The Birth of Moses


In our weekly return to another Torah portion, we search for perspectives and ways of reclaiming ancient stories and instructions so that they align with ever redefined and evolving contexts, spiritual practices and approaches to seeking God. I am especially struck and encouraged by the subtle ways in which the invitation for our own evolution and personal growth are offered to us, as students of the Parasha, in the first chapter of the story of the Exodus.

The book of Exodus as a whole tells the birth story of a people and their leader(s) and it begins at a very low point. An exploited and hurting people in slavery — whose fate seems to be sealed by the king’s decree of throwing every newborn son into the Nile — calls out to God in agony: “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

Amidst the hardship we come to witness the birth of a child, Moshe, whose arrival into the world is made possible and nurtured by sensitive, compassionate and resourceful women: Puah and Shifra, the Hebrew midwives who refuse to take part in the killing of babies, Yocheved and Miriam (Moses’ mother and sister), who fight, each in their own way, to keep their son/brother alive, and an Egyptian princess who refuses to put up with her father’s decree. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (Exodus 2:5-6)Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.”

Moses’ name “Moshe” is the simple present, 1st person singular state of the Hebrew verb “לִמְשׁוֹת”, meaning to “rescue”, “draw out”, “extricate” or “fish out”, as given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter. Along with Moses’ later experience, this name forever determines the person he is becoming. Notice how Pharaoh’s daughter’s choice for the child’s name means “I draw out of the water”, “I rescue”, “I extricate”, “I fish out” and not “I have been rescued”, “I have been extricated”, etc.

The German 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, not to be confused with Rabbi Samuel Hirsch, comments as follows on Moses’ name: Pharaoh’s daughter did not name the child “Mashuy”, for “the one rescued from the water” – but “Moshe” – the one who rescues from the water. Perhaps this alludes to the overall education the princess gave her adopted son and the profound impact Moses’ experience as an infant had on him, shaping his character from the dawn of his childhood. In naming her rescued child Moshe, Pharaoh’s daughter charges her child with the task to never forget his time of distress in the waters and his ultimate rescue from them. She asks for her child to be soft-hearted all the days of his life and attentive to the distress of others and to always be available to show up in times of need and be a “moshe” – the one who rescues, who draws another from the waters of distress.

In turning a past event (I have been rescued) into an ever-present, first person activity (I rescue), Moses’ name embodies an awareness for self-reflection, a permanent evaluation of his surroundings and a response to that which needs rescuing at any given moment. Moses’ leadership is that of improving the lives of those who surround him in the present moment, while being forever informed by his experience as an infant. In his name lies a transformation of a passive past experience to an active act of rescuing, extracting, drawing-out in the ever unfolding present.

And so do we, who identify as Reform Jews, forever evolve in our practice, the ways we pray to, connect with and speak about God, the ways we orchestrate rituals and liturgy, music and worship-flow. We do this while being informed by an ethical code of conduct and a set of values revealed to us generations ago, as we actively investigate and extricate its purpose, relevance and reinterpretation each moment anew.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, in his introduction to the collection of essays “A Life of Meaning – Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path,” suggests that “if we see divine revelation as a long-term process, we can see our religion as an organic entity that breathes and grows over the course of time. If our relationship with God can grow, our religious experiences can consequently change and our Judaism be transformed. As a sociological report on the Reform Movement put it a generation ago, “Reform” is a verb. That is why the name is Reform Judaism rather than Reformed Judaism.”

As we begin the book of Exodus, may we be like Moses, not just inspired by his humility and sense of justice but also by his name – a verb rooted in the presence, urging us to create and extricate, reform and draw out, rescue and heal each moment anew.