Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Langner, Cantor Benny and Congregation Beth El,
The word Shmot, the book Shmot, everyone knows means in Hebrew, names. The rabbis tell us that all of life is identity making and that the first cause of selfhood is the name you hold. Our sages say that our parents name us, as with biblical names, by the express relationship to G-d that they have at that time in their life. So, too, is the infant named by their imagined dream that will be taken to the future for the whole family. So magical is the child’s name given with such love. We call G-d, Himself, Hashem, the Name. And Moshe has the same letters as that in his name, going the other way; Hey-Shin-Mem, Hashem, Mem-Shin-Hey, Moshe.
Thank you, Howard. We all need each other’s Torah to live by. Finding wisdom in G-d’s message is essential to Judaism; this dialogue with the Bible continues for our whole lives and in every century and place where Jewry resides. This sharing of divrei torah advances the dialogue; this keeps G-d within our world. Thank you for raising our synagogue to seeking G-d within our walls, within our lives
My mother’s mother’s family name was also Schwartz. My grandmother’s father, Adolf Schwartz, was a patron and an industrialist of the whole region near the Austrian border. His was an extremely religious family in which, I fear, very few survived. So in some mystical way, I have adopted Howard Schwartz into my family lore. It’s just that life is extremely personal to me.
Redolent love. Everybody knows that when you say “I love you” to another person, you are really saying, “Please say to me: ‘I love you.’” But I do say to you, Howard, and to the whole congregation, that I truly do love you.
Mother’s cattle-car to Auschwitz was different than all the others. They traveled three days, stymied and stuffed with a hundred people. She was with her grandfather Adolf, the leader of the Jewish community of the small town Sarvar, in Hungary, her mother, Teri, her five-year-old brother, Imre, her thirteen-year-old brother, David and her older sister, Edith, seventeen years old. And there were four pails in each corner of the cattle-car, put there so that everyone would embarrassingly relieve themselves. They only had the food and drink that they brought and one suitcase for each person. The train was long and slow and hot and steamy. Tears and terror came from the cars before them and after them. But their group was strangely calm. Why? Every car had the same question, the same puzzlement. Little Imre asked his grandfather, like the countless other children in the transport: “Where are we going?” The answer spread through the car with burning passion: “We’re going to Jerusalem, little child.” And everyone began to hum together, to sing, in their minds’ march to an opening sky: “We’re going to Jerusalem…” Thirteen-year-old David said to his grandfather: “No, Zaydie, we’re going to Mount Sinai.” That week, that Shabbas, was supposed to have been his bar mitzvah. Rather, he took his last breath in the gas chambers on his parsha. Then their mother said: “No, children, we’re going out of Egypt, where we’ll have our chapter in the Book of Exodus, Shemot. We will see G-d because He has heard us.” And so the discussion went, round and around the whole car of death. So went the study of the salvation that was coming.
For such calm, for such beauty, for such joy is a Jew to know: we are going to the Promised Land. So profound was this that in the chaos and the rupture and the lineup of being sent either directly to the gas chambers, or to life, my mother stood in line and when she arrived in front of Mengele, he asked her, “Do you have children?” because she was very tall and stately. She laughed at him and said, “Children? I’m a child myself.” My fifteen-year-old mother looked Mengele in the eye and, in perfect German, laughed at his question. He laughed himself, she told us, and pointed her to the line of the living. You have to have heaven’s chutzpah to look the Angel of Death straight in the eye and say, “I’m going to Jerusalem.” This attitude kept her through the horror, through thse death march; kept her until she came to Jerusalem three years later. Kept her keeping Shabbat in the latrines of Auschwitz and spreading the dream to everyone she met. To the kotel. People were healing each other through the nightmare.
The long march of anti-Semitism begins with this parasha. Pharaoh said,: “These people will be more than us.” Instead of admiring and welcoming them, he justifies a sanguinary evil, culling and killing all the male children he needs for his slavery and mastery. Though I do believe that he was right: we will be more than them. You can never draw logic or reason from an anti-Semite. G-d’s children have much more important things to pursue. We have all heard, over and over in our long history, the problem of the “Jews being greater than us.” The Torah says, rightly, that the more they oppressed us, the larger we grew. Not only in the fabrication of their imagination but in the true diminishment of their own character, because of their murderous preoccupation with the Israelites.
The most exciting and profound sentence in the history of life is found in this sedre. Moses asked G-d at the burning bush: “Who should I say You are?” G-d’s answer is: Eternity. G-d says: “I will be that I will be that I will be that I am. I am that I am that I am that I was. I was that I was that I am that I will be.” Every breath that anyone takes is an echo of G-d breathing this into us. The world was re-created in the knowledge of that instant. Ehyeh asher ehyeh. (Exodus 3:14.)
Also, the word asher – “I am that I was” – also means happiness. G-d knows everyone by the greatest happiness they have lived in their life. And so do you know G-d by that happiness. Pray that you sustain it into eternity. The letters of the word asher are the three middle letters of the word Israel. The remaining two letters are the yod and the lamed, the first and last letters of Israel. The three middle letters also spell out the word rosh, like in the word breishit, Genesis. Also in the word asher is the meaning, “I will sing.” We frighteningly see the word Sha’Ar Remnant in the word Yisrael and we know that all of us, any of us, are the remnants of this great and noble people. What we do with that defines everything. In all these mentions are the core meanings of existence and identity making. But we also notice the first and last letters of Yisrael, lamed and yod, which are missing in all of these examples. Together lamed and yud make the word “to me.” G-d says this in naming Jacob Yisrael, by choosing this slave people, the future of Jacob’s progeny, as his own at Sinai. He promises it in the next sedre. And that’s what it means in the Ten Commandments when the first commandment is not a commandment at all but an answer to this holy pasuk of 3:14. G-d says: “I am what I will be and We’ll always be together.” The first commandment says: “I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d. I am the Lord your G-d.” (Exodus 20:2.) And this is the breath that we take when we hold on to our past and as our past holds on to us now.
Let’s recap. Moshe brings his serpent/staff/shepherd’s crook to find G-d in the hidden bush. He asks G-d every question that’s ever been asked in the history of mankind. Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How many ( Are you?) The Holy One, G-d answers on the burning mountain in full exposure to the world: I………… You………………….and then He goes on to say in the next three commandments: you………………. Keep………….. honor……………These are the first five commandments of eternity. These are the eternal guideposts to the Almighty.
Many Jews see Pharaoh’s vitriol as the root story of our identity and history. Others see G-d’s revelation at Sinai at center. But most see both. I suggest to you the “Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh”. I will always be… Hashem’s sentence to Moshe will always carry and light up the world. We are not slaves, we are princes. At Sinai we are princes. Thank G-d. ‘let my suffering be for your sake.
Rebbe Itzchak of Berdichiv said that Moshe pleaded with G-d saying, “let my suffering be for your sake.” Zeide Adolf looked around and felt the tug of the train. He hushed to himself, “No my children, we are going to Jerusalem to the holy of holies, where the altar of Isaac was, the most courageous patriarch, where G-d is weeping. We’re going to console Kel Shadai and tell Him that we’ll never let Him go. There we will enter the highest and grander Eden al pi kidush Hashem.”
Yes, there were choking cattle-cars and breathless gas, but the Jew only hears G-d in the life of time.
We the remnants of majestic Israel long for the infinite breath of G-d in us.