Winter Break Torah: The Beginning of the Book of Exodus
In English, we refer to the second book of the Torah by its Greek name, Exodus—going out, departure. It is easy to associate the Greek/English title with one of the greatest moments Jewish mythic history-- the freedom from slavery, the liberation from Egyptian bondage—Exodus. In Hebrew, however, the title of the book, and this week’s Torah portion, doesn’t mean Exodus at all. Shmot means names of…. The Hebrew name begs us to re-examine the narrative. I suspect that if we read the entire book understanding the central act of liberation as one of naming, rather than one of leaving, then we might have a different perspective on this story of our redemption.
In the first few chapters of the parashah, a plethora of characters is mentioned. Some of them will have as many as three names, some one or two names, and some are not named at all. From the very beginning of this book of names, we are asked to think about why the text reveals to us some names and conceals from us others.
Near the opening of Shmot, once the named midwives Shifrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Hebrew babies, a child is born to an unnamed Levite woman who is married to an unnamed man from the house of Levi. Since Pharaoh has decreed death to the Hebrew boys, she conceals the child as long as she can until she places him in a mini-ark that floats down the Nile. This basket arrives at the place where Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing in the river; one of the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh’s unnamed servants brings the basket to her. The boy’s sister watches and asks the daughter of Pharaoh if she wants her to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for her. The conversation is brief, but the arrangement is made and the child is called Moshe.
In the canonical order of the Tanach, the sister of Moses and the daughter of Pharaoh will not receive their names until chapters, if not books, later. We come across Moses’s sister’s name Miriam for the first time when she leads the women in song after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The daughter of Pharaoh, Bitya, or Batya, isn’t named until the book of Chronicles where she is said to have married into the tribe of Judah.
The authors of Shmot Rabbah (a collection of midrash on the book of Exodus) and of the Babylonian Talmud link the two references to Pharaoh’s daughter in the Hebrew Scriptures. They conclude that Pharaoh’s daughter Batya was a righteous non-Hebrew who defied her father’s command to save Moses. Shmot Rabbah imagines that the servants of Pharaoh’s daughters did not approve of what she was doing. “They said to her: ‘Your Highness, it is the general rule that when a king makes a decree, his own family will obey that decree even if everyone else transgresses it; but you are flagrantly disobeying your father's command?’” Pharaoh’s daughter’s transgressing of her father’s command to kills all the Hebrew boys is courageous. The rabbis of the Talmud take this one step further. Among its minor tractates, the Babylonian Talmud enumerates seven people who are said to never have died, but who were rather brought to the heavens alive. Batya is the one who was not born a Jew. It is ambiguous as to whether Batya self-identifies as a Jew, or is just so connected to the Jewish people, a ger toshav perhaps, that she dwells among us. Batya, who reflected the value of welcoming a stranger even at a dire moment at the Nile’s edge, seems to have her kindness returned to her by Jewish tradition, as she is welcomed not just into our people, but into eternal paradise in such a unique way. The story of Batya stands alongside the Torah’s repeated mitzvah to welcome the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Although we do not know their names during this first story about them, Miriam and Batya seem to know enough about where they come from, who they are, and what they must do, to act quickly and righteously. Perhaps the fact that the text leaves them unnamed at first allows us to consider what else is not being said—but still happening within the scene, but behind the words in the text. Miriam and Batya may both know exactly what they are doing and exactly where they hope it will lead. Maybe, as Rabbi Raziel Raphael teaches, “not a word was spoken but a covenant was made.” In this case, it may be a covenantal conspiracy of sorts—to save this child—and eventually bring liberation to the Hebrews.
Once the women have done their life-saving, people-saving deeds, we can find out their names. The model is similar for God Godself; we never really know God’s name because that name is a symbol for how God works; until the reader can find out the result of Miriam and Batya’s righteousness, they remain unnamed; their essence is somewhat hidden.
The beginning of Exodus, Shmot, this book of names, show us that those whose names we may not know at first may be those who are ultimately most important to us. There is an important Jewish lesson here in welcoming those whose names we may not know, in welcoming the stranger—for anyone anywhere maybe the one who is the keystone to liberation, to redemption, to the perfection of the world. If we hold dear the rabbis’ description of Batya’s righteousness, we can constantly remind ourselves to welcome and sanctify the stranger, make holy those whose names we may not know.