January 17, 2009 – 21 Tevet 5769
Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial Cycle: Exodus 3:1-4:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 326; Hertz p. 213)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343, 346; Hertz p. 225, 228)
Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey
Torah Portion Summary
Parashat Shemot begins with a list of the sons of Israel/Jacob who went to Egypt. At this point, the Torah changes from being 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 hide her baby son no longer, 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.
After 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 the 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.”
1. God in Search of Man
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this miraculous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
- A gentile asked Rabbi Joshua ben Karhah: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, speak to Moses from the midst of a thorn bush? He replied: Had He spoken from a carob or a sycamore, you would have asked the same question, but I cannot let you go away empty-handed. Why [did God speak to Moses] from the midst of a thorn bush? It is to teach you that there is no place that is devoid of the divine presence – even a thorn bush. (Shemot Rabbah 2:5)
- Sometime after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. (Exodus 2:11) The Holy One said to Moses, “You have put aside your work and have gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; I will also leave those on high and below and speak with you.” Therefore it is written, “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look” – because God saw that Moses turned aside from his duties to look upon their burdens, “God called to him out of the bush.” (Shemot Rabbah 1:27)
- Once the Kotzker Rebbe [Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, 1787-1859] asked his houseguests the following question: “Where does God abide?” The guests responded, “Surely the whole universe is filled with God’s glory.” The Rabbi of Kotzk answered, “God dwells wherever God is allowed to enter!” (Leket, From the Treasure House of Hassidism by Martin Buber)
Sparks for Discussion
Did God create the burning bush just for Moses, or had it been burning there all along? Had dozens of passersby seen it, thought “oh, a burning bush,” and kept right on walking? It’s not difficult to perceive the presence of God in the splitting of the sea, in the birth of a child, or in a spectacular sunset, but how can we learn to sense God in the ordinary and the everyday? What steps can we take to let God in?
2. How Will You Know If You Never Try?
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?... But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else your agent.” (Exodus 3:11-4:13)
- “Who am I” – of what importance am I to speak to kings? “and free the Israelites from Egypt” – and even if I am important, how did Israel merit that a miracle should be done for them and that I should bring them forth from Egypt? (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
- Rabbi Nehorai said, Moses said before the Holy One, You say to me: Go and bring out Israel. How can I take care of them in the summer because of the heat and in the winter because of the cold? Where will I find enough food and drink for them? How many midwives are there among them? How many pregnant women? How many infants? What food have You prepared for the midwives, what delicacies have You prepared for the pregnant, what parched grain and nuts have You prepared for the children? (Shemot Rabbah 3:4)
- Rabbi Hiyya the Great said: Moses said to God, Lord of the Universe – through me You wish to redeem the children of Abraham who acknowledged You as Lord over all Your creatures!?! “Make someone else Your agent!” Moses said, who is more beloved to a man, his nephew or his grandchild? Surely his grandchild. When You sought to save Lot, Abraham’s nephew, You sent angels to save him. The children of Abraham number 60 myriads and You would send me to deliver them! Send those [angels] whom You are accustomed to make Your agents! (Shemot Rabbah 3:21)
- [Pharaoh’s daughter] spied the basket [containing baby Moses] among the reeds and sent her slave girl (amata) to fetch it. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah explain amata differently. One said it means “her hand” and one said “her slave girl” . . . According to the one who says that it means “her hand,” why does it not explicitly say “her hand”?... The word amata [from amah, cubit] was used because her arm was lengthened [by a miracle that allowed her to reach the basket]. (Talmud Sotah 12b)
- [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Sparks for Discussion
Moses refuses God’s commission five times, arguing that he is not worthy, that the people will not believe him, and that he is not a man of words, but God rejects each of his excuses. Rabbi Hiyya, among others, attributes Moses’ reluctance to his great humility, for which Moses is praised elsewhere in the Torah. On the other hand, Rabbi Nehorai suggests that Moses may have been afraid that he would fail.
Often, when someone is asked to take on a challenging project or assume a leadership role, he or she refuses, claiming, “it’s impossible – I don’t have the time, there aren’t enough resources, someone else could do a better job.”
Why did Moses repeatedly refuse God’s mission, despite God’s assurance, “I will be with you”? Why did Pharaoh’s daughter stretch out her arm even though she knew there was no way it could reach the basket? Is it better to live with the humiliation of a public failure or the uncertainty about what would have happened if only you had tried?