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Torah Sparks

December 29, 2007 – 20 Tevet 5768

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 Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Sh’mot begins with a list of the sons of Israel/Jacob who came to Egypt. At this point, the Torah transitions from the story of a family to the story of a people. The Egyptian king fears and hates the Israelites and enslaves them, forcing them to perform hard labor. When this oppression fails to curb the growth of the Israelite population, Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill all the newborn boys. The midwives refuse to obey the order, so Pharaoh issues a general order that every baby boy born to Hebrew parents is to be drowned in the Nile.

Against this background, Moses is born. When his mother can no longer hide her baby son, she places him in a basket in the river, hoping he might survive. Moses is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who recognizes that he is a Hebrew child but still decides to adopt him as her son and raise him in the royal palace.

Once Moses has grown up, he goes out to see the state of his people. He comes upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and kills the Egyptian. He learns that his act is known, so he flees to Midian. He marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and becomes a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.

One day, when Moses is tending the sheep, he comes upon a burning bush. God speaks to Moses from the bush and tells him that he is being sent to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Moses objects, insisting that he is neither worthy nor capable of this mission. God counters Moses’ arguments, reassures him, and gives him signs to show that he is God’s messenger.

Moses sets out for Egypt with his wife and sons. God sends Aaron to meet him and together they assemble the Israelite elders and tell them that God has promised to end their servitude. Moses and Aaron then go to Pharaoh and ask that the Israelites be allowed to go into the wilderness to worship God. Pharaoh not only refuses, but retaliates by increasing the severity of the Israelites’ oppression. The people blame Moses and Aaron for their punishment, but God tells Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh.”

The Righteous Women of That Generation

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: 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. (Shemot 1:15-17)

  1. Rav and Shmuel: one said, a woman and her daughter, and the other said, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The one who said a woman and her daughter [identified them as] Yocheved and Miriam, and the one who said mother-in-law and daughter-in-law [identified them as] Yocheved and Elisheva [Aaron’s wife]. (Sotah 11b)
  2. Yocheved and Miriam could have refused the royal appointment to serve as the Jewish midwives, but they were afraid that someone else who accepted the job might not have the strength of character and the tenacity of spirit to stand up to Pharaoh and ignore his directive. They therefore willingly placed themselves in jeopardy in order to thwart Pharaoh’s diabolical design. This was fear of Heaven at its best. (Rabbi Shlomo of Lutzk)
  3. Alarmed thereat, the king, on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river, and that the labors of Hebrew women with child should be observed and watch kept for their delivery by the Egyptian midwives: for this office was, by his orders, to be performed by women who, as compatriots of the king, were not likely to transgress his will. (Josephus, Antiquities II, IX, 2, 1st century CE)
  4. Shifrah and Puah were originally Egyptians who embraced Judaism. Otherwise, how could Pharaoh have ordered them to kill Jews? How could they in the first place have agreed? Surely every Jew is obliged to sacrifice his life rather than commit idolatry, incest, or murder! That is why the text observes: The midwives, fearing God – implying that previously when they were still heathens they had not feared Him. Had they not been Egyptians what would have been the point of telling us that they feared God? Surely as Jews that was taken for granted. (Imrei No’am, cited in Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz)

Sparks for Discussion

Who were the midwives? The Hebrew text is wonderfully ambiguous concerning their identity. The words “Hebrew midwives” can be understood as the midwives who were themselves Hebrews or as the midwives who tended the Hebrew women but were not themselves Hebrews. Both interpretations have been offered by our commentators over the centuries. Do you think that Shifrah and Puah were Jews or Egyptians? Why? What lesson can we learn if they were, in fact, Jewish? If they were Egyptian?

The Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazis risked not only their own lives but the lives of their families. What do you think motivated them? What would you have done in their position?

Be A Man

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about [literally, when he saw there was no man], he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Shemot 2:11-12)

  1. The Sages said: He saw that there was no hope that righteous persons would arise from him or his offspring until the end of generations. When Moses saw this, he took counsel with the angels and said to them, “this man deserves death.” They agreed; hence it says when he saw there was no man to say a good word for him. (Shemot Rabbah 1:29)
  2. “He didn’t see a man” isn’t written here, but “he saw there was no man.” He surely saw people, but there was no one to turn to at the time of trouble, there was no savior, there was no one from whom to seek help in distress, for the entire assembly were traitors and haters of Israel. (Ha’amek Davar [Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893, Lithuania])
  3. After Moses saw what the Egyptians did to the Jews, he understood the nature of Egyptian culture, which was based on enslaving others, on discrimination and tyranny. He turned this way and that, he turned to the Left and to the Right, to all the different parties and classes, seeking help from them. And when he saw there was no man, that there was not a single individual willing to stand by the weak, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. It was then that he killed the Egyptian within his heart, divorcing himself totally from the Egyptian culture, which was totally profane. (Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, 1887-1934, Poland)
  4. He saw that the Jew was not considered to be a “man” in the Egyptians’ eyes and that all the laws that had been enacted did not apply to him. All his protests were meaningless, with no one willing to stand by him. (Cited by Rabbi Aharon Greenberg, Itturei Torah)
  5. Hillel taught: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. (Avot 2:6)

Sparks for Discussion

It was inconceivable to our Rabbis that Moses would be looking around like a common criminal to make sure there were no witnesses. Therefore, when he saw there was no man must have a deeper meaning. What does it mean to be a man? Popular culture offers us images of John Wayne, Alan Alda, and countless others in between. The commentators have their own ideas. What do you think it takes to “be a man?” (And don’t forget, the literal translation of the Yiddish word mensch is “man.”)

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