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Today's parshat, the first portion of Exodus, is called Sh'Mot, or Names. It begins with the names of the sons of Israel who went down to Egypt and then proceeds to tell the story of the women who  give birth and do the naming.

Israel was buried in the cave of Machpelah beside his first wife, Leah, in the previous reading (Yaychi). Israel was bequeathed his name, "He who strives with God," after literally and figuratively wrestling with the Holy One in large part over the choice of a wife.  

Back in the old days, he was named Jacob. He was tricked into marrying Leah, the eldest of two sisters, whom he did not favor because she had "weak eyes." While the Hebrew for "weak eyes" is unclear, I believe it means her eyes were often fuzzy because she was unusually thoughtful. Maybe she observed too much and perhaps even read, which women were not supposed to do. And being a sensitive soul, she probably cried.

In the Torah, God shows his love of specific women by giving them (and their handmaidens) children, and Leah (and her handmaiden) was blessed far beyond her younger sister. She elaborated on the names of each of her many sons with sayings such as "Now that I have borne him a son, maybe my husband will love me." Eventually, it became clear that Jacob was never going to love her. She named her (handmaiden's) last son, Asher, or "Fortunate," saying, "Happy am I because other women will call me blessed..." Leah had come to realize that, while she was not loved by her husband, her weak eyes were loved by God.

Rachel died in childbirth with Benjamin and was buried away from the family crypt, leaving Leah to raise the children. In the last chapter of B'reishit (Genesis), Israel's bones are returned to the cave of Machpelah and buried, along with all the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs, beside those of his first wife, Leah. Jacob wrestled with God over women, and God won.

In today's reading, Sh'Mot, we learn why it is important to choose thoughtful, introspective and God-Following wives.

The children of Israel have lived in Egypt for many years, and, despite harsh forced labor and poverty, their wives bear many children. Joseph's Pharoah has long since died. The new Pharoah comes to fear the children of Israel because they have become so numerous, and he orders their midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all male babies borne to Hebrew women. Interestingly, while he remains nameless, we are informed twice that the midwives are "God-fearing."

Pharoah is afraid of the the Israelites because of their fertility, yet he orders the death of the boys and not the girls. Presumably, he is afraid that males may form a rebel army. It is an odd fear for a supposed God. The women ignore him and continue to give birth. When he confronts Shifrah and Puah they confuse him with a play on words. They tell him, that unlike delicate Egyptian women, the Hebrew women are chayot, which can either mean "vigorous" or "wild animals," and that they give birth quickly before a midwife can reach them. They feed on Pharoah's prejudice. He already believes that Hebrew women are less than human. They tell him what he wants to believe.

Eventually, Yochevet, a Hebrew woman, gives birth to a son, Moshe. When he is three months old, she builds an "ark" (like Noah's) of reeds and pitch, and sets him afloat in the Nile. His oldest sister, Miriam, watches over him.  She sees Pharoah's daughter walking past in all her finery. Pharoah's daughter, who is named "Batya" (or "Daughter of God") in later commentary, stretches out her arm to take the baby from the river, fulfilling part of the prophecy, "God saves with outstretched arm." (According to some commentary, Batya was actually passing by on the other side of the river. Miraculously, when she reached out, her arm stretched and stretched.)

Regardless of arm-sizing, Batya defied her unnamed father and saved the boy. Miriam cleverly popped out from behind the reeds which hid her and offered to find Batya a wet-nurse. Batya accepted. Miriam returned with Yochevet, who raised Moshe until he was weaned at the age of three. Amram, Moshe's father, contributed little to this story other than his name. Miriam went on to become a prophetess, leading the Israelite women into the still unparted Reed Sea with song and dance while the men lagged fearfully behind.

Like Leah, the women in Sh'Mot had weak eyes. They saw far beyond the ends of their noses. They saw beyond Pharoah, fearing only God, and following God's command to "Be fruitful and mulptiply."

Later in the story, after Moshe runs to the wilderness, God appears to him within a burning bush. Moshe asks God his name and God answers Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, "I Am That I Am."

Fortune, existence and possibility are linked. Gaiety and beauty are not important. Wise men choose for their wives God-fearing women who defy arrogance, stupidity and egotism, and sometimes tell them what they don't want to hear.

Originally posted to TheFatLadySings on Fri Jan 13, 2012 at 06:02 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Elders of Zion.

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