Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
A New Pharaoh Rises
The sons of Israel in Egypt were fruitful in births, and the people grew strong. Now a new Pharaoh rose up over Egypt who knew nothing of Joseph. This Pharaoh was worried that the Israelite nation was too mighty. First he levied a tax on them, then he decided to make them slaves.
Next, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill all the Hebrew baby boys. But the midwives feared God and told Pharaoh that the Hebrew woman gave birth before they could arrive. God dealt well with the midwives and the Hebrews continued to multiply. The Pharaoh then commanded the people to throw every Hebrew baby boy into the river.
Moses is Born
Now, a Hebrew couple from the house of Levi had a son and kept him hidden for three months. When the mother could hide him no longer, she wove a basket, laid the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the banks of the river. Her sister placed herself at a distance to see what would happen to him.
When the Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe, she saw the basket with the crying child. She took pity on him so that when the baby’s sister asked, “Shall I call a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby for you?” she said yes. The sister then fetched her mother. When the child had grown sufficiently, the mother brought him to the Pharaoh’s daughter. She named him Moses because “I drew him from the water.”
Moses Strikes an Egyptian
When Moses was an adult, he could see the burdens of his Hebrew brethren. One day, he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man. Moses turned this way and that and when he saw that no one was there, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
The next day Moses came upon two Hebrew men fighting. Moses said to the one in the wrong. “Why are you striking down your neighbor?” The man replied, “Who has made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
“So the matter is known,” Moses said in fear.
Pharaoh heard too, and sought to kill Moses. Moses thus fled to the land of Midian. There he watered the sheep for the daughters of the priest of Midian and later married the priest’s daughter, Tzipporah. She bore a son whom he called Gershom, for “I was a stranger in a foreign land.”
In Egypt Pharaoh died, but the sons of Israel remained slaves. God heard the Hebrew slaves’ cry of distress and remembered the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Burning Bush
Meanwhile Moses was tending sheep for his father-in-law, Yithro, near the mountain of God at Horeb. An angel of God appeared to him in the heart of a fire from the midst of a thorn bush. He saw and lo! the thorn bush was on fire but was not consumed. Moses looked at this great sight and went to see why the thorn bush did not burn up.
God called to Moses from the middle of the bush, “Moses, Moses.”
“Here I am!” Moses said.
“Do not step here!” said God. “Take off your shoes for the place you are standing on is ground with a holy destiny. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look toward God.
God continued, “I have seen the affliction of My people in Egypt and have heard their cries as slaves. Now I have come down to rescue them from the hand of Egypt and bring them to a good and spacious land, a land that can flow with milk and honey. Now, therefore go, I will send you to Pharaoh and to bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”
“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” asked Moses.
“I will be with you. If you will bring the people out from Egypt, you will become the servants of God upon this mountain.”
“But,” Moses said, “when I tell this to the sons of Israel, they will ask me ‘What is God’s name?'”
“I shall be that which I wish to be,” replied God. “So say to them, ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob has sent me to you.’ This is My Name for the distant future and this is My memorial for every generation. Go and gather the elders of Israel and tell them. They will hearken to your voice. Then go to Pharaoh and say, ‘God, the God of the Hebrews has met with us and now please let us go on a three day’s journey into the wilderness to offer up a sacrifice to God, our God.’”
God Gives Moses The Signs
“Now,” God continued, “I know that Pharaoh will not let you go, not even by the threat of a mighty hand. Then I will stretch out My hand and strike down Egypt with all My miracles. After that, he will send you away and you shall leave with gold and silver and clothing.”
“But what if they do not believe that God appeared to me.”
“What is that in your hand?” God said.
“Throw it on the ground.”
Moses threw his staff on the ground and it turned into a serpent and Moses fled from it.
“Put out your hand,” God said “and grasp it by its tail.” Moses did and it turned back into a staff.
God then had Moses put his hand to his chest. When Moses took out his hand, it turned leprous. When he put it back into his chest, it turned to flesh again.
“If they do not believe the first sign,” said God, “they will believe the second sign. But if they still do not believe, you shall take the waters of the river and pour it on dry land. The water will then turn into blood.”
“O Lord, I am not a man who is good at speaking.”
“Who has made man’s mouth or who makes one mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, God? And now, go! I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say.”
“Oh Lord,” said Moses. “Please send this message through someone else.”
Then the anger of God was kindled against Moses. God said, “Aaron, your brother, will gladly speak for you. Behold! He is coming to meet you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what you shall do. And you shall take into your hand this staff with which you are to perform the signs.”
So Moses took his wife and his sons and returned to Egypt.
Let My People Go
God said to Moses, “You shall perform convincing wonders before Pharaoh, but I shall harden his heart and he will not let the people go until you will say to Pharaoh: This is what God has said, ‘Israel is My son, My first-born. I have told you, let My son go so that he may serve Me, but you have refused to let him go. I will therefore kill your own son, your own first-born.’”
God told Aaron to meet Moses. Moses told Aaron what God said. Moses and Aaron then gathered the elders of the sons of Israel. Aaron uttered the words that God had spoken to Moses and the signs were performed. The people bowed their heads in trust.
Afterwards, Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh saying, “God, the God of Israel says: ‘Let My people go so that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.’”
“Who is God that I should let Israel go?” said Pharaoh. “I do not know God and I will not let Israel go.” That same day Pharaoh commanded that the slaves were to no longer to be given straw to prepare bricks. “Instead,” said Pharaoh, “the slaves are to go and gather themselves their own straw. But the quota of bricks they are to make remains the same. Because they are lazy, they cry for this holiday to worship their God.”
The Hebrew slaves went to Moses and Aaron and said, “May God look down upon you and judge, because you have brought us into foul odor in the eyes of Pharaoh!”
Moses returned to God and said, “My Lord! For what purpose have you made this misfortune for the people? Why did You send me to do this? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, Pharaoh has abused the people even more and You have not rescued Your people even from this?”
And God said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh; for by a strong hand will he let them go. Indeed, by a strong hand will he drive them out of his land!”
Parashat Shemot Discussion Questions
1. God heard the cry of the Hebrew slaves. Do you feel God hears your cries of distress? How can you tell if God is listening? How can you tell if God cares?
2. Do you think God could make a burning bush not consume from the fire? Why or why not?
3. God tells Moses what actions to take and how Pharaoh will respond. God foresees exactly what will happen. Do you believe that God foresees what will happen to people? What do you think God foresees for you?
4. Moses wants proof to show the elders of Israel that God spoke to him. What proof would you give that God speaks to you?
5. Do you believe that God makes people mute or deaf or seeing or blind? Why or why not?
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Family & Life!