט אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים.  ז וַיֹּאמֶר ה, רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְאֶת-צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו, כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-מַכְאֹבָיו.  ח וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם, וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא, אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה, אֶל-אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ–אֶל-מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי, וְהַחִתִּי, וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי.  ט וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי; וְגַם-רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הַלַּחַץ, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם.  י וְעַתָּה לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְהוֹצֵא אֶת-עַמִּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.  יא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים, מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.  יב וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּךָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ:  בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה.  יג וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָאֱלֹקים, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָא אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתִּי לָהֶם, אֱלֹקי אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; וְאָמְרוּ-לִי מַה-שְּׁמוֹ, מָה אֹמַר אֲלֵהֶם.  יד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה; וַיֹּאמֶר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶהְיֶה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם.  טו וַיֹּאמֶר עוֹד אֱלקים אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כֹּה-תֹאמַר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב, שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם; זֶה-שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם, וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.

3,1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb. 3,2 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. 3,3 And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ 3,4 And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’ 3,5 And He said: ‘Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ 3,6 Moreover He said: ‘I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. 3,7 And the LORD said: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; 3,8 and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3,9 And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto Me; moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them. 3,10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’ 3,11 And Moses said unto God: ‘Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ 3,12 And He said: ‘Certainly I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.’ 3,13 And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? what shall I say unto them?’ 3,14 And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’

The first thing that strikes us in this narrative is that Moshe is that he is a person who will move out of his comfort zone in order to seek, ask question.  He says ‘I will turn aside (in other words Go out my way) in order to see this great sight.’. It is this, more than anything else that convinces God that he must be the leader.  Immediately following this text states ‘And when God saw that he turned aside to see He spoke to him’.  The ‘seeing’, is the key to Moshe’s election as leader.  The ability to see, understand, comprehend reality in a different way is the essence of the women we encountered in the first and second chapter of shemot.  The very root word ‘Tere’ – to see – repeats itself many times, reflecting the idea that these women also were able to see reality differently, to understand that there is a complexity that cannot always be seen at first glance.  They, and in the same guise, Moshe, understood that they needed to imagine a reality that is not a given.  Moshe continual questioning of God, his insistence on ‘knowing’ himself and  God, is seen the whole way through the burning Bush incident, and yet in the end God’s reply is ambiguous and uncertain. In response to Moshe question ‘Mi Ani’ – who am I, God replies ‘Ehyei Imach’ – I will be with you.  In response to his cry ‘Ma Shemecha’  – what is your name, God responds famously ‘Eheyei asher ehei’ I will be what I will be.  I want to suggest that Moshe is being taught by God a subtle yet surprisingly basic message.  Erich Fromm, the famous psychoanalyst, in his book ‘To have and to be’ delineates two modes of existence.  One mode is the mode of ‘having’. In such a mode Man is convinced that the key to his happiness, self fulfilment and inner peace will come from ‘acquiring’ things, anything from material possessions to knowledge, love and comprehension of the world.  This, says Fromm, is a misconceived understanding of mans essence and in the end only leads to hedonism, universal envy and greed.  The only way that man can truly achieve happiness and inner peace is through the  mode of ‘being.  The mode of being is where I am not influenced by any external forces – I am true to myself.  I seek things, be it knowledge, happiness and meaning as a means to self growth as opposed to simply ‘acquiring’ it.

What I want to suggest is that the framework surrounding Moshe’s search for self and truth until this point has been couched in the mode of ‘having’.   Being deeply influenced by the Egyptian culture, he understand reality through the mode of ‘having’, and thus feels the need to ‘have an identity’, ‘have a definition of God’, ‘have a truth’.  What God comes to do, is to break this paradigm.  In other words God says to Moshe ‘to comprehend your existence and mine, you have to break away from the mode of ‘having’ to mode of ‘being’.  You have to understand that life is a journey, that inner peace, comes not from ‘having an identity or having knowledge’ but rather from ‘being’, from inner growth, covenantal partnership, freedom given and taken, knowledge as comprehending and not acquiring.  As Fromm writes ‘

“to ‘see’ reality in its nakedness.  Knowledge does not mean to be in possession of the truth; it means to penetrate the surface and to strive critically and actively in order to approach truth ever more closely.” (Fromm To have and To be p37).

When God says to Moshe ‘I will be what I will be’, he was instructing Moshe in the need to move from perceiving the world through the mode of ‘having’ to discerning a mode of existence that is simply ‘being’.  At the same time he is telling Moshe that his mission is to move the people from a mode of being ‘had’ as slaves, as possession, to a mode of ‘being’ as free individuals who are compelled to think, love and live of their own free will.

The parsha follows this movement of being and having, starting with the mode of being (in chapter 1)  and moving to Egyptian society who quintessentially  personified the ‘having ‘ mode (end of chapter 1).  The women understood the dangers of a societyand reality based only on the ‘having’ mode.  They were able to ‘see’ the reality different.  Moshe adopts elements of this insight but yet does not manage to liberate himself from the ‘having’ foundations of Egyptian society.  It is only when Moshe encounters God at the burning bush, that his journey from ‘having’ to ‘being’ begins to emerge, a journey that allows him to move a people from slavery to freedom.

(it is never simple, even for the people, who fall very often prey to the ‘having’ mode of existence for example the Golden Calf – but that’s for another time.)



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