In its first word and its first lines, the second book of the Torah conveys a sense of seamlessness with the previous book, Genesis, rather than a new beginning. "And," the opening word, indicates this is a recovery of a narrative that has already begun; the names that spill out of the first verses--the names of Jacob's descendants--reposition the reader with the same cast of characters that was left at the end of Genesis. These opening lines also remind us of the same form of text that characterizes Genesis, embedded as it is with long genealogies.
But there are more subtle evocations of Genesis as well. The story of the Israelites in Egypt that Shemot introduces is marked by the same benchmarks of "genesis" that mark the formation of mankind in Genesis. When we learn that the Hebrews were "fruitful and increased abundantly and multiplied" in Egypt, we are reminded of the first commandment, "Be fruitful and multiply," in the first chapter of Genesis.
And Pharaoh's decree, that all male Hebrew babies be cast into the waters, reminds us of the seemingly indiscriminate destruction of the Flood. And of course, Moses, like Noah, is rescued in an "ark," a "teyva" in Hebrew in both instances.
Finally, Moses, like Isaac and Jacob, will meet his wife at a well. The well of Genesis is revisited as a layered symbol representing spontaneous generosity between strangers and the intimate love between man and woman fated to flow from it.
But at the same time, the foreboding words in the early lines of Exodus, "And there rose a new king who did not know Joseph," drive home a sense of violent interruption. How things have changed since Joseph enjoyed his privileged status as Pharaoh's vizier and fed his brothers and father. This line communicates with poetic efficiency that the Hebrew-Egyptian symbiosis, in the passing of one generation, has gone terribly bad.
And this line sets off the dramatic events that crowd this portion: the improbable rescue of Moses from the decree of infanticide; Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush; and his first confrontation with Pharaoh. God's promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob finally becomes more palpable, more imminent.
The result is an astonishing reversal: Egypt, that iconic place of bounty, to which Abraham and Isaac and Jacob's sons all fled, is suddenly a place of exile and suffering.
Forever more, Egypt will be the embodiment of unethical behavior against which the Israelite law will be defined and clarified: "Love therefore the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19).
Moses, God's choice of the leader of the exodus, is key to this reversal.
The biblical rendering of its central hero--the subject of centuries of fascination evidenced in the midrash, scholarly studies, not to mention epic films--is remarkably reticent with the details of Moses' life.
Two verses tell us that his upbringing was shared between his Hebrew mother and his Egyptian surrogate-mother (Pharaoh's daughter), who willfully harbored a Hebrew child she knew, according to her own father's decree, was meant to die.
Otherwise, only one act of his life, performed as a young man, shapes our impression of Moses: when he comes upon an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he murders the Egyptian and hides the body. Both of these "hidings"--of Moses by an Egyptian and of the slain Egyptian by Moses--render Moses the simultaneous embodiment of the Egypt-Israel symbiosis and its failure.
If such a childhood could have made Moses feel at home in both of his mothers' worlds, Moses instead feels alien, perhaps more a stranger than the Hebrew slave who toils for Pharaoh.
In Midian, to which he escapes after killing the Egyptian, he names his first son Gershom, "a stranger there," saying, "I have been a stranger in a strange land." He was a stranger, that is, in Egypt.
Moses' anxieties about being God's chosen emissary result, in part, from this sense of estrangement. He is just as worried about being accepted as leader by the Children of Israel as he is about his ability to take on Pharaoh. Even though his brother Aaron becomes God's spokesman, God inexplicably retains Moses as His earthly proxy: "And he [Aaron] shall be to thee instead of a mouth, and thou shalt be to him instead of a God."
What's so necessary about Moses?
God's vision of how the exodus from Egypt will unfold demonstrates what Moses already sensed as a young man: "And I will stretch out my hand and I will smite Egypt," and Pharaoh "will drive them out," (which in Hebrew is "yigarshem," literally, "he will make them strange").
Even before Moses knew his divine calling, he intuited it: This is why he smote the Egyptian, and this is why he felt so estranged in his native Egypt. And this is what makes Moses God's chosen leader.
The last words of the Torah portion are, quite perfectly, "He will chase them out of his land"--"yigarshem m'artzo," literally, "He will make them strange from his land."
If the Israelites cannot sense that Egypt is not their land, such a feeling must be thrust upon them. But Moses felt it already. And, knowing its importance, Moses named his son Gershom, reminding us how names--Shemot (the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus)--can signify great beginnings.