Naming and Anonymity, Suffering and Redemption in Parashat Shemot (Exodus)
What I love most about Jewish learning is that I am able to return to even the most familiar of texts and derive new meaning from each encounter.
I first learned the Exodus story right at our very own Stein Circle at some point in the mid-1980s. I remember well how, in third grade, we staged a Pesach play all in Hebrew and delved deep into a plot line that easily captured our childish imaginations.
Today, over thirty years later, after living through a year of mass suffering and senseless death, I read the story of Exodus in a new light.
Shemot in Hebrew means “Names.” The parasha opens with the recitation of the names of Jacob’s sons. The Rabbis note how the text vacillates between nameless characters, such as Pharaoh, and very specific names attributed to more minor characters, such as the midwives Shifra and Puah. The suffering of the Hebrew slaves is both specific and named, and, at the same time, vast and anonymous.
I think about this past year, and how, at some point I decided to stop watching CNN because the constant ticker on the screen listing the number of COVID-19 deaths felt too anonymous and too vast. There is something particularly senseless and tragic about anonymous suffering. As a counterpoint to a year filled with vast and unnamed deaths, I think of the compelling memorial on the Boston Common entitled “Say Their Names,” which honors 300 lives lost to racial injustice. I understand now, that “saying their names,” helps the human spirit feel comfort in times of deep suffering. This year, I read the opening lines of Exodus as a moment of redemption and hope.
Once I start seeing Shemot through the lens of redemption, I see it everywhere in the text; in Yocheved’s defiance of Pharaoh’s edict, in Moses’ striking down of the oppressive Egyptian overseer, and in Aaron’s role as his brother’s ambassador. This year, I am less impressed by the big, heroic miracles, such as the crossing of the Red Sea, and find more hope in these small moments of human free will. The human actions remind me of the times over the past year when I have felt so free despite the restrictions of our everyday life. I think about a particularly exhilarating hike or an outdoor playdate or how hard we have worked to keep our schools open and safe in the midst of a pandemic. While I do pray that our modern day crossing of the Red Sea comes soon, this year, when I reread the sacred text of Exodus, I take comfort in the fact that the human spirit can still feel free and alive while awaiting a miracle.
Dr. Dalia Hochman ’92, Current Parent, Head of School at Gann Academy