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Parashat Shemot

December 23, 2010

By Hazzan Marcia Lane

In 2007 the Jewish world lost a giant by the name of Alfred J. Kolatch. He was a rabbi, but didn’t always use his title. He was also the author of more than 25 books, including The Jewish Book of Why and The Jewish Child’s First Book of Why, but for many of us he is best known and loved for having written The Complete Dictionary of English and Hebrew First Names. It was first published as The Name Dictionary in 1967, revised in 1984, and is so universally respected that it has a place on virtually every rabbi’s, cantor’s, and shul library’s shelves, and is simply called “The Kolatch.”

I was named for my maternal grandfather, Michael, and for my maternal great-aunt, Leah. Then there is a story – family folklore, really – that says that when I was born my father, z”l, looked at me and decided, “That child is going to need a stage name.” That’s why my middle name is ‘Lane.’ Little did he know that my stage name would become my bimah name. I’ve always had mixed feelings about my name. Very few people pronounce my first name the way my parents intended, and “Lane” seems rather bland to me now. When I was ordained as a cantor I seriously considered re-claiming the family name, Rabinowitz. Names matter.

This week’s parashah is called Shemot – names – because it lists the names of all the members of Jacob’s family who went down to Egypt. Actually, this book of the Torah could have started in Bereishit (Genesis), ch. 46:8, which begins with the exact same words: “v’eleh shemot b’nei Yisrael ha-ba’im Mitzraimah…” – “These, then, are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt.” In the earlier passage these words introduce a serious genealogy. At the beginning of the book of Exodus the same words serve as a touchstone to push the story past that generation and into the future.

In this parashah we will meet the person with the most frequently cited name in the whole of Torah, Moses. We will also meet Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings. This parashah is the set-up, the beginning of the story that will take us through the rest of Torah. These names come to symbolize what I think of as three core aspects of Judaism: Legal or political learning (Talmud and halakhah/law), sacred public ritual (services, communal prayer, shared rituals), and spiritual/creative (Jewish music, art, meditation, etc.). This triumvirate forms the basis for Jewish life and learning for me.

According to The Kolatch, Moses (Moshe) bears a name that can be derived either from the Egyptian “son” or the Hebrew “drawn from the water.” As the political leader of the people, Moses is primarily defined by his role as the lawgiver. Moses is distinguished by his ability to lead, cajole, arbitrate, and motivate this unruly mob of people.

Although God speaks to and through Moses, and despite the fact that Moses certainly has an intimate relationship with God, his brother Aaron is the appointed spiritual leader, the high priest of the people. His name can be translated as “mountain” or “shining.” He and his children and the other members of the clan of Levi are responsible for making ritual sacrifices in the appropriate fashion, and through this service they represent the connection between God and the people. Miriam, whose name can be translated as ‘bitter sea’ or ‘rebellious’ is the artistic, creative member of the trio. She is the singer-prophetess, the water-douser, the dancer. Torah doesn’t tell us, but I tend to doubt that she had a married life with 2.4 kids and a dog. No, Miriam was mercurial, changeable as water, a visionary.

“Eleh shemot” – these are the names. These are the names of the people who will define Jewish concerns to this very day. Laws and commandments, the desire to draw close to God, and innovative, creative engagement with our traditions. Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam are the names of the people who will lead us out of Egypt and all the way to the 21st century.


Hazzan Marcia Lane received cantorial semikhah from AJR in 2004. She has served Conservative congregations in New York and New Jersey, and is currently a rabbinic student.