The first weekly portion of Exodus is Shemot, which means “names.” As always, Jewish Tradition derives the name of the weekly portion from its opening words, which also mirrors the theme of the entire portion.
The Shemot portion recounts how the Jewish people in Egypt preserved their names, their inner character, and their purpose, and this is the underlying meaning of the portion. The opening passage lists the names of the sons of Israel (Jacob), reflecting the purpose and meaning of each tribe, in their unity and diversity. And at the end of the portion, God’s name and the meaning of that name are discussed.
The first two weekly portions of the book of Exodus – Shemot and Va’era – both tell of the preparations for leaving Egypt, but from two different angles. Contemporaneously with the preparation for the Exodus, the manifestation of Divinity changes. In the Shemot portion the Divine Name appears in the future tense (“Ehyeh,” see 3:14), while in Va’era it is in the present tense (the Tetragrammaton, “YHWH,” see 6:3).
The Shemot portion mentions the Jewish people only briefly at the beginning (in connection with their servitude) and then again only briefly toward the end (after Moses’ return to Egypt). Instead, the main content of the portion is almost entirely devoted to the personality of Moses.
As soon as Moses is born, his mother “saw how beautiful he was” (2:2) (but, literally, “she saw that he was good”). The word tov, which means “good, kind, beneficial,” is Moses’ most important quality. He so longs to see goodness in the world that he is prepared, if necessary, to exert pressure, and even to use violence, in order to make it happen.
Moses’ personal identity and his sense of self exhibit two complementary tendencies. On the one hand, their origins are in the royal Egyptian palace, but on the other hand, Moses’ roots are entirely Jewish (he was nursed in infancy by his own mother, he never broke off ties with his family, and his brother Aaron, as we will shall see later, was the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Egypt – “the local chief rabbi,” as it were). The typical Jewish desire to intervene in every situation, coupled with the Egyptian self-image of a ruling dynasty wielding world power, together create in Moses an explosive personality that can change the world.
As we read the first three narratives of Moses’ activism, we notice that each of them speaks of some conflict – first with the Egyptian overseer, then with two Jews involved in an altercation, and finally with the Midianite shepherds. Moses is a man of impressive physical strength who, even as a stranger in a foreign country, is not afraid of a confrontation. He has a great thirst for justice, and the self-awareness of a king, who is responsible for maintaining proper order in all of the surrounding world.
For the first half of his life Moses was disengaged from the Jewish people – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. But this separation was necessary for his own personal development. Having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses understands how to build a state and manage it. Living with Jethro, he gains a broad perspective on the peoples and communities of the world, their history and interactions. Moses needs all this in order to be able to lead the Exodus, but after this “external preparation” Moses’ connection with the people must be restored. However, it does not go very smoothly.
When God invites Moses to lead the Exodus from Egypt, Moses initially refuses the commission. The apparent reason, as noted earlier, is Moses’ disappointment with the Jewish people. Only after God pressures him to take up the task does Moses actually accept it.
Moses obeys, but at first only on a purely physical level, for he has not yet accepted the task in any spiritual sense. He believes that the legacy of the Patriarchs in Egypt is now all but dead, and that there is therefore no longer any point to align himself with it (but Moses also believes that a completely new level of connection with God, the Sinai Revelation, will very soon come into existence, whose embodiment will be none other than the Jews now enslaved in Egypt). That is why Moses does not circumcise his son, for he has no desire to introduce him into the covenant of Abraham. Instead, he wants to initiate his son into the new and renewed covenant – the covenant of Sinai.
God showed Moses that his approach was wrong: “At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.’ (4:24−26)”. Zipporah’s act of circumcision, which saved Moses’ life, demonstrated that the Abrahamic covenant was still valid. It demonstrated that it is impossible to enter a covenant of commandments while bypassing the covenant of ideals, for there is more to life than legalities alone. Moses realized his error and corrected it. After first moving away from the people he now returns to them, in order to establish the Sinai covenant without abandoning the Patriarchal covenant.