And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt . . . Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah (Exodus 1:1–2)
Although G‑d had already counted them in their lifetime, He again counted them at the time of their death, to express His love for them. For they are like the stars, which He takes out and brings in by number and name, as it is written (Isaiah 40:26): “He takes out their hosts by number; He calls them each by name.”
Joseph, who lived 110 years, was the shortest-lived of the brothers; Levi, who lived 137, was the longest-lived. Hence, the enslavement of Israel, which began after Levi’s death, was no longer than 116 years (the period from Levi's passing to the Exodus), and no shorter than 86, the age of Miriam at the time of the Exodus (Miriam, meaning “bitterness,” was so named on account of the bitterness of the exile).
“Loathe positions of authority” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:10), for they bury those who hold them. Was not Joseph among the youngest of his brothers? Yet he was the first of them to die.
(Avot d’Rabbi Natan)
They would give birth to six at a time (fruitful=1, proliferated=2, multiplied=3, grew strong=4, very=5, very=6).
(Midrash Tanchuma; Rashi)
Some say it was actually a new king; others say that it was the same king with new decrees. “Who knew not Joseph”—who acted as if he did not know Joseph (since, in either case, he surely knew about Joseph and his salvation of Egypt).
Pharaoh himself took hold of a basket and shovel; all who saw Pharaoh with a basket and shovel, and working in bricks, did likewise. The Jews came too, and diligently worked with him all day, for they were strong and brawny. When evening fell, Pharaoh placed taskmasters over them, and said: “Count how many bricks they made.” He then said to the Hebrews: “This number you shall deliver to me each and every day,” appointing the Egyptian taskmasters over Hebrew officers, and the Hebrew officers over the people.
Said Rabbi Akiva: In the merit of the righteous women of that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.
At first, Pharaoh insisted only that they make the prescribed number of bricks each day. Then he commanded that they should not be allowed to sleep in their homes, so that they should not be able to have children. So the taskmasters said to them: “If you go home to sleep, you will lose a few hours each morning from your work, when we send for you, and you will never complete the allotted number.” So they made them sleep on the ground out in the field.
What did the daughters of Israel do? They would go down to draw water from the river, and G‑d would send them small fish into their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fish. They then set two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish. They sold the fish and bought wine, which they carried to their husbands in the field, and washed, anointed and fed them, and gave them to drink. They would then take out their mirrors and look into them with their husbands, teasing them, “Look, I am more beautiful than you,” thus arousing their desire and cohabiting with them at the borders of the fields, as it is written: “When you lie between the borders” (Psalms 68:14). (It was these mirrors which G‑d later commanded Moses to use in the making of the washstand in the Sanctuary—see Exodus 38:8.)
After the women had conceived, they returned to their homes. When the time of childbirth arrived, they went and were delivered in the field beneath the apple trees, as it is written: “Under the apple tree I brought you forth” (Song of Songs 8:5). G‑d sent an angel from the high heavens who washed and straightened the limbs [of the babies] in the same way as a midwife straightens the limbs of a child, as it is said: “As for your nativity, on the day that you were born, your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you” (Ezekiel 16:4). He also provided for them two round stones, one for oil and one for honey, as it is said: “He made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil from a boulder” (Deuteronomy 32:13).
When the Egyptians noticed them, they went to kill them; but a miracle occurred and [the children] were swallowed up in the ground. The Egyptians brought oxen and plowed over them, as it is said: “The plowers plowed upon my back” (Psalms 129:3). After they had departed, they broke through the earth and came forth like the grass of the field, as it is said: “I caused you to multiply like the plants of the field” (Ezekiel 16:7). When the children had grown up, they came in flocks to their homes. When G‑d revealed Himself by the Red Sea, these children recognized Him first, as it is said: “This is my G‑d and I will praise Him” (Exodus 15:2).
(Midrash Tanchuma; Talmud, Sotah 11b)
What is the meaning of the verse (Jeremiah 11:16) in which the Jewish people are called “a leafy olive tree, fair with beautiful fruit”? The olive is marked out for harvesting while it is yet on its tree, after which it is brought down from the tree and beaten, and after it has been beaten it is brought up to the vat and placed in a grinding mill, where it is ground and then tied up with ropes, and then stones are brought, and then at last it yields its oil. So it is with Israel: the heathens come and beat them about from place to place, imprison them and bind them in chains, and surround them with officers, and then at last do Israel repent and G‑d answers them.
He imposed the same decree upon his own people. Said Rabbi Yosei ben Rabbi Chanina: He made three decrees. First [he instructed the midwives,] “If it is a son, then you shall kill him”; then he commanded, “Every [Hebrew] son that is born you shall throw into the river”; and finally, “Pharaoh commanded all his people,” imposing the same decree upon his own people.
(Talmud, Sotah 12a)
Pharaoh did not merely allow the Jewish girls to live; he commanded to “make them live” (techayun, in the Hebrew).
Pharaoh’s decree of annihilation against the Jewish people consisted of two parts: to throw every Jewish newborn male into the Nile, and to make live every female. The boys were to be physically murdered. The girls were to be murdered spiritually by making them live the Egyptian life, by indoctrinating them into the perverse lifestyle of Egypt.
The boys were to be drowned in the Nile. The girls, too, were to be drowned in the Nile—conceptually, if not actually. The Nile, which irrigated the fields of rain-parched Egypt, was the mainstay of its economy and its most venerated god. The girls were to be raised in this cult of the river, their souls submerged in a way of life that deifies the earthly vehicle of material sustenance.
In our own day, the Pharaoh-instituted practice of drowning children in the Nile is still with us: there are still parents whose highest consideration in choosing a school for their children is how it will further their child’s economic prospects when the time will come for him or her to enter the job market.
The people of Israel survived the Egyptian galut because there were Jewish mothers who refused to comply with Pharaoh’s decree to submerge their children in his river. If we are to survive the present galut, we too must resist the dictates of the current Pharaohs. We must set the spiritual and moral development of our children, rather than their future “earning power” and “careers,” as the aim of their education.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Where did he go? He went in the counsel of his daughter.
Moses’ father, Amram, was the greatest man of his generation. When he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son that is born you shall throw into the river,” he said: We are laboring for nothing! He went and divorced his wife. All the Israelites followed suit and divorced their wives.
Said his daughter to him: “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed only against the males; you have decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh decreed only concerning this world; you have decreed concerning this world and the world to come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh, there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not; in your case, it will certainly be fulfilled.” So Amram went and remarried his wife, and they all went and took back their wives.
“And he took to wife”: it should have said, “and he took back”! Said Rabbi Yehudah ben Zevina: He acted towards her as though it had been the first marriage. He seated her in a palanquin, Aaron and Miriam danced before her, and the ministering angels proclaimed: “A joyful mother of children.”
Why is she called “a daughter of Levi”? She was one hundred and thirty years old! Because the signs of youth were reborn in her.
(Talmud, Sotah 12a)
At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light. For it is written here, “She saw him that he was good,” and elsewhere it is written (Genesis 1:4), “G‑d saw the light that it was good.”
(Talmud, Sotah 12a)
Why did she put Moses in the River? So that Pharaoh’s astrologers should think that he had already been thrown into the Nile, and not search for him.
Another interpretation of this verse renders the Hebrew word ammatah as “her arm” rather than “her maid.” Ammatah also means “arm length.” This is to teach us that “her arm was extended for many arm-lengths” (to enable her to reach the basket).
If Moses’ basket lay beyond her reach, why did Pharaoh’s daughter extend her arm? Could she possibly have anticipated the miracle that her hand would be “extended for many arm-lengths”?
There is a profound lesson here for each and every one of us. Often, we are confronted with a situation that is beyond our capacity to rectify. Someone or something is crying out for our help, but there is nothing we can do: by all natural criteria, the matter is simply beyond our reach. So we resign ourselves to inactivity, reasoning that the little we can do won’t change matters anyway.
But Pharaoh’s daughter heard a child’s cry and extended her arm. An unbridgeable distance lay between her and the basket containing the weeping infant, making her action seem utterly pointless. But because she did the maximum of which she was capable, she achieved the impossible. Because she extended her arm, G‑d extended its reach, enabling her to save a life and raise the greatest human being ever to walk the face of the earth.
(Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)
She saw him weeping, but did not hear him; thus she knew it was a Hebrew child. For only a Jew can weep soundlessly.
(Rabbi Bunim of Otwock)
From here you can infer how great is the reward of those who perform acts of kindness. For although Moses had many names, the name by which he is known throughout the Torah is the one which Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, called him, and even G‑d called him by no other name.
He saw great burdens put upon small people, and light burdens upon big people; a man’s burden upon a woman, and a woman’s burden upon a man; the burden which an old man could carry on a youth, and of a youth on an old man. So he left his suite and rearranged their burdens, pretending all the time to be helping Pharaoh. G‑d then said to him: “You have put aside your affairs and have gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; I too will leave those on high and below, and speak only with you.”
Moses saw that they had no rest, so he went to Pharaoh and said: “If one has a slave and he does not give him rest one day of the week, the slave dies.” Said Pharaoh: “Go and do with them as you say.” Thereupon Moses ordained for them the Sabbath day for rest.
He saw that there was no hope that any righteous person would arise from him or his offspring until the end of generations.
How did he kill him? Rabbi Eviatar said: With his fist. Others say that he took a shovel and cracked his skull. The rabbis say that he pronounced G‑d’s name against him and thereby killed him; thus [the Hebrew he saw fighting the next day] said to him, “Do you say to kill me?”
These were Datan and Aviram (who were yet to cause much trouble for Moses—see Exodus 16:20 and Numbers 16).
Said Resh Lakish: He who lifts his hand against his fellow, even if he did not hit him, is called wicked, as it is written: “He said to the wicked one: Why would you hit your fellow?” It does not say “Why did you hit," but “Why would you hit,” indicating that though he had not hit him yet, he was termed a “wicked one.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 58b)
Moses was meditating in his heart: “In what have Israel sinned, that they should be enslaved more than all the nations?” When he heard their words, he said: “Tale-bearing is rife among them, so how can they be ready for salvation?” Thus he proclaimed, “Indeed the thing is known”—now I know the cause of their enslavement.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
He took his example from Jacob, who found his wife by the well.
Jethro was at first a priest for idolatrous worship. But when he saw that there was no truth in it, he summoned his townsmen and said: “Until now I ministered for you, but now I have become old; choose another priest.” And he returned to them all the insignia of his priesthood. Whereupon they excommunicated him, that no one should be in his company, work for him or tend his flock. He asked the shepherds to look after his flock, but they refused, and so he had to employ his daughters.
He didn’t actually die, but was afflicted with leprosy, and his physicians said to him that his only cure is to slaughter Hebrew children—150 in the morning and 150 in the evening—and bathe in their blood twice a day.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
Until this point, the children of Israel were so deeply sunk in their galut that they could not even sense it. But now, when the first budding of their redemption began to emerge, they could begin to feel the depth of their suffering.
G‑d tests the righteous. How does He try them? With sheep.
He tried David through sheep and found him to be a good shepherd, as it is written (Psalms 78:70), “He chose also David His servant, and took him from the sheepfolds.” As a shepherd, David would bring the smallest sheep out first, so that they should graze upon the tender grass; then he allowed the old sheep to feed from the ordinary grass; lastly, he brought forth the young, lusty sheep to eat the tougher grass. Whereupon G‑d said: He who knows how to look after sheep, bestowing upon each the care it deserves, shall come and tend My people.
Also Moses was tested by G‑d through sheep. Our rabbis relate that when Moses was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a little kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared in view a pool of water, and the kid stopped to drink. When Moses approached it, he said: “I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be weary.” So he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked back. Thereupon G‑d said: Because you were merciful in leading the flock of a mortal, you shall tend My flock, the people of Israel.
The mountain had five names: The Mountain of G‑d, Mount Bashan, the Mountain of Peaks, Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai.
Why in a thornbush and not some other tree? In order to demonstrate that “I am with them in their affliction.”
Moses had thought to himself that the Egyptians might consume Israel. So G‑d showed him a fire which burned but did not consume, saying to him: “Just as the thornbush is burning and is not consumed, so the Egyptians will not be able to destroy Israel.”
“Man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19). But the field has many types of trees. The Talmud compares the righteous Torah scholars to fruit trees, which bestow beauty, fragrance and nourishment upon the world. The fruit trees also burn—they burn with the ecstasy of their Torah study, with the fervor of their prayer, with the warmth of their good deeds. But theirs is a fire that burns and burns out, a fire that is sated by the words of Torah and prayer and the fulfillment of the divine will.
But the thornbush burns with a fire that is never satisfied. The simple Jew, who cannot fathom the depths of Torah, who can barely articulate his prayers, who has little understanding of the significance of a mitzvah—his is a thirst never quenched. His heart burns with a yearning for G‑d he can never hope to still, with a love he can never hope to consummate.
When Moses, the most perfect of men, beheld the heart of flame that smolders within the thornbush, he was humbled by the sight. “I must turn aside to see this great sight,” he said: I must move from where I am and strive to awaken in myself the insatiable fire of the simple Jew.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
G‑d first called to Moses in the voice of Amram his father, so as not to startle him. At that moment Moses rejoiced, saying, “My father still lives.” Said G‑d: “I am not your father, but the G‑d of your father.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah and Rabbi Hoshaya discussed this. The first said: Moses did not do well in hiding his face, for had he not done so, G‑d would have revealed to him what is above and what is below, what has happened and what will happen.
Rabbi Hoshaya the Elder said: Moses did well in hiding his face. Said G‑d to him: Since you showed Me respect and hid your face when I showed Myself to you, I assure you that you will be near Me on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, in which you will not eat nor drink, but feast on the splendor of the Divine Presence.
This itself—your humility—is the reason why I have chosen you.
(Maayanah Shel Torah)
The story is told of two brothers, both disciples of the Rebbe of Lublin, who served as chassidic rebbes. One enjoyed a large following, while the other had few disciples.
Said the second brother to the first: “I don’t understand. We are both disciples of our late master; we are both equally great in learning and piety. So why do so few chassidim come to me, while so many seek you out?”
Replied the other: “I, too, ask the same question: Why do they come to me instead of to you? But it seems, my brother, that in both our cases, our question is also the answer. They don’t come to you because you can’t understand why they don’t come to you; and they come to me because I can’t understand why they come to me.”
(Maayanah Shel Torah)
G‑d said to Moses: “Go and say to Israel: ‘I am’ with you in this servitude, and ‘I am’ with you in the servitude of the other kingdoms.”
Said Moses to G‑d: “Master of the Universe! It is enough that they deal with each trouble in its time!” (Meaning: why speak to them now of their future subjugations?)
Said G‑d: “You have spoken well. Go and tell them: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.”
G‑d said to Moses: You want to know My name? I am called by My deeds. I might be called E‑l Sha‑dai, or Tzevakot, or Elokim, or HaVaYaH. When I judge My creatures, I am called Elokim. When I wage war on the wicked, I am called Tzevakot. When I tolerate the sins of man, I am called E‑l Sha‑dai. When I have compassion on My world, I am called HaVaYaH . . .”
G‑d was indicating to Moses that he acted wrongly in saying that the people of Israel will not believe. The snake is an allusion to the primordial serpent, who was punished for his evil talk; leprosy is the punishment for slander.
Man was created to do, achieve and create. If his hand is indolently resting in his bosom, it is dead flesh.
When Moses was a child in the royal palace, Pharaoh would take him on his lap to kiss and hug him, and Moses used to take the crown of Pharaoh and place it upon his own head.
The magicians of Egypt sat there and said: “We fear that this is the one of whom we prophesy that he will take away the kingdom from you.” Some of them counseled to behead him, others to burn him. But Jethro was present among them, and he said to them: “This boy has no understanding of what he is doing. However, test him by placing before him a gold vessel and a live coal; if he stretches forth his hand for the gold, then he has understanding, and you can slay him; but if he reaches for the live coal, then he has no understanding, and there can be no sentence of death upon him.” So they brought these things before him, and he was about to reach forth for the gold, when the angel Gabriel came and thrust his hand aside so that it seized the coal; Moses thrust his hand with the live coal into his mouth, so that his tongue was burnt, with the result that he became slow of speech and of tongue.
Moses was afflicted with a speech impairment so that no one should think that his success in transmitting the Torah to the world was due to his oratorical skills. Rather, it derived solely from the fact that “the Divine Presence spoke from his throat.”
For seven days G‑d was persuading Moses at the bush to go in His mission. “Yesterday,” “the day before” and “since You are speaking” are three days; three times “also” indicate another three days; thus Moses was standing on the seventh day when he said, “O please, my G‑d! Send by the hand of him whom You shall send!”
Said Moses: I know that I am not destined to take them into the Land and to be their future redeemer. You have other messengers—send them!
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah said: A lasting effect is recorded of every instance of divine anger in the Torah, but no lasting effect is recorded in this case.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: A lasting effect is recorded in this instance too, for it says, “Is not Aaron the Levite your brother?” Now, wasn’t Aaron a kohen (priest)? However, originally Moses was to be the kohen and Aaron the Levite, and their roles were reversed.
(Talmud, Zevachim 102b)
Not, as you thought, that he will be jealous of your ascension to the leadership. In the merit of this, Aaron was granted the choshen (priestly breastplate) worn on the heart.
This staff was created at twilight of the sixth day of creation, and was given to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam gave it to Enoch, Enoch to Noah, Noah to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, and Isaac to Jacob. Jacob brought it with him to Egypt and gave it to Joseph. When Joseph died, his house was looted, and the staff ended up in Pharaoh’s palace. Jethro, who was one of Pharaoh’s soothsayers, saw the staff with the mysterious markings on it and coveted it; he took it and planted it in the garden of his home, and no man was able to come close to it.
When Moses came to Jethro’s house, he entered the garden, saw the staff and read the markings on it; he reached out his hand and plucked it from the ground. When Jethro saw this, he proclaimed, “This man shall redeem the people of Israel from Egypt,” and gave him his daughter Zipporah as a wife.
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40)
This is the very donkey which Abraham saddled for the Binding of Isaac, and this is the very donkey upon which the Messiah is destined to be revealed, as it is written (Zechariah 9:9), “A pauper, riding upon a donkey.”
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer; Rashi)
Because Moses was lax in circumcising his (second) son, Eliezer, an angel came to kill him.
Jethro had made this a condition of his marriage with Zipporah—that half their sons would be circumcised, and the other half would not.
This is what the verse (Psalms 85:11) refers to when it says, “Benevolence and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.” “Benevolence” is Aaron; “truth” is Moses. “Righteousness” is Moses; “peace” is Aaron.
The people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt only in the merit of their faith, as it is written, “The people believed.”
When Moses said to G‑d, “But they will not believe me,” G‑d said to him: They are believers, the children of believers, whereas you will ultimately disbelieve. They are believers, as it is written, “The people believed”; they are the children of believers, as it is written (Genesis 15:6), “[Abraham] believed in G‑d.” But you will ultimately disbelieve, as it it is written (Numbers 20:12): “G‑d said to Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you believed not in Me.’”
(Talmud, Shabbat 97a)
The letters (which held the secret of the redemption) were given over only to Abraham; Abraham gave them over to Isaac, Isaac gave them to Jacob, and Jacob to Joseph. Joseph transmitted them to his brothers, while Asher the son of Jacob handed them down the secret to his daughter Serach.
When Moses and Aaron came and performed the miraculous signs before the elders of Israel, the elders went to Serach and said to her: “A man has come and performed such-and-such signs.”
Said they to her: “But he said pakod pakadati (‘I have surely remembered’).”
Said she to them: “This is the man who will redeem the people of Israel from Egypt.”
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 40)
Where had the elders gone? They are not mentioned here, though G‑d had said to Moses, “You shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt.”
Our sages explained that the elders did indeed go with them, but stole away furtively, singly or in pairs, so that by the time they reached the palace of Pharaoh, not one of them was there.
For this reason, when Moses and Aaron went up with the elders to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, G‑d turned them back, as it says (Exodus 24:14): “And to the elders he said: ‘Wait here for us.’”
That day was Pharaoh’s day for the reception of ambassadors, when all the kings came to pay him honor, bringing with them gifts of crowns with which they crowned him lord of the world; they also brought their idols with them.
After they had crowned him, Pharaoh’s servants came and said: “Two old men are at the gate.”
When Moses and Aaron entered, Pharaoh asked them, “Who are you?”
“We are the ambassadors of G‑d, blessed be He.”
“What do you want?”
“Thus says the L‑rd, G‑d of Israel: Let My people go, that they may observe a festival for Me in the wilderness.”
“Has he not the sense to send me a crown, that you come to me with mere words? Wait while I search in my records.”
Pharaoh went into his palace chamber and scrutinized every nation and its gods, beginning with the gods of Moab, Ammon and Sidon. He then said to them: “I have searched for his name throughout my archives, but have not found him. Is he young or old? How many cities has he captured? How many provinces has he subdued? How long is it since He ascended the throne?”
It was the custom for every nation to have its clergy, the teachers of its faith. For this reason Pharaoh absolved the tribe of Levi from forced labor, recognizing them as the sages and elders of the Jewish people. . . . Thus Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, “Go off to your labors,” as the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt did not include the tribe of Levi.
These Israelite officers were worthy men who jeopardized their lives for Israel, bearing the blows of the Egyptians so that Israel’s task might be lighter. For this merit they were subsequently endowed with the holy spirit, as G‑d later instructs Moses (Numbers 11:16): “Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them.” Said G‑d: Since they were beaten for Israel’s sake, therefore they will merit the holy spirit and be appointed as prophets over them.
They said to Moses: “To what are we compared? To a lamb which a wolf comes to devour, and then a shepherd comes to wrest it from the jaws of the wolf. Between the shepherd and the wolf, the lamb is torn in two.” Thus did Israel say: Moses, between you and Pharaoh, we are dying.
G‑d said to Moses: Because you questioned My ways, “Now you shall see”—what is now done to Pharaoh you will witness, but you will not live to see what I will do to the kings of the seven nations, when I bring Israel into the Land.
(Rashi; Talmud, Sanhedrin 111a)