Seeing The Broader Picture

The differences between the midwives' encounter with Pharaoh and the officers' and taskmasters' encounter teach us to appreciate the context of biblical narratives.

Commentary on Parashat Shemot, Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

This week, we begin the Book of Exodus with Parashat Shemot. Setting the stage for the events that will unfold throughout the book and the rest of the Torah, this portion introduces us to many central characters, including Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Pharaoh, and Jethro.

Pharaoh & The Midwives

At both the portion’s beginning and at its end, we read of two groups of “minor characters.” Each group undergoes an encounter with Pharaoh that follows a somewhat parallel sequence of events. However, a critical aspect differentiates the ways in which the Torah portrays these episodes. By examining these two narratives and the difference between them, we can appreciate some of the nuances of the Torah’s literary methodology.

In Exodus 1:15, Pharaoh summons two Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and commands them to carry out an evil decree: every boy born to a Jewish woman is to be killed. However, “fearing the Lord,” the midwives don’t heed Pharaoh, and allow the newborn boys to live.

When Pharaoh confronts them, asking why they have not acted in accordance with his wishes, the midwives concoct an excuse. They claim that the Jewish women bear their children “like animals,” and that by the time the midwife arrives, the baby already is born. The Torah tells us that God favored the midwives for their courage by rewarding them “with homes” (i.e. families), while the people’s numbers continued to swell.

Pitting Jew vs. Jew

Toward the end of the portion, in Exodus 5:6, Pharaoh issues a new decree. Until this point, the Egyptians had provided the Jewish slaves with straw in order to assemble the bricks necessary for their work. Now, in retaliation for Moses asking that the people be set free, Pharaoh orders that the Jews themselves shall be responsible for collecting the straw, yet they will be held accountable to maintain the same output of bricks as before.

This decree was delivered to the taskmasters and officers (nogsim and shotrim).

According to an interpretation by Rashi, the well-known 11th century commentator, the taskmasters were Egyptian, while the officers were Jewish. The taskmasters oversaw the officers, who in turn were responsible for directly supervising the slaves, their own brothers. Thus, the Egyptians pitted Jew against Jew, threatening the officers with severe punishment if they didn’t spur their brothers to produce enough.

The royal decree put the Jewish officers in a position similar to that of the midwives; they are expected to inflict a terrible punishment on their brethren. In fact, when the overburdened slaves fail to meet the quotas of bricks set for them, it’s the officers who endure lashes for not adequately motivating them.

Like the midwives, the officers advocate on behalf of the people. But while the midwives do so covertly by neglecting to enforce Pharaoh’s decree, the officers protest openly, actually bringing their and the slaves’ complaint to the throne of Pharaoh himself: “There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they [the taskmasters] say to us, ‘Make brick,’ and behold, thy servants are beaten, but the fault is in thine own people'” (Exodus 5:16). However, their pleas fall on deaf ears, as Pharaoh refuses to retract his edict, and the Jews still must fetch their own straw to build bricks.

In comparing the episodes of the midwives and the officers, the question emerges, why is no divine reward mentioned for the officers? While the Torah explicitly states that God approves of the midwives’ actions and blesses them with families of their own, no similar statement appears in the officers’ case.

Further, while the Torah doesn’t mention any royal punishment inflicted on the midwives for ignoring Pharaoh’s orders, the officers suffer whippings on behalf of the slaves they supervise. Don’t such sacrifices merit a reward from heaven?

Rashi comments that the officers in fact were rewarded. He says that when the Jews left slavery, it was these same officers who comprised the Sanhedrin, the great court, and thus who shared in some of the divine inspiration that Moses himself had received. According to Rashi, this privilege was due to the compassion and sacrifice that they’d demonstrated in Egypt.

Reward for the Officers

While Rashi’s commentary may satisfy our concern for the welfare of the officers, the question remains: why does the Torah record a reward for the midwives, but not for the officers?

The answer is based on understanding the Torah’s purpose in relating each of these stories. In the episode of the midwives, Pharaoh is running scared. Seeing that the Jews are multiplying rapidly, he fears for his country’s safety. He enslaves the Jews, and his decree is one of his attempts to decrease their numbers. However, God has other plans: “And as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Jews], they [the Jews] would continue to multiply and spread out” (Exodus 1:12).

Fulfilling Their Destiny

No matter what tactic Pharaoh tries, the Jews continue their destined transition from family to nation. Thus, when the verse records the reward given to the midwives–they themselves merit families–it is part and parcel of the Torah’s overall narrative thread, i.e., that the Jews continue to multiply.

This contrasts with the episode of the officers. Earlier in the parashah, God appears to Moses, and commands him to go to Egypt and to lead the Jews to freedom. However, God warns Moses that, as part of the divine plan, Pharaoh will be stubborn, and refuse to free the people.

Against this background, when we read of the officers and their valiant but fruitless attempt to ease the slaves’ burden, their efforts serve as an illustration of Pharaoh’s unflinching stubbornness and impudence in the face of God’s wishes. In a sense, the passage is not about the officers at all–it’s about Pharaoh. Therefore, it’s unnecessary to mention the reward given to the officers; to do so, in fact, would divert our attention from the matter at hand, the God-Pharaoh encounter.

This literary value of appreciating the “larger picture” is meaningful to each of our lives. In an age of hastily-forwarded emails, media sound-bytes, and frenetic transfer of information, it’s easy–perhaps inevitable–for us to view things out of context. But if we’re to judge others fairly and otherwise act responsibly, we must slow down and seek out that context, to ensure that we understand things as they truly are. If we do so, we’ll avoid the pitfalls that eventually ensnare those who don’t.

Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

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