Shemot – a Poem


While researching for my previous post, I came across this beautiful poem by Zelda. Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky (June 20, 1914 – April 30, 1984), widely known as Zelda, was an Israeli poet. I find this poem contributes to our understanding of the concept of name and hope you like it too.

Each of Us Has a Name

by Zelda (trans. Marcia Falk)

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

You can read more about Zelda on The Jewish Women Archive

Shemot – What’s in a Name?


Shemot is the name of this week’s Parashah; it is also the name of the second book of the Torah which we are about to start this week. The name Shemot follows the tradition of naming a book or portion after the first significant word – here ve’eleh shemot, ‘and these are the names’.

The name of the previous book, Bereishit (‘in the beginning’), seems clear. Bereishit deals with beginnings: the beginning of the world, of man, of a family, of a faith in a single God…

Does this mean that Shemot is about names? Sure enough, right from the start the parashah lists the names of the sons of Israel who came into Egypt with Jacob to join Joseph, all seventy members of Jacob’s family. Then things get more complicated.

– Soon the name of Joseph is forgotten in Egypt, although he had been Pharaoh’s right hand – ‘Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph’ (Shemot 1:8)

– We are given the names of the Hebrew midwives – ‘ the name of the one was Shiphrah, and the name of the other Puah’ (Shemot 1:15) – but the Midrash tells us that in fact they were no others than Yocheved and Miriam (Moses’ mother and sister).

– Pharaoh has no name and is always designated by his function: ‘a new king’ and Pharaoh.

– Moses is named by Pharaoh’s daughter (whose name we never learn) and whose name (to draw out) parallels the role he will play for God and the Jewish people

– Most important is the passage where Moses asks God about his name, and God answers:

And Moses said unto God: ‘Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them: The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me: What is His name? What shall I say unto them?’ And God said unto Moses: ‘I AM THAT I AM’; and He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel: I AM hath sent me unto you.’ (Shemot 3:13-14)

A name is a connector. When one has a name one can be called; their name makes them real. One of the first things people want to know when they hear of a birth is the name of the baby. Similarly, as a teacher, one of my first tasks is to learn the pupils’ names within a few days so as to be able to call them directly.

Pupils like to be called by their first names and hate it when I am wrong. Fortunately this does not happen too often but I vividly remember two such episodes. Once I got ‘Melody’ mixed up with ‘Harmony’. On another instance, I called a ‘Haicha’, ‘Fatima’. In both cases the girls were frustrated and expressed their discontent. We like to be remembered and acknowledege and being called by our name is part of the recognition process.

However God’s answer, i.e. the name he gives himself, is anything but straightforward. Commentators usually agree that a better translation of the passage quoted above is ‘I will be that which I will be.’ Interestingly, although it is the name God gives for himself, it is one we never use.

So is Shemot really about names? Isn’t it rather about identity, about who we are and who we choose to be? Our identity, both as part of the Jewish nation and as individuals, is never fixed forever. It can disappear or be forgotten but, as God’s name suggests, it can also change and evolve.

To Repeat Or Not To Repeat


אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן: בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת --וְדִי זָהָב

Last year after I suggested a riddle on Devarim, interesting comments came up concerning the two Hebrew names of the fifth book of the Torah, namely Devarim and Mishneh Torah.

Although Mishneh Torah literally means the repetition of the Torah, it is not really what this book is. A number of laws are omitted here (the laws of the Temple service for instance), others are new (the laws of divorce and yibbum – levirate – to state but a few) while others are expressed differently (Aseret ha-Dibrot or the Ten Commandments for instance).

So why this name?

In a lecture I listened to a couple of days ago, the speaker attempts to explain what Devarim is, or rather what is specific about this book.

Part of the answer is provided in the very first verse: “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan-that is, in the Arabah-opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab” as opposed to the expression found in previous books; “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe lemor. And Hashem said to Moshe”

Moshe was adressing a new generation of Israelites; people who had been born in the desert, who had not been present at Mount Sinai when their parents had received the Torah and but also people who were about to enter the land of Israel and put God’s words into action.

To quote Rabbi Sacks “Moses was preparing the Israelites for a new mode of existence”. Therefore this book reads like the first commentary of God’s laws as taught by Moshe Rabbenu himself.

I couldn’t help but notice that this very special distinct status is reflected in the very name of the book, Mishneh Torah. Mishneh (whose Hebrew letters are exactly the same as Mishnah) suggests the first commentary of the Torah and announces more commentaries to come while Torah reminds us that we are reading God’s sacred words, albeit in an unusual form.

As should still be the case today, a different audience implies different wording and emphasis. Thus Moshe is repeating what God had said previously but in a way that takes into account the people he is addressing; a lesson for teachers of all kinds.

Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim


קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

This week’s parshah is situated right in the middle of the Torah; we can therefore imagine that its themes and messages are central to Judaism.

Unsurprisingly two well-known verses are found in this portion:
– Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy. (Vayikra 19:2)
– Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Vayikra 19:18).

The first one refers to the mitzvot between man and God: religious discipline, studying God’s laws and obeying the commandments. The second one concerns those between man and man, especially loving our fellow being.

The correct equilibrium between the two is difficult. One may focus on spiritual development to the detriment of the people around them. Conversely it is also possible to care for the whole world while forgetting that one’s inner life is part and parcel of our human condition.

The parshah invites us to take the time this Shabbat to look into our lives and question our choices. It also reminds us that one commandment doesn’t go without the other and that in order to love our neighbor, we must learn how God teaches us to do it and trust his laws.



.וְדָל, לֹא תֶהְדַּר בְּרִיבוֹ

neither shalt thou favour a poor man in his cause.

This week’s parshah is packed with mitzvot and is a fine parshah to study if you wish to understand what Judaism is truly about in form and essence.
Thus you can’t fully understand the whole meaning and spectrum of these laws if you ignore the Oral Law and might quickly dismiss them as outdated; after all who owns a slave or even an ox nowadays?

A closer examination of the mitzvot will soon show you that numerous laws which are part and parcel of Jewish ethicq have derived from laws that were given to the Jewish people thousands of years ago. For more about this, check Rachel’s post.

One that particularly appeals to me as a teacher is found at 23:3. In the educational field I find that we often favor the “poor” (either literally or academically) to the detriment of other students with the disastrous effect that the latter find the system unfair with those who more or less respect the rules most of the time. In the end it makes them distrustful of both adults and the Law. Not exactly the kind of message a school is supposed to send.

I don’t mean that students with very particular circumstances should never receive special treatment but that, in the end, they should be helped to be held liable just like their peers. It is a narrow path for a school administration and for teachers but one that responsible grown-upss should feel it is their duty to follow.

Parshah Thoughts and Questions – Bo


I have had very little time to read about the weekly parshah but I have read an aliyah every evening.

It is a violent portion for our contemporary minds. The plagues get worse and worse until the ultimate one: the death of the first-born – even if we understand that Pharoah needs to be coerced into letting the Hebrews go. Somehow it is not as shocking on screen in The Ten Commandments as when it is read in the comfort of one’s home.Similarly when we read the Haggadah at Pesach it doesn’t quite seem so brutal as it is balanced by the ritual of split drops of wine to remind us that our rejoicing cannot perfect since the Egyptians suffered in the process of our liberation.

This is the questions that came to mind as I was reading. To be honest I have no idea what the answers are but some of you may.

– I wonder why the alyot at the beginning of this parshah are very short but get longer as we proceed.

– Another question I have in mind is why we read about the Pesach rituals approximately two weeks before Pesach.

Parshat Vayetze


וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב, מִשְּׁנָתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי

And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’

We all have or had dreams, especially as children and teenagers. Yet sometimes, as we grow older, we tend to look at our former dreams with benevolent nostalgia while we are convinced that realism dictates that we put them aside.

Whenever we are tempted to surrender youthful dreams and only see them as impractical hopes, we should remember Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s words:

The fact of the matter is that a person can dream when he’s asleep and can dream when he’s awake. But only the dreams that one dreams when he/she is awake can become transformed into the visions which change reality.

In this week’s parshah, when Yaakov wakes up from his dream, he realizes that God is everywhere around us, not just in our dreams and prayers – the most common interpretation of Yaakov’s dream is that it is an allegory of prayer.

May we be persuaded that we can move from dreams to visions and from visions to reality as long as we keep in mind that God is “everywhere around us”.

Last year’s parshah post: Emotion-Packed Parshah



לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

… that he may instruct his children and those after them to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…

In Judaism it is not enough to believe the right things, what matters is to do the right thing. Faith isn’t as important as deeds.

As Jews we are the people mentioned in this verse, the “those after them” this week’s parshah refers to. If we want to follow in Abraham’s footsteps and be his true heirs, we need to be more than “nice folks”. In his partnership with man, God expects us to make the right ethical choices.

Yet how are we to know what is “just and right”? The answer seems to lie in this very same verse, through instruction. We cannot rely on instinct alone. In the numerous commentaries that have been added to the Torah since it was given to us on Mont Sinai, we have a global navigation system that can help us accomplish this daunting mission.

Last year’s parshah post: Sacrifice Your Son?

Lekh Lekha


When we reach the story of Abraham, we have the feeling that we are approaching a completely new dimension in the relationship between God and man.

When God addresses Abraham and tells him to leave his land, He is addressing an individual, a man with a destiny – not just with a mission. This idea of a personal relationship between God and man is reflected in the first blessing of the Amidah where we say: God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob. We affirm that there is one God who has a unique relationship with each and every one of us – just as He had a special relationship with the patriarchs, starting with Abraham.

The weekly parshah reminds us that, even if God doesn’t ask us to leave our land, we sometimes need to reconsider our spiritual journey and thus our unique bond with God. Like Abraham we are encouraged not to take everything for granted, to leave behind external influences and try and understand what God expects from us as unique individuals.

Last year’s parshah posts: Go to Yourself and Lekh Lekha: Israel and the Nations