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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemot
December 21, 2013 – 18 Tevet 5774

Annual (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1): Etz Hayim p. 317; Hertz p. 206
Triennial (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; Hertz p. 225

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

A new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” takes power in Egypt. Fearing the growing Israelite population, he enslaves them and orders that their newborn males be drowned. The heroic efforts of nurses Shifra and Puah prevent Israel's demise.

One of the Israelite women, Yocheved, places her baby boy in a basket and sends it down the river. Pharaoh's daughter discovers the basket and adopts the baby within, naming him Moses. The adult Moses kills a slavemaster and flees to Midian. There, he starts a family and becomes a shepherd.

Responding to Israel’s cries for freedom, God speaks to Moses in the presence of a burning bush, telling him to return to Egypt and to approach Pharaoh. Moses tries to dissuade God several times, but God is resolute, displaying examples of God's power, and promising that Aaron, Moses's older brother, would speak on his behalf. Moses's initial encounter with Pharaoh is fruitless, as Pharaoh adds to the Israelites’ burden.

Theme #1: Enemies of the People

And [Pharaoh] said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (Exodus 1:9-10)

In the years since Joseph’s arrival in Egypt, the Israelites had change from a large extended family to a significant presence in the Egyptian kingdom. For the first time in history, a foreign ruler addresses what he considers “the Jewish problem.”

The Egyptians took many occasions to hate us and envy us; the difference of our religion from theirs had occasioned great enmity between us, while our way of divine worship did as much exceed that which their laws appointed, as does the nature of God exceed that of brute beasts. Flavius Josephus, Anti-Judaism in Egypt

The motives of the Egyptians seem mixed. On the one hand, the midwives were to slay the male children. If the motive was to be freed of the Hebrews by preventing them from propagating, why retain them in slavery -- why not simply kill them or send them away? On the other hand, if they made good slaves, why seek to keep them from propagating and increasing? -- Samuel Sandmel, The Hebrew Scriptures

In the divine blessing that follows immediately upon the creation of human life as man and woman, [it is understood that] procreation [is] to bring about humanity on the earth, though this is probably to be understood quite specifically in relation to the creation of nations and communities. That is, the procreative dimension is also a culture-creating activity as well as a biological one. -- Patrick D. Miller, The Way of the Lord

Questions for Discussion:

Josephus, one of the earliest Jewish historians, attributes the Egyptian disregard of our ancestors to jealousy and feelings of unworthiness. Does the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” oppress the Israelites for this subconscious reason? Or does the text suggest that he acts out of strategy and nothing more? Is Pharaoh’s problem with Israel more personal or political? Is it difficult to make “shrewd” decisions that are “nothing personal, just business,” or are the two easily separated?

Sandmel raises an intriguing point about the paradoxical strategies of the Egyptians, yet one might conclude that the Egyptians hoped gradually to suppress the Israelite population while simultaneously forcing the Israelites to work. Was is Pharaoh’s “shrewdness” a model for how modern genocidal societies have operated? Or, was Pharaoh’s “shrewdness” simply hypocritical and ineffective?

Miller reminds us that the Israelite population boom not only resulted in a larger group with a similar background, but also the flowering of culture in the population. Was Egypt more interested in reducing the sheer number of Israelites, or more interested in reducing its cultural imprint on the kingdom? Is Pharaoh’s concern about the Israelites one day rising against the Egyptians a fair one? Or was it based on the fear that a divergent culture inevitably leads to conflict? Is this still a typical pattern of making hateful decisions based on fear of the unknown?

Theme #2: Town Criers

The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. (Exodus 2:23-24)

Up until this point, we don’t have a sense of the anguish felt by our ancestors under Egyptian oppression. It is their cry that moves God to act.

The redemption from bondage in Egypt, in turn, is based not on God’s opposition to slavery (neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament is opposed to slavery), but upon his prior covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the exodus, God fulfills his pledge to make the family of Abraham into a great nation with a land of its own and a byword of blessing. When the pledge is formulated as a covenant, God identifies himself thus: “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession,” in an obvious adumbration of the Sinaitic announcement that “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil

One may be very surprised that the Torah states that the Israelites groaned and screamed to God. We know that when a person worships, he should do so silently, so that others do not hear him. Here, however, it appears that the Israelites screamed out their prayers. However, the rule that prayer must be silent only applies to the Amidah, the silent standing prayer. If one prays out loud, he makes it seem as if God cannot hear silent prayer. But when a person is in anguish and prays to God for help, he must cry out, and weep, begging God to have mercy on him. Such a person is not screaming because God cannot otherwise hear, but because of the tremendous pain in his heart. --Me’am Lo’ez

The magicians of Egypt said to [the leprosy-stricken] Pharaoh: There is no cure for [your leprosy] unless we slay 150 Israelite

children in the evening and 150 in the morning, and you bathe twice daily in their blood. When the Israelites heard this decree, they began to groan and lament. … Rabbi Akiva said: Pharaoh’s executioners used to suffocate Israelites by immuring them in the walls of buildings. These [Israelites] would cry out from the structure, from its walls, and the Holy One heard their moaning. -- Exodus Rabbah and Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer

Questions for Discussion:

To Levenson, God’s commitment to liberating the Israelites is not based on their plight as slaves, but a fulfillment of a promise made to their ancestors. How does Levenson relate the Exodus to Abraham’s origins? And what does God’s response say about God’s feelings for the patriarchs; for the Israelite slaves themselves?

The Me’am Lo’ez suggests that the Israelite slaves cry out to God not because God had been particularly unresponsive in the past; rather, their loud reaction stems from excessive pain. When we hold back from crying out from pain for a long time, our screams can be extremely piercing when the time finally arrives to let our feelings show. How can we make our congregations safe places for people to let out their emotions? And how should we react when we encounter people with strong emotional displays, in a synagogue or elsewhere?

Rabbi Akiva tells us in the midrash that the Israelites’ groaning came not from “everyday” slavery conditions, but from torturous treatment of the Egyptians. Does an oppressor’s mentality necessarily lead to more inhumane treatment? In other words, once someone decides to dominate another, does the dominant party always try to dominate by any means necessary?

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