Beha-alotkha and Shemot: Moses as Wet Nurse

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Moses never wanted the job.

When God spoke out of the burning bush and assigned him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses tried to get out of it.  He objected:

Moses at the Burning Bush by Rembrandt van Rijn
Moses at the Burning Bush
by Rembrandt van Rijn

Hey! Lo ya-aminu me, and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say: Your god, God, did not appear. (Exodus 4:1)

Lo ya-aminu = They will not believe, they will not trust.  Lo (לֹא) = not.  Ya-aminu (יַאֲמִינוּ) = They will believe, be convinced by, put trust in, have faith in.  (From the root aman, אמן, which is also the root of amen (אָמֵן) = a solemn statement of confirmation or acceptance.  See last week’s post, Naso: Ordeal of Trust for the first use of “Amen” in the Torah.)

God gave Moses three miraculous signs to convince the Israelites that he really did speak for God.  But Moses still tried to turn down the job. Finally God compromised by giving Moses a partner: his older brother Aaron, who had stayed in Egypt when Moses fled to Midian many decades before.

The arrangement was that God would speak to Moses, Moses would speak to Aaron, and Aaron would deal directly with the people.  Moses accepted this arrangement—maybe because he had run out of excuses.

Moses and Aaron are still together in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you bring up”), in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar.  But their roles have changed.  The big change came while the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, halfway between Egypt and the “promised land’ of Canaan.  When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, the people trusted God.  Sure, they had panicked a few times when there was a shortage of water or food, but each time Moses talked to God and God fixed the problem. So when they reached Mount Sinai, the people said:

Everything that God speaks we will do!  And God said to Moses: Hey! I myself will come to you in the thickness of the cloud, in order that the people will listen when I speak with you, and also ya-aminu in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)

Alas, while Moses is secluded inside God’s cloud on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days, the people feel abandoned and lose faith that Moses will return to them.  They ask Aaron to make a god to lead them, now that Moses has disappeared.

Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos
Gold calf, Temple of Baalat in Byblos

If Aaron were trustworthy as Moses’ co-leader, he would have reminded them that God explicitly forbade them to make gold or silver idols.  He might have redirected them toward making an acceptable offering to God.  Instead, Aaron made the Golden Calf, and the Israelites had a wild party.

When Moses returned and questioned him about it, Aaron lied about his own role—

So I said to them: Who has gold? They took it off themselves and they gave it to me, and I threw it away into the fire, and out came this calf (Exodus 32:24)

—and slandered the Israelites—

You yourself know the people, that they are bad. (Exodus 32:22)

The Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Songs, a collection of commentary from the 8th century C.E., said that the two breasts of the woman in the song symbolize Moses and Aaron, who were full of the milk of Torah. But Aaron fails as a wet-nurse when he fails to set appropriate limits for the “children” of Israel, and instead gives them their golden calf—and then denies his own responsibility for their downfall.

God and Moses between them kill thousands of the guilty, but they let Aaron live. Later they make him the high priest: the chief technician in charge of conducting rituals, looking impressive, handling holy objects, and diagnosing skin diseases.  But Moses is left as the people’s sole boss and spiritual leader.

He does his best to keep them encouraged and in line, but in this week’s Torah portion Moses finally cracks.

The people appear to be in good shape at the beginning of the book of Numbers.  They are marching from Mount Sinai to the border of Canaan in battle formation, with their portable sanctuary and all its holy objects in the middle, so they know God is with them. They have water to drink and manna to eat.

Then suddenly they are overcome with craving.

They weep and say:

Who will feed us basar? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic. But now nafsheinu are drying up; there is nothing except the manna before our eyes. (Numbers/Bemidbar 11:4-6)

basar (בָּשָׂר) = human flesh (skin and/or muscle); animal meat.

nafsheinu (נַפְשֵׁנוּ) = our souls, our lives, our throats, our appetites.

They are not actually hungry.  They are disgusted with God’s manna and, according to many commentators who point out the double meaning of basar, with God’s laws restricting sex partners. Perhaps they are fed up with the whole religion.  Or perhaps they have had their fill of spiritual experiences, long lists of rules, and the goal of taking over Canaan.  They get cranky. They want a break for immediate physical pleasure.

Moses heard the people weeping in their family groups, each one at the entrance of its tent, and God’s anger flared very hot; and in the eyes of Moses it was bad. And Moses said to God: Why do You do bad to your servant, and why have I not found favor in your eyes, that you put the burden of all this people on me?  Did I myself become pregnant with all this people, or did I myself give birth to them, that you say to me: Carry them in your bosom, like the omein carries the one who suckles, to the land that You swore to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:10-12)

omein (אֹמֵן) = guardian, substitute parent. (Literally, the reliable one, the dependable one; from the same root as ya-aminu and amen.)

Elsewhere in the Bible, an omein is a man in charge of bringing up a child; each of King Ahab’s underage children has an omein in the second book of Kings, and Mordecai is Esther’s omein in the book of Esther. The female form of this word, omenet, means wet-nurse or nanny.  Moses imagines himself not just as a parent to the Israelites, but as their wet-nurse, too.

Moses continues:

I am not able to carry all this people by myself alone, because they are too heavy for me! If thus You must do to me, please kill me altogether, if I have found favor in Your eyes, and don’t let me see my badness! (Numbers 11:14-15)

Moses has a hard enough time serving as the people’s sole spiritual leader and teaching them God’s directives. Being a nanny for thousands of ex-slaves is too much for him. e HeIf only they acted like mature adults, restraining their impulses and deferring immediate pleasure for the sake of higher goals!  Instead, the people are like small children—as immature as if they are still nursing. (Children in ancient Israel nursed until they were about four years old.)

Moses cannot bear to be a single mother.  He tells God he would rather die than continue to be their omein.

God tries to solve the problem by giving 70 elders some of Moses’ spirit of prophecy, so they can all help him. But in the rest of the book of Numbers, the elders prove insufficient to control the childish impulses of the Israelites. Either the elders are not mentioned, or in the case of Korach’s rebellion, they are part of the group that revolts and complains to Moses.


Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn
Child in a Tantrum, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Have you ever been responsible for a small child who loses control and throws a tantrum?  Rational explanations go right over their heads; all they can think about is the physical gratification they want right now, the comfort that their parent or babysitting is denying them. Back when that child was my son, I had to fight hard to stay calm until I could calm him down.

Small children are totally dependent on their caregivers.  If they are to grow up into independent adults, rather than slaves, their omein or omenet must be totally dependable—emunah.

Yet all humans are imperfect, unable to rise successfully to every single challenge. I was not a perfect mother, but I did not give up, and now I am proud of my adult son.

Moses does not give up either, even though he did not give birth to the Israelites, nor ask for the job of being their nanny. When God lashes out at the people, Moses talks God out of God’s temper tantrum, and keeps everyone on the road to the future.

May everyone who is given responsibility for others find the fortitude to carry on.  May we all be more like Moses than Aaron.


In next week’s Torah portion, the Israelite spies return from Canaan and ten out of twelve report that the land is full of fearsome giants. Look for my next blog post about how the people weep and refuse to go—because this time they do not ya-aminu God.

Shemot: Choosing Life

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

At the end of his life, Moses says:

…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)

le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.

lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.

ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.

At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.

The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:

…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

Goshen and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom
Nile delta circa 1250 B.C.E., with the capital, Tanis, and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.

Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.

But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)

In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)

The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)

During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)

And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)

ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.

Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.

And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)

What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good.  When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.

Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.

Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)

meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.

In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries.  When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.

Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.

Meritamun, one of Rameses II's daughters
Meritamun, one of Rameses II’s daughters

Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)

Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.

Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)

Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.

Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.

All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.

May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.

Va-eira & Shemot: Request for Wilderness

Water is Changed into Blood, by James J.J. Tissot

The preliminaries end and the ten “plagues”1 begin in in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (“and I appeared”).  God asks Moses to meet Pharaoh at the river and tell him the reason for the first plague, when water will turn into blood.

And you shall say to him: “Y-H-V-H, the god of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying: Send out my people, and they will serve me in the midbar!  And hey, you have not paid attention before now.”  (Exodus/Shemot 6:16)2

midbar (מִּדְבָּר) = wilderness, uninhabited land, uncultivated land (pasturage or desert).

Moses had asked for a leave of absence for the Israelites when he first came before the pharaoh, just as God had ordered him at the burning bush on Mount Sinai:

“And you shall say to him: God, the god of the Hebrews, appeared to us; and now, let us go, please, a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will bring animal-offerings for Y-H-V-H, our god.”  (Exodus/Shemot 3:18)

It seems like a small request.  The pharaoh has been forcing the Israelite men to do corvée labor building brick storehouses.  He could afford to grant them all one week off—three days to travel into the wilderness, perhaps one day for ritual offerings, and three days to come back.  Then as soon as they returned he could put them back to work.

Why does God order Moses to make this small request, when the long-term plan is to take the  Israelites out of Egypt altogether and relocate them in Canaan?  Why should Moses ask for a short leave of absence, instead of for permanent emancipation?

A trick?

I used to wonder if Moses’ repeated request for a week off to serve God in the wilderness is a ploy to get all the Israelites a head start on their journey to Canaan before the Egyptians realized they were not coming back and decided to pursue them.  After all, when they do finally leave Egypt, it takes them only three days to get to the Reed Sea, part of the boundary of Egypt proper.3

However, God already knows that the pharaoh will repeatedly refuse to grant the Israelites a leave of absence.4  God is already planning to harden the Pharaoh’s heart and inflict the miraculous plagues on Egypt.

Therefore Moses’ request is both an excuse for Pharaoh to say no, and an expression of two things the Israelites ought to desire, according to God: serving their own god, and going into the wilderness to do it.

When Moses and his brother Aaron first come before the pharaoh they phrase the request this way:

“Thus says Y-H-V-H, the god of Israel: Send out my people and let them make a festival-offering for me in the midbar.”  (Exodus 5:1)

The pharaoh refuses, giving two reasons:

“Who is Y-H-V-H that I should listen to his voice to send out Israel?  I do not know Y-H-W-H, and neither will I send out Israel.”  (Exodus 5:2)

Why, Moses and Aaron, would you disturb the people from their work?  Go to your [own] burdens!”  (Exodus 5:4)

The pharaoh then gives the Israelites additional hours of work; they must gather the straw stubble for brickmaking while still meeting their quota for making bricks (and presumably for building the brick storehouses).  His move is effective; the Israelites tell Moses and Aaron that this additional hardship is all their fault.5  But the two brothers continue to cooperate with God’s plan for eventually liberating the Israelites from Egypt.

Plague of Frogs, Golden Haggadah, Barcelona, 14th century

The pharaoh ignores the first plague in this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, in which all the water in Egypt turns into blood.  The second plague, an infestation of frogs, bothers the pharaoh enough so he summons Moses and Aaron.

…and he said: “Plead for me to God, so He will clear away the frogs from me and from my people; then I will send out the people, and they may slaughter an offering to Y-H-V-H.” (Exodus 8:4)

At this point the pharaoh does not mention going into the wilderness to make the offering, and Moses does not bring it up.

After Egypt is relieved of frogs, the pharaoh hardens his own heart and refuses to carry out his side of the bargain anyway; he still stands firm in his two original objections to Moses’ request: that he does not recognize the god of the Israelites, and that he will not give them any time off work.

Going into the wilderness

Only after the fourth plague (arov = mixed vermin) does the pharaoh make a more genuine offer—perhaps because this time God inflicts the plague only on native Egyptian houses, leaving the houses of the Israelites vermin-free.

And Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron, and he said: “Go!  Slaughter offerings to your god, in the land.”  (Exodus 8:21)

Moses refuses.  He says they will only make offerings to God in the wilderness, not in the populated part of Egypt.  His excuse is that the animal offerings God wants from the Israelites are taboo to native Egyptians.

“Sure, we slaughter the taboo of Egyptians in front of their eyes, and they do not stone us?  Let us go for a journey of three days into the midbar, and we will slaughter animals for Y-H-V-H, our god, as [God] says to us.”  (Exodus 8:22-23)

Then Pharaoh said: “I, I will send you, and you may slaughter offerings for Y-H-V-H, your god, in the midbar—only you definitely must not go far away.  Plead for me!”  (Exodus 8:24)

After Moses has pleaded with God to remove the plague of arov, the pharaoh hardens his heart again, and refuses to give the Israelites any leave of absence.

During the rest of the plagues, God, Moses, and the pharaoh speak only of sending out the people; the wilderness is now assumed to be their destination.

What is the deeper reason why the Israelites must serve their god in the wilderness, not in the settled land of Egypt?

Routine sacrifices to God are conducted at altars in long-term campsites in the books of Genesis through Joshua, and at temples in towns populated by Israelites in the rest of the Torah.  But in situations that make it harder to reach God, the wilderness is often where the connection happens.

In Genesis, God speaks to Hagar twice, both times when she has walked far into the midbar south of Beersheva.6  Abraham must travel away from Beersheva to a remote hilltop in order to commit the difficult sacrifice of his son Isaac.7  Jacob wrestles with a divine being in an uninhabited area on the Yabbok River.8  Moses does not encounter God until he is 80, when he sees the burning bush on Mount Sinai, so deep in the wilderness that last week’s Torah portion says:

And he led the flock behind the midbar, and he came to the mountain… (Exodus 3:1)


In my own experience, there are two kinds of divine connection.  I find that when I am praying with my friends and fellow travelers on the Jewish path, the connection among all of us brings in the divine, and we rise toward the universal divine together—rather like the Israelites in the Torah who gather at at their communal altars.  I miss prayer services when I go too long without them.

Yet if I want a deeper connection with the divine spirit inside myself, I can only reach it in a wilderness: a place where there are no other people to distract me, not even praying people or inspiring speakers; and no buildings or vehicles in sight to remind me of what else I might be doing.  If I see only what we call nature, and hear only wind or water or bird songs as well as my own breathing, then I can do a different and deeper kind of prayer.

In a midbar, I am separated from my usual labors.  I am neither a pharaoh who demands achievement, nor an Israelite who works harder than she really can in order to achieve.  You might say that “serving God” in this way gives me freedom.  And a little freedom returns with me when I return to the world of people.

May we all find a wilderness when we need it.

  1. What we call the ten “plagues” are ten miracles that cause widespread devastation in Egypt.
  2. Although I usually translate the four-letter personal name of God as simply “God”, in this essay I spell it out in Roman letters because Pharaoh does not know there is a god by that name, and one of the reasons God sends Moses to Egypt and inflicts the plagues is so that all Egypt will know the name Y-H-W-H.  God brings this up at least ten times.  For more on the tetragrammaton, the four-letter name, see my post Beshallach & Shemot: Knowing the Name.
  3. The Reed Sea is the third place where the Israelites encamp for the night after they leave the capitol city of Ramses.  The first is Sukkot, the second is Eitam (Exodus 13:20), and the third is Pi Hachirot by the Reed Sea (Exodus 14:2 and 14:9).  (See also Numbers 33:3-8.)  God chooses not to part the sea until after the Egyptian army arrives and is available to be drowned.
  4. And God said to Moses: “When you come and return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand and do them before Pharoah.  But I, I will strengthen his heart and he will not send out the people.”  (Exodus 4:21.)
  5. Exodus 5:6-21.
  6. Genesis 16:7-13, 21:14-19.
  7. Genesis 22:2.
  8. Genesis 32:23-29.

Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

Both the book of Exodus and its first Torah portion are called Shemot (“Names”) after a key word in the first sentence.  But that sentence also includes the two names of Jacob and all his descendants:

Jacob and his Family Go to Egypt, by Jean Bondol, 14th century CE

And these are the names of the Children of Yisra-eil who came to Egypt with Ya-akov, each man and his household. (Exodus/Shemot 1:1)

shemot (שְׁמוֹת) = names.

Yisra-eil (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel (in English).  Yisra (ישׂר) is derived from either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.  Eil (אֵל) = god, God.

(Jacob earned the name Yisra-eil after wrestling with a mysterious being.1  The possible meanings of Yisra-eil have spurred a lot of commentary.  Likely translations are “He struggles with God”, “God strives”, or “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their active and sometimes insecure relationship with their god.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob (in English); he grabs the heel (from the verb akav, (עָקַב) = came from behind, grabbed by the heel, supplanted, circumvented, held back).

(Jacob’s father, Isaac son of Abraham, named him Ya-akov when he was born, because he emerged holding the heel of his twin brother Esau.2)

The second sentence in Exodus lists the names of eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Joseph is already a viceroy of Egypt when his extended family moves down.  He invited them to resettle in the Goshen area so he could guarantee they would have food during the seven-year famine.

Over the next few centuries or generations the descendants of Jacob multiply, and a new dynasty takes over Egypt.3

And a new king rose over Egypt who did not know [about] Joseph.  And he said to his people: “Hey! The people of the children of Yisra-eil are more numerous and more mighty than we are!  … What if a war happens, and they even join our enemies and wage war against us, or they go up out of the land?” (Exodus/Shemot 1:8-10)

Here the pharaoh is superficially respectful, referring to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves.  Perhaps at this point most Egyptians had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

Having identified a potential problem, Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project).  They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live.  This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

Pharaoh and Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century CE

The pharaoh’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn sons.  At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [the birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him.  But if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot (עִבְרִיּוֹת) = Hebrew women; the feminine plural of ivri (עִבְרִי) = a Hebrew person.  (From the root verb avar, עבר = passed through, passed by, crossed over.  Ivri is an imperative form of this verb.)

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (as well as the English word “Hebrew”).  Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants on the fringes of society.  Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.  They are not permanent residents.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living in Egypt for somewhere between two generations and 350 years.Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”.  This change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt.  Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh also implies that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.  His racial slur probably makes the idea of killing the newborn males more palatable to ordinary Egyptians.

Yet the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse for letting the baby boys live.  Although the pharaoh does not punish them, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones work until they die without a new generation to replace them.  His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls?  In the ancient world of the Torah, men carry the identity of a tribe or nation; women become members of their husbands’ tribes when they marry.  If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to native Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery.  Now they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.

Moses from the River, detail from Dura Europos, 244 CE

Only a hero and some miracles can reverse the situation.  The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt.  His mother hides him for three months before putting him inside a waterproof papyrus box and floating it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile.  When the pharaoh’s daughter finds the  box and sees a baby boy inside, she says:

This is one of the children of the ivrim!”  (Exodus 2:6)

ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; the male or all-purpose plural of ivri.

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri, a nomad, immigrant, outsider.  Eighty years later, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the land where ivrim originally came from, the land where they can live as children of Yisra-eil.

Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the Torah rarely calls them ivrim.  References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and in conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent.  The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and it took 2,534 years before the land became an independent nation of Israel again, rather than a province of a larger country.  During much of that time Jews in Palestine and in the diaspora were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.


No group of people is permanent.  Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is only a way for demagogues to stir up enough fear and hatred to get what they want.

None of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history.  None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land.  All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth.  We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary, and dedicate our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el by wrestling with God and changing the fate of the earth.

  1. Genesis 32:25-29.
  2. Genesis 25:26.
  3. Neither the Torah nor the classic commentary are consistent about how much time passed between the immigration to Egypt of Jacob and family, and the imposition of corvée labor by the first pharaoh alarmed by the strength and numbers of his descendants.  According to Exodus 12:14, the Israelites were in Egypt a total of 430 years, making the time between their arrival and their initial enslavement no more than 340 years.  In Genesis 15:13-14 God says the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years, bringing that time down to no more than 310 years, which  Genesis 15:16 considers four generations.  Yet according to Exodus 6:16-20, Moses’ grandfather Kehat came down with Jacob, so there were only two generations.

Shemot & Va-eira: Staff, Snake, Crocodile

At the burning bush, in last week’s Torah portion (Shemot), God gives Moses his mission: to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses protests that the Israelites will not believe that their god appeared to him, so they will not listen to him. God responds by showing Moses two “signs” he can perform to demonstrate that God is with him.

God said to him: What is this in your hand? And he said: a matteh. Then (God) said: Throw it to the ground. So he threw it to the ground, and it became a nachash, and Moses fled from it. Then God said to Moses: Reach out your hand and grasp it by its tail. And he reached out his hand and he held it, and it became a matteh in his palm. (Exodus/Shemot 4:2-3)

matteh = staff, an official symbol of authority

nachash = snake, instrument of divination or bewitchment

Both a staff and a snake are phallic symbols, and I suspect the image of a snake stiffening into a staff when Moses holds it in his palm is a deliberate evocation of an erection. The staff and the snake represent two varieties of masculine creative power. God uses them to demonstrate, first to Moses and then to the Israelites, that the ultimate control over everything masculine belongs to God.

In the Torah, a staff is not only a stick used by a shepherd, but also a symbol of authority over a tribe or a country. Sometimes the twelve tribes of Israel are called mattot, staves. So I think that on another level, the staff-snake-staff  transformation illustrates God’s power over both the bewitching snake in the Garden of Eden, and the twelve tribes that God will liberate from Egypt.

God shows Moses a second “sign” to use if the Israelites are insufficiently impressed by the first one. At God’s cue, Moses puts his hand into the front fold of his garment, and when he withdraws it, the hand is covered with dreaded skin disease tzara-at, “like snow”. Then he puts his hand back in, and pulls it out completely healed. The underlying message is that God controls both sickness and health.

Moses has to use both signs to convince the Israelites that he really is speaking for their god, but then they do believe him. Next, Moses and his brother Aaron ask the pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves take a three-day vacation and go into the wilderness to worship their god. They refer to God by God’s personal name, the four-letter name related to the verb meaning “to be” or “to become”. God has already told Moses that the pharaoh will refuse, and he does, saying that he does not know any god by that name.

The pharaoh then increases the workload of the Israelite slaves. When they protest, he says Moses’ vacation request proves they are lazy. So the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for their unpaid overtime.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-eira (And I appeared), God tells Moses to speak to the pharaoh again, and adds:

When Pharoah speaks to you, saying “Give for yourselves a mofeit“, then say to Aaron, “Take your staff and throw it down before Pharaoh”. It will become a tannin. (Exodus 7:9)

mofeit = portent, marvel (from the same root as mefateyha = deceiving, persuading)

tannin = a giant reptile (such as a crocodile), a sea monster

The pharaoh says exactly what God predicts. Some commentary assumes that the pharaoh is refusing to listen to another request until Moses and Aaron prove to him that they are bona fide magicians for a god. But I agree with the 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz, who argued that the pharaoh is challenging Moses and Aaron to redeem their ruined reputation in public, by producing a wonder for themselves. He thinks that when they fail to produce a marvel, and his own magicians succeed, any whisper of a slave revolt will be nipped in the bud.

And Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did thus, as God had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a tannin. Then Pharaoh also called for the sages and for the sorcerers, and they also, the diviners of Egypt, did thus with their flame-magic. And each one threw down his staff, and they became tanninim. And the staff of Aaron swallowed down their staffs. But Pharaoh’s heart was firm, and he did not listen to them, just as God had spoken. (Exodus 7:10-13) 

Why does the staff become a snake for the Israelites, but a tannin for the pharaoh? One theory is that the crocodile was important to Egyptian religion. The transformation of a staff into a crocodile would remind Egyptians of their crocodile god, Sobek, who both created the Nile and gave strength to the pharaoh. In the Torah, Aaron’s crocodile confronts the pharaoh’s crocodiles. When Aaron’s swallows down all the others, it is an obvious omen that the god of Moses and Aaron will triumph over the pharaoh.

The Hebrew in the Torah implies that Aaron’s crocodile does not swallow down the others until after it has changed back into a staff. According to Midrash Rabbah, a collection of commentary from Talmudic times, God arranges it that way because it is more impressive for an inanimate object to swallow things. The Midrash says the pharaoh is amazed, and afraid that the staff might swallow up him and his throne next. Nevertheless, he strengthens his psyche with firm resolve, the first of a series of heart-hardenings.

Modern Torah readers are familiar with the concept that God is omnipotent. The magic tricks that God arranges with a staff seem like a sideshow before the main action of the ten plagues begins. Yet it is necessary for Moses to prove to both the Israelites and the Egyptians that he really is speaking for a powerful god, and that his God is more powerful than any Egyptian god or Egyptian magic. Otherwise the Israelites will never follow him out of Egypt, and the pharaoh might attribute the plagues to other deities.

Therefore the staff is not Moses’ phallic symbol, nor Aaron’s. It is God’s phallic symbol, as God shows off to the simple-minded people in Egypt, from slave to monarch. It would be easy for me, as a feminist, to mock these crude displays of male power. Yet even today, that is what it takes to get some people’s attention.

Moses notices the subtle miracle of the bush that burned without being consumed. But not everyone is able to notice subtle cues and then question their views of reality.  In the Torah, the pharaoh does not give up on his assumption that he must keep his slaves until he is hit with the death of his own first-born son. I know people like that today.

I do not know how much I can notice subtle cues and change my approach to life accordingly, and how much I am mired in habits of thought I do not even recognize. But I hope–and I pray–that I will become more like Moses than like either the Israelites or the pharaoh. I’d like to wake up without being hit by either a disaster or a phallic symbol.

Shemot: Holy Ground

Mount Sinai/Chorev, by Elijah Walton, 19th cent.

This week we open a new book in the cycle of Torah readings, the book of Exodus/Shemot (“Names”). The Israelites, who were welcome guests in Egypt at the end of  Genesis/Bereishit, are now slaves under a genocidal pharoah. This week’s Torah portion, also called Shemot, tells the story of Moses from his birth to Hebrew slaves until his return to Egypt as God’s prophet.

His life story does not mention God until after Moses is settled in the land of Midian with a wife and child. He knows that he was born a Hebrew, and that his people have their own god, but he does not know the god’s name. Moses learns about Egyptian gods while he is growing up as the adopted son of the pharaoh’s daughter. He also learns about the gods of Midian, since he lives with the Midianite priest Yitro and  marries one of his daughters.

In Midian, Moses leads a introspective life as a shepherd, deliberately taking his flock to remote places where he will be alone.

Moses was shepherding the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he guided the flock achar the midbar, and he came to the mountain of God, to chorev. (Exodus/Shemot 3:1)

achar (אַחַר) = behind, after, in the back, in the future

midbar (מִדְבָּר) = the wilderness.  (A homonym is midbeir, מְדַבֵּר = speaking, speaker.)

chorev (חֺרֵב) =  dry desolation; “Horeb” (in English), the  name of a mountain and a region also identified as Sinai.

A simple translation is that Moses “guided the flock beyond the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God, to (Mount) Chorev”.

Alternatively, maybe Moses “guided the flock to the future of the speaker, and he came to the mountain of God, to dry desolation”. The second translation is non-standard, but it does describe Moses’ psychological journey. He takes what he was given by his father-in-law the priest (literally sheep, but perhaps also theology), and goes beyond his accustomed life into his own future. He is about to become a prophet, a speaker for God. He is also about to feel dry and desolate, because he does not want the mission God thrusts upon him.

Meanwhile, God has noticed the groaning of the enslaved Israelites, and is about to recruit Moses as the instrument for liberating and leading the Israelites. But God does not suddenly speak to Moses, or appear in a dream, as God did with Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis. Instead, God arranges a small miracle off to one side of Moses’ route.

Moses at the Burning Bush, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then a messenger of God appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of  the seneh; and he saw it; and hey! the seneh was burning in the fire, but the seneh was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)

seneh (סְנֶה) = a particular type of bush

In the entire Hebrew bible, the word seneh appears only in this scene (five times), and once in Deuteronomy/Devarim. It is probably related to the Arabic word sina = thornbush, and the Latin senna = a family of woody flowering perennials with straggling branches, about knee-high. The seneh may or may not come from the same Hebrew root as Sinai (סִינַי), the other name for the mountain where Moses repeatedly meets God. But as Martin Buber pointed out, repeating the word seneh three times in one sentence certainly evokes the name “Sinai”.

Later in the book of Exodus, God manifests at Mount Sinai in volcanic fire and thunder. But here, God’s fire appears in a small plant, and burns quietly without consuming it. Why does God choose this manifestation?

The symbolic meaning of the burning bush according to Shemot Rabbah is that Moses is afraid Egypt will destroy Israel, just as a fire would normally destroy a bush. Since this burning bush is not consumed, it represents a promise that the Israelites will never be destroyed by their oppressors.1

I agree with 20th-century scholar Nehama Leibowitz that the fire in the bush is an implausible symbol for the Egyptians; since God’s messenger (angel) speaks from the middle of this fire, the fire would more plausibly represent divine revelation.2 According to 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the burning bush means that anyone who opens their heart to God will not be destroyed by the divine power.3

Moses said: “Oh, I must turn aside so I will see this great sight! Why does the bush not burn up?”  (Exodus 3:3)

The “messenger” of God is simply the sight of something outside natural law—and therefore numinous. Moses is a person who will notice something unusual and turn aside. Maybe  he is curious about the nature of the universe; or maybe he is searching for God. After all, why did he take the flock beyond the grassy wilderness to this dry and desolate mountain, where there is nothing good for sheep to eat? His father-in-law the priest must have told him where to find the “mountain of the gods”. Now Moses is alert for any sign of the divine.

God does not speak to Moses until after he has turned aside to look at the bush. Apparently alert curiosity and a willingness to approach the numinous are essential traits that God requires in his prophet.

And God saw that he had turned aside to see, so God called to him from the middle of the bush, and said: “Moses! Moses!” And he said: “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:4)

That Moses hears God speak from a mere thorn-bush demonstrates that God is everywhere, even in the lowliest places: a scrubby shrub as well as a tall cedar of Lebanon, a small and barren mountain as well as a lofty peak.4

I have heard many of my friends say they feel God’s presence the most when they are out hiking and surrounded by tall trees or snow-capped peaks. I confess that I, too, feel touched by something numinous when I see the forest or the ocean here in Oregon. Yet I know that if we want to seek the divine, we need to look at straggly little plants as well as cedars, and pray in pre-fab rooms as well as cathedrals.

And God said: Don’t come closer to here! Take off your sandals from upon your feet, because the place that you are standing upon is holy ground. (Exodus 3:5)

Moses cannot come closer to God right away. No matter how much he wants to understand the divine, he must learn about God during the course of a long relationship.

In my experience, that is also true for God-seekers today. A mystical experience can be a message, but it does not change your life, or even your soul. The next day, your old behaviors come right back (even if your feeling of transformation keeps you from noticing them). One experience cannot change you into someone who walks with God—someone who thoughtfully does the right things and remains aware of a larger view of reality. You have to change yourself over the course of many years, noticing when it is time to turn aside, noticing when you have made another mistake, and remembering over and over again that a divine fire hides in the weedy bushes of life.

At least that’s what I believe. So I take comfort from knowing that even Moses cannot walk right into the divine fire and become one with God. His encounter at the burning bush is only the beginning. But at least God tells him he is standing on holy ground. If only we could realize that we are all standing on holy ground!

  1. Shemot Rabbah 2:1.  (Written by rabbis of the first few centuries C.E.)
  2. Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, translated by Aryeh Newman, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 55.
  3. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 31.
  4. Mekhilta of R. Shimon b, Yochai, attributed to R. Eliezer b. Arakh, quoted in Leibowitz, p. 56.