Tag Archives: Yocheved

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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Death of a Leader from a Family of Leaders

 

Image result for gustave dore Pharaoh's daughter

A black-and-white drawing by Paul Gustave Doré of Moses and his brother, Aaron, standing in Pharaoh’s court next to a serpent.

Engravings by Gustave Dore: The Finding of Moses: Moses and Aaron Appear Before Pharaoh

Yocheved and Amram HaLevi must have been exceptional individuals and parents. Their youngest child, Moses, was born at the worst of times when Pharaoh ordered the death of all male Jewish babies. Yocheved hid her newborn son for three months and then entrusted her daughter, Miriam, with ensuring his safety. The three haLevi children, Moses, Aaron and Miriam all rose to become leaders and teachers in their own right.

Together, under God’s guidance, they led and nurtured an entire nation. The prophet Micah wrote, “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. And I sent Moshe, Aharon and Miriam before you.” (Micah 6:4). According to the prophet Micah the brothers and sister were sent together to fulfill the role of leading the Israelites.

When I read about Miriam’s death in the Torah reading “Hukkat” I noticed how little attention was given to this great woman’s passing. When I checked  to see how often the three leaders were mentioned in the Torah I discovered that Moses’ name was recorded about 480 times. Aaron’s name appears about 300 times and Miriam’s name appears 10 times. It’s not very surprising. Women are not generally given a high profile in Torah and bible narratives.

art by Laya Crust

Miriam is recognized as an important figure and is called a “prophet”. To understand the strong family connection between Yocheved and Amram’s three children we have to look at the hints given to us in text and then put the pieces together.

Miriam’s baby brother Moses was born at the worst of times when Pharaoh ordered the death of all male Jewish babies. Yocheved hid her newborn son for three months and then sent Miriam to watch what would happen. Miriam intervened when he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and brilliantly offered to take the baby to a Jewish wet nurse.  The wet nurse was Moses’ mother, Yocheved, and Moses stayed with her for three years until he was weaned. In those three years Moses was not only introduced to Jewish customs and sensibilities, he also interacted with his older brother and sister, Miriam and Aaron. That may explain why he showed no shock or surprise when decades later God told him that Aaron would be his mouthpiece to Pharaoh or why it seemed natural that Miriam was a leader at the Red Sea.

Miriam is often associated with water. Neither Moses nor anyone else were surprised when she led the women in song after crossing the Red Sea.

Miriam leading the Woman in Song- Golden Haggadah

In the Torah we read how Miriam and Aaron gossiped about Moses, criticizing his choice of wife. It was a natural thing for siblings to do – talk about their brother, his good points and his bad points. When Miriam was punished both brothers came to her defense. Moses begged that she be forgiven. God said He had punished her as any father would. Her affliction of tzaarat, and consequent seclusion in a tent sounds almost like a time out. Maybe this was God’s style of “time out”, knowing she needed some space to rest and reflect. One could well imagine that Miriam and Aaron were stressed. Miriam was the wise woman, and an example to the children of Israel, constantly expected to be empathetic and to guide the women. Her beloved people patiently waited for her to heal before they continued on their journey.

Image result for miriam the prophetessMiriam’s Well, Dura Europos wall panel

At Miriam’s death another link between the three leaders is revealed. Miriam’s death is mentioned in five words. There isn’t any mention of the people mourning her. Instead they become angry due to lack of water. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock, holding Moses’ staff. Moses and Aaron gathered everyone together before the rock. Moses said, “Hear now, you rebels; are we to bring you water from this rock?” He lifted the staff and hit the rock twice. God punished the brothers for not following his instructions by not allowing them to enter the promised land. That is to say they would die before the children of Israel entered Canaan. Indeed, Aaron dies twelve verses after the rock was hit, (Exodus 20: 23 -29).

When Moses spoke to the children of Israel he called them “the rebels” using the word הַמֹּרִיִם.  That word, מֹּרִיִם has the same letters as Miriam. I suspect that Moses and Aaron were so overcome with grief at the loss of their sister Moses unconsciously chose that word.

A leader and a sister of leaders, Miriam died and was buried in Kadesh. It is fitting that she died in a place named “Holiness” because throughout her life that is what she exemplified and taught.

Have a Shabbat Shalom, and let us pray for the craziness in the world to become peace in the world.

Laya

 

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