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Limitations and Definitions

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Menachem Weiman

Every proper noun in the Torah has a meaning. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means boundaries. Consequently, we understand that the exile in Egypt, and subsequent Exodus, was all about boundaries and limitations. We weren't able to serve the Creator because we were enslaved. We were limited.

The Hebrew name of the second book of the Torah is not Exodus, but Shmot, which means "names." A name also limits something by defining what it is. But that type of limitation allows the object to fill its potential. When you know what a pen is, it helps you use it to its fullest capacity.

As a nation, the people of Israel lacked a "definition" - until the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. We were missing a true goal and purpose of existence. It was only when we were released from the physical place of boundaries and limitations - Egypt - were we able to receive our purpose.

This is not just a historical event, but a metaphor for all time. When you are able to release yourself from perceived limitations, you can access a higher purpose.

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Because the midwives in Egypt were willing to put themselves in danger to save the babies from death, they were rewarded with blessings. Also their accomplishments were blessed, as the children of Israel increased in number and strength.

Similarly, Moses took his life into his hands by killing an Egyptian taskmaster. The Torah highlights this character trait of Moses because it is an essential leadership trait. Many people act heroically as long as things turn out the way they want. But give them a setback, they will say, "I stuck my neck out once and got burnt. I'm not doing that again."

Moses noticed that the children of Israel were ungrateful and gossiped about his deed, which got him into trouble with the authorities. But instead of having a bad attitude, the next time he saw someone in trouble (the daughters of Yitro fighting for water at the well), he stuck his neck out again.

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When Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, saw baby Moses in the Nile, she knew there was no way to reach him. She wanted to save him but recognized her limitation. So she did something that makes no sense. She reached out for him anyway.

The verse says something superfluous: "She sent forth her maidservant to get the child." Maidservant in Hebrew is the same word as "her arm." The Midrash says that the verse means she sent forth her arm. What does this mean?

The Midrash explains that when Batya made the fruitless effort of stretching out her arm to retrieve a baby that was far out of reach, her arm miraculously extended and she was able to reach it.

On a prior occasion, God took Abraham outside, showed him the stars, and asked him to count them. Then God said, "So shall be your children." What did God mean by this? If he merely meant, as it seems, that Abraham would have many progeny, why the big drama of taking him outside and counting the stars?

Rabbi Noah Weinberg explains that when God told Abraham to go outside and count the stars, Abraham did just that. He went out and started to count, "One, two, three..." Of course it's a fruitless attempt - there are billions of stars! But if God said to do it, that's what Abraham will do.

God's blessing was "So shall be your children" - i.e. your progeny will be just like you. They will do the will of the Almighty, despite seemingly impossible physical limitations.

When Abraham did that, God gave him the ability to have a child, seemingly beyond Abraham's physical capabilities.

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Spiritual Exercise:

This week, look for opportunities to question your seeming physical limitations. Find an instance when doing the right thing involves some type of barrier, and try to do it anyway. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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