Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Sh’mot

Parashat Sh’mot

December 27, 2007

By Linda Shriner-Cahn

In memory of my father, whose yarhzeit is the 24th of Tevet.

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, we once more are given all of the names of the sons of Israel, linking this second book of the Torah to the first. Their names are brimming with meaning.

Sh’mot means ‘names.’ Names are critical in understanding who we are and how we relate to the world. It is Adam who names the animals, giving him a sense of dominion over his surroundings. The process of naming something is empowering. For a brief moment we are granted insight into the power of a name. When we name our children we invest the future of that child into their name.

Every week as we make Kiddush (the blessing of sanctification of the Shabbat, recited over a cup of wine) on Friday night we recount the separation of the seventh day from the rest of the week and its inherent holiness (Genesis 2:2-3). We essentially rename the day and infuse it with holiness.

To know the name gives us insight, or so we believe. Our names proclaim our identity to the world, so what do we make of this Torah portion – where names are at its core? So much occurs within this portion that it is difficult to know where to focus our attention. Possibly that is just the point.

Although the portion is filled with dramatic moments, the pivotal moment occurs at the burning bush. The bush was burning and unscathed (Exodus 3:3) as Moses takes note of this marvel. He turns aside, he seems to ‘change direction,’ as Rashi observes. Ibn Ezra says it is more than a physical change in direction or turning, but to ‘leave one’s place and go in another direction,’ implying that the moment goes beyond the material, signaling an emotional or spiritual change in direction. As we read the text, just like Moses, we stop and take note of this unusual sight, not quite fully aware that if he did not pause to look, neither would we, granting us an opportunity to change direction as well, allowing us to take in where we are and where we are going.

Here, too, we learn of the importance of names. The power and complexity of this moment is further intensified as God reveals another of God’s names: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ‘ but what does it mean? This is the name that is just beyond our grasp. Even as we think we understand, another interpretation reveals itself. It is the root of the never to be uttered name of the Eternal. This moment gives Moses the power to go forward, but what does it reveal to us. What is this name?

We are taught that every translation is an interpretation carrying with it a particular point of view. Is its meaning ‘I am that I am,’ a name that at first glance is impenetrable and monolithic, or is it something more elusive, even more mysterious, indicative of our ever-evolving relationship with the Source of all Being. Another translation is ‘I will be what I will be,’ thereby creating the sense of the elusive quality of the Divine, an interpretation that offers little comfort to those of us who are in immediate need of solace.

Everett Fox translates it, ‘I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.’ This translation/interpretation could resonate more deeply as it puts the onus upon us to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in the world. We, like Moses, are being asked to turn aside, to pay attention, and, if we do, possibly we will be able to recognize God’s presence in the world.

Ultimately this name, ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,’ is a prism through which we can understand God’s presence in the world and in our lives. It is a name that accepts us where we stand in relation to the Divine, and yet allows us to grapple with the enormity of God’s presence in the world. The work of reaching out to the Divine is ours. Recognizing God’s presence in our lives, may we be granted the ability to turn aside and to see.

Linda Shriner-Cahn is a rabbinical student at AJR.