25 Tevet 5781

Exodus 1:1- 6:1

This week, we begin the second of the five books of the Torah, Shemot also called by our sages “HaSefer Hageulah” (the Book of Redemption). Everything that happens in this book takes place within a community, where the main player is the people, unlike the book of Bereshit which highlights the individual and in which we learn the history of the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

With the death of Yosef, the era of the patriarchs ends and the chronicle of the creation of the nation of Israel from Jacob’s descendants begins. Here a nation will be formed from the people who left Egypt.

The book of Exodus is “Sh’mot” in Hebrew, meaning “names” and begins with a list of the names of Jacob’s sons who emigrated to Egypt from the land of Canaan, after Joseph’s reunion with his brothers and their father. Although the Torah previously mentioned the names of Jacob’s sons during his life, it mentions them again after his death to show us how important they were to the Creator and how much He loved them. The children of Israel are compared to the stars of heaven which are numbered by God. And just as the stars illuminate the world, the children of Israel are called to be “ohr l’goyim”, light to the nations. God calls each of them by name to highlight the importance of their identity. They were exiles in Egypt while having to retain their identity as the people of Israel. It is like releasing fish into the sea but taking care to put a device on them that allows us to know where they are when we want to retrieve them. Thus, the people of Israel were in Egypt but had a particular identity that was evidenced by their attachment to the Torah and their call to non-assimilation.

Our sages made an acrostic of the word “SHEMOT”: Shabbat, Milah, and Tefillin which are all signs. According to the Torah: Shabbat, “is a sign between Me (God) and you” (Ex. 31:13); Milah (circumcision) He said, “circumcise the flesh of your foreskins as a sign of a covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:11) and Tefillin, indicates that “it will be a sign upon your arm and your forehead” (Ex. 13:16). We will see throughout the study of this book how the Creator showed signs and wonders in His process of liberating the people of Israel.

After several generations in Egypt, the Hebrews were strengthened in such a way that the land of Goshen, granted to Joseph by Pharaoh where their families could settle, was already too small for them, which is why the Israelites began to expand into the other provinces of the country and to flourish economically.

According to the Torah, it is evident that Jacob’s descendants quickly became numerous and energetic as we read about their departure from Egypt later on in Exodus 12:37 (Parashat Bo): “And the children of Israel traveled, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides the children“.  Without mathematically calculating how the people could multiply in such a way, it is undoubted, according to the above, that there was an unprecedented demographic phenomenon caused by the Creator of the Universe for the benefit of the Israelites and whose ultimate goal was the transformation of the house of Jacob into the Nation of Israel. A conflictive situation was created with the Egyptian government resulting in the emancipation of the Hebrew people from their yoke of slavery and, thanks to God’s intervention, revealed that His unlimited power was greater than all the Egyptian deities.

In this second book and until the end of the Torah, in Devarim, we will delve into the life of Moses when in chapter 2, he makes his appearance. Moses is described in the Torah as the greatest prophet that the Hebrew people have had throughout their history. In verse 2 of this chapter, it is said that: “the woman conceived and bore a son and seeing that he was good (handsome), she hid him for 3 months“. What does the Torah mean when it says, “he was good”? Don’t all mothers see their children as “good”? Rashi states that when Moses was born, the entire house was illuminated; then he understood that the mother saw that her child was “special”.

We must not forget the important role of the Hebrew midwives, Puah and Shifra in the development of this story. Thanks to their praiseworthy action, the entire Hebrew people were blessed: they multiplied and strengthened against all logic. The Bore Olam recognized the good deed of these midwives and prospered their families: “For having feared GOD.” There is no mention here of expressions such as “loyalty to the Hebrew people”, or “compliance with the basic norms of respect for human life”, or “the importance of refraining from being an accomplice in a crime against humanity”. These undoubtedly were, are, and will always be the norms of conduct to bear in mind in every situation, but it was simply the “fear of GOD”, a quality that implicates every one of those listed above. What a beautiful lesson these midwives give us! Can we find any similarities between Pharaoh’s decree to kill children and the legalization of abortion so much debated today? I believe so. How many evils would be avoided if people had the fear of GOD in them before committing any crime!

With the events narrated here, we might ask ourselves: Why did GOD choose Moses? He was a man with a “heavy tongue”. Why did GOD use Aaron as an intermediary so that Moses could be understood? Perhaps that was exactly what GOD wanted… to raise up a leader whose imperfections were evident so that the people would not look up to the leader but would instead focus upon the message he brought. 

Interestingly, the name “Moshe” is not a past participle as it should be, as it has been understood; that name was given to him because he was taken out of the waters by Pharaoh’s daughter. According to the medieval rabbi Ovadia Seforno, it means “the one who is drawn from the waters” in the present tense, which would then be interpreted as the child who will save the people from the waters: placed in a “Teva” (basket or ark) and be saved from the waters and then be ” savior of the people. ” The word “Teva” is mentioned in the Torah only twice: first in the account of the flood in Bereshit and the second in this second chapter of Shemot with Moses. In both cases, it is about the protection of GOD in the midst of the waters. Water is the container of life and holds unlimited benefits for living beings. The water that the Torah symbolizes, is the vital force that drives man towards his Creator.

The Hebrews suffered inordinate punishment and bitter slavery. The incident where Moses killed the Egyptian and the fight between the Hebrew brothers, after which he fled, present us with a man committed to the Hebrew cause and for whom what happened to his compatriots was important. These two conflicts are presented to us here for us to know the personality of the future great prophet and also to see how chaotic the situation regarding the people of Israel was at that time. 

The qualities of Moses’ personality are of utmost importance in understanding the reason that he was chosen by the Creator to free the people from Pharaoh despite the facts that he did not suffer the oppression of the Egyptian yoke and that he had a “very comfortable” childhood, in stark contrast to the hardships and privations of his countrymen.

In Chapter 3, we read the story of the burning bush. Apparently what caught the attention of Moses was not the presence of the angel of the Eternal, but the fact that the bush was not consumed. This was because the angel was in the fire, but Moses could not physically discern it; what was an illusion for him was a flame-resistant bush.  This story depicts a beautiful metaphor comparing the burning bush with the people of Israel who many have tried to “consume” on numerous occasions but since GOD is always within its bosom, even though it cannot be physically perceived, Israel becomes that everlasting bush.

The direct link between GOD and Moses, without intermediaries, is evidenced by the fact that GOD calls Moses by name and not the angel.

GOD gives the order to Moses to go before Pharaoh to free the people and Moses asks him: “But who am I? Why me? And GOD answers:” Because I am with you. Is there a more powerful reason to encourage us to “go” other than the fact that the Creator of the Universe is with us?

Moses appears to be a mistrustful and unpredictable man who only obeys orders when they are imposed upon him and is not considered fit to fulfill the honorable commission of liberating the people of Israel from the Egyptian yoke. However, he possessed an impulsive personality, and we cannot ignore the special qualities he showed on several occasions reflected in his determination and courage to fight against injustice. Having been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace, he understood the value of freedom.

When we analyze Exodus 5 verses 22 and 23, it is obvious that Moses vigorously challenged the Eternal, because he doubted the efficacy of His plan to save Israel. He felt greatly disappointed, helpless, and even experienced a sense of deep self-guilt for having personally caused the horrible situation that he had brought upon the Israelites, and everything that was happening was in total contradiction to his intense sense of justice. 

In any case, and although his self-accusation is supported by this strong reality, it is undoubtedly born from an unthinking reaction, since he should have remembered the early warning expressed by GOD, that Pharaoh would not let the people go and that therefore, his mission was not going to be easy.

However, what has become clear in this passage and cannot be ruled out, is Moshe’s courageous attitude who, by assuming total responsibility for what happened to his people, faced GOD without hesitation; in harsher terms, he exposed himself to questions and appeals to Divine wrath and punishment.

But the most fascinating thing about this passage is that his thoughtless attitude clearly coincides with the unique personality of this great protagonist of the Torah. Contrary to what we could have foreseen, the Bore Olam does not get angry with Moses for the harshness of his recriminations; He does not respond to him according to his accusations nor does he try to justify Himself to them since He surely understood the reasons that prompted Moses to act this way.  On the contrary, GOD simply and quickly exposed what would happen, adopting a pragmatic attitude toward His emissary.  

The Eternal is not inflamed by the apparent lack of respect towards Him, knowing that words expressed by people mired in moments of anguish and pain should not be taken seriously. Neither does GOD attack Moses nor reproach him; what happened was already foretold by Him in Midian, so as not to deepen the open wounds in the soul of his envoy with an unnecessary sermon to find those responsible for the situation for which he, Moshe, would have had to come up with a solution.

In this episode, the Eternal only wishes to reassure His stunned prophet, granting him what he needed most: the balm that represented his immediate reaction to his reproaches, and that was fully expressed in his definite promise of freedom for the people of Israel.

Of course, these are all only speculations, because we cannot claim to know the “mind of our Creator”. The wonderful experience of learning the content of the Torah is based upon study, analysis, and “venturing to decipher” the magnificent content of the Eternal’s word. Baruch Hashem for the opportunity!!

Shabbat Shalom!!

Alejandro Alvarado