Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Introduction to Sefer Shemos
Sefer Berashis, also referred to as Sefer Ha’yetzira (book of creation of the world and of the nation of Israel) deals with the theme of bechira —the Divine selection process for founding of the Nation of Israel that is tasked with representing Him and sanctifying His Name. Sefer Berashis is God’s master plan. The Torah describes God’s…
o Choosing the Patriarchs
o Making a Covenant with them
o Guaranteeing them of a nation and a land
o Selecting Yaakov’s children as founders of the nation
Sefer Shemos, also referred to as Sefer Ha’geulah (book of redemption), can be understood as the first stage in the implementation of this Plan. God’s covenantal promise to Avraham during the bris bein habsarim was that his offspring would be redeemed from bondage in a foreign land. Their Exodus from Egypt is to be followed by their receipt of special laws (Torah) that they must keep and building of the Sanctuary (Mishkan) as a reminder that He dwells in the nation’s midst. The stage is set for the nation’s inheritance of their homeland in the Land of Israel.
The Sefer can be divided into five parts :
• Stories of oppression, enslavement and Redemption
• Journey to Sinai; receipt of the Torah; listing of some of the civil laws and judgments contained therein
• Directions for building the Sanctuary (Mishkan)
• Golden Calf incident and subsequent Revelation of God as the All-Merciful
• Construction of the Sanctuary
Starts with the history of the Hebrews in Egypt—our servitude, our redemption by God as promised to Avraham Avenu
Continues with the Exodus and splitting of Reed Sea, accompanied by miraculous cloud cover and pillar of fire
Peaks with the awesome defining Mt. Sinai experience that unified us and created an everlasting relationship with God
Depicts the Golden Calf incident that nearly destroyed this relationship
Describes Moshe’s efforts on behalf of the nation to seek Divine forgiveness
Reports on the new Covenant with God that emphasizes His Merciful Attributes
Concludes with the building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan, its vessels and the priestly garments that used gold extensively in atonement (per some) for the sin of the Golden Calf
Overview of the Parsha
Beginning of the Egyptian exile
Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites
Pharaoh decrees that all new born Israelite males must be killed at birth
Midwives Shifra and Pu’ah defy Pharaoh’s decree, explaining that the Hebrew women are skilled and deliver before the midwife arrives
Pharaoh decrees that all baby boys be cast into the Nile River
Yocheved defies the decree and gives birth to a baby boy whom she conceals for three months then hides in a small basket that she places at the edge of the Nile River
While preparing to bathe in the Nile, Pharaoh’s daughter sees then inspects the basket and realizes that it is a Hebrew baby boy inside
Pharaoh’s daughter accepts the offer of Yocheved’s daughter Miriam (who has been hiding among the reeds to see what would become of her brother) to arrange for a Hebrew mother to nurse
After being nursed by his mother, the child is brought to Pharaoh’s daughter who raises him as a son and who names him Moshe because “I drew him from the water”
Moshe grows up
Moshe kills a cruel Egyptian taskmaster whom he sees beating up a fellow Hebrew
Moshe escapes to Midian where he…
o Eventually marries Zipporah, daughter of a local sheik
o Starts a family
o Shepherds his father-in-law’s flock
God recalls His Covenant
The burning bush incident
God directs Moshe to go to Pharaoh to tell him that he will lead the children of Israel out of Egypt
Moshe initially declines but then accepts God’s mission
God provides a skeptical Moshe with signs to show the Hebrews:
o A staff that becomes a snake then again becomes a staff
o Moshe’s hand becomes blanched like snow when he puts it into his bosom, then returns to normal when he places it inside his bosom a second time
o Water from the Nile River that turns to blood
God alerts Moshe to the resistance he can expect from Pharaoh because He “shall toughen his heart” i.e., make him intellectually resistant to change. Also, moral depravity may become irreversible
At an Inn on the way to Egypt, Moshe almost dies as a punishment for his failure to circumcise his son
Moshe, with his older brother Aharon and the Elders, tells the Hebrews of their forthcoming redemption by God
The people believe and prostrate themselves on the ground in gratitude
Pharaoh rejects God’s demand that he send the Israelites into the wilderness so they can worship Him
Pharaoh accuses Moshe and Aharon of preventing the Hebrew slaves from doing their assigned work
Pharaoh orders that no straw (necessary raw material for making bricks) be supplied to the Israelites without any reduction in their daily brick production quota
Moshe complains to God about the deteriorating situation
God’s reassuring response is “Now you will see what I do to Pharaoh! For with a mighty hand he will send them out and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land”
When Did the Exodus Saga Occur?
Following is an outline of ancient Egyptian history :
Old Kingdom-- first ten dynasties of pyramid-builders ending 2500 B.C.E.
Middle Kingdom-- eleventh to seventeenth dynasties ending 1587 B.C.E., during which Hyksos (Bedouin invaders) ruled Egypt. They were expelled by the founder of the eighteenth dynasty in 1587 B.C.E.
New Kingdom continues to the end of the twentieth dynasty in 1100 B.C.E.
Yosef served one of the Hyksos kings during the Middle Kingdom. In 1570 B.C.E., not long after Yosef’s death, the Hyksos were overthrown, driven back to Asia and replaced by a native ruler. Their association with the Hyksos caused the Hebrews to lose their one-time favored position. The rulers of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties condemned the Hebrews to cruel slave labor. They were forced to be bricklayers and to build huge and magnificent Egyptian monuments.
Some scholars think the Pharaoh in the Exodus story was the vain and boastful Ramses II (reigned either 1279-1213B.C.E. or 1300-1234 B.C.E. or 1347-1280 B.C.E.) and that when he died, he was succeeded by his obstinate and vain despotic son Merneptah—who made his ruthless oppression of Israel the status quo.
Others connect the Exodus story with the religious revolution of Ikhnaton (1383-1365), a man hated by the people as a heretic king who reformed the barbarism of Egyptian and put a kind of monotheism in its place. Ikhnaton (meaning “Glory to the Sun”) abolished the deities of the Egyptian Pantheon and devoted himself exclusively to the worship of the sun. But his reformation was a failure and he was ultimately branded as a criminal. His innovations were abandoned by his son-in-law Tut-an-khamen who succeeded him. When the native religions were restored, the Hebrews suffered persecution and degradation.
Still others speculate that Thotmes III (1503-1449 B.C.E. or 1479B.C.E.-1425 B.C.E.) was the ruling Pharaoh and that the Exodus took place in 1446 B.C.E. The Exodus and the ensuing events gave rise to the apparent monotheism of Ikhnaton a century later.
The regal appellation “Pharaoh” (“pr-A” in early Egyptian), which means “Great House”, appears in the Torah some 274 times, about half in the Exodus story and a third in the Yosef narrative.
Biblical scholar Dr. Shirley Ben Dor Evian discusses whether the “Pharaoh” in the Torah refers to a specific Egyptian leader or whether it is a generic tittle for any leader of Egypt. In ancient Egypt, the king was believed to have divine rights and legitimacy and the most common expression of these powers was in his titles. Over time, the Egyptian King was known by five different names. But starting in the New Kingdom, the name “pr-A” (“pharaoh “) became part of the title of a person who was king. The term “Pharaoh” alone became a frequent reference to the actual king only during the 8th-7th century B.C.E.
Since the Egyptian practice of using this title instead of the real name only started in the eighth century B.C.E, the Torah narrative “does not reflect second millennium [i.e,2000 through 1001 BCE] practices but reflects, at the earliest, a late monarchic horizon”.
A Parsha of Firsts…
• Anti-Semite (Pharaoh), who is troubled by the mere presence of the Hebrews
• Act of civil disobedience -Midwives Shifra and Pu’ah refusal to obey Pharaoh’s decree to kill newborn boys
• Holocaust. Pharaoh’s cruel, brutal and merciless imposition of slavery and forced labor is followed by partial genocide (boys only). He goes to extremes and behaves irrationally, setting himself up as the role model for even more intense and even more excessive Nazi oppression and ruthlessness.
• Israel is referred to as a nation
• Expression chatan damim (bridegroom of blood) is used in conjunction with circumcision
Saved by the Women…Again (“It Was to the Merit of Pious Women that Israel Owed its Redemption in Egypt”)
o Non-Hebrew (either Egyptian or members of a non-Egyptian lower-class sect living in Egypt) midwives Shifra and Puah defy Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn boys as soon as they are born
o Yocheved disobeys Pharaoh’s decree to throw all newborn boys into the Nile and, for three months, hides her son (later to be named Moshe)
o Moshe’s sister Miriam stands guard near the edge of the Nile bulrushes where her mother has hidden her baby in a small tayva (wicker basket or chest or ark used by Egyptians for enshrining images of gods). The tayva offers a thematic analogy with the Flood story, notes Professor Umberto Cassuto. In both sagas one worthy of being saved is rescued from death by drowning to bring salvation to others. The Flood story involved saving humanity; this story involves saving God’s chosen nation.
o The daughter of Pharaoh (possibly named Bitya) strolling near the Nile takes the tayva, and upon realizing the child is a Hebrew, agrees to Miriam’s suggestion to have a Hebrew woman nurse the baby. After the period of nursing ends, the baby is brought to the royal court and adopted by the princess. She has the deep passion for the helpless child and the courage to raise Moshe as her own in the home of her father who plotted the destruction of the Hebrew nation. Could Hitler’s daughter do the same?
o Moshe’s wife Zipporah saves his life by circumcising their first-born son Gershom
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that, historically, women were excluded from the “crown of priesthood” and the “crown of kingship”, both of which were built on dynastic succession. But they were not excluded from the “crown of Torah”. There were prophetesses. There were great women Torah scholars from the Mishnaic period to today. Some leaders have no official position but are turned to for advice and looked up to as role models: “wherever leadership depends on personal qualities and not on office or title, there is no distinction between women and men.” The heroines of the exodus “were leaders not because of any official position they held. They were leaders because they had courage and conscience. They refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance…their courage is still a source of inspiration today.”
The Charitable and Noble Actions of Pharaoh’s Daughter
She is walking along the Nile River with her maidens when she sees the basket among the reeds and instructs her maidservant to retrieve it. The Talmud suggests that it was not her maidservant that took the basket. Rather, “her arm miraculously lengthened” so that she could reach the basket herself.
All of Egypt was engaged in a frenzy of killing new born baby boys. The maidservants were fully aware of the risk of non-compliance and may have refused to follow her instructions…and even advised Pharaoh’s daughter not to do something prohibited by her father. What the Talmud is describing is a person who extended herself to do the morally right thing despite the possible danger to herself. This behavior is poetically portrayed as her hand having become extended.
The Name Moshe
“… she called his name Moshe…because “meshesehu” of the water”. The name Moshe and the word meshesehu are similar sounding. It’s possible that Yocheved, his mother, is the “she” that gave him this Hebrew name. But most commentaries think that the name is of Egyptian origin and it was the Egyptian princess who named him:
The name Moshe is a translation from Egyptian into Hebrew. Alternatively, the princess may have been versed in Hebrew or may have inquired about the Hebrew equivalent of “I drew him out of the water”
In the Egyptian language moshe means “son” and the Torah phrasing communicates that “he became to her as a son” . Robert Alter agrees that the name Moshe is “an authentic Egyptian name meaning ‘he one who is born’” [i.e., son].
The name Moshe comes from the Egyptian mo (water) and uses (drawn from). Some say Moshe was an Egyptian name.
Moshe is a Hebraized Egyptian word that means “child of the Nile”. [Mo literally means “water” but stands metaphorically for “seed” or “child”; and shae meaning a pond or lake or expanse of water and is applied here to the Nile.] …Rav Adin Steinsaltz notes that the wordplay seems to exist in both Hebrew and Egyptian, except that in the Hebrew the name Moshe is related to the act of drawing while in the Egyptian, the name focuses on the water itself.
Moshe Needed to be Raised in the Egyptian Court So That He would…
Gain insight into Pharaoh’s mind and thought process
Maintain his strength for leadership, something he could not have done had he been an exhausted slave
Earn the respect of his fellow Israelites when he speaks to them, something he might not have had were he to have been raised among them
The Man Moshe
Moshe was an extraordinary individual yet a man like other men with all-too-human weaknesses. He was not to be deified.
A little kid from the flock he was tending escaped and reached a pool of water. Moshe ran after it and, realizing that the kid must be thirsty and tired, carried it back to the flock. God said: “Because you showed much mercy, you will tend my flock Israel”. (Midrash)
“because he went out to his brethren and identified with them, Israel is forever identified with him…” (Midrash)
“…saying precisely what he thought and performing such actions that were consistent with his words…” (Philo)
: “…was far ahead of his years. His wisdom and charm were such that they would have honored a much older man.” (Josephus)
“…he passionately loved order…he longed for the spiritual, the pure and the holy.” (Thomas Mann)
“The most solitary and the most powerful hero in Biblical history…After him nothing else was the same again.” (Elie Wiesel)
Moshe Is Obsessed with Battling Injustice Wherever it is Found
Clearly, Moshe knew that he was not the biological son of the Egyptian princess who raised him. No doubt he learned of his roots in the home of his real biological mother who had been retained by the princess to nurse him. When he leaves the palace to go for a walk, he sees an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew. The Netziv understands the text to mean that the man was being beaten just because he was a Hebrew.
Moshe looks “here and there” (searches within himself about what to do/considers the situation) and “he saw no man was there” meaning...
That no good would come from the Egyptian or
That there could be no justice or
There is no one to complain to about the corrupt taskmaster or
There is no one who is man enough to come to the defense of the fellow Hebrew.
So, he avenges the injustice, kills the Egyptian and buries him. [The Torah offers no opinion about the ethics of this action but a Midrash describing Moshe’s conversation with God at the end of his life as he tries to delay an imminent death has God responding, “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”]
The next day he attempts to intercede in a fight between two of his fellow Hebrews, only to be castigated by one of the parties who says “do you plan to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Fearing for his life, he flees some 300 miles away to Midian (whose residents were considered kinfolk by the Hebrews). There, at a watering well, he battles several bully shepherds who are harassing the seven daughters of the local sheik (or priest) named Yisro. He settles down, marries Zipporah, one of Yisro’s daughters, and pursues life as a shepherd, his ancestors’ mode of living.: “The one who was spared slavery returned to the free and fresh atmosphere of the patriarchs.” (Martin Buber)
At the Burning Bush
Moshe is tending the sheep of his father-in-law Yisro near Mt Horev/Mt Sinai when he sees a thorn bush that is burning but not being consumed. While others might not have paid notice to this scene (much as one may totally ignore something so obvious) Moshe is curious. As he approaches the bush, he hears a Godly voice that instructs him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. The sandal removal was necessary to…
Eliminate the tumah of the animal hides used in making the sandals
Feel the little stones underfoot. Moshe was to lead the people in such a way that he could feel their smallest sorrows (Chasidic)
Symbolically remove physical barrier when interacting with the spiritual
Increasing the sensitivity when interacting with the divine
Eliminate feelings of superiority that are possible when ruling over animal kingdom (Yehuda Valladares)
Remove stepping-on-others-in-order-to-advance type of behavior (Sara Lee Boshnack)
• Identifies Himself as the God of the Patriarchs, confirming the Israelites’ linkage to family history and unique religious belief
• Describes how He has witnessed the suffering of His people in Egypt
• Plans to rescue them and to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey
• Is sending Moshe to speak to Pharaoh
• Informs Moshe that it is he who will bring the Israelites out of Egypt
Moshe, the reluctant leader…
… refuses God’s mission five times based first on his feelings of inadequacy and then on the expected reaction from the people:
Humility-- “Who am I that I should go…” [Note: Who am I may also mean that Moshe is struggling with his identity-is he an Egyptian or a Midianite or a Hebrew?]
Not knowing God’s name with which to answer the Israelites when they ask
Lack of credibility with the Elders that God has instructed him to assemble
Lack of eloquence and charisma
Desire that God send someone else
Moshe’s reluctance to lead the nation may have been molded by his…
Bad experience in dealing with the two quarreling Hebrews
Gratitude for the way he was treated when he was growing up in Pharaoh’s court
Dread of speaking to the Hitler-like Pharaoh
Moshe asks God how he shall answer the Hebrews when they ask him what His “shem” is. Humans require concretization. The Hebrew word “shem” means “name” or “place” or “worth/value”. Moshe anticipates being asked who or what is this entity that he represents? What is His Distinctive Essence? Where is He found and of what worth is He to us? [Note: Rabbi Gunther Plaut reasons that Moshe was not really inquiring on behalf of the people, but was asking for himself, to satisfy his own curiosity. The answer he receives is meant for him. The name he is told is unique and intentionally vague. It is never reported to the Hebrews and never actually used in the Torah in referring to God.]
God responds that His name is “ehyeh-asher-ahyeh” and tells him to tell the Hebrews that “ehyeh (“I will be”) sent me to you”. God has absolute existence (Rambam) and is outside the realm of time (Sforno). God is utterly unique, inscrutable, and unknowable above and beyond the universe. He is undefinable but perceivable by His remaining by our side through times of trouble (Rabbi Fohrman).
According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, this enigmatic phrase may mean that God…
Will always be there with/for them
Is defined by how he acts when dealing with the universe-- “I shall be as I shall act”
Will always maintain a relationship with any individual that is private and unique and cannot be disclosed or discussed publicly
Other translations include:
“I will Be who I will Be”
“I Am That I Am”
“I Am He Who Endures”
Shadal concludes that the answer to the people’s anticipated question of “of what worth is this to us” is “ehyeh” -- that God will always be with, and for, them. Moshe is to inform the Israelites that God is eternal and will certainly save them even though He has not yet disclosed the manner of deliverance.
God introduces His Tetragrammatons’ four letters Name (which may not be pronounced) —yud and hay and vav and hay—that denotes His utter transcendence (Kuzari) and His creative forces that do and will continue to constantly sustain the universe (Aryeh Kaplan).
The imagery of the burning thorn bush is also a reminder, according to the Midrash, that no place on earth is devoid of God, not even the lowly shrub. The human burning desire and passion to accomplish continues without being extinguished.
Nechama Leibowitz sees in this image a preview of Jewish history in which it will be easy to enter a country (comparable to the relative ease of putting one’s hand into a bush) but the thorns of inflamed anti-Semitism will make escape impossible. The flame may also be predictive of the “burning pain” Jews would experience through our history at the hands of our enemies. Despite this, we will continue to exist as a nation as did the bush.
A careful reading of the text shows that Moshe’s mission to Pharaoh was not to convince him to set the Israelite free to go to the Land of Canaan but for Pharaoh to free them from slavery to allow them to freely worship God during their three-day trek into the wilderness.
Parting Gifts from the Egyptians
God informs Moshe that the Israelites will not leave empty-handed. Each woman shall “v’shawalaw [ask] her neighbor for jewels of silver and of gold and raiment thereby v’netzaltem Egypt”.
When a slave is freed, the Torah demands that his master send him off with liberal gifts from the flock, the threshing floor and the winepress as a way of expressing gratitude for the servant’s faithful service. God announces to Moshe that the Israelites will experience a similar farewell from their Egyptian slave masters.
The word “v’shawalaw” means to ask as a gift, not to borrow. Benno Jacob (cited by Rabbi Hertz) notes that the Hebrew root word occurs some 212 times in the Scripture and that in 210 of these times it means to rescue an object (from danger) or to recover (an object of property). Therefore, the phrase is more correctly translated to mean “you will save the Egyptians”—not that you will pillage them! By providing them with generous gifts the Egyptians will clear their name; will banish the bad feeling the Israelites have towards them; and will vindicate their honor and their humanity.
The Cryptic Incident at the Inn
Moshe returns to his father-in-law Yisro and informs him that God directed him to return to Egypt. Moshe packs up his wife Zipporah and son(s) Gershom (and Eliezer) on a mule for the return trip. On the way, they stop at a lodging place where “God met him [i.e., Moshe] and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it at his feet and she said ’Surely a bridegroom of blood are you to me’. So, He let him alone [i.e., Moshe’s illness abated]. Then she said ‘a bridegroom of blood regarding the circumcision’”.
Moshe took ill because, according to many commentators, he postponed the circumcision of his son-- possibly because Zipporah wanted the ceremony to take place in the child’s 13th year as was customary among Bedouin clans. Zipporah cuts off her son Gershom’s foreskin with a sharp stone instrument and throws it at her husband’s feet to show that her action was the result of Moshe’s inaction. Rabbi Hertz explains that she utilizes the imagery of matrimonial covenant (“her bridegroom of blood”) because circumcision represents a covenant between God and child. Rabbi Plaut notes that the circumcision-marriage connection reflects Arabic culture, in which circumcision was a prerequisite for marriage.
Rabbi Plaut also points out that the incident underscores the overriding importance of the circumcision ritual. The context gives it an even deeper meaning. God had just referred to Israel as His first-born son and predicted that because Pharaoh would refuse His request to allow the Israelites religious freedom, his own first born would be killed. The blood from the circumcision of Moshe’s first born which prevented Moshe’s death symbolically links to the blood that would be placed on the doorposts of the Israelites (God’s “firstborn”) in Egypt on the eve of the Exodus that would save them from death.
Robert Alter speculates that Zipporah’s actions may be reflective of a more primitive rationale for circumcision ritual performed by a mother. Namely, “to ward off the hostility of a dangerous deity by offering him a bloody scrap of the son’s flesh.” William H.C. Propp (quoted by Robert Alter) offers the idea that the deity sought Moshe’s death because of the involuntary manslaughter of the Egyptian and that circumcision was the only expiation for that sin. The role of blood takes on added importance here and in the tenth plague when it was to be smeared on the lintel to ward off the epidemic of death visiting firstborn Egyptian sons.