Our Parshah opens by once more listing the names (shemot) of the sons of Jacob who came with him to Egypt, where “the children of Israel were fruitful, and proliferated, and multiplied, and grew very, very strong; and the land was filled with them.”
As long as Jacob’s sons were alive, the children of Israel prospered in the land which Joseph had saved from starvation; but after the passing of Joseph and his brothers,
There arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and mightier than we.
“Come, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass that when any war should chance, they also join our enemies, and fight against us . . .”
The Egyptians’ way of dealing with their “Jewish problem” was to enslave the Jews. “They made their lives bitter with hard labor, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of work in the field.” And yet,
The king of Egypt summons two Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and commands them to kill all Jewish newborn males. When the midwives defy his instructions,
The Birth of Moses
The woman conceived and bore a son. She saw him, that he was good, and she hid him three months.
When she could not longer hide him, she took for him a box made of papyrus, and daubed it with clay and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the River’s brink.
The child’s older sister, Miriam, stands watch from a distance, “to know what would be done to him.”
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the River. . . . She saw the box among the rushes, and she sent her maid to fetch it.
She opened it and she saw the child: behold, a weeping boy. She had compassion on him, and said, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.”
Miriam approaches and offers the services of a Hebrew nursemaid. When Pharaoh’s daughter accepts, Miriam brings Jochebed, the child’s own mother, whom Pharaoh’s daughter hires to nurse and care for the child. When the child grows older, he is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter, who raises him as her son. She calls him Moses, “he who was drawn from the water.”
Flight from Egypt
It came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their suffering; and he saw an Egyptian hitting a Hebrew, one of his brothers.
“Who made you a prince and a judge over us?” comes the reply. “Do you say to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?”
Moses feared, and said: “Indeed, the thing is known.”
Moses’ fear materializes: word reaches Pharaoh, and Moses is sentenced to death. Moses flees to the land of Midian.
In Midian, Moses sits by a well. The daughters of Jethro, the priest of Midian, come to draw water for their father’s flocks, and are driven away by shepherds; Moses comes to their aid. Moses is subsequently invited to Jethro’s home, and marries one of the daughters, Zipporah. A son is born to them and named Gershom, “because I was a stranger (ger) in a foreign land.”
At the Burning Bush
Moses said: “I must turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”
. . . G‑d called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moses! Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
And He said: “Do not come near; remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.
“I am the G‑d of your father, the G‑d of Abraham, the G‑d of Isaac and the G‑d of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon G‑d.
G‑d said: “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cries at the hand of their oppressors, for I know their pain . . .
“Come now, therefore, and I will send you to Pharaoh, that you shall bring My people the children of Israel out of Egypt.”
“Who am I,” objects Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
“I will be with you,” answers G‑d, and tells Moses the ultimate goal of the Exodus: “When you bring the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G‑d upon this mountain” (upon which the people of Israel will receive the Torah).
Says Moses: “When I come to the children of Israel, and say to them, ‘The G‑d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ they will say to me: ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”
G‑d then gives Moses detailed directions on how to proceed, and how the Exodus will come about:
Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them: “The L‑rd, the G‑d of your fathers, has appeared to me, saying: I have surely remembered (pakod pakadati) you, and that which is done to you in Egypt. So I have said: I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
They will listen to your voice. You shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: “The L‑rd, the G‑d of the Hebrews, has met with us. Now let us go, please, three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to G‑d . . .”
Now I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, not by a mighty hand. I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with all my wonders which I will do in their midst, and after that he will let you go.
And when you go, you shall not go emptyhanded: every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of the one who lives in her house, vessels of silver and vessels of gold, and garments, and you shall despoil Egypt.
But they won’t believe me that You indeed appeared to me, says Moses. G‑d responds by giving him a number of supernatural “signs” to perform: Moses’ staff turns into a serpent and back to a stick; his hand becomes covered with leprosy, and is miraculously healed. If these two signs do not suffice, says G‑d, take water from the Nile, and it will turn to blood.
Moses has a further objection: “O please, my G‑d, I am not a man of words, also not yesterday, also not the day before, also not since You are speaking to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.”
To which G‑d responds:
“Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, G‑d? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you should say.”
The anger of G‑d burned against Moses, and He said: “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he comes to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. . . . He shall be your spokesman to the people . . .
“You shall take this staff in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs.”
“Let My People Go”
G‑d appears to Aaron and sends him to the desert to meet Moses. In Egypt, the brothers assemble the elders of Israel. Aaron conveys the message of redemption from G‑d, and Moses performs the signs. “The people believed.”
After that, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: “Thus says the L‑rd, G‑d of Israel: Let My people go, that they may observe a festival for Me in the wilderness.”
Pharaoh said: “Who is G‑d, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I know not G‑d, nor will I let Israel go.”
Not only does Pharaoh refuse their demand—he increases the burden of labor on his Hebrew slaves, commanding their taskmasters:
“You shall no longer give the people straw to make brick, as before: let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quantity of the bricks which they have previously made you shall require from them; you shall not diminish any of it.”
When the Jewish officers complain to Moses that his visit to Pharaoh has only made things worse, he can bear it no longer:
Moses returned to G‑d and said: “My G‑d, why have You done evil to this nation?! Why have You sent me?!
“For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done worse to this nation; and You have not saved Your people.”
G‑d said to Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land.”