Offered at Temple B’nai Brith – Kingston, PA, USA
Shabbat shalom! Thanks for welcoming me to your congregation on this erev Shabbat. And for giving me the chance to share a few thoughts on this week’s Torah portion, B’shallakh, from the book of Exodus. We are right in the middle of what might be the biggest drama of the entire Torah narrative. The 10 plagues have devastated ancient Egypt, and finally Pharaoh has released the Hebrews. Our parashah starts with one of the most famous sacred stories in the world – the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and the march across the exposed sea floor by the Hebrew slaves, along with other escapees and refugees from the iron furnace of Pharaoh’s tyranny.
In this week’s parashah, the Hebrews have made it to the shores of the sea, but they are pinned down, trapped between the waters and Pharaoh’s army. You know what happens. God splits the sea. Pharaoh orders his charioteers to pursue. They give chase, but God causes the wheels of their chariots to get stuck in the mud, and then, once the Hebrews have arrived on the other shore of the sea, God releases the waters of the Sea of Reeds and many of Pharaoh’s finest warriors are drowned. When the Hebrews realize that they have been rescued for good, one of their prophets, Miriam, the sister of Moses, leads the women in song and dance to celebrate.
This story has had a huge impact on Jewish thought and Jewish values. And it has influenced many other religious traditions too, as well as the world of Western art and culture. And perhaps most importantly, without this story, we would never have gotten to see Yul Brynner look straight into the camera lens and, in realizing his defeat, say: “The Hebrews god . . . is God.” Or something close to that.
Tonight I’d like to focus on the ways that water, blood, and childbirth imagery animate so much of the Exodus drama, finally culminating in the spectacular rescue at the Sea of Reeds. I’ll start with childbirth.
A number of rabbis and Bible scholars have written about the Exodus drama as a mythic story that repeatedly echoes the experience of childbirth. Exodus begins with overt images of birth. We read about the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who deliver the Hebrew babies in defiance of Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the newborn males at birth. Then, when Pharaoh changes tactics and commands that all Hebrew male babies be cast into the Nile, we read about the baby who will later be called Moses being placed in a basket among the reeds of the Nile.
There are two things we should note in thinking about this iconic moment in the story, in which the Hebrew slave, Yocheved, and her daughter, Miriam, place the basket in the bullrushes of the Nile, with Yocheved’s baby in it, and give it a push to send it on its way down-river. The first is that this baby’s name, at this point in the story, is not Moses. Yocheved and her husband, Amram, don’t give the baby this name. That comes later, when Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby and adopts him. No, at this point the story doesn’t tell us what this baby’s name is. But the Torah does tell us that she kept the baby hidden for three months before she felt she had no choice but to set him adrift in a wicker basket. Three months. Is it possible that these Hebrew parents did not give this child a name? It’s hard for me to imagine that. So, first, let’s just notice that the liberator-soon-to-be-called-Moses apparently has another name – a Hebrew name – that is never revealed in the Torah.
Hold on to that thought, because the other thing I want to draw attention to is that the text says that Yocheved placed the basket with the baby in it among the reeds along the banks of the Nile. The Hebrew word that’s used is “suf,” meaning reeds. And, of course, in our parashah we are reading about the Hebrews being rescued from certain death at the Sea of Reeds, which in Hebrew is Yam Suf. The Torah specifically uses the word suf – reeds – as bookends of this drama of liberation. The story starts with one baby’s life threatened by drowning, and it concludes with the birth of a new nation, the newly liberated Hebrews, emerging improbably from waters in which it seemed certain they were likely to die as the Egyptian army approached.
So far we have two birth images bookending this story. But there are more. When Amram and Yocheved’s baby is drawn out of the river by his adoptive mother, the Pharaoh’s daughter, we have another birth image – a baby being pulled out from perilous waters, taken out of its artificial womb of woven straw, dried off, loved, embraced, and then named. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter names him Moses, and that this name means “drawn from the water.” Now we can come back to the issue of Moses’s name. What language would the Pharaoh’s daughter use to give her adopted son a name? It seems that the person who is going to become the great hero of our tradition, the liberator and founding legislator of the Jews, doesn’t have a Jewish name. He has an Egyptian name – a name that comes from the culture of the oppressors. When Moses grows up and finally – and reluctantly – accepts God’s assignment to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Hebrews go, he has to work with the potentially difficult fact that the same Hebrews he wants to redeem may find his very name off-putting and foreign. This is an element of the Moses story that I think is almost entirely overlooked.
But I said my focus was going to be on childbirth imagery, not names and languages, so I’m going to try to veer back to birth imagery again. In last week’s parashah, there is the actual exit of the Hebrews from Egypt after the horrible tenth plague. As the angel of death sweeps through Egypt, killing the first born sons of Egypt, it spares the first born sons of the Hebrews by passing over their homes. The angel recognizes their homes because the Hebrews, following God’s instructions, have placed lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes. When Pharaoh in his anguish gives the decree that the Hebrews can really go, the birth of the Israelite nation truly begins. And in that moment of the text, the image we’re presented with is all of the Hebrews exiting their homes, emerging out of their homes through doorways lined with blood – another birth canal image.
Finally, we get to the splitting of the Sea of Reeds itself, the passing through a narrow path through waters, the terror and wonder of the experience of going through this symbolic “birth canal,” and the rejoicing of the women in song and dance at the other side when the “birth” is complete.