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Parashat Shemot

"And these were the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Israel."

the-river-jordanWe are moving into a new era.  Joseph and his brothers are dead, and here the trouble starts.  As soon as Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, had gone, the Egyptians decided to change their tune.  No longer would they look after Joseph's family.  Instead, they enslaved them.  The question could be raised, that perhaps they had never wanted Jacob and his family in their land in the first place.  They must surely have hated Joseph, because he bought all the Egyptian fields and sold them to Pharaoh.

In fact, the way the Egyptians had treated the Jews before and after Joseph was like comparing two different nations.  That explains why the first verse describes the Children of Israel as 'coming' to Egypt, i.e. in the present tense.  The two periods were so starkly contrasted that the present could not be compared with the past.

Another question can be raised: if Jacob and his family had come from Canaan, why does it not say that they 'descended' to Egypt?  Israel is spiritually higher than any other place.  The answer is that they did not travel alone; the Divine Presence accompanied them to their exile.  That is not called a descent, but an arrival.

We are told a new king arose in Egypt (some opinions state that it was the same Pharaoh) who 'did not know' Joseph.  Onkelos tells us that it meant that he didn't uphold Joseph's decree.  Which decree was that?  The one that Egyptians must undergo circumcision.  Meanwhile, the people are getting pretty peeved.  They want their land back, which had been sold to Pharaoh.  They wanted the 20% tax abolished.  Both of these had been instigated by Joseph.  In true villainous style, Pharaoh tries to deflect the blame by telling the people that they should start worrying about the foreigners.  "They are stronger than us," says Pharaoh, "so before we abolish any taxes, let's make a 'final solution'.  How about enslaving them and making them build pyramids?"  Needless to say, the Egyptians were only too happy to have a solution to the boom of foreigners, and have the use of free labour, too.

Even the descendants of Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, who had saved Egypt from starvation and bought it great wealth, were enslaved and made to build the store city in which to keep that very wealth.  That's a trifle ungrateful, to say the least.  As for the sons of Levi (affectionately called 'Levites'), well, these guys weren't enslaved at all.  How did they get out of it?  Were they under some sort of ancient social security plan?

This is how they did it: Pharaoh called upon the Jews to work for wages.  He offered tremendous amounts for every brick that a worker carried.  To 'inspire' the workers, he even appeared at the work site with a spade and shovel.  Once the Jews stared work, they were 'on the books'.  Subsequently, Pharaoh then took them by force and made them work for nothing but lashings and beatings.

On the other hand, the Levites saw what the result of accepting such work would be (they were far too busy sitting in their yeshivas learning Torah), so they did not volunteer for the paid work, and were never entered on the books.  The Egyptians assumed that they were not fit for work and did not take them.

The plan was that the Jews would be given such hard labour that they would become disgusted and despairing of their lives, stop having children, and even commit suicide.  What happened?  The situation was reversed!  The Jews never despaired, so great was their faith in the redemption, and subsequently the Egyptians "became disgusted by the Children of Israel"!

Once the labour camp plan failed, Pharaoh decided on `Plan B'.  He would kill all the male babies born to the Jews. He was afraid of doing this openly, so he asked Jewish midwives to do the dirty work, thereby 'exonerating' himself from blame.  Why not kill the female babies?  Pharaoh envied their miraculous birth rate.  By killing off the males, the females would have no choice but to marry the Egyptians, who would gain from their fruitfulness.

The two midwives he asked were Shifra and Puah (they were in fact Yocheved and Miriam, mother and sister of Moses, respectively).  They had no intention of perpetrating any murders.  In fact, they even sustained the families of the children that they saved.  Pharaoh wanted to kill them, but a miracle occurred and they became invisible to Pharaoh's soldiers.

Pharaoh then goes for `Plan C'.  He was fed up with trying to keep things secret, and now took the advice of his counselor, Bilam, to throw all the babies into the Nile.  This included Egyptian babies, too, as Pharaoh had a dream that the saviour of Israel would be born, but he wasn't sure whether he would be from his own people or from the Jews.  Even the tribe of Levi had to surrender their infants.

Yocheved (herself from the tribe of Levi) bears a child, and places him a basket in the river.  This child was subsequently saved by Basyah, Pharaoh's daughter.  She called him Moses.  However, if Moses was destined to be saved, why did G-d cause the poor baby to be thrown in the river first?  The answer is, that when all the Jewish children were indiscriminately thrown into the river, Israel's redeemer could be no different; he, too, had to taste the suffering of Israel.

Moses grew up in the court of Pharaoh - ironic, isn't it, that Pharaoh's very enemy was in his midst all along.  The first incident that is related in the Torah about Moses is when he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew.  He subsequently kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand.  Herein lies Moshe's greatness - he could have forsaken his people and chosen a life of material comfort.  Instead, he went out amongst his people and 'set his eyes and his heart to be grieved for them'.  He did not merely feel sorry for them and forget them.  He risked his life for them.  He intentionally went out of his way to feel the pain of their suffering to the degree that he could feel his own.  This merited Moses the right to the leadership of the Jewish people and to be chosen as the emissary who would receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.  We must lean from Moses to care about the suffering of others, even if it means sacrificing our personal pleasure.

Pharaoh heard about this, and wanted to kill Moses.  In Egyptian eyes, if a prince kills a minor taskmaster, there is little or no punishment.  But Pharaoh feared that the Jews might rebel if they thought that they could stand up to their overseers.  Moses escapes and runs away to Midian, his aim being to get married; the fear of almost dying childless had prompted him to this.  He marries Tsipporah, daughter of Jethro.

Moses tended the flock of his father-in-law.  The verse tells us that he "led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness".  Rashi tells us that he did this so that the flock would not graze in the fields of others.  From here we see how careful Moses was not to transgress the prohibition against stealing.  He went as far as possible to prevent his sheep from trespassing upon and eating from the fields of others.  Sometimes a person might use someone else's possession without permission simply because he is too lazy to find the owner.  Or a person might use something that belongs to someone else because he can't be bothered to buy that item, been though he can afford it.  Anything someone uses without permission is stealing, and a person should spare no effort to avoid this crime.

Moses then sees the "sneh" (the burning bush), and wondered why it was not consumed.  The sneh is a barren tree of crooked thorns that make it easy to get in but hard to get out of again.  To Moses it seemed to symbolise the exile, which the people of Israel had entered so easily but could not leave afterwards.  He saw the fire in the sneh as a sign that the Divine Presence hovers over Israel even in the exile.

G-d spoke to him and tells him that he is the saviour of the Jews and must lead them out of Egypt.  Moses refused, asking G-d to "send whomever you will send".  Why? Because he did not want to be honoured above Aaron, his older brother.  The Midrash states that Moses finally consented to go to Egypt only when G-d said to him, "When Aaron sees you, he will be glad in his heart".

Moses' behaviour was truly amazing - he loved the Jewish people exceedingly and was willing to sacrifice his own comfort and safety for there welfare, yet refused to be the one to release them from their misery, because he was afraid that his older brother would feel slighted in being passed over for this great position of leadership.  From here we see how careful we must be to spare others from even the smallest amount of suffering.  Since man was created in the image of G-d, harming a fellow human being is similar, as it were, to harming his Creator.  We must constantly remember this.