A ‘Bissel’ of Torah: SHEMOT (EXODUS 1:1-6:1)

By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant


The opening chapters of Exodus plunge us into a midst of epic events. Moses passes from Prince of Egypt, to Midianite shepherd, to leader of the Israelites.

The narrative begins with a new Pharaoh of Egypt, “who did not know of Joseph” (1). However, the descendants of Jacob had multiplied and prospered over several generations. The Pharaoh said to his people: “Get ready; let us deal with them shrewdly” (2). The first step was for the Jews to join with the Egyptians in creating bricks for the Pharaoh’s usage. Then, Egyptian taskmasters were charged to supervise the Jews, extensively increasing their workload. Eventually, the Jews were stripped of all their land and possessions, and they were enslaved (3). Now, the Pharaoh’s greatest challenge was to ensure no more male Jews survived, after birth.

The Egyptian midwives (Shifrah and Puah) were directed: “When you deliver a son to a Hebrew woman, immediately drown him in the Nile River” (4). Shifrah and Puah are considered the first individuals in history to engage in ‘civil disobedience’. They refused to follow these ruthless orders (5).

Yocheved (wife of Amron) gave birth to a baby boy. When he could no longer be hidden, his mother placed him in an ark and put him into the Nile River. “His sister, Miriam, stood afar, to see what was to become of him” (6). The Pharaoh’s daughter, Princess Batya, noticed him while bathing in the Nile. She realized this was one of the Hebrew children. She named him ‘Moses’ “for I drew him from the water” (7).

Years go by, as Moses is raised as an Egyptian Prince. He happened to wander into the area where the Jews were living, and noticed two men quarreling. He interfered, and one man asked him, “Who made you a prince and a judge?” (8). Afraid of being killed himself, Moses fled to Midian.

While Moses was tending sheep in Midian, God appeared to him in a ‘burning bush’. He told Moses that He had heard the pain and the cries of the Jewish people and He had chosen Moses to be the one to redeem them from Egypt. Shockingly, Moses asked: “Who am I to be their leader?” This question was not raised as a reflection of Moses’ humility. He was raised in Egyptian royalty, spent many years in Midian, and was now being asked to be the leader of the Jewish people. Throughout the next twenty-four verses of parsha Shemot, God continued to implore Moses, promising that He would be with him (9).

Ultimately, Moses assented to God’s request, after informing Him that he was ‘not a man of words’. God told him to bring his older brother with him and to display two miracles to the Pharaoh (i.e. converting a staff into a serpent and making his hand into a leper). The Pharaoh observed these miracles and rejected the power of Moses and Aaron. When Moses reported their failure to convince the Pharaoh of God’s power, God responded: “Now you will see what I do to the Pharaoh with a mighty hand” (10).



(1) EXODUS (1:8)

(2) EXODUS (1:9)

(3) (midrash Tanchuma 3)

(4) EXODUS (1:15)

(5) Jewish Women’s Archive

(6) EXODUS (2:4)

(7) EXODUS (2:10)

(8) EXODUS (2:14)

(9) Rashi on ‘SHEMOT’

(10) EXODUS (6:1)