Parashat Sh’mot 5783

11 January 2023 – 18 Tevet 5783

Rabbi Alexandra Wright


‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’, wrote Joan Didion, writer and unsparing observer of contemporary American politics and culture, who died just over a year ago in December 2021. ‘We look for the sermon…for the social or moral lesson…We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.’

According to reports, 45,728 are believed to have crossed the English Channel to the UK in small boats in 2022, all hoping and praying that the journey on which they had set out would be one of freedom and deliverance. Too many have lost their lives on that journey – babies, children, women and men, who drowned in the freezing waters, four people just last month in December 2022.

This Shabbat, we begin reading the Book of Exodus, the story we tell ourselves again and again of how our people, the Jewish people, set out on a journey on a night long ago and crossed the sea from enslavement to freedom. We tell ourselves stories in order to live; we look for the sermon, for the social or moral lesson. We were slaves in Egypt and God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And the lesson we learn is about the iniquity of slavery, the heinous crimes of tyranny and power abused and to let the oppressed go free.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live and to enable others to live freely, but also with responsibility. The Hebrew name of the book we begin reading this Shabbat is not ‘Exodus’ but ‘Sh’mot’ – ‘Names’: Eleh sh’mot b’ney Yisrael ha-ba-im mitzraymah et Ya’akov, ish u’veyto ba’u – ‘These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household.’

We name things to make sense of the universe, to create order, to exert power and we name our children to endow them with their unique identity and in the hope that they will fulfil the potential of what their name means. Jacob’s sons are each named in the first chapter of the book to remind us that this is not an amorphous mass of people, their identities erased by the cruelty of slavery, but a family who escaped famine and suffering to live in a foreign country, a people with a past, who came to seek hope for themselves, their children and grandchildren.

How important then to discover the names of those who died in the sea. How vital to learn where they had come from, whether from Iraqi Kurdistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt or other places, and how essential to know the stories of each of their lives.

To name them is to ensure that their lives are not forgotten, their stories do not remain untold. Because there is a sermon, a social and moral lesson in naming them and telling their stories. For this is the story that we tell ourselves at Pesach – when long ago, one night, a people, our people, set out on a journey, all but crushed by their enslavement, they crossed the Sea and headed through the desert for the Promised Land.

Who will tell the story of these children and adults who did not make it across the sea? Where are the future generations to retell this story?

We must take on that responsibility to tell their story of a broken journey, to call out their names and to declare never again. Never again, shall a child or woman or man lose their life in the treacherous and dark waters of the sea. Never again, shall we allow the callous, greedy trafficker to risk the life of even one passenger.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live; in order to learn from tragedies such as these, in order to wrest from loss of life a moral lesson that teaches us that every individual human life is precious and sacred, that we must carry the memory of those individuals, mourn their deaths, and honour their lives by ensuring that no one, not one individual, child, woman or man must lose their life in their bid for freedom from poverty, oppression or fear, and in their desire to live the life they choose with responsibility and love.


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