Shemot -- Exodus 1:1-6:1

facebook_coverdesign_shemotAs we open the Book of Exodus – which describes the founding of a nation and a collective religion we today call Judaism – let us consider the challenge that philosopher Peter Sloterdijk poses to our assumptions about the myth of religion's return in recent decades.

In You Must Change Your Life (2014), Sloterdijk argues that it is not religion that is returning, but a mode in which humans are practicing, training beings that create and re-create themselves through exercises and routine. In the course of this training, Sloterdijk writes, an individual human "transcends itself."

In making the case for the expansion of what Sloterdijk calls a "practice zone" for individuals as well as for society as a whole, new insights emerge about what he dubs the "self-formation" of all things human, both individual and collective, and the dynamism between those two. As individuals, we are interwoven into the collective and vice versa.

This sense of the individual intertwined within the collective could not be more evident than in this week’s opening section of the Book of Exodus, where the collective children of Israel are growing numerous and prospering generations after Joseph’s rise to become grand vizier of Egypt. Yet all that remains of their integration and elevation into Egyptian society are their individual names. What has happened to their collective "practice zone"? Still, names tell a story, even if one nearly forgotten.

It is precisely this prosperity and integration that now becomes perceived as a threat to their Egyptian overlords. In the process of Pharaoh’s enslaving the Israelites, he also orders the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah to kill all male babies by throwing them into the Nile.

If it was not for the righteous indignation of the midwives, Moses would never have come onto the scene. This child born to Yocheved, daughter of Levi, and her husband Amram, is placed in a basket along the Nile River. It is Pharaoh’s daughter who discovers the baby hidden in the basket while bathing in the Nile and names him Moses.

Fast forward to Moses fleeing the palace, finding his way to Midian, where he rescues Tzipporah, daughter of local chieftain and priest of Midian, Jethro. He later marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd of Jethro’s flocks. Moses continues to wander in search of the truth, finally encountering the divine in renowned theophany of the burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai.

As Moses and Aaron challenge Pharaoh’s recalcitrance to free the Israelites, the people hold fast to the hope that redemption is at hand. When we know the depth of our own name’s message, then perhaps our "practice zone" can re-emerge more boldly in the community within which we are all intertwined as a collective.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: If this week’s illustration calls to mind the facade of our remarkable sanctuary, good. But it’s also a straightforward rendering of an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph called a neb. The checkered pattern was used in the hieroglyph to show that the bowl-shaped basket was woven from reeds. Perhaps the same type of Egyptian basket was used to float Moses in this week's parsha? "[When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile's edge." (Exodus 2:3) From now on, when you look at the striking architecture of CBS, think ark, menorah, and neb! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.