Tag Archives: torah stories

Shemot- Those Who Are Nameless

Hopeless Desperation by Laya Crust

“Shemot”, meaning “Names”, is the title of the second book of the Five Books of Moses.  The book begins with the names of the patriarch Jacob and his sons, and tells how Jacob went down to Egypt with an entourage of 70 people. It says, “And the children of Jacob were fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied and grew very very mighty, and the land was filled with them.” (Shemot/ Exodus 1:7)

The Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians. Neither slaves, taskmasters, nor nobility were named in the narrative. The first names we read are those of two heroic midwives, Shifra and Pua, who had the courage to ignore the edict to drown every Israelite boy at birth.  The next name we read is that of Moses- not when he was born but after he was rescued by Pharaoh’s (nameless) daughter, then taken by his own (nameless) sister to be nursed and raised for three years by Moses’ own (nameless) mother.

We read of Moses’ entanglement with an Egyptian taskmaster and three Israelite slaves, yet the next person who is named is Re’uel (Jethro), the Midianite priest who kindly took Moses in.

There is a pattern here. The people who were named were those who stood up against the norm of apathy and acceptance. The midwives risked their own lives because they didn’t want to kill innocent baby boys. The adopted boy Moses grew up to rail against the injustice he witnessed. Jethro the priest took in a needy stranger from a rival country.

photograph by Malcolm Peterson, 2003

But names are important. When Moses met God at the burning bush surprisingly Moses asked for God’s name. Moses knew that the Israelite slaves needed a name for God in order to believe. He demanded a name from a powerful, unknown, force. God complied and furnished Moses with a name – “אהיה אשר אהיה“, “I Will Ever Be What I Will Be”.

Names are a key to identity and self-determination.  The Israelite slaves were nameless. Black slaves were stripped of their birth names and given new monikers. Victims of the Nazi regime were numbered in order to add one more level to their dehumanization.  Victims of famine and genocide; and victims of large natural disasters like tsunamis, mudslides, and earthquakes, are unnamed. Missing Indigenous women needed their names shared in order to be noticed, and for their disappearances to be investigated.

When we see a face or hear a name we are more capable of empathizing with a person or an unfolding tragedy.  That is why, when a memorial is set up for fallen soldiers or victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), the invisible individuals can then be remembered, and why the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem is called Yad V’Shem (“A Monument and a Name”).

Ai Weiwei's Snake Ceiling, a serpentine form made from children's backpacks, is currently on display at the Hirshhorn Museum's "According to What?" exhibit. It commemorates the thousands of students who died in poorly constructed schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Snake made out of children’s backpacks, Ai Wei Wei, Hirshhorn Museum, 2008/ photograph by Cathy Carver

Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese dissident artist, took another approach in one of his installations.  In 2008, thousands of school children were killed by an earthquake in Sichuan, China, in shoddily constructed government schools. Wei Wei has produced a list of all the victims of the earthquake on his blog. He also created a number of art pieces made from thousands of children’s backpacks to memorialize their lives.

The thousands of victims have been given identities.

Referring to the narrative from the bible, it may seem that calling this story “Shemot” or “Names” is ironic, but on second thought it is a lesson. The people who were named were doers and helpers. They were people who stepped beyond normal expectations to change a condition and make it better.

When we see people in need it may help us to find out their names. That may make it easier for us to see them as individuals and allow us to reach out more quickly.

May this be a Shabbat of welcoming and hope, of reaching out to help the other- the nameless and those in need. And through our actions may we bring peace and healing to the world. Shabbat Shalom, Laya

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Passover- Intermediate Shabbat

Pesach Shabbat sig

Ezekiel 37 : 1-14

Ezekiel- A prophet among the Israelites exiled to Babylon. He prophesied there from about 592 – 572 BCE.

Did you ever hear the gospel song, “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones…”? That gospel song was written based on this Shabbat’s haftarah.

Ezekiel the prophet recounts that he was lifted up by God and placed in the middle of a valley full of bones. Ezekiel and the Lord have a conversation in which God tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones and then God will fill them with the breath of life. That is indeed what happens. Ezekiel prophesies and he hears noise and rattling. The bones come together and become covered with sinew and flesh. Then breath comes from the four winds and the bodies rise up and live . God tells these resuscitated people that  He will put His spirit in them and they will live in their own land. The bones represent “the house of Israel” and when they are ready God will bring them back to Israel.  He says, “And I will put my spirit in you, and you shall live.”

The painting at the top of the page (if you click on it , it will enlarge) is based on a fresco painting from the Dura Europas Synagogue. It shows Ezekiel at the Valley of the Dry Bones, in time lapse illustration (is time lapse a new or an ancient concept?) being carried by the hand of God. The Eastern looking Ezekiel with flowing curly hair is wearing embroidered crimson robes and deep green trousers. All the hands, faces, and bones shown in the painting really illustrate the scene presented to Ezekiel the prophet.

The painting is one of many found in Dura Europas, Syria. It was a small trading city in eastern Syria near the Euphrates River. The ancient synagogue was completed around 244 BCE, and its walls were covered by incredible frescoes or tempera paintings that illustrated stories from the Torah, the Prophets, and other books of the bible. The paintings were discovered during archaeological excavations in 1932. 58 paintings were found, and it is believed that originally about 100 Biblical scenes were painted on the walls.

Doura Europos synagogue courtyard.jpg  

The frescoes are wonderful.  It’s always fascinating to see the depictions of biblical figures wearing clothing and using objects specific to an ancient time we aren’t familiar with.

This particular story is appropriate for a Passover reading. In the story of the Exodus the children of Israel walk through the desert and God takes them to their own land- the Land of Israel. In Ezekiel chapter 37 God tells the people whom He has revived that He will take them to the Land of Israel.

It makes one think of other such parallel stories from throughout our difficult Jewish history.

Back to “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones… If you like old gospel songs and good harmony check out some of the renditions on youtube.

And have a Happy Pesach.

Remember to share this post with your friends, relatives and students!

And have a Happy Pesach.ers.

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