Parshat Shemot

Torah Reading for Week of December 31, 2017 – January 6, 2018

“Naming Holy Ground”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, ’11

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

“All the place is holy ground” from “The Poet’s Mind” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The name of the parsha that begins the second book of the Torah is taken from the enumeration of the descendants of Israel who migrated to Egypt: Shemot (“Names”). But the names and the history of the generation featured at the beginning of the parsha quickly fade; the new, xenophobic Pharaoh has no knowledge of the shared Israelite-Egyptian past. He perceives the Israelite population as an ever-growing threat and so subjects them to slavery and genocide. Ironically, though, while this Pharaoh perceives the Israelites as a rapidly-multiplying and threatening foreign entity within Egypt, the midrash records that by the time of Moses’ birth the Israelites had already lost most of their distinctive identity except for the way they dressed, their language and their names.

 In Judaism, the naming of children constitutes a profound spiritual practice; names are markers of identity and of a person’s essence.The Sages say that naming a baby is a making of a statement of character, uniqueness, and the child’s path in life, since, at the beginning of life, a person is given a name, and at the end of life, a good name—a good reputation—is all that is taken from this world by that person (Brachot 7b; Arizal – Sha’ar HaGilgulim 24b). The Talmud also teaches that parents receive one-sixtieth of prophecy when picking a name for their child, and so, in this parsha titled “Names,” the bestowing of Moses’ name is notable. The Torah does not record a name given to Moses by his parents. Instead, Moses, a man of complicated and evolving identities, “the one drawn from the water,” is given an Egyptian name, one bestowed upon him by Pharaoh’s daughter, his surrogate/adoptive parent, whose own name is unknown. Moses’ name is both descriptive and prophetic, referencing as it does his rescue from the deadly waters of the Nile and his unique role in Judaism. As Bava Kama 17A states, “There is no water except Torah!”

The thematic importance of names in Shemot reaches its climax when the Holy One calls Moses’ name from the burning bush; soon, in an act of audacious intimacy, Moses asks G-d to reveal G-d’s name. The Divine answer, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”—“I will be what I will be,” or “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming”—is a life-affirming self-identification, a revelatory signifier of the dynamic and evolving nature of the G-d of Israel and, by extension, of those who are in relationship with the G-d of Israel.

In preparation for receiving the Divine Name, Moses is told that he is standing on holy ground and instructed to remove his shoes. The ground is, indeed, a sacred place, signifying depth, fertility, the place of origin, the place from which we have come, and the place to which we will return when we have let go of all that is extraneous to our souls. In the ancient world, shoes symbolized sensuousness, comfort, luxury and pleasure. Slaves and fugitives went barefoot; shoes were the mark of a free person, transactional symbols so significant that the Talmud (Shabbat 129a) declares: “A person should sell the roof beams of his house to buy shoes for his feet.” Shoes are connected to status, but shoes are also barriers to connection with the sacred earth. To remove one’s shoes is to remove a protective covering, an enclosing, artificial form, the idea of power and authority, to rebalance and to connect to the earth, to remove a re-shaping imposed by human ideas of power, authority, and style.

The Kabbalists describe the body as “the shoe of the soul.” Just as shoes enclose and protect feet, so does the body serve as a protective covering during the soul’s journey in the physical world. And in that transcendent moment in Shemot when the Holy One shares the Divine essence with Moses, we can glimpse the deep holiness that can take place when we allow ourselves to be in unguarded soul-connection with dynamic, ever-evolving Divine possibility.