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Torah Sparks

January 1, 2005 - 20 Tevet 5765

Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial Cycle: Exodus 1:1-2:25 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13; 29:22-23
(Etz Hayim, p. 343, 347; Hertz p. 225, 228)

Prepared by Rabbi Mark B. Greenspan
Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


Parshat Shemot sets the stage for the story of the Exodus. Having settled in Egypt, the Israelites become victims of Pharaoh's hatred. The king of Egypt oppresses the Israelites and sets task masters over them. When this does not stop their increase, he commands the midwives to kill the male Israelite children. But even this effort fails because we are told, the midwives "feared God" and refused to obey Pharaoh. In the end Pharaoh decrees that all the male children shall be drowned in the Nile.

It is against this background that Moshe is born. No longer able to hide her new born baby, his mother places him in a basket in the river. Moshe is retrieved by Pharaoh's daughter who takes pity on the Hebrew child and saves him. Miriam, Moshe's older sister comes forward and offers to find a nursemaid for the infant - none other than Moshe's own mother! These courageous women serve to become role models for Moshe later in his life.

Moshe grows up in the palace and as an adult he begins to realize his responsibility to his people. After killing an Egyptian who is beating an Israelite slave, Moshe flees from Egypt when he discovers that his secret is known. It is in Midian that he meets Jethro, marries his daughter Tzippora, and encounters the Burning Bush. Moshe is a reluctant leader as God tells him, "I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt." Moshe is destined to be Israel's redeemer.

Discussion Topic 1: What Does it Mean "To Fear God?"

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah, saying, "When you deliver the Hebrew women look at the birth stool. If it is a boy kill him; if it is a girl, let her live." The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-16)

Derash: Study

  • "The praise of the midwives here goes beyond the praise given them in the first part of the verse. Not only did they not do what Pharaoh told them, but they even dared to do deeds of kindness for the children they saved. On behalf of poor mothers, the midwives would go to the houses of rich mothers and collect water and food, which they gave to the poor mothers and thus kept their children alive." (Exodus Rabbah)
  • Shifrah - This is Yocheved (who is so called) because she made the children beautiful. (Shifra is similar to Mishaperet, to make beautiful. She cleaned up and made the children presentable after they were born). Puah - This is Miriam because she called aloud and spoke and murmured to the children who pacify the infant who cried. (Puah is similar to the word Pa'ah which means to cry aloud. (Rashi)
  • "The phrase translated as "the fear of God" is closest the Torah comes to having a word for religion. The case of the midwives suggests that the essence of religion is not a belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept but a belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe.The midwives not only believed in God but also understood that God demands a high level of moral behavior." (Etz Hayim Commentary Page 320)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. When Pharaoh fails to reduce the Israelite population through oppression, he commands the midwives to kill the Israelite boys at the time of delivery. Why would the midwives' "fear of God" make them willing to save the Israelite boys despite Pharaoh's decree? Do you think they felt compelled (out of fear) or inspired (out of a sense of awe) to do so by their fear of God?
  2. Fear of God does not necessarily mean to be afraid of God but to live in awe of God and therefore to obey him. What is the difference between fear and awe? What is the connection between awe and the expression, "Awesome?"
  3. Rashi assumes that the midwives were actually Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe. Some scholars believe that the midwives were not Jewish but righteous gentiles, similar to the non-Jews who risked their lives to hide and help Jews during the Holocaust. Which interpretation do you think is correct? Why?
  4. Do you think that the righteous gentiles of the Holocaust were inspired by "fear of God?" If the midwives were Egyptian why were willing to risk their lives to save Jews? The Torah suggests that doing the right thing grows out of our belief and fear of God? Why else would someone act in a way which involves risk and maybe even some loss?
  5. Have you ever experienced situations in which you felt compelled to act a certain way because you believed that there is "a higher authority?" Share such experiences with each other. What do you think about the idea that "God built certain standards of moral behavior in to the universe?" Discuss this and argue pro and con.

Discussion Theme 2: Accomplishing the Impossible

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe by the Nile while her servants walked along the Nile; she saw a basket among the reeds, and she sent forth her "Amah" and she took it. (Exodus 2:5)

Derash: Study

  • The word Amata can be translated as, 1. her servant or 2. her arm. The sages explain Amah (an Amah is also a measure referred to as an arms length) as her arm; her amah stretched out from a single Amah to many "Amot," arms length in her effort to reach the basket. (In other words there was something miraculous in the way Pharaoh's daughter retrieved Moshe's Basket.) (Rashi)
  • There are at least three different ways of translating the word Amah in this verse. Rashi is troubled not only by the use of this word, but also by the fact that the verse switches from Na'arot (plural word for servants) in the first half of the verse to Amata in the second half of the verse. Rashi's commentary is already reflected in the wall paintings in Dura Eropus in Syria, an ancient community in which a synagogue was excavated. On the walls of the synagogue a number of Biblical scenes are depicted. In one of them we see the daughter of Pharaoh reaching out with an abnormally long arm to reach baby Moshe.
    Pharaoh's daughter seems to have been unaware that something miraculous would happen when she reached out and her arm became extended. Why would she even try to reach the basket when it was so far away from her? We learn an important lesson from this: when a cry for help reaches a person, he should not stop to contemplate whether or not he can accomplish what needs to be done or whether he can reach his goal. First let him do whatever he can. If a person acts with a full heart and good intentions, God will help him and assist him to reach beyond his normal capabilities. It is not uncommon to hear people in synagogue life say, "We already tried that; it can't be done," or "We don't have the ability, resources, manpower to accomplish that?" What can we learn from the daughter of Pharaoh about reaching beyond our normal capacity? (Rabbi Isaac Kalisch of Worka)
  • The sages said: The daughter of Pharaoh was stricken with leprosy; so she went down to the River. (She went down to the river to bathe because of the disease.) As soon as she touched the basket she was healed; therefore she took pity on Moshe and loved him even more. (Exodus Rabbah 1:27)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Why do you think the sages wished to depict Pharaoh's daughter as the subject of a miraculous act from God? What does this say about her behavior? To what extent is her decision her own and to what extent is she influenced by God's presence?
  2. Can you think of situations in your own life when you were forced to stretch beyond your normal capacities? What doubts did you have? What helped you overcome your own doubts? In what other situations do you think this might be true?
  3. Does attitude really make such a big difference in how you act? What do you think motivated Pharaoh's daughter to retrieve Moshe's basket and to save him? Why do you think she and her servants were down by the river bank in the first place?
  4. This Midrash suggests that touching Moshe's basket cured her disease. Instead of reading this Midrash literally, consider its message. What is the connection between helping and healing? How does serving others help us? How can it heal us when we are depressed or upset with life? Have you ever had this experience? Share examples with others of times when you have experienced this connection between helping and healing in your own life or in the life of other people you have known.

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