Shemot: Memory as consciousness

Rabbi Dale Schreiber


This week we begin the Book of Exodus. It has other names as well. In Hebrew it is referred to as the Book of Names (Shemot). During the ninth century, it was called the Second Book as commentators saw it as an extension of the Book of Genesis. In the thirteenth century, Nachmanides referred to it as the Book of Redemption because the ancient Israelites, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, were redeemed from living as an Other, as outsiders who posed a threat to a dominant culture.

Two weeks ago, as part of the Joseph narrative, Jacob’s family is rescued from a terrible famine and emigrates  – or as the tradition describes it – descends -into Egypt. On the way, Jacob has a night vision in which God states that Israel (the Patriarch and Israel the people) would not be abandoned. The portion ends with a statement; “and Israel (the Patriarch) took hold, was fruitful, and grew exceedingly large. Exodus begins with the idea that over time a new monarch rose to power who had no conscious recollection of the redemption that a Jewish Joseph brought to Egypt. It was our Joseph, after all, who strategically planned the response to a widespread, protracted famine.

Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th Century, Lithuanian born, French, Jewish philosopher wrote that memory is consciousness. Levinas was a prolific writer who, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, focused on this concept of Other and how a person or a nation relates responsibly to challenging differences. He wrote about those differences as opportunities, and, over time, his philosphy flipped the Greek and Jewish value concepts of loving wisdom, justice, and knowledge into the wisdom of love, justice, and knowledge which can be lived concretely in the soul of freedmen. In other words, he took the big action out of the head and planted it in the physical world of interpersonal relationships.

The flow of the biblical story at the end of Genesis into the opening story in the Book of Exodus is part of Jewish conscious memory about our dependence upon the Other. In the Joseph narrative, Pharaoh is the Other who makes Jewish survival possible. In this week’s Torah portion when Moses escapes into the wilderness, it is a Midian Yitro (Jethro) who is the Other who shelters, embraces, and affirms Moses’ mission in life. It is the Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Puah and an Egyptian princess, who redeem and rescue our continuity. It is Moses’ Midian wife Tzippora who acts on behalf of our tradition in entering their son into the covenant of circumcision.


In this segment of our sacred story, Jewish survival is made possible through the efforts of men and women who, with great consciousness, acted justly, took personal risks, and chose difficult paths. Judaism stresses the concept of free will, and while the commentaries on Torah often stress the retrospective analysis of G!d’s presence in the outcome of Jewish survival, here in Shemot, the rescues are a testimony to human goodness in the face of adversity.

Levina writes memory is a consciousness in which some story stirs, giving the present it’s meaning. I am very grateful to have stirred a memorable story which affirms that we Jews have not travelled all this way without the help of good people in every generation. Many of their names are lost to conscious memory, but their actions have made manifest the wisdom of love.

D’var Torah

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is an Oncology Chaplain and the Jewish Care Coordinator at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.