On Friday 16th of January 2009, we start reading a new Book as weekly portion, i.e. "Shemot\שמות - (the) Names" in Hebrew, called "Exodus or the flight from Egypt, the house of slavery" in usual translations and traditions.
In Hebrew, it is normal to refer to the first words of Biblical Book: "Ve'eleh shemot Bney Yisrael\ואלה שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה את יעקב איש וביתו באו" = these are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming from his household" (Shemot/Exodus 1:1). We penetrate the history of a specific small Jewish rooted family. They entered Egypt out of hunger, were saved by Joseph, the son and brother they had left and sold, betrayed. In return, Joseph saved, nourished and redeemed them and made them honored by Pharaoh. Hebrew shows more: eleven brothers entered a foreign country that, at first glance, welcomed them and provided them with a lot of wealth in the fertile region of Goshen.
To begin with, the sons of Israel were accepted. There might have been other troubles or famines, as time passed. Then, a new Pharaoh showed up who did not know Joseph. The problem we have to face is that Jews are either too few, or too many -multiply or disappear by leaving a region. History has also shown how they were plundered, massacred. There is a point that should be highlighted. The Book of Shemot\שמות (Names) prolongs the history initiated in the Book of Bereishit (Commencement) -Genesis of all the universe, beginning with the creation of the world, planets, sun, moon, stars, vegetable and animal creatures and finally the humans. The Jewish tradition insists on that aspect. After thousands of years, Jews are trained to the fact that micro-groups of ten-twelve people can suddenly grow to millions after some centuries or eventually collapse in some circumstances
Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem into the humble family of a carpenter with a prestigious priestly and King David's backgrounds. He started with three Galilean disciples, then 12 that extended to 70 or 72 and finally there are millions of disciples. On the other hand, they did disappear, as the Jews, from some regions, often for the same reasons of rejection or collapse. This is why it is important to take into account this Book of Shemot because it obliges to humble ourselves: Shemot\שמות means "Names" and the Jewish people were conceived as in the image and likeness of God-Elohim (Gen. 1:27) (HaShem - the Only Name) and they only belong to This Name or aim to testify to this Holy Name. Jews have no other reason to exist than to engrave God's Presence into a without soul. This allows another connection to "Shem", Noah's son who is the ancestor of the Semites, dwelling in a place "there (sham\שם)" where The Name is present.
Then, Exodus, from Greek "going - way out", explains the development of a nation in a hostile context. They came to be blessed with food and wealth. They are forced into bondage and seem to be satisfied with their slavery when God decides to save them against their will. We can hardly figure out today what happened by the time of Moshe/Moses. This account is more than relevant, consequential and far-reaching: we trace back this week to the roots of a call to permanent freedom and perpetual release from bondage. There is some extravagance to being born in order to testify that the Lord constantly frees a special group as the model of leberation process proposed to all humankind. This process has been renewed over and over again throughout the ages. This implies other invariant patterns: how to relate with the pagans, the Gentiles. How to overcome our stiff mental reluctance to move ahead. The honest monotheistic believers admit that freedom is worthier than any tricky involuntary projects ordered by hating rulers.
There are some similarities between the birth of the Jewish boy Moshe, saved from killing all Israelite newborns and being adopted by the sister of Pharaoh (Shemot 2:5-11) and the birth of Jesus, the murder of all the Jewish babies ordered by Herod. He fakes to be willing to praise the newborn and wants to know where he was born in order to slay him (Matthew 2:1-12). Then, another Joseph (son of Jacob, (Matthew 1:16)) is told in a dream: "Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt." Thus, Herod became furious and ordered the slaughter of the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, citing Prophet Jeremiah (31:15): "A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and she could not be consoled since they were no more." The Church recalls the "Children massacred by Herod" soon after the Nativity of Jesus. When Herod died as a tyrant, Joseph "took the child and his mother and went to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael\ארץ ישראל), but fearing Herod's son, they settled in Nazareth (Matthew 2:21-23).
There is a fathomable similarity between the two accounts: to fathom consists to measure "with outstretched arms" as God always did and does. Exodus 6:6 (or Deuteronomy 4:34) is cited in almost every single Jewish prayer: "bizro'a nituyah\בזרוע נתויה = with outstretched arm (I will redeem you)".
In both cases – commemorated at the same time, with parallel and dissimilar views – Jews and Christians firstly recall the birth and saving of Moshe and, on the other hand, the birth and saving of Jesus. In both cases the will to power is so resolute, violent and mighty that murders are preferred to life. Of course, it was totally bizarre to the enslaved Jews to be protected by the man they considered as the son of Pharaoh. Again, we face "appearance" vs. "being" as when Joseph appeared to his brothers as an Egyptian manager. Our generation never experienced the singularity reported in the reading of this week. We survived thousands of years of pagan hatred and two millennia of estranged bewilderment in our facing other monotheistic communities. Jews settled too often in various parts of the world with the impression that – remaining somehow or totally faithful to the Jewish traditions – they would be protected by some sort of rulers. This is a tragic bluff that deceived generations. In the Shemot reading, we see how Moses is conscious of being a foreigner (his first son is Gershom\גרשום = (I) was a stranger there). Is it the chronicle of a liberation process? We might be tempted to make comparisons, all through history. Exodus is and remains unique as it climaxes with Pesach\פסח / Passover and the going-out from bondage to delivery.
There might be more. Humans are good at reducing God to a sort of despotic ruler Who issued numerous ordinances, some of which we comply with; and most often we systematically select those we accept or reject. This is the dialogue between God and Moses at the bush that does not burn up "has'neh bo'er ba'esh vehas'neh eynenu ukal\והסנה בער באש והסנה איננו אכל" (there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed – Ex. 3:2). God said to Moshe: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob". The root of the word "S'neh\סנה – thorn bush" is connected to Aramaic/Hebrew (different spelling): "sina\שנאה – hatred, removal".
God is different, totally alien to any sort of image we can figure out. Humans use to hide themselves or try to be high-profile in this world. Such a bush changes any moment into times of eternity and any jealousy into wiping out wickedness. This is what Rabbi Yehiel Michal of Zlotshov explained when he said that Abraham had accomplished all the 613 Mitzvot\תרי"ג מצות / Commandments. He declared that Abraham loved God with all his heart, soul and spirit. Moshe progressively gets to this point: being "dressed" as a foreigner to his own people. God is indeed loving and kind, faithful and merciful. He turns and returns to the human beings constantly, with much faithfulness to a call.
From the time of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob until Joseph and the 12 sons of Israel, Jews have been alien (they do not enjoy the same rights as the local citizens) even if Machpelah is theirs as the "the burial site bought by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite" (Gen. 50:13). There are tons of small or bigger nations that hate each other for racial, cultural, social, economic reasons. In this particular weekly reading, we have to face the kernel reason: Jews only exist to attest that, from nil, God calls to being; He calls to enhancement, unexpected growth and freedom. Eretz Yisrael is given to the twelve sons of Israel as a permanent lease for life. Thus, Judaism is bringing forth non-perishable seeds of reality, survival and hopeful continuance.
Two texts from the Talmud are very similar: Tractates Nedarim 39b and Pessahim 54a.They explain that before God created heaven and earth, seven counselors were discussing with Him to know whether it made sense or not to launch the process! These pre-existing advisors were: Torah\תורה, Teshuvah\תשובה (penance), Kisse HaKavod\כסא הכבוד (Throne of Glory), Devir\דביר (Holy of Holies), Gan Eden\גן עדן, Gey Hinnom\גיי הינום (Gehenna) and Shem HaMashiach\שם המשיח (Name of the Messiah).
They appeared step by step, through the process of historical development. But one thing is constant, endures and questions us at the present. Even back in Eretz Yisrael, how do we prove to be seeds of freedom? Moses was thus given a password to speak to the enslaved Jews: God has a Name: "Ehyeh Asher Ehyehאהיה אשר אהיה" (Shemot 3;14).This Name continues to convulse and reshuffle our daily lives and paths. Say it may correspond to "I am Who I am" – frankly, it sounds stiff; correct, but inelastic and aloof. God is merciful... The burning bush without consuming reveals that God's Name means: "I will (not 'shall') be/come the Who to the fullest of Who I will be/come". This sounds jet-set stylish, but read again, please: it is a motion without automatics; or "I will become/develop to exist to the fullest the One (Who)I will live to the full".
With Exodus, we face a new creation project as read each Shabbat: "Vaychulu hashamayim vehaaretz\ויכולו השמים והארץ – heaven and earth were achieved" (Gen. 1:31). Not finished: "yachulu\יכולו" echoes an action on the move to the full, as the kallah\כלה (bride) who begins her life-long path with her special one.
Someway, Jesus summarized what God proposes to any Jew and believer: "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Matthew 8:20).Indeed, we start, this week, a huge trip with the go-getting Name of the Lord!
In these days of hardships and confusion, it maybe terrible for all the nations and the people embattled in the conflict in the Middle-East and Israel, Palestinian Territories under control of the Palestinian Authority, to clear our minds. Whose shemot/שמות-names? What kind of Exodus? From where to where and for whom with whom; for the sake of whom or what? There are indeed times and delays.
The Shabbat and the One Church as One Body is like Jesus' tunic: it is not a lot, a gambling party, it is impossible for any human to tear it up. There are days and nights when we appear to be lost. God searches unity and leads us though to discernment.
Av Aleksandr [winogradsky frenkel]
January 11, 2009/Dec. 29, 2008 – 15 deTevet 5769 - ט"ו דטבת תשס"ט