Shemot - on birth, the burning bush, and bloodlines

In the beginning of the book of Exodus we have a sense of how things progressed since Joseph. The Israelites have proliferated and, instead of dominating the land, are now subjugated within it. Most are familiar with this story from Pesach haggadot, popular films, etc. The text tells us that the midwives are responsible for such healthy numbers of Israelite children. When Pharoah decries that Israelite first born sons be killed, the women refuse (both the mothers and the midwives). This is because, the texttells us, the women fear the wrath of God more than the Pharoah. Perhaps it is also because the women love their children more than they fear death. The midwives who deliver Moses, Shifrah and Puah, are the unsung heroines of the story. Many feminist haggadot and Jewish scholars have recuperated them in tellings of the Exodus story. Moses is not the only one to “deliver” his people. The story of Exodus is a story of rebirth – an emergence from slavery to freedom. Birth and rebirth become important themes in the unraveling of the story.

Those wont to look for themes of justice in the text tend to focus on Moses' objection to the exploitation of labour. While of course many see this as a sign that he somehow knew he was an Israelite, or somehow had more sympathy for the Israelites than others of his class and culture while living in the Egyptian palace, his objection is not necessarily on the basis of nation but rather on the basis of simple human values. He objects to the degradation of others. This is a sign that Moses is right for the job of delivering his people. We too must remember to object when others are harmed or hurting – not just people similar to us in class, culture, or other category. All humanity is deserving of respectful treatment.

The text in Shemot involves some fantastic storytelling. Those who study archetypes in literature are likely familiar with the quest narrative. No such narrative is complete without a damsel in distress. In the Exodus story we have several damsels – Tziporah and her sisters – who are harassed/attacked at the well. Moses saves the women and, as is typical for the hero of the quest narrative, gets the girl. While this is obviously a one-sided portrayal of women, Tziporah is a very important character. Tziporah, a Midianite, provides us of an example of someone who can intermarry into the Israelite “tribe” and be very concerned with its welfare, without having been born into it. The Tanakh gives us examples of healthy and successful intermarriages (even as it forbids intermarriage in other sections). For those who have culturally mixed families, we can look to Tziporah as a heroine. Tziporah also brings Moses to her father Jethrow who counsels him and, in many ways, spiritually trains him to be up to the job of deliverer. Of course the story ultimately names God as the deliverer, but we should notice that Jethrow's teachings and encouragement give Moses the strength to fight his fight for justice and freedom. We can learn from this that we may encourage and guide one another towards whatever may be our goal, our deliverance, our “promised land” - whatever that may look like for us as individuals.

The “burning bush” is an important literary symbol for the everpresence of God. What can it mean to humanists? An ever-burning passion or love? Humanity – which also sees destruction but continues to exist and thrive? The constant “light” and “fire” that guide our struggles for justice? All of these are possibilities. When Moses meets the God-character in the form of the burning bush he is told “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” translating roughly to “I am what/that I am.” Religious Jews understand this phrase to capture the enigmatic and all-encompassing nature of God. But it is also a sign to Moses that he must be who he is as well. Some of us, like Moses, are leaders. Some of us are creators (artistic creation, procreation, etc.). Whatever feature some look to in a God-figure can also be found in the burning light of the human spirit and experience. Hope is fundamental to our continued struggle to improve our condition. The “promise” need not come from on high. We have work to do and, in being all that we are, we rise to meet our challenges.

God tells Moses that he will perform wonders which will convince the Egyptians that he means business. God turns Moses' staff into a snake. He turns water into blood. One doesn't have to be Freud to read some sexual/gendered meanings in those particular symbols. That aside, what does the magic mean? For some it does prove the existence of God. For most, this is a narrative aspect of the story (particularly attractive to children). Freud and many later psychoanalytic critics discuss “looking for signs and wonders” - in our dreams, in our slips of the tongue, in what seem like coincidences. We see the “signs” we wish to see. We believe “wonders” when they confirm our pre-existing world view. But we may miss “signs” as well. A sign that someone we love is in pain. A sign that we are not really fulfilled in our work. We have a pharmaceutical industry devoted to getting us to ignore the real, natural signs that tell us if we are on the right path. Like the Egyptians who ignore Moses' magic, we ignore the signs that tell us what is right for us, sometimes to cope but sometimes to our peril.

I will end with two aspects to this parasha that most people do not mention. The first is that Moses has a speech impediment which is why his brother Aaron does all the talking when they meet the Pharoah. There is a mishnaic explanation for Moses' speech problem (relating to a test he is given as a baby to see whether he is in fact an Israelite. He is offered to eat something sweet or something made of hot gold. God guides him to lick the hot gold so he will be spared suspicion. His burnt tongue is the cause of his later impediment). But we can learn other lessons from the speech aspect of the story too. Firstly, many of us have hurdles to overcome – some have exceptionalities in terms of learning or expression. Some overcome poverty and some overcome abuse. Whatever our past, we can learn to work with and around what seems like a barrier. One way of doing this is to find community.

Moses tries to get out of his task of approaching the Pharoah, using his speech impediment as an excuse. God tells him that Aaron will be with him and will talk. Together we can find complementary strengths. Aaron is Moses' brother. But we can be brotherly and sisterly in our interactions with one another. We can make up for the gaps in one another's abilities. We can be stronger when we work together.

The second aspect of the story that doesn't get much airtime is this scene. ”At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me! And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” This is an enigmatic passage. It is not entirely clear, but most rabbis interpret that God was about to kill Moses (the “him” does not refer to anyone clearly but Moses was the subject just prior). Why would the God-character, who has just chosen Moses as the deliverer of his “chosen people,” want to kill Moses just as he sets off to do what he asked? Some feel there is missing information. Perhaps in the earlier versions of the story Moses committed some transgression that got edited out so as to maintain a pure view of his good character. Nevertheless, this is part of the story and we can do interesting things with how it alters the meaning.

First, there is an equalizing effect brought to the story through this passage. Moses saved Tziporah and her sisters at the well, but now it is Tziporah who saves Moses. The circumcision is what does the trick. While some may see this as a sign that circumcision is essential to Jewish culture as emblematic of the convenant of God, one can also read the opposite. Tziporah declares the act one of a covenant between she and Moses – a human bond that buys his protection. He is “truly” her bridegroom – and she repeats that it is because of the blood. Blood is a sign of protection, and some rabbis have argued that as she touches the blood to Moses' "leg" it foreshadows the spreading of blood on doorposts for protection later in the story. There may be cultural information we do not have about what this sign means. What we do know for sure is that Moses and Tziporah's son was not circumcised until this moment. Moses is on the way to deliver the Israelites and the lack of a circumcised son suggests that a) he does not yet see himself as part of this people descended from Abraham or b) he does not see circumcision as essential to the identity. This means that either he is willing to sacrifice himself for the good of a people to which he does not belong like he does when he tries to save the labourer, or it means that the “covenant” as marked by circumcision may have varying dimensions and meanings.

The parshah does not end happily. Moses notes that after he begins his negotiations with the Pharoah things get worse for the people. He is disheartened. We, like Moses, must remember that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Change is slow. We must nevertheless try to make the world as just and free as possible. Like Moses, we're on a journey.