Sh’mot (Names)

Exodus 1:1 to 6:1

Sh'motIn this, the first chapters of Exodus, we encounter many names from a time when the Israelites entered Egypt to the time of their enslavement. We also learn of special places like Horeb, the site of the Burning Bush… a site God calls a “holy place.”

“These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.”

“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph…..” (Ex. 1:1-1:8). And so the story of the Israelites in Egypt prior to their enslavement is captured in just seven verses. This new king was afraid of the potential power of the enslaved Israelites and ordered the mid-wives to kill all the newborn males. They refused saying “(the Israelite women) are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (Ex. 1:19) Pharaoh then ordered: “Every male that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” (Ex. 1:22)

When Moses was born his mother hid him for three months; then, made a basket to hold the baby Moses. It was placed in the Nile by the sister of Moses – Miriam. Moses was then rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.

…. And so the life of Moses begins….. The title of this parsha is translated to “Names.”
We read the “names” of Israel’s children who settled in Egypt. As the story progresses we see many other names including Egyptians, the family of Moses, and names of the Midianite family which Moses marries into.

There are also names of places …. Egypt, Midian, and a special place in a mountain region called Horeb. Here Moses encounters an angel of God in a burning bush. It is at this place that Moses begins his long and very deep relationship with God. “[Moses] gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’ When the Eternal saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered ‘Hineini – Here I am.’ And [God] said, ‘Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet for the place on which you stand is holy ground!…”
(Ex. 3:2-5)

Lawrence Kushner offers very interesting comments on the “miracle” of the burning bush. “The story is customarily offered as a “miracle” that god performed to get Moses’ attention. This fails to explain why God, who could split the sea, fashion pillars of fire, and make the sun stand still would resort to something so trivial and undramatic to attract Moses’ attention as to make a bush burn without being consumed. It is a cheap trick.”

“Look more closely at the process of combustion. How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. This then would mean that Moses would have had to watch the ‘amazing sight’ closely for several minutes before he could possibly know there even was a miracle to watch… (T.V. producers generally agree that about one minute is the limit of person’s average span of attention.)”

“The ‘burning bush’ was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention.” (Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place & I Did Not Know, p.25)

And this spot is now “holy ground.” Why “holy” …. It was ordinary just a few hours before. It was like any other grazing spot for Moses’ animals. But now, the angel of the Eternal was present to deliver the words of God. Then, on this spot, the voice of God was heard by Moses.

Would this have been holy ground if Moses had not seen the bush on fire? … and watched it burn without consumption? … and not spoken to God?

The God of Moses was present only in a single place at any given time. Where God was present became “holy ground.” Today we visualize God being in all places, at all times. But we still see special places as “holy ground.” And, like Moses, we don’t see the Eternal in all places… all the time. But when we pause long enough to realize God is present…. That place becomes “holy ground.” So, the question becomes, do we seek out these special “holy places,” …. Or should we stop and reflect on what we see. Then, maybe, find God in that place and consider that a “holy place.” Maybe, if we pay more attention, we will see that the entire world is one large “holy place.”

Earl Sabes
Art of Moses and the Burning Bush is titled “The Call of Moses” (Exodus 3:1-12) from an illustration on a Bible card published 1900 by Providence Lithograph Company

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