Names, Births, Wellsprings, & Firstborns

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/28/2004

Dear Chevra,

The Torah portion for this Shabbat is named "Shemot/ Names," because it begins with the names of the sons of Jacob who had come down to Egypt centurie before, in time of famine. After this echo of Genesis, it turns to new names - of many sorts.

The first two names are those of "Yisrael - the Godwrestlers" and "Mitzrayyim" - the Hebrew word for "Tight and Narrow Place" and also for Egypt (a long narrow land strung out along the Nile, with kings who become more and more narrow-minded).

Then we hear the names of Jacob's sons and the counting of their offspring. But this recounting pointedly ignores his daughters and their offspring. Rabbi Phyllis Berman and her "smikha sisters" have woven an extraordinary midrash on why these names were left out - partly because they were women, and for other reasons as well — and what it could mean in our spiritual growth to recover them. See our Website for their essay, at -

Next are the names of the midwives. The text is so unclear whether they are "Hebrew midwives" or "midwives of/ for the Hebrews" that I have come to hear this as a deliberate ambiguity, the Torah itself saying, When you lead a nonviolent resistance movement, your nationality doesn't matter. Shifra and Puah, and later Miriam and Bat-Pharaoh — they are an "international feminist conspiracy" to save the lives of Hebrew babies whom Pharaoh wants to murder.

We learn the name of Moses — Moshe. In Egyptian, "moses" means "son of," a in "Thutmose, son of the god Thoth; Rameses, son of the god Ra." Our Mose is the son of - BLANK. The son of everything? The son of nothing? The son of the One whose Name is nameless? Of only-God-knows-who? In Hebrew, hi name means "the one who pulls out" [Israel from slavery] but his Egyptian foster-mother, who pulled him from the Nile, thinks it means "one who is pulled out." She is making a prophetic, proleptic leap: Karma. Whoever is drawn forth learns to draw forth.

At a well attended by seven sisters, he meets their father "Reuel - God' shepherd." Are these seven sisters a higher version of the seven ewe-lambs of Beer Sheva - Abraham's wellspring of peace and covenanting?

And God's Name - At the Burning Bush, Moses sees that the "God of my fathers" is insufficient, for that God had done nothing to free the people. At Moses' insistence, God takes on two new names - "Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will be" and "YHWH, Breath of life." Names for an evolving, liberating future.


The book of Genesis is threaded on the tales of struggling brothers and sisters, turning the dominance of older siblings upside down. Exodus begins with three siblings, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, who work closely and well together.

But the reverse-the-firstborn archetype does not entirely disappear . Indeed, it rises to a new level: God claimsm that Israel is God's firstborn — obviously no truer, compared to Egypt, than Isaac or Jacob is firstborn. This time the older brother will not yield. So reconciliation fails — until the messianic days, as the Prophets foresee.


Transformative women: the midwives; Miriam and Pharaoh's daughter giving Moses a second birthing; Moses' wife Tzipporah saving his life through an act of rebirthing, circumcision. Above all, the entire Exodus can be seen as a birthing of the people and of freedom through the narrow birth-canal of Mother Mitzrayyim, with the breaking of the waters at the Reed Sea. From what household with doorways smeared in blood does every human being emerge into a world of newborn freedom?

Shalom, Arthur

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