Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1
Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.
After much persuasion, Moses agrees to accept God’s mission to go to Pharaoh. The slavery and sufferings of the Children of Israel have gone too far. The time for God to fulfill His promises to the Patriarchs is at hand. Moses appears before Pharaoh as God’s emissary, bearing the message:
"Thus says Hashem, God of Israel: ‘Let My people go, and they will celebrate for Me in the desert’" (Shemot 5:1).
And now, the process of deliverance will begin. But, it does not.
The Beginning of Salvation
Instead, Pharaoh refuses to listen to any message in the name of God. Moses and Aaron’s protestations and explanations are of no avail. Pharaoh, sensing the beginnings of a slave uprising that could sweep across all Egypt, intensifies the oppression: no straw, which is essential for producing the bricks for the Egyptian national building project, will be provided, yet the Hebrew slaves will be expected to produce the same quota of bricks.
The Egyptian taskmasters impose this rule on the Hebrew officers, who pass it on to the Hebrew slaves. The slaves are unable to keep up with the workload, and the Hebrew officers are beaten on the slaves’ account. The officers complain to Moses and Aaron, and call upon God to judge between them. The Hebrews’ situation has never been so bleak.
This is how salvation begins?!
Moses pleads his case before God:
And Moses returned to God and said, "Lord, why have You done badly to this people? Why is it that You sent me? For, from the time that I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, it has been bad for your people, nor have You saved Your people" (5:22-23).
Moses’s words are the subject of some discussion among the commentaries. Not all of them accept Rashi’s critical reading, that Moshe is questioning the ways of God, for which he is punished.
Moses Seeks Guidance
Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) argues that Moses knows Pharaoh will not agree without miracles and plagues (as has been foretold in 3:19 and 4:21), so he is not surprised that Pharaoh does not relent immediately. But, Moses thought that the process leading to redemption would at least begin now, gradually, with some relief of the slaves’ plight.
Instead, their sufferings increase! Moses declares: I do not understand why this has happened, neither do I know what to say to the Israelite officers, nor why I was chosen to be the agent of greater suffering. Moses is asking for understanding and guidance.
Rabbenu Chananel (11th century Tunisian commentator) further asserts that Moses is asking so that he may understand to what end God is allowing this evil to occur.
Moses asks the timeless question of the problem of evil: why do the innocent suffer and why do the guilty prosper? Could the Israelites have sinned? Or, are they suffering to make them deserving of greater reward, as it says, In order to afflict you and in order to try you, so as to benefit you in your end (Deuteronomy 8:16)? Could the Egyptians possibly be entitled to some reward for some good they have done? Or, are they being prepared for greater punishment later?
Moses Receives An Explanation
God’s answer to Moshe concludes our portion:
And God said to Moses, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, that with a strong hand will he release them, and with a strong hand will he expel them from his land" (6:1).
And now the process of deliverance is underway.
The fundamental question about this episode remains: Why did God allow this to happen? How did this suffering further the goal of liberation?
Again, the commentaries focus on the different elements of these events:
Chizkuni (R. Chizkiya ben Manoach, mid 13th century commentator) focuses on the Egyptian people: When the slaves spread out through the whole land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw (5:12), the slaves must not have found the straw easily, which means that all the Egyptians prevented them. This demonstrated the complicity of the Egyptian people in the oppression of the Hebrew slaves. The Egyptians could not subsequently complain that they did not deserve to be punished along with Pharaoh.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (19th century German scholar) focuses on Pharaoh: Despite the reasonable requests made by Moshe to Pharaoh, he stubbornly refuses. Therefore, it is evident what kind of a hard-hearted man Pharaoh is, and thus, the only way to deal with him will be through the plagues.
Rabbenu Chananel focuses on Hashem: As a result of this episode, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will be punished even more, and the Israelites will be rewarded even more. This event occurs so as to demonstrate Hashem’s justice in the world.
Indeed, all three explanations show Hashem’s justice: Chizkuni emphasizes that the Egyptian people deserve punishment; Hirsch points out that Pharaoh could not be reasoned with; and Rabbenu Chananel argues that Hashem rewards the deserving and punishes the guilty.
A Prototype for Liberation
We might add: The liberation from Egypt is the prototype for all future liberations, although it is the most miraculous of them all. Still, it is the model by which all future redemptions would be measured. If the Egyptian redemption had occurred smoothly, then whenever in the future the Israelites would require salvation, any setbacks would signify that no redemption is forthcoming, and the Jewish people would despair.
The way of God is not always understood, even by those who are closest to Him, except perhaps in retrospect. There is Divine justice, but the road to salvation is not always direct. There will be hazards along the way, fluctuations of fortune, setbacks and loss of hope. But redemption will come. And when it does, every part of the journey will be understood and justified.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.