By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant Last week’s double Parshiot (BEHAR) and (BECHUKOTAI) comprised the final portions of the Book of Leviticus. We begin the Book of NUMBERS, with plans...
This week, we begin the second Book of the Torah, EXODUS, with the Parsha, SHEMOT. The story continues with the end of GENESIS, and the descendants of Jacob, Joseph, his brothers, and their families living in Egypt, albeit 400 years later. “The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them”(1). When a new King arose over Egypt, who could not have known of Joseph, this Pharaoh was threatened by the large non-Egyptian population in his country, fearing that “in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting”(2). He perceived that his only option to reduce the multitude of Jews in Egypt, was to enslave them, with oppression and back-breaking labor. “The more they were oppressed, the more they increased, and the Egyptians came to despise the Jewish people(3). Ultimately, the Pharaoh issued an edict, that all new-born Jewish boys were to be thrown into the Nile River, to drown.
Although the primary theme of SHEMOT pertains to the meteoric rise of Moses, underlying this story are the many female heroines, who exemplify the first example of ‘civil disobedience’ witnessed in the Torah. It was because of the dangerous actions upon which they embarked that enabled Moses to survive, and develop the character traits of a true leader. First is the mother of Moses. During the most intense oppression of the Jews, she gave birth to a baby boy. Fearing for his life she hid him for three months. When the Egyptians began checking homes of Jewish families, searching for male infants, she decided to create a basket, smeared it with clay, placed the child inside, and put the ‘raft’ at the edge of the Nile River. Her only hope for her baby’s survival was that some kind-hearted individual would find him, and give him a home. Miriam (Moses’ sister) was charged with standing from afar, to watch the destiny of her baby brother. Within days, the Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe. She saw the basket and took it, knowing that in the basket was a Hebrew baby boy. The Princess noticed Miriam standing by. She called Miriam and asked her to bring the baby back to his mother to nurse him, and then return him. Against her father’s bitterness and indignation, the Princess raised him as an Egyptian Prince. Ironically, the two Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed the Pharaoh, when he told them, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, if it is a boy, kill him”(4). The midwives let the boys live, and spread their story to all the Egyptian midwives, with whom they were acquainted(5).
Moses, as a young man, wandered to the land of Midian, married, and became a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock(6). He totally rejected his role in Egyptian society, as well as the culture and beliefs. He knew very well, that becoming a shepherd was considered an abomination in Egypt(7).
It was then that God revealed himself to Moses for the first time at a burning bush, at the foot of Mount Sinai. God believed that Moses exemplified the kindness of Abraham, the strength of Isaac, and the honesty of Jacob. When Moses complained to God of the conditions, and oppression of the Jews in Egypt, God responded, “redemption is close at hand”(8).
(8)The Torah: A Modern Commentary