Parshat Shmot


The death of the great Pharaoh brought tears to every eye and the streets of Egypt were filled with mourners. “Yossi, what are you crying about?” Muchmad the Egyptian asked the Jew. “The Pharaoh who made you a slave and took away your freedom – for him you mourn?”

The Jewish people, descendants of Jacob and his 12 sons, had been living in Egypt since the days of the famine years that Pharaoh dreamed of. At first, the Jews were treated royally, the family of the Prime Minister Joseph. But since the invasion and conquest of the new dynasty, that knew not the history of Joseph’s greatness, the Jews were enslaved by the new Pharaoh. (Rabbi S.R.Hirsch)

“It isn’t Pharaoh that we’re crying about,” replied Yossi. “If Pharaoh had asked his fortune teller what day he would die, the reply would’ve been on a big Jewish holiday. What big Jewish holiday? Any day you die will be a big Jewish holiday!”

“Rather, we are crying for our own situation. As long as the Pharaoh who decreed our slavery was alive, he could change his mind. Now we will be slaves forever. The cruel Egyptians don’t even allow us to cry in public as we are getting beaten. At least at the funeral, we can cry out to God.”

According to the Midrash, Pharaoh didn’t really die; he got leprosy all over his body, which means the skin dies. The remedy prescribed by Egyptian doctors? A warm bath, twice a day, in the blood of Jewish children.


The book of Exodus follows Genesis, which was the planting of the seed of the Jewish people. In Exodus, they grow into a nation in bondage. The Egyptian slavery had three stages:

  1. Strangers in a foreign land, discriminated against.
  2. Slaves, but with humane conditions.
  3. Total torture (Rabbi S. R. Hirsch).

Pharaoh could find no other excuse to blame on the noble Hebrews except that there are “too many.” He asked his advisors for a final solution to the Jewish question, and the evil Bilaam suggested outsmarting the Almighty. “God swore He would bring no more floods, right? So let’s drown the Jews in the Nile, and no measure-for-measure retribution will be possible.”
Bilaam’s mistake was that God only swore not to destroy the entire world with water, but there are local floods. And as it turned out, the final downfall of Pharaoh was in the Red Sea.

The Torah refers to the Egyptian exile as the “iron furnace that smelts away the imperfections in the gold.” The suffering the Jews endured made it a nation sensitive to other people’s suffering. (Menachem Begin gave refuge in Israel to Cambodian boat people. We know what it feels like when no one wants to let you in.)

Pharaoh’s plan was to sweet-talk the Jews into working for the good of the country. Pharaoh himself donned overalls and went to work building the pyramids. All the patriotic Jews went out with him. “Make a one-day, all-out effort. You will get paid for every brick,” the Egyptians said. They duly counted every brick that each Jew made, and the next day, they decreed that each Jew had to make that amount every day. Only the tribe of Levi, the “yeshiva students” of that generation, didn’t go out. “We have to study Torah.” And they were free of bondage (Midrash).


It isn’t easy to decree genocide. Even the evil Hitler had to first build up the philosophy of the master race. Pharaoh tried other methods. The midwives were to kill the babies, but these courageous women, Shifra and Puah (Yocheved and Miriam, according to tradition) defied Pharaoh and saved the babies. As a reward, they built the houses of Kohanim-Levites, and kingship.

Finally, Pharaoh employed more direct methods. “Throw all the baby boys – even Egyptian babies (on that day) – into the river.”

With this news, the leader of the Jewish community, Amram, decided to divorce his wife. “Why do babies have to be drowned?” His young daughter, Miriam, saved the day. She had prophecy that her mother would give birth to the Jewish savior. She told her father: “Abba, you’re worse than Pharaoh, who only decreed against the boys. But by divorcing Mommy, you’ve decreed against the girls, too” (Midrash).

The Talmud says: “In the merit of the righteous women, we left Egypt.” The women encouraged their husbands, who were broken, physically and emotionally, to continue having children. When Amram remarried his wife Yocheved, so did all the other men get remarried. When Yocheved gave birth to her third child, the house was filled with light and he was born circumcised. They hid him for three months because he was born prematurely. When the Egyptians came looking for the baby, they put him in a little basket in the reeds. His sister looked after him.

“Why did we listen to you Miriam? Another Jewish child will now drown?”
“Don’t’ worry, Abba, things will turn out good.”

Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, was disgusted with the decree. “To kill little babies? How low can you stoop?” So she decided to convert to Judaism (the name Batya means “daughter of God”), and she proceeded to the nearest Mikvah – the Nile River.

Upon seeing the baby, she sent her maid to fetch the child. The Midrash says that Batya stretched out her own hand to reach the basket, and her hand miraculously elongated – teaching us always to make an effort, even when it seems impossible.

Seeing the crying baby, Batya sensed his purity and the Divine presence there. Moses refused to nurse from an Egyptian woman, so his sister offered a Jewish nurse – and the greatest of ironies, Yocheved was paid by Pharaoh to nurse her own Jewish baby!

BIOGRAPHY OF MOSES (based on the Midrash)

  1. Moses is taken to Pharaoh’s palace at a young age, and retains his Jewish identity through his connection with his real parents.
  2. While sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, Moses removes the king’s crown and puts it on his own head. Seen as a bad omen by the magicians, they put gold and coals in front of him. Moses picks the gold, but an angel pushes his hand onto the coals, which he puts in his mouth, giving him a speech impediment for life (Midrash).
  3. As an adult, Moses goes out to his people to feel their pain. He carries their burden with them as much as he can.
  4. Moses kills an Egyptian who raped a Jewish woman, before the Egyptian could kill her husband.
  5. Moses tells off the bickering Datan and Aviram, who snitched to Pharaoh, leading to an arrest warrant and death decree against Moshe.
  6. Moses escapes death by miracles. His neck turns to marble, repelling the executioner’s sword. The servants of Pharaoh become blind, deaf, and dumb trying to capture him.
  7. Moses spends many years wandering, particularly in Ethiopia. He ends up in Midian, where he saves the daughters of Yitro from shepherds, who mistreat them because their father rejected idolatry.
  8. Moses marries Tzipporah, becoming Yitro’s son-in-law.

The common denominator of all these events is that Moses cannot take injustice, whether between Jews or non-Jews. He consistently stands up for the oppressed.

  1. As Moses grazes his flock in the desert, a little lamb runs away. Moses chases it until the slopes of Mount Sinai, where it found a brook of water to drink. “Little lamb, if I only knew you were thirsty, I would have carried you to the water on my back.” Says the Almighty: “Moses is worthy of being the leader of My people.”
  2. God appears to Moses at the Burning Bush, to indicate that He feels the depth of the suffering of the Jews. “The bush is burning, but is not consumed” – so too the Jewish people. For an entire week, God begs Moses to take the Jews out of Egypt. Utilizing every excuse, and asking God for secrets of His Holy Name, Moses finally says, “Send the other prophet, the one (Aaron) who You are used to sending.”

Question: The common denominator of Moses is intolerance of injustice, and there is no greater injustice than the slavery of an entire nation. So why does Moses not act immediately on God’s advice to redeem them?

Answer: Moses could not tolerate injustice even in himself (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe). He felt that his brother Aaron would feel slighted if he took the job, and therefore he refused. God replied: “Aaron will meet you and be happy in his heart. He will be the Kohen and you will be the Levi.”

  1. On the way back to Egypt, an angel wants to kill Moses for having delayed the circumcision of his son. Tzipporah saves Moses’ life by circumcising their son. (The Jews are saved by women every time!)
  2. Moses and Aaron go to the people and tell them the password transmitted by Jacob and Joseph, (“The Almighty will surely redeem you!”) and the people believe them.
  3. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh. (The Jewish elders who accompany them, chicken out one-by-one.) The gates of Egypt are guarded by wild animals under magical spells. But they accompany Moses and Aaron like tame cats, leading them into the palace.

“I have been sent by the God of the Hebrews! I demand a 3-day trip to the desert to bring offerings to God.”

Pharaoh replies: “God of the Hebrews? Did he ever send me a birthday present? I can’t find him in my book of gods.”

“Your book contains dead gods; ours is alive.”

“Come on, Moses. We all know that religion is the opiate of the masses. There’s no God. If I give the Jews a 3-day vacation, what will the Egyptians say? It will kill the economy!”

Pharaoh decrees: “No more straw!” The Jews now have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Moses had suggested a 6-day work week, so the Jewish slaves “could be more productive” – i.e. so they could rest with their families on Shabbat.) Now, they had to work on Shabbat.

The Jews were irate: “Moses, we sent you to improve our situation, and now matters are worse!”

The Almighty arranged it this way, so that the people should know that Moses and Aaron had no power on their own (Rabbi Hirsch).

“Now that we trust in God, here comes Your Holy power to brighten up the hour!”

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