FROM THE TORAH
At the end of last week’s Sedra Vayechi, the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, Joseph assured his brothers that God would bring them up from the land of Egypt to the Land which He promised to their fathers (cf. Genesis 50:24). Sedra Shemot is an account of what happens after Joseph’s death and before Joseph’s assurance is realized. It narrates the development of Egypt’s oppression of the Children of Israel under the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). It begins the story of the leadership of Moses, who was to become the greatest prophet of Israel.
The Children of Israel in Egypt
THE DESCENDANTS OF ISRAEL FILL THE LAND OF EGYPT
These are the names (Shemot) of the Children of Israel coming to Egypt with Jacob, each one coming with his household: Reuben, Shimon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All who emerged from Jacob were 70 souls, and Joseph was (already) in Egypt. Then Joseph, his brothers, and all of that generation died. Their descendants, the Children of Israel, grow in number and in strength very greatly so that the land is filled with them.
THE EGYPTIANS OPPRESS THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
“A new king arises over Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). He perceives that the Israelite people is more numerous and stronger than their Egyptian hosts. He fears that it might, in the event of war, ally itself with Egypt’s enemies. “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them” (Exodus 1:10), he says. So the Egyptians impose forced labor upon the Children of Israel in order to oppress them. They build supply cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more the Egyptians oppress the Israelite people, the more it grows and spreads out, so that the Egyptians stand in dread before the Children of Israel. The Egyptians impose hard labor upon the Children of Israel, embittering their lives with mortar and bricks and with all sorts of labor in the fields.
PHARAOH ORDERS THE DEATH OF NEWBORN MALES
The king of Egypt orders the Hebrews’ midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill any boy that they deliver of a Hebrew woman. But the midwives fear God, so they do not obey the king. They let the boys live. When he asks them why they let the boys live, they tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women, unlike the Egyptian women, give birth quickly, before the midwife can reach them. God rewards the midwives, and the people grows exceedingly in number and strength. Because the midwives feared God, He makes houses for them. Now Pharaoh commands all of his people: “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile; but every girl you shall let live” (Exodus 1:22)!
THE BIRTH OF MOSES
A man goes from the House of Levi and marries a daughter of Levi. She conceives and bears a son. The mother sees that he is well and hides him for three months. When she can hide him no longer, she takes a reed basket and caulks it with bitumen and pitch. She puts the boy in the basket and places it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile, while the baby’s sister stations herself at a distance to observe what will become of him.
Pharaoh’s daughter comes down to bathe in the Nile, where she sees the basket among the reeds. She sends one of her handmaidens to fetch it for her. Opening the basket, she sees the child, a boy crying. She takes pity on him, saying, “This is one of the Hebrew children!” His sister asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like her to get a nurse from among the Hebrew women to suckle the child. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, and the girl arranges for the child’s mother to be the nurse. Pharaoh’s daughter says she will pay her wages. So the woman takes the boy and nurses him. When he has grown, she brings him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he becomes her son. She names him Moses, explaining the name as meaning, “I drew him out of the water” (Exodus 2:10).
MOSES DEFENDS HIS FELLOW HEBREWS
Moses continues to mature. One day he goes out to his fellow Hebrews, as they are engaged in their labors, and witnesses an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew. Moses “turns this way and that way, and he sees no man, so he strikes down the Egyptian and hides him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). The next day Moses encounters two Hebrew men fighting. To the offender he says, “Why are you striking your fellow” (Exodus 2:13)? The man responds, “Who put you in charge of us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian” (Exodus 2:14)? So yesterday’s incident is now known! Moses fears. Indeed Pharaoh has learned of it and seeks to have Moses killed! Moses flees from Pharaoh as far as the land of Midian, where he stops by a well.
MOSES SETTLES WITH THE PRIEST OF MIDIAN AND MARRIES TSIPPORAH
The seven daughters of the priest of Midian come to the well to draw water for their father’s flock. But they are driven away from the water by local shepherds. Moses saves them and waters their flock. Their father Reuel is surprised when the daughters return home so quickly. They explain that an “Egyptian man” (Exodus 2:19) rescued them. Their father insists that they invite the man back to share their meal with him. Moses is pleased to dwell with the man, who gives him Tsipporah his daughter. She bears a son to Moses, and Moses gives him the name Gershom, which he explains as, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22).
Plan of Redemption
GOD KNOWS THE SUFFERING OF THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
During those many days the king of Egypt dies while the Children of Israel are groaning under the bondage. Their cry reaches God. God hears them and remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looks upon the Children of Israel, and God knows.
THE BURNING BUSH
In the meantime, “Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, priest of Midian” (Exodus 3:1). Driving his flock deep into the wilderness, he comes to Horeb, the Mountain of God. There an angel of the Eternal appears to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. Moses “sees that the bush is burning with fire, but the bush is not consumed” (Exodus 3:2). When the Eternal sees that Moses is drawn to this extraordinary vision, He calls Moses from inside the bush by name. “Here I am” (Exodus 3:4), answers Moses. “Do not come any closer; remove your shoes, because the place upon which you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:5-6) Moses hides his face, afraid to look at God.
The Eternal acknowledges that the cry of the Children of Israel has reached Him, that He sees their oppression under the Egyptians. “Now I shall come down to rescue it from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring it up…to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Amorite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite” (Exodus 3:8). “And I send you, Moses, to Pharaoh: Bring out My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt” (Exodus 3:10)!
“Who am I?” asks Moses, “to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11)? God’s response: “I will be with you, and as a sign that you have succeeded in bringing the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God upon this very mountain” (Exodus 3:12).
Moses: “How shall I represent You to the Children of Israel when they ask me Your Name?” God’s response: “I am what I am….Tell the Children of Israel: ‘I Am’ has sent me to you….The Eternal, the God of your fathers…has sent me to you…this is My Name forever, this is how I shall be remembered for all generations” (Exodus 3:14-15).
GOD REVEALS HIS PLAN
“Inform the Elders of Israel that the Eternal, the God of your fathers, has appeared to you, saying: I have observed what is being done to you in Egypt, and I shall bring you up from there to a land flowing with milk and honey. You and the Elders of Israel, go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Eternal, the God of the Hebrews, has appeared to us; now let us go for a journey of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Eternal our God’ (Exodus 3:18). But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go except by a strong hand. So I shall send forth My hand against Egypt with all manner of miraculous persuasions, and I shall assure favor to this My people in the eyes of the Egyptians so that you shall not go out from there empty-handed. Silver, gold, fine clothes—these shall be borrowed by every woman of her neighbors and lodgers, for your children: thus shall you despoil Egypt.”
THREE SIGNS OF PERSUASION
Moses doubts that the Israelites will believe that the Eternal has appeared to him. So the Eternal causes the staff that is in Moses’s hand to be transformed into a snake on the ground. Then He instructs Moses to grasp the snake by its tail, whereupon it reverts back to a staff in his hand.
If they are not convinced by the first sign, then they should be convinced by the following. The Eternal instructs Moses to put his hand upon his chest. When he removes it from his chest, his hand is covered with scales as white as snow. Then God instructs him to return his hand to his chest, and the skin of his hand returns to its normal appearance.
“If they are not convinced by these two signs, then take some water from the Nile and pour it upon the ground. The water which you have taken from the Nile will turn into blood upon the dry ground.”
“I AM NOT A MAN OF WORDS”
Notwithstanding God’s assurances and persuasive signs, Moses pleads verbal incapacity: “I am not a man of words, never in the past and not since You have spoken to Your servant, but I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). The Eternal answers him: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Eternal? Now go, I shall be with you in your speech and teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11-12) “Send someone else!” pleads Moses. This response angers the Eternal, but He designates Aaron the Levite, Moses’s brother, to assist Moses in speaking. “He will gladly meet you,” says the Eternal, “and I will teach both of you what to do. He will speak for you to the people: He will be your mouth, and you will be his God, as it were. Be sure to take the staff in your hand because with it you will perform the signs (cf. Exodus 4:2-5)!”
Engagement of Family
MOSES SETS OFF ON HIS MISSION
Moses then goes to Jethro his father-in-law and declares his intention to return to his brethren in Egypt and to see if they are still alive. “Go in peace,” says Jethro. The Eternal further assures Moses that all in Egypt who sought to kill him have died. So Moses puts his wife and sons on a donkey and returns to the land of Egypt with the Staff of God in his hand. “Consider all the wonders that I have placed in your hand,” says the Eternal, “and when you execute them before Pharaoh, I shall harden his heart so that he does not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). Tell Pharaoh, “Israel is My firstborn son…if you refuse to let him go, I will kill your firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22-23)!
CIRCUMCISION AT THE NIGHT ENCAMPMENT
On the way, at the night encampment, the Eternal encounters him and seeks to kill him. Thereupon Tsipporah takes a flint and cuts off the foreskin of her son. She puts it at his feet and says, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” When He lets go of him, she declares, “A bridegroom of blood with respect to the circumcision.”
AARON JOINS MOSES
The Eternal bids Aaron to meet Moses in the wilderness. He encounters him at the mountain of God and kisses him. Moses shares with Aaron all that the Eternal has communicated to him and all the signs about which He has instructed him. Moses and Aaron then gather all the Elders of the Children of Israel, and Aaron communicates all of the words and signs of the Eternal to the people. The people believe and accept that the Eternal has seen their affliction, so they bow down and prostrate themselves.
MOSES AND AARON COME TO PHARAOH
Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh and declare before him, “Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may celebrate for Me in the wilderness” (Exodus 5:1)! Pharaoh replies, “Who is the Eternal, that I should obey Him to let Israel go? I do not know the Eternal, and I shall not let Israel go!” (Exodus 5:2) They explain that the God of the Hebrews encountered them and that they are requesting to go for a journey of three days into the wilderness so that they can sacrifice to the Eternal “lest He strike us with pestilence or sword” (Exodus 5:3). The king of Egypt haughtily accuses Moses and Aaron of interfering with the people’s tasks and orders them to their labors. “The people are already numerous, and you would have them rest from their labors” (Exodus 5:5)!
PHARAOH INCREASES THE BURDENS OF ISRAEL
On the same day Pharaoh orders the taskmasters over the people and its officers to discontinue providing straw for the bricks which the Israelites have to bake (cf. Exodus 1:14). From then on, the Israelites would have to gather the straw themselves, but the quota of bricks that they have to produce would remain the same. “They are lazy!” Pharaoh complains, “That is why they demand leave to sacrifice to their God!” (Exodus 5:8) By increasing their work load, Pharaoh thinks to diminish their attention to “false matters” (Exodus 5:9). So the people must scatter throughout all the land of Egypt to collect stubble for straw, while the Israelite officers are beaten for any failure to meet the same quota as before. The officers complain to Pharaoh, but Pharaoh is unmoved, again calling the people lazy for requesting leave to sacrifice to the Eternal.
THE ISRAELITE OFFICERS CONFRONT MOSES AND AARON
The officers of the Children of Israel perceive that they are in trouble because of Pharaoh’s insistence that the previous quota of bricks be maintained. As they leave Pharaoh, they encounter Moses and Aaron and blame them for provoking Pharaoh and “making our smell disgusting to Pharaoh and to his servants, putting a sword in their hand to slay us” (Exodus 5:21). Moses, in turn, confronts the Eternal, “Why have You wrought evil upon this people, and why have You sent me? Since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name” (Exodus 5:22-23), nothing but evil has befallen the Children of Israel and You have done nothing to rescue them! Against that, the Eternal promises Moses that He will apply a “strong hand” to Pharaoh so that he will let them go, indeed drive them out from his land.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Shemot
Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23
Punishment and Atonement of Ephraim and Jerusalem
The days are coming
when Jacob shall strike roots,
when Israel shall produce blossoms,
and fill the world with its produce.
Did He strike him down as completely
as He struck down his assailant?
You drive her away
with a strong east wind
as entering into judgment with her.
Thereby the iniquity of Jacob can be atoned,
for this is all the process
of removing his sin—
yes, the very crushing of the altar stones,
to obliterate their idolatry.
The city once fortified
is now abandoned,
a once-pleasant habitation
now like the wilderness;
in it grazes a calf,
and there it lies down,
consuming its branches,
or women may burn them for cooking—
a people of no understanding
being shown no compassion
by its Maker.
But on that day
the Eternal will shake off
from the Euphrates to the Nile:
you will be collected, one by one,
O Children of Israel;
and a great shofar will be blown,
summoning those who are lost in the land of Assyria
and those who are dispersed in the land of Egypt,
to worship the Eternal
at the holy mountain in Jerusalem.
Woe to the arrogant, greedy crown of Ephraim,
to the fading flower that embellishes the fat drunkards!
The Eternal has a strong one
to cast their garland to the earth
and trample it
as with a storm of hail,
an unstoppable flood of waters;
like the first-ripe fruit before summer,
it will be consumed from hand to mouth
without a thought.
But on that day
the Eternal of hosts shall be a Crown of beauty
for the rest of His people:
a Spirit of judgment for those who sit in judgment
and Strength for those who turn back war from the gate.
These also stagger in drunkenness,
priest and prophet,
stumble in judgment;
their vomit covers up
all that which was clean.
So whom can one teach?
They have no connection
with their mother’s milk!
The people are now taught
primitive lessons in foreign accents,
facile ideas, which they refuse to accept,
sterile notions as the word of the Eternal,
so that when they walk, they fall back,
are broken, snared and conquered!
Nonetheless, says the Eternal,
who redeemed Abraham:
O house of Jacob, be not ashamed!
For when his children
see the work of My hands in his midst,
they shall sanctify My Name,
indeed sanctify the Holy One of Jacob;
they shall tremble before the God of Israel!
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Tanchuma Shemot 6
Exodus Rabbah 1:8
Love and Denouement
“These are the names of the Children of Israel
coming to Egypt with Jacob…”
“Coming?” As if today?
But, at this point, they have already been in Egypt for many years:
“Joseph and all of his brothers and all of his generation had died,
and the Children of Israel were fruitful
and became exceedingly numerous and strong,
the land being filled with them.”
To teach you that
as long as one of them
who came down to Egypt
was still alive,
the Egyptians did not oppress Israel.
When that period was concluded, although the Eternal had counted Joseph and his brothers by their names when they were alive (cf. Genesis 46:8 ff.), He counted them again after they had died—“All who emerged from Jacob were 70 souls…Joseph and all of his generation had died” (Exodus 1:5-6)—to show His love for them as He does for the stars of heaven, which He reveals and conceals repeatedly by number and name” (cf. Psalms 147:4; Isaiah 40:26; Rashi s.v. Exodus 1:1).
Why then did He say, after they had died, that they were “coming” instead of came? It was as if on that day, 71 years ago when Joseph was 39 years old (Maharzu), they were coming to Egypt in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram in the Covenant between the Parts that his “offspring would be enslaved in a foreign land” (cf. Genesis 15:13 ff.). In other words, although the promised Egyptian oppression had not really started when the Children of Israel first entered Egypt under Joseph’s protection, nonetheless they were coming to Egypt at that time to fulfill the promise ultimately. Now, 71 years after their entrance and their provisional protection, the time had come, and they were, as it were, “coming” for the denouement of their earlier entrance!
Exodus Rabbah 1:7
Sifre Deuteronomy 334
Joseph’s Enduring Humility
“All who emerged from Jacob were 70 souls,
and Joseph was in Egypt.”
Why add, “…and Joseph was in Egypt?”
It means: Counting Joseph, who was already in Egypt, there were 70 souls (as partial clarification of the first part of this verse, “All who emerged from Jacob were 70 souls…,” which constitutes a summary of Genesis 46:26-27). For the complete calculation of 70 souls, see Sedra Summary: Vayigash, Census of the House of Jacob in Egypt, Genesis 46:8-27.
Another interpretation: “Joseph was in Egypt” humble in his own eyes after he had attained power as he was humble at first when he was a servant in Egypt—he did not lord his power over his brothers or his father’s House. Chiddushey HaRashash (Rabbi Samuel Strashun, 19th cent. Vilna): He was the same all the time that he was in Egypt: notwithstanding his dramatic rise, his being in Egypt did not change. Note to Soncino Translation: Read as “Joseph he was,” that is, “he was still the same Joseph in Egypt!”
Sifre: Do we not already know that “Joseph was in Egypt?!” The wording of this apparent redundancy is meant to let us know the righteousness of Joseph, who “was a shepherd of the flock of his father-in-law” (Exodus 3:1), and even though he was appointed virtual king over Egypt, “Joseph (still) was in Egypt” what he was in Midian! Chiddushey HaRashash: Apparently a kind of gezerah shavah midrash, wherein the contextual meaning of a word (“was” in Exodus 3:1) is transferred to justify the otherwise problematic usage of the same word (“was” in the redundant Exodus 1:5b). The Rabbinic assumption here is that shepherds are simple, righteous people, in contrast with powerful rulers of a gentile nation, Joseph being shown through Midrash as an exception!
Eyn Ya’akov Sanhedrin 19b
Genesis Rabbah 63:2
Exodus Rabbah 1:1
“Nonetheless, says the Eternal,
who redeemed Abraham:
O house of Jacob, be not ashamed…!”
Consider the literal wording of this verse:
“Thus says the Eternal,
to the house of Jacob,
who redeemed Abraham:
Not now should Jacob be ashamed,
and not now should his face be pale!”
Where do we find that Jacob (the grandson) redeemed Abraham (the grandfather)? Rabbi Judah explained it thusly: Jacob redeemed Abraham from the pain of raising children. This explanation is supported by the rest of the verse: Not now, for the sake of his father (Isaac), should Jacob feel anything like shame, and not now, for the sake of his grandfather (Abraham), should Jacob feel anything like shame!
Rif (Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, 11th cent., Algeria): While Abraham produced Ishmael and the children of Keturah, and Isaac produced Esau, Jacob’s children in contrast were all holy with no defect. Since they were also descendants of Abraham, the Holy One blessed be He considered them to be the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (cf. Genesis 17:5: “You shall become the father of a multitude of nations!”), whom Jacob raised, thus saving his grandfather Abraham the trouble of raising them himself. Rabbi Judah’s interpretation is best understood in reference to the following Midrash:
“The crown of elders
is their grandchildren,
and the glory of children
is their fathers.”
It is easy to understand how parents provide protection for their children, as was said, “The glory of children is their fathers,” but “the crown of elders is their grandchildren?” How do children provide protection for their parents?
Rabbi Samuel son of Rav Isaac explained: When Abraham destroyed his father’s idols, he was thrown by King Nimrod into a fiery furnace, from which he miraculously escaped (cf. Genesis Rabbah 38:13; Sedra Summary 5782 Noach: Midrash “Abraham and the Idols”). He was rescued by God from that furnace only because of the merit of his grandson Jacob! This may be likened to one who was sentenced by the authorities to death by burning. But the astrologers told the ruler that the condemned was destined to beget a daughter who would be married to the king! Just so it was, when Abraham was condemned by Nimrod to death by burning, the Holy One, blessed be He, foresaw that Jacob would be descended from him, and He said: Worthy is Abraham to be rescued from his sentence because of the merit of Jacob. That is what the prophet said: “Thus says the Eternal to the house of Jacob who redeemed Abraham…” (Isaiah 29:22)!
Consider also the quality of raising children:
“One who spares his rod
hates his son,
but one who loves him
is prompt to discipline him.”
It is widely believed that striking one’s child is in the category of abuse. What then could the sage be teaching us? When a parent neglects to discipline a child, in the end the child will absorb the wrong culture and his parents will come to hate him as a result! Thus we have seen with the example of Ishmael, who was spoiled by his father Abraham, who never chastised him, until he brought home idols and began to “play” with them in the manner that he had observed others worshipping them. “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, ‘playing’; she said to Abraham, ‘Expel that handmaiden and her son’” (Genesis 21:9-10) lest my son learn his ways! Only then, “The situation [davar, interpreted as the matter of Ishmael’s behavior rather than the word of Sarah] seemed wrong to Abraham concerning his son” (ibid. 11), who he could see had absorbed the wrong culture! God commanded him to accede to Sarah’s demand (cf. ibid. 12), teaching us that Abraham was secondary to Sarah in prophecy! Abraham proceeded to expel them, showing that he had come to hate his son Ishmael, as the proverb teaches. In the end Ishmael would lie in wait for travelers on the highway and attack and rob them, as an angel of the Eternal had foretold, “He will be a wild man, his hand against everyone” (Genesis 16:12)!
Similarly, “Isaac loved Esau” (Genesis 25:28) and failed to chastise him. Therefore Esau also absorbed an evil culture, abounding in transgressions of seduction, murder, blasphemy, and spurning the birthright! In addition, he yearned for the death of his father and sought to kill his brother, as he said, “When the days of mourning for my father are over, I shall then kill Jacob my brother” (Genesis 27:41), causing Jacob to flee from his parents. Then, “Esau went to Ishmael” (Genesis 28:9) more to absorb evil culture from him than to marry his daughter, as he already had wives (cf. ibid.)!
In contrast, you find that Abraham disciplined Isaac his son, taught him Torah, and guided him in his (Abraham’s) ways, as is written, “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac” (Genesis 25:19). The apparently redundant words, “Abraham begat Isaac,” are intended to teach us that son resembled father in all ways, including learning and behavior, so much so that when Isaac was thirty-seven years old and his father was already quite old and presumably weak, he acceded to his father’s binding him upon the altar like a lamb, without objection. Therefore, “Abraham gave all that was his to Isaac” (Genesis 25:5), showing that “the one who loves his son is prompt to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24)!
Isaac also provided ready discipline to Jacob, teaching him Torah and good behavior in his own academy, as was said, “Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents (plural)” (Genesis 25:27), two tents, that is two academies, first that of his father Isaac, and then, when he had to leave his father, he dwelled secluded in the Academy of Ever to learn Torah. Therefore Jacob inherited the Land, as was said, “Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1).
Jacob our father also provided ready discipline for his sons, he chastised them when necessary, and he taught them his ways, so that there would be no unworthy one among them. Thus is written, “And these are the names of the Children of Israel coming to Egypt with Jacob” (Exodus 1:1): after all that was written in the preceding Book of Genesis, we surely know that the Children of Israel are coming to Egypt with their father Jacob! The addition here, “with Jacob,” teaches us that all of his children are being compared to Jacob, that all of them were righteous as was he, they were all worthy of his love, in accordance with the proverb, “The one who loves his son is prompt to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24)!
Exodus Rabbah 1:8
Tanchuma Exodus 5
Was he a “new king?”
“Who knew not Joseph?”
“A new king arises over Egypt
who knew not Joseph.”
“A new king arises…”—Rav and Samuel have different interpretations: One says that he was actually a new king, and the other says that the same king initiated new and punishing edicts upon Israel. In support of the one who interprets that he was actually a new king, the verse says, “New!” In support of the one who interprets that it was the same king who initiated new and punishing edicts, the verse does not say that the king “dies” and then another king “rules!”
“…who knew not Joseph”—For the one who says that he was actually a new king, there is no problem. The one who interprets that it was the same king, who initiated new and punishing edicts, explains that he seems like one who did not know Joseph at all!
Another interpretation: Why was he called “a new king” if it was the old Pharaoh himself? Here is what happened: The Egyptians said to Pharaoh, “Come, let us attack this people!” Pharaoh answered them, “Fools! We have been surviving because of them. What sense would it make to attack them? Were it not for Joseph, we would not be alive!” Since Pharaoh did not honor their demand, they removed him from his throne for three months, until he acceded to their demand. They then restored him to his throne, and that is why the verse begins, “A new king arises….”
When the Rabbis preach about this portion, “A new king arises over Egypt…,” they open with the prophetic verse, “They rebelled against the Eternal by producing alien children; now something new will consume them and all that belongs to them” (Hosea 5:7)! In this there is the lesson:
When Joseph died, they abrogated the mitzvah of circumcision, intending to be like the Egyptians. Therefore Moses needed to circumcise them when they went forth from Egypt. But in the meantime, because they suspended the commandment, the Holy One, blessed be He, reversed the love that the Egyptians felt for them to hatred, as was said, “Then Israel came to Egypt…He changed their heart to hate His people, to plot against His servants” (Psalms 105:23,25), thus fulfilling, “Now something new will consume them and all that belongs to them” (Hosea 5:7)!
As to the words, “new king,” he arose and initiated his edicts over them.
“Who knew not Joseph”—Did he really not recognize Joseph? The implication is greater than not knowing Joseph. Said Rabbi Avin: This may be compared to someone who throws stones at an ally of the king, whereupon the king sentences him to death. The king justifies the severity of his sentence by explaining, “Tomorrow he will do the same to me!” Likewise, today “who knew not Joseph,” but tomorrow he will say, “I know not the Eternal” (Exodus 5:2)!
Yalkut Shimoni I:163
Persuasion and Consolation
“The Egyptians impose labor
upon the Children of Israel (1) with harshness (b’farech).
They embitter their lives (2) with harsh labor,
with mortar and with bricks,
and with all kinds of labor in the field,
all of their labor which they performed for them (3) with harshness (b’farech).”
Why is the harshness of the labor mentioned three times?
The first time: “The Egyptians impose labor upon the Children of Israel with harshness (b’farech)” (Exodus 1:13). Rabbi Elazar interpreted this first occurrence of with harshness (b’farech) to mean with gentle persuasion (b’feh rach, “with soft mouth”). Rabbi Samuel argued that this first occurrence means actually with harshness, in accordance with the words that follow, “They embitter their lives with harsh labor…” (Exodus 1:14a)!
Rava came along and resolved this difference by the next two phrases of the verse: at first (with gentle persuasion) “…with mortar and with bricks…,” but then (with harshness) “with all kinds of labor in the field” (ibid. 14b)! As to the last part of the verse, “…all of their labor which they performed for them with harshness (b’farech),” wherein befarech is repeated (ibid. 14c; cf. ibid. 13): For Rabbi Samuel, who argued that the first befarech means actually with harshness, the second befarech means that they assigned to men the labors of women and to women the labors of men; while for Rabbi Elazar, who interpreted the first befarech as b’feh rach, with soft mouth, the second befarech means indeed actually with harshness.
“Pharaoh perceives that the Israelite people
is more numerous and stronger than their Egyptian hosts.
He fears that it might, in the event of war,
ally itself with Egypt’s enemies.
‘Come, let us deal shrewdly with them,’ he says.”
What did Pharaoh mean when he said, “Let us deal shrewdly” (Exodus 1:10) with the Children of Israel? He summoned all of Israel and said to them (befeh rach, “with soft mouth”), “Kindly do me a favor today.” As Pharaoh himself demonstrated the work of brickmaking with his own basket and shovel, every Israelite watching would start to do the same, working throughout the day to keep up with and even exceed Pharaoh’s own labors. At the end of the day Pharaoh appointed taskmasters over them and ordered them to count the number of bricks the Israelites had made. When the bricks were counted, Pharaoh then ordered the Israelites to complete the same number every day thereafter!
Pharaoh appointed the Egyptian taskmasters to supervise Israelite officers. It was the job of the Egyptian taskmasters to count the number of bricks completed each day, and if the count on any day was deficient, the Israelite officers would be beaten for the deficiency. Never did the officers blame their fellow Israelites for failing to complete a daily quota of bricks. Instead, they absorbed the painful blows of the Egyptian taskmasters rather than cause harm to rest of their people.
Therefore, when God commanded Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men of the Elders of Israel” to share with him responsibility for the people, He specified that they should be “its officers” (Numbers 11:16-17), who had allowed themselves to be beaten on behalf of their people in Egypt, thereby teaching us that whoever surrenders himself for Israel merits honor and leadership.
“The Egyptians impose labor
upon the Children of Israel…
with all kinds of labor in the field...”
“In the field?” Did they not labor in the city: “They built supply cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses” (Exodus 1:11)! “In the field” refers to the edict that Pharaoh imposed on Israel: for the men to sleep in the field while their women slept in the cities in order to depress their birthrate! But their wives would cook food at home and bring it to them in the fields. They would offer them words of comfort: The Egyptians will not enslave us for ever; time will come when the Holy One, blessed be He, will redeem us; whereupon the men thus consoled would be intimate with their wives, and thus would Israel remain fruitful. They were thus rewarded with the spoil of Egypt (cf. Exodus 12:35-36) and the spoil of the Red Sea:
“The women who share good tidings
are a great host—
armed kings are in retreat—
the spoil is divided by housewives—
who lay down—
at the shores,
wings of a dove
covered with silver!”
“A locked garden is my sister-bride,
a barred spring, a fountain sealed.”
(Song of Songs 4:12)
“A locked garden”—the women, who were secure, without any breach!
“A barred spring”—the men, who were refreshed, as springs in a field!
Exodus Rabbah 1:15
The Midwives’ Fear of God
“But the midwives fear God,
so they do not obey the king.
They let the boys live.”
Of them it was said:
“The woman who fears the Eternal:
she is to be praised!”
But if, as the verse says,
“they did not obey the king,”
why was it necessary to add,
“They let the boys live?”
What we have here is double praise for (1) their credit in not obeying the king and (2) their extra merit! For not only did they spare the babies from Pharaoh’s decree but for the families who were impoverished they collected water and food from the wealthy homes and thereby “let the boys live!”
Another explanation of their extra merit is that, anticipating that some of the babies naturally might be born with defects or might be maimed by the midwives in order to save the life of the baby or the mother, they prayed to the Holy One, blessed be He: “Seeing that we do not obey the king, but rather seek to obey You, Master of the universe, let the baby come out whole and healthy, so that Israel has no reason to say, ‘Look how they are born with the injuries inflicted by the midwives who sought to kill them as Pharaoh decreed!’” When the Holy One, blessed be He, heard their prayer, the babies came out whole and healthy.
Rabbi Levi said: They did even more, anticipating that some babies would die in delivery and that some mothers would die as a result of delivery, they saved the very lives of both child and mother! Thus they would pray to the Holy One, blessed be He: “Master of the universe, annul their fate and grant them their lives, so that Israel will not say, ‘The midwives killed them!’” Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, complied with their prayer. Therefore the verse may be read as applied to both: “They lived,” viz. the mothers, “along with the boys!”
Another explanation of the midwives’ fear of God: They compared themselves against the example of their forbear Abraham, concerning whom the Holy One, blessed be He, testified (at the Akedah), “For now I know that you fear God…” (Genesis 22:12)! Abraham our Father established an inn, where he sustained travelers, men who were uncircumcised, whereas we have no food to provide these babies and, worse, are called upon to kill them: so no, we shall at the very least keep them alive!
Exodus Rabbah 1:16
The Midwives’ Reward
“God rewards [vayetev] the midwives…”
What was their reward? When they told Pharaoh, that “the Hebrew women, unlike the Egyptian women, give birth quickly, before the midwife can reach them” (Exodus 1:19), he believed them and did not punish them!
Another interpretation is offered by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba: “Fear of the Eternal is wisdom” (Job 28:28), that is to say, the reward of fear is Torah! Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman taught that the midwives Shifra and Puah (cf. Exodus 1:15) were actually Moses’s mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam (cf. Exodus Rabbah 1:13). Of Yocheved it was said, “When the woman conceived and bore a son, she saw that he was good [tov] and she hid him…” (Exodus 2:2), that is to say, “she saw that Moses was a reward [tov]!” Indeed the Torah was given through him, the Torah that is called “a good doctrine,” “For I have given you a good [tov] doctrine, My Torah, forsake it not” (Proverbs 4:2): “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant” (Malachi 3:22)! Because Yocheved feared the Holy One, blessed be He, He gave her the reward of Torah through the birth of her son Moses. From Miriam was descended Bezalel (cf. I Chronicles 2:18-20 and Exodus Rabbah 1:17), of whom it was said, “I shall fill him with the divine spirit of wisdom” (Exodus 31:3), and he made an Ark for the Torah (ibid. 7), which is called “good [tov]!” Thus did God “reward [vayetev] the midwives” (Exodus 1:20).
Exodus Rabbah 1:19
Amram Follows His Daughter’s Advice
“A man goes from the House of Levi…”
Where did he “go?”
“Go” in Scripture is frequently associated with advice, such as when Balaam said to Balak, “Go, let me advise you…” (Numbers 24:14). Thus, said Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Zevida: He went in accordance with the advice of his daughter. This is the teaching:
Amram was the leader of his generation. When Wicked Pharaoh decreed, “Every boy that is born, throw him into the Nile…” (Exodus 1:22), Amram concluded that all of their efforts at procreation would be futile, so he divorced his wife. All of the Hebrew husbands followed his example. But his daughter stood up to him: “Your decree is actually worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh only decreed against the survival of our males, but you decreed against both males and females. Pharaoh’s decree applies only to this world, but your decree would apply to both this world and the world to come. Pharaoh, being wicked—who knows whether or not his decree will stand ultimately? But you, being righteous—your decree will certainly stand, as Eliphaz said to Job, ‘When you make a decree, it will stand with you’” (Job 24:28)! Thereupon Amram took back his wife, and the other husbands followed suit.
Exodus Rabbah 1:26
Leviticus Rabbah 18:2
Requital from Within
“When Moses has grown,
his mother brings him to Pharaoh’s daughter,
and he becomes her son.”
Pharaoh’s daughter kissed him and hugged him and loved him as if he were her son, and she never let him leave the king’s palace. So beautiful was the boy that everyone wanted to see him, and no one who saw the boy could refrain from gazing upon him. As Pharaoh himself kissed him and hugged him, Moses would playfully remove Pharaoh’s crown and place it upon his own head—as he would do one day in earnest when he fully matured into an adult!
This is what the Holy One, blessed be He, meant in His words to Hiram, king of Tyre: “You profaned that which you should have held holy, so I brought out fire from your midst which consumed you” (Ezekiel 28:18)! Said Rabbi Simon: There is an aggadic tradition that Hiram profaned the mother of Nebuchadnezzar and impregnated her with him. Then Nebuchadnezzar rose up against his father and killed him. Similarly, Pharaoh’s daughter raised up one who would in the future punish her father!
The sorcerers of Egypt, witnessing Moses’s play, expressed their suspicion to Pharaoh that the child might be the one who they predicted would one day capture the kingship from him. They were divided only on how to execute him: some argued for decapitation while others argued for burning. The sole exception was Jethro (his future father-in-law, cf. Exodus 2:16-22; 3:1), who argued that, as a mere child, Moses had no understanding of his play. “Test him,” he proposed, “present him with a dish containing both gold and burning coals: If he reaches for the gold, that proves that he possesses understanding, and execute him; if he reaches for a burning coal, that proves that he does not possess understanding, and therefore he is not liable to death.” Whereupon they placed such a dish before him, and he extended his hand to take the gold. But the angel Gabriel came and moved his hand so that he grabbed the burning coal. He put his hand with the burning coal into his mouth and burned his tongue. From that he was rendered “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10)!
Returning to the aggadic tradition cited above by Rabbi Simon:
“The city once fortified (betsurah)
is now abandoned
in it grazes a calf and there it lies down,
consuming its branches!”
The anointed king mashiach, who will in the future punish Edom, currently dwells within Edom. Interpret, “the city once fortified (betsurah)…now abandoned…in it grazes a calf and there it lies down, consuming its branches” (ibid.), to be the city of Botsrah, capital of Edom (and, by extension, Rome of our day), being consumed by the calf (mashiach) from within!
The commentator Mirkin offers other examples of this typology, that the undoing of a sinful person or people comes from within itself:
Biblically, Nathan prophesies against David, “Because you despised Me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife…, I shall bring evil upon you from within your own house, giving your wives before your eyes to another, who will sleep with your wives in view of this sun” (II Samuel 12:10-11; cf. II Samuel 16:22)!
Rabbinically, the prophet’s appraisal of the aggressive Chaldean nation, “Dreadful and terrible is it; its law (mishpat) and its domain (se’eyt) emerge from itself (mimmenu)” (Habakkuk 1:7), may be interpreted as applying to Israel when they are punished for their sins by genital discharges and skin eruptions, i.e. “its judgment (mishpat) and its swelling (se’eyt) emerge from its own behavior (mimmenu)!” Wherefore Moses warns Israel, “Any man who has a discharge from his flesh…” (Leviticus 15:2): Why was it necessary to say, “from his flesh,” since a discharge is, by definition, from his flesh? “From his flesh” here is a hint: by reason of his own behavior regarding his flesh, i.e. because of his carnal sins!
So, in keeping with the typology that the undoing of a sinful people comes from within itself, when Nebuchadnezzar was elated over the destruction of the First Temple, a Divine Voice came forth and said to him: You have killed a dead people, you have set fire to a burned Temple, you have ground meal already ground (Talmud Sanhedrin 96b)! Regarding the Second Temple, our Rabbis attribute its destruction to “baseless hatred” (Talmud Yoma 9b)! Regarding Betar, they attribute its defeat to the internal conflict between Rabbi Eliezer Hamodai and Bar Kochba (Lamentations Rabbah 2:4)!
Mirkin goes on to explain how an evil nation caused the decline and destruction of its victim: The way was that an evil nation (presumably like Babylonia or Rome) injected its poison into its victim people, first undermining it from within. Then it sent its legions to do with those nations as it wished. But in those places where its poison was not effective, no weapon of war was of help to the aggressor.
Moses Strikes Down the Egyptian
How the Rabbis Find Virtue in His Act of Killing
God confronted Cain for killing Abel:
“Your brother’s blood
cries out to Me from the ground!”
Yet the actual words are in the plural:
”Your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!”
The blood of your brother and the blood of his eventual descendants,
whom you have prevented!
For this reason humanity was created from one person:
To teach you that if one destroys a single life,
it is as if he has destroyed an entire world,
and if one upholds a single life,
it is as if he has upheld an entire world.
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Genesis Rabbah 22:9; Avot of Rabbi Nathan 31:2
Our Rabbis taught:
Whence do we derive
that one who attempts to murder another
may be killed to save the life of his intended victim?
It is derived from the verse:
“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”
Talmud Sanhedrin 73a
Moses goes out to his fellow Hebrews,
as they are engaged in their labors,
and witnesses an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew.
Moses “turns this way and that way,
and he sees no man,
so he strikes down the Egyptian
and hides him in the sand.”
He sees no man?
Surely the Egyptian man and the Hebrew man were there!
The Rabbis teach:
“He sees no man” means
that there was no expectation
that righteous people would descend
from the Egyptian man or from the Egyptian man’s offspring
for all generations.
Thus Moses foresees that there will be “no man”
in the sense of a righteous descendant in the future
who could ascribe virtue retroactively
to the otherwise-wicked Egyptian man as an ancestor.
Seeing this, Moses “turns this way and that way,”
that is, he consults with a Sanhedrin of ministering angels,
asking them if the Egyptian is liable for the death sentence
at Moses’s hands,
and they assent!
This might also imply that Moses could find “no man”
who would testify before the Sanhedrin
in the Egyptian’s favor.
Exodus Rabbah 1:29; Avot of Rabbi Nathan 20:1
Exodus Rabbah 1:30
Moses discovers the reason for his people’s oppression!
The next day Moses encounters two Hebrew men fighting.
To the offender he says,
“Why are you striking your fellow?”
The man responds, “Who put you in charge of us?
Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
So yesterday’s incident is now known! Moses fears…
The Hebrew word for “intend” in this verse is, literally, “say”:
“Do you say to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Later in the Sedra, at the burning bush,
Moses learns how to say the name of God (cf. Exodus 3:14-15),
but see how the Rabbis’ lessons sometimes
transcend the finite sequence of events in the Torah:
“Do you say to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
From this we learn that Moses
did not use a sword or his fist to kill the Egyptian,
but he merely said the powerfully potent name of God
(which he learned at the burning bush)
over the Egyptian,
and that killed him!
Now Moses realizes from the Hebrew offender’s words,
“Do you say to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
that not only is it known that he killed the Egyptian,
but also how he killed the Egyptian:
by uttering over him the name of God!
And Moses also realizes from the Hebrew offender’s words
that his fellow Hebrews are engaging in Leshon Hara,
the transgression of gossip!
Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Shalom in the name of Rabbi Chaninah Hagadol
Our Rabbis in the name of Rabbi Alexandri
Moses had been wondering
what was the sin of Israel
that caused them,
from among all other nations,
to be enslaved in Egypt?
When he heard the words of the Hebrew offender,
he concluded that the reason for their oppression
was that they engaged in Leshon Hara,
and he began to worry
how they would ever be redeemed.
Exodus Rabbah 2:2
A Shepherd’s Compassion
“Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro,
his father-in-law, priest of Midian.”
Our Rabbis taught:
When Moses was a shepherd of Jethro’s flock in the wilderness,
a lamb got away from him, and Moses ran after it,
until it reached an oasis, where it stopped to drink.
I did not know that you were running away because of thirst;
you must be tired.
Whereupon he lifted the lamb upon his shoulder
and carried it the rest of the way.
Said the Holy One blessed be He:
As you have compassion
in caring for the flock of flesh and blood,
so shall you shepherd My flock Israel.
“From following sucklings
He brought him to shepherd Jacob His people
and Israel His possession.”
Exodus Rabbah 3:1
How God Engaged the Novice
“When the Eternal sees that Moses is drawn
to this extraordinary vision,
God calls to him from inside the bush,
and he says, ‘Here I am!’”
Rabbi Joshua Hakohen son of Nechemiah taught:
When the Holy One blessed be He was revealed to Moses,
Moses was a novice in prophecy.
So the Holy One blessed be He thought:
If I reveal Myself with a strong voice, I will overwhelm him;
if with a weak voice, he will overlook the prophecy.
What then did He do?
He revealed Himself in the voice of Moses’s father:
“Here I am,” responds Moses,
“What does my father want?”
God then calls to Moses from the burning bush:
“I am the God of your father,
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
The Holy One blessed be He said:
“I am” not your father, but “the God of your father,”
to begin to draw Moses in but without making him afraid;
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,”
in order to gladden Moses that his father was included with the Patriarchs,
and not only that, but that “your father” was mentioned first!
“One who is drawn in gradually
can develop a strong conviction….”