Saturday, January 9, 2010

Enter Moses: Exodus 2:1-25

I have volunteered to give at temple, where my son will next week conduct a celebration of his belated bar mitzvah, a "d'var Torah," a short talk on the week's "parsha" portion "Shemot" (Exodus 2: 1-25). It's the birth and early fortunes of Moses. Here it is.

This episode's always moved me, for I imagined Miriam setting down her three-month old infant brother, not weaned, too small to hide anymore from Pharaoh's cruel decree of decimation against the little lads who multiplied like grasshoppers. Yet, she had the courage and the compassion not to run away. "And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him." (4)

The same sensitivity conveys itself, in the next lines, within the princess as she comes down to bathe in the Nile. The wicker basket's called "tevah," a word used only one other time, when it means "ark" in the tale of the Flood. Its contents foreshadow the deliverance of a remnant of a people once again. As with Noah after the deluge, so will Moses deliver the Torah to the Hebrew refugees and they will carry it before them into their destiny and enshrine tablets as the Ark of the Covenant they make with their supreme lawgiver.

But all that is to jump outside the events rather severely compressed here. The backstory for Moses, the protagonist, gets delivered hastily. Moses' parents gain no line credit, and his siblings are not yet named. Neither Pharaoh's daughter nor the slave girl gain mention as individuals either. Still, these women play their roles well.

Miriam's quick thinking capitalizes on the daughter's pity. Moses' own mother must, heartbreakingly or lovingly both, see again and nurse awhile longer the son she abandoned for his own survival, somehow, in the little ark improvised of pitch and bitumen, the tar and slime of the ancient world. So, Moses does not find himself drifting among the bulrushes and crocodiles long at all. Yet, he must make for his mother and family a double parting, for when he grows up, he must again be taken-- now by his mother and not his sister-- to the royal court, again to leave him behind.

Only in verse ten do we hear a name: "Moses," playing on as the text explains "I drew him out of the water," even if later scholars caution that assonance rather than etymology accounts for what may really mean "born of" as in an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew name-- logically so, since the royal daughter invents this explanation for his moniker. Yet, he knows that despite his Egyptian name, he is part of his kinsfolk, and he reacts with righteous anger, if rashly so, to revenge himself fatally on an abusive Egyptian boss.

Then, his aggression backfires. His own tribesmen retort that they know his crime and they defy his attempt to stop their own bickering. Again, we understand how that the Hebrews, no less than Pharaoh, will not listen readily to Moses no matter what he insists in the name of justice. Moses does not flee his kinsfolk immediately, but he does despair as his cover is blown. Their taunts earn the attention of Pharaoh. Understandably, Moses then must flee into the desert of Midian, where the hero -- not for the first or last time in the Bible-- will meet an attractive woman at a well.

Moses seems destined to intervene. He's killed one man and angered two others, and now he hides from the law. Yet, he seeks the best for others again. He drives off the shepherds and defends Reuel's daughters who gather "to water their father's flock." (16) He is rewarded with Zipporah, whose name means "bird," and their son Gershom gains another playful title, coming from the Hebrew "to drive out"-- for Moses now has been exiled from his own homeland.

The parsha ends with the death of that pharaoh, and the cries of Moses' kinsfolk that seem, finally, to be heard by their God. Suddenly "God remembered His covenant" and "looked upon the Israelites and "took notice of them." (25) They had been so long under slavery that their inarticulate cries "rose up to God," which suggests that they had no idea of their God by then.

The Hebrews will encounter their Creator, but as a harsh Lawgiver as well as tough Liberator. Under God's guidance, and His punishment as Moses among his freed slaves again disobey divine commands, Moses will never, we will find out much later, reach the Promised Land. He is trapped even after he leads his people from the "narrow place" that is "Mitzrayim,***" or Egypt. He will never be truly at home. He grows up in a foreign palace by the Nile, but then he must wander long in the desert beyond "the narrow place" where he was first set afloat in the little basket called an ark. He seeks freedom, but we wonder if he ever found lasting peace in the vast, terrible desert that sheltered him, first in Midian and then as Sinai.

P.S. Illustration. Tempted as I was by Edwin Long's dusky bare-breasted bathing beauties from (post-)Victorian decadent splendor, and Sir Laurens Alma-Tadema's Orientalist brighter louche languor, this image from the Dura Europos synagogue ca 200 CE seemed most appropriate via " Bible Women: Pharaoh's Daughter". All three artworks can be found there. It also explains the midrash about the miracles surrounding this event, and why Gabriel had to slap Moses to make him cry.

***P.P.S.I found out later this service that "Mitzrayim" relates to "tsra" in Hebrew, "to become narrow," and then to Yiddish as "tsuris," "trouble or difficulty." A word I learned early on in my relationship with my spouse.

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