Shemot by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Weekly D'var Torah Shemot

Shemot (שמות)
Torah: Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah (A): Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22 – 29:23
Haftarah (S): Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

I can’t believe it gets so hot, out here in the desert. I remember how cool it was, and how the breezes blew, when I was living in Pharaoh-My-Father’s palace—the long drapes of Nile Cotton which swayed gently in the wind—and, even on hot, sultry days, when the hamseen-winds blew in from the desert, and the sand blew in through the open windows, there were plenty of servants to wave peacock-feather fans in every corner, and keep a steady breeze blowing. Meanwhile, we would lie on our chaise longues, while other servants would bring us tall glasses of sherbet made from ice brought hundreds of miles from the distant mountains of Africa, and our every drink of water was frosted from that same ice….

How I wish I had a sip, just a cool sip, of ice, now!

But I lost it all—for one, foolish act. Yes: I had to go and play the hero. I saved a man’s life, and I didn’t even know his name. And I killed another man—not that he didn’t deserve to die! God-of-my-fathers, strike me dead, if I had let that scoundrel, that thick-necked, yellow-head-dressed, loudmouthed oaf of a taskmaster beat my brother Israelite for one-more-minute!

Let me tell You the whole story, God of my fathers—though I am certain that You know it all, for You have read my mind about this, and You see all that happens on this earth, from Your abode in the skies, and You laugh at us: You hold us in derision, as my father, Amram, used to tell me, before the Pharaoh’s police came, to arrest him for working for our freedom, and he had to run away, and was never seen again….

I am Moses—my name means—what? Our wise men say it means, “drawn out of the water,” for my sister Miriam, May You bless her, saved my life, when I was but a babe, and my mother Yocheved put me in a wicker basket, and sailed me down the Nile River, for the Pharaoh Ramesses II, afraid of the growing population of our people, had decreed that all babies were to be slain by being drowned in the Nile….

And so, I was raised by both the Princess of Egypt, who was childless and adopted me, and by my birthmother, Yocheved, whom Miriam fetched at the Princess’s command, to be my wetnurse. What a perfect match! (Though they quarreled, doubtless, about whether I was to be Egyptian or Hebrew, which made me forever suspicious of women, and their power over me)

But I grew up in the Palace, a happy little princeling of Egypt, and was even dandled in the Pharaoh’s lap a time or two by my hardly-doting Royal Grandfather Ramesses, along with my dozens of equally-royal half-brothers and sisters….

Until that fateful day when I emerged from the Palace, blinking in the Heliopolis sunlight like some Royal Mole, to see what my Outside World looked like—and it was a shock.

I saw an entire people—MY people, as Mama Yocheved whispered to me that evening—enslaved as human animals might be, used to build monuments for the Greater Glory of Egypt, and exploited by a tall, uncaring, unfeeling, bull-necked, long-nosed tyrant—who was my father.

That second day, I went out, but not the naïve fool I had been the day before. I was dressed like the Egyptian nobleman my Princess adoptive mother intended me to be, but, in my heart and brain, I was pure Hebrew. And I was angry; my hands and muscles trembled, that’s how angry I was. I was like a tiger or lion that my Pharaoh-father, the evilest wretch on the top of the power-pyramid, had once led us to hunt cornering that noble beast as he now had my majestic people cornered. And I was determined to free them all myself—foolish young man that I was.

It didn’t take long before I rounded the corner of a half-built pyramid, would-be monument to the megalomanic building-disease of Ramesses, that I saw the two: an Egyptian taskmaster, all brawny muscle piled on a frame of ridiculously tiny bandy legs, with a minuscule marble-sized head on top, adorned with a bright-yellow headdress, all agleam in the sun. He was shouting—screaming, really, at the top of his lungs—at a small, huddled form on the ground, vainly trying to protect his head, his vitals, his—everything.

“Get up,” whispered the Taskmaster, shifting his cat-o’-nine-tails to his other hand, “you scrawny little Hebey-boy, and pick up that pallet o’ mud-bricks, or, I swear by the rays of Ra, I’ll make you eat them, muddy brick by muddy brick. Get UP!”

And the dreadful whip, already full of bits of the Hebrew’s flesh, swished through the air, and I could hear the Hebrew slave’s weak “Oh!” as it connected with his shoulder. Then, there was nothing but incoherent sobbing. And the Taskmaster began to laugh. He raised the whip again—

“What the—?” the over-muscled ape cried out, for I had caught his whip-hand in my own, and was bending it backward. “Ow! Let go, you—“

I did not—I kept bending it, thanking silently Djerby, the Royal Wrestling-Master, who had taught me how to flank-attack an enemy. I continued to bend; the Taskmaster was forced to bend, as well. And soon, I was happy to hear a satisfying snap! as the brute’s forearm broke in half.

“That will send you to the House of Aescalepius, certainly.” I said, letting go of his arm. He said nothing, but only dropped to his knees, muttering imprecations, but mostly whimpering.

That was my blow for the freedom of my people—but what was the result? Nothing; less than nothing. I had thought it would lead to a mass movement by my people, to resist Pharaoh and take up arms—picks and shovels, or, at least, refuse any further forced labor, but I was wrong. The Israelites’ spirit was broken by years of bitterness and disappointment; all they had left were a few cloudy memories of brighter times in the days of their forefathers and the Joseph Viziership. That era was not to return, though I had had some foggy notion of bringing it back. What did I know? I was a child in experience, though a man in size.

Instead, Datan and Aviram turned me in, and the Egyptian Secret Police came after me, almost the next day. I was forced to flee for my life.

Luckily, I survived a death-dealing trek through the desert—again, my sister Miriam risked her life to get me some maps from the Egyptian Topographical Office—and Brother Aaron escorted me through the Israelite Work Camps.

It was bittersweet to hug them both goodby—

“Who knows when we shall meet again?” I asked them both, as Aaron and I hugged, and I kissed my brilliant, beautiful older sister’s hand. Though nearly twenty-five, she was not yet married, and only laughed when Aaron and I teased her about it:

“Who would marry an old maid like me?” she laughed, “Besides, I believe that He-Who-Is is planning a job or two for a woman prophet, and I don’t want to be burdened down with babies, when He calls me.”

“Let me stay, and help with the rebellion!” I pleaded with them, “I should be the leader. The fat-necked Ramesses—who knows him the way that I do?”

Aaron shook his head: though barely into his twenties, his beard already had some gray in it, and he used to enjoy going off by himself, and meditating. When I asked him about it, he said, “I’m just thinking about God, and wondering if there is something I might be doing for Him, in the future.”

“No, Brother Moses, you run away, now,” said Miriam, and Aaron nodded. “You will do us no good rotting away in Pharaoh’s prisons—that’s what happened to Great-Great-Grandfather Joseph, and God may not cause a miracle, this time. Go off into the desert, as did Father Abraham; God will find you, there.”

And so, I came to Midian, but no miracle has taken place. I am son-in-law to Jethro, High Priest of Midian. He’s a kindly old duffer, and my bride Zipporah is a beauty and smart, too, but no miracle has taken place. Instead, I spend my days chasing goats and sheep from oasis to oasis….

But what’s that smell? Oh, nothing but a bush on fire; happens all the time…. Still, that little lamb is getting too close! I best go rescue it; can’t afford to bring it back to Poppa Jethro as roasted lamb chops….

The bush is certainly burning hard and fast, though….


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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