Shalom, B’nai Sholom!
As we usher in the first month of the new secular year, we also conclude the first book of the Torah and prepare to dive into the second. As you may know, each book has two names: a Hebrew name, taken from the first significant word in the book, and a Latin/Greek name, which identifies it by a main theme.
In the case of the book we’re concluding this month, both names feel pretty appropriate. “Genesis” and “B’reishit” both refer to beginnings, and it is indeed our origin story – the tale of how the world, then humanity, and then our ancestors came to be. In the new book we’re turning to, however, there’s a little more dissonance. The word “Exodus” means departure and summarizes the book as the story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in the land of Egypt. The Hebrew title, Shemot, means “names”; yet, while it may seem to be randomly chosen by virtue of where the word falls in the text, it could be an even more fitting title.
Shemot does indeed include the story of Moses and Pharaoh and the plagues and the Red Sea (really the Reed Sea), but all of that is over in the first four parshiot (weekly portions). Shemot is the book in which we leave Egypt, arrive at Mt. Sinai, build the Golden Calf, receive the Ten Commandments, wander the desert and build the Tabernacle. It’s where we learn – albeit with some difficulty – how to exist as a people. So, if the book of Genesis is our origin story, then the book of Exodus is the source of our identity. It lays out who we are as a community and what guides us: the laws handed down by Moses as well as the experience of having been freed from slavery, and therefore responsible for protecting others who are vulnerable. We learn more about the Eternal and the covenantal relationship we share. And we organize ourselves as a society with leaders, judges and priests. We learn – or rather we become – who we are, slowly building a new identity as a free people. We make a new “name” for ourselves… with a little divine assistance.
Chazak chazak v’nitchazeik – May we feel strong in our identity as a Jewish community, even – or especially – when we encounter ignorance and hatred; and may we be blessed to continue sharing our strength with all those who do not yet feel free.
L’shalom and Happy New Year,
Rabbi Danielle Weisbrot