Parashat Shemot / פרשת שמות
Torah Portion: Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Exodus or Shemot. The first five chapters of this epic tale tell of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the birth and rescue of Moses, the call from God to Moses to free the Israelites, Moses and Aaron’s initial confrontation with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh’s response to Moses and Aaron, which is to exact upon the Israelites even harsher, more oppressive measures. The reading ends, however, on this hopeful note: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land'” (Exodus 6:1). We all know what happens next.
Shemot, whether the book or the parashah, presents much for us to ponder:
- What can we learn about gratitude from this story? The Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” (Ex. 1:8) shows no hint of gratitude to Joseph for his critical role in helping Egypt survive a terrible famine years earlier. Moses, on the other hand, demonstrates deep gratitude for his lineage (2:11-13) and heeds God’s command to free his kin.
- How remarkable are the heroines of the Exodus story who courageously defy Pharaoh through acts of civil disobedience! Two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, let Hebrew boys live, despite Pharaoh’s order to all the midwives to kill them at birth (1:15-17). Later, Moses’s place their 3-month old son in a sealed wicker basket and float him down the Nile, where, too, Pharaoh’s daughter acts heroically by recovering baby Moses from the river. Pharaoh’s daughter even heeds the advice of a Hebrew girl to summon a Hebrew woman to suckle the baby. Unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter, the girl and the woman are none other than Moses’s own sister and mother (2:1-10)!
- Does it matter that biblical scholars long ago deduced that the story of the Exodus is more story than history, that there is no archeological record of someone named Moses nor of a trek by over a million Israelites through the wilderness, and that the story itself points more importantly to Israel’s growth as a nation with God at its center?
These are just a few aspects of the Exodus story that should cause us to stop and think. In fact, the questions that arise and the lessons that emerge through a close reading of this book are without number. In the weeks ahead, I will share just a handful of observations in an effort to shed light on certain parts of the story and to make help the story as a whole more meaningful for my readers.
This week, though, let me refer you to two essays and a collection of essays that address the three items I highlighted above: gratitude, civil disobedience, and historicity. I am sure you will find all these pieces interesting and informative:
- Rabbi Shai Held writes on “Gratitude and Liberation” at http://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-resource/gratitude-and-liberation. You can read more of Rabbi Held’s commentaries on the weekly Torah portions at http://www.mechonhadar.org/torah-category/weekly-divrei-torah.
- Several Modern Orthodox rabbis address civil disobedience in the opening chapters of Exodus in the weekly e-publication “Toras Aish: Thoughts from Across the Torah Spectrum” at http://www.aishdas.org/ta/ta.pdf, which you can subscribe to at http://www.aishdas.org/ta/.
- Finally, the fact that the Book of Exodus demands our attention despite lacking a solid foundation in history is discussed convincingly by Professor Carl S. Ehrlich in his essay “The Exodus Story as Jewish Mnemohistory” at http://thetorah.com/the-exodus-story-as-jewish-mnemohistory/. (In recent months, I have added thetorah.com to my list of online “go-to” sources for inspiration and learning about the weekly parashah, a list which already included Rabbi Held’s site at mechonhadar.org and Toras Aish. Note, by the way, that thetorah.COM is distinct from thetorah.ORG, which will connect you to the website of Chabad, itself a valuable source of traditional and Chassidic insights into Torah and Judaism.)
Enjoy your learning and feel free to be in touch with comments and questions. I look forward exploring Exodus with you.