Shemot, A Drash by Arthur Strimling
January 14, 2012 / 19 Tevet 5772
This week we journey from Genesis to Exodus, from Bereishit to Shemot, from family drama to nation building. This week the sons of Israel become the nation of Israel. The parsha, also called Shemot, begins with a review, “And these were the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jakob.” And then it names Jakob’s sons one by one, ending, ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers with him, and all that generation.’
And then the very next sentence says, ‘And the sons of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and multiplied and grew very vast, and the land was filled with them.’ You hear all those population words: ‘fruitful, swarmed, multiplied, grew very vast, and the land was filled with them.’ Get it? Pharaoh certainly does. The sons of Israel have grown into, if not yet a cohesive nation, certainly a sizeable ‘swarm.’ Enough to scare Pharaoh. And then in swift strokes we get the enslavement, the terrible order to kill the first born, which Pharaoh will live to regret more than he could possibly imagine; the birth of Moses, his rescue, his exile, the burning bush and by five short chapters later Moses is in head to head confrontation with Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go.’ Whew! This is not Dickens or Tolstoy. This is really spare storytelling, more like Flannery O’Connor or even Beckett or better, Kafka.
The tradition has it that in Torah, the very first words a person speaks reveals their character. And, with my theatre background, I would expand the tradition with the midrash that it is not only the words, but the very first actions as well. In these brief chapters we witness the very first sounds, gestures and words of the most important character in our entire story, Moses. So let’s look at his first few actions and words and see what might be learned. I have some ideas, but I’m aiming to get you thinking of others.
The first time we meet Moses in Torah, he is crying. When Pharaoh’s daughter opens the little ark rescued from the Nile, the Torah says she ‘saw the child, and, look, it was a lad weeping.’ Moses is weeping (and anyone who has cared for a baby knows that weeping is language!). But weeping, bocheh, is not the word usually used in Torah for a baby’s crying. And the great 20th Century scholar Nahum Sarna points out that in the entire Tanach this is the only instance in which the verb ‘to weep,’ is used for an infant, not an adult. It is as if the Torah wants us to infer that Moses is not just crying in terror, as you would expect from an infant in such circumstances, but he is also weeping for something bigger, perhaps the plight of his people as well as himself.
The next time Moses acts is the famous moment when he sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, and, ‘he turned this way and that and saw there was no man about, and he struck down the Egyptian man and buried him in the sand.’ Now the midrash tells that the reason Moses went out at this moment is that he had just been appointed overseer of the building of pyramids, and he was going to inspect the work. This is an ancient midrash, but the great proof text that we all know is Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston wins the overseer job over Pharaoh’s bio son, Yul Brynner. This makes the act of siding with the Hebrew, with the worker, against his fellow overseer even more stunning: he is Pharaoh’s favored one, and yet he still chooses his people, or the workers, as the socialist Haggadot tell it. And on the eve of Martin Luther King day, we can emphasize that Moses chooses justice. But there is this funny lingering question: why does he look around before intervening? Was he looking for someone else to intervene; was he looking for help; or was he making sure no one would see him take the side of his fellow Hebrew against his fellow overseer? I don’t know, but I do love it that the Torah adds that detail.
And then the very next day Moses sees two Hebrews brawling and he asks, “Why should you strike your fellow?” These are in fact the very first words Moses actually speaks in Torah. “Why should you strike your fellow?” Moses’ first words are what Robert Alter calls ‘an attempt to impose a standard of justice. ‘ ‘What could justify such violence,’ he asks. Why would you do this?’ ‘Can’t we all get along?’ So we know from the get go that Moses is not a dreamer, like Joseph, or a conniver like Jakob, a faithful son like Isaac, or a ready and willing ‘Hineni’ soldier like Abraham – Moses is a justice seeker.
We’ll skip the hero and lover at the well, the married man and father, and the shepherd, and end with moment that fascinates me most: the moment when Moses sees the burning bush. It reveals something new and great about Moses. And also something about God.
The text says, Moses ‘saw, and look, the bush was burning with fire and the bush was not consumed. ‘ Now, this takes place in wilderness. It’s really hot and dry there, and a burning bush is not a strange thing in itself. Bushes burn in the wilderness. For lack of water they die or go dormant and the branches dry out, and somehow they catch fire or smolder – I’ve seen them … but only ones that were consumed. And this wilderness Moses wanders with his sheep is huge and empty, so there is no need to put it out for fear of wider fire, just steer clear of it.
But Moses doesn’t steer clear, he looks; long enough to see that the bush is not only burning, but it is not consumed. And the text says, ‘ And Moses thought, “Let me, pray, turn aside that I may see this great sight, why the bush does not burn up.’” This bush is clearly none of his business, out of his way, but he just has to turn aside and look at it. And that reveals something deep about the man. He is a seeker, not just a seeker after justice, but a man seeking his destiny. He is living contentedly as a shepherd, with a loving father-in- law, a wife, a son, a nice job. He could just settle. But something is driving him to turn aside, to pay attention to oddities, possibilities, omens.
In Carlos Castenada’s books, which at a time in some of our lives had a lot more influence than Torah, his Shaman guide, Don Juan, teaches that we should pay attention to what is at the corner of your eye, to what your peripheral vision spots. That’s where the magic, the mystery, the truth lies. Not in what is straight ahead. Moses understands that.
And, in the manner of this manifestation, appearing as a burning bush, God is also revealed as one who appears not only in high drama, but also sets subtle signs for us. Most of God’s appearances are in dramatic forms with big production values -- a pillar of fire or on a mountain top in lightning and clouds. But here, Rashi points out, God is manifestappears in a bush, the humblest of plants – just a lousy little bush in the wilderness … burning. It took someone special to notice it.
Moses notices, and in that noticing ignites the engine of our entire history. How many other shepherds walked that way and either missed the bush or saw it was burning but didn’t look long enough to see the miraculous in it? How often do I, do we, miss the wonders that are all around us every moment of every day, wonders that speak to our questing natures not only in moments of crisis, but every moment of our lives? I worry about that. Shabbat Shalom.
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