Parshat Shemot

An altogether remarkable Parsha, Shemot both beggars and teases the imagination, offering a huge amount of information, yet begging more questions than it answers.  Truly a case of ‘me’galeh tefah mekhase t’fahayim’(reveals one handbreadth and conceals two).

Shemot opens by dividing the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt into two periods; the one during which Joseph and his brothers, ie. those born in Canaan, still live, and the period after when all Israelites were already born in the Egyptian diaspora.

As one might expect – and as we know from contemporary history – it is the children of immigrants who first assimilate into, and identify themselves as members of, their host society.  With the exception of Joseph and his sons, who were, for all intents and purposes, fully Egyptianized, Jacob and his other eleven sons never quite got rid of their ‘Yiddish’ accents and ‘shtetl’ mannerisms. And yet they experienced no threatening prejudice or hostility.  It was not until their generation was gone that the host nation began to resent and reject the Israelites.

“La plus ca change la plus il ya le meme chose”, or to put it another way, we Jews never learn. It is precisely when we think we’ve crossed the socio-cultural divide, when we speak the lingua franca without accent, when we’ve become not only the professional class, but the economic titans owning hedge funds, inventing derivatives, and running the Fed, that the handwriting appears on the wall, only no one takes note.

“And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).  Surely in the relatively short period between the arrival of seventy souls “who emerged from Jacob’s loins” (1:5) to the demise of the last of these greenhorns, the Israelites did not multiply numerically to the extent indicated by the hyperbolic text. Rather it would appear to be a metaphor for their disproportionate wealth and social prominence.  One can easily hear the German gentiles who, within a few decades of the Emancipation and the nearly total assimilation of German Jewry, were clamoring about the vermin-like proliferation of Jews and their control of the banks.

Indeed we hear the same today. And while our numbers both now, and in Spain, and in Germany, and in Egypt were quite small, our impact was outsized and we did, indeed, enjoy disproportionate success. And this success went, and still goes, to our head. The endgame in predictable. We’ve done this dance over and over again. The trajectory and denouement never changes.

The new King who “knew not Joseph” makes this very clear.  He is not worried about the current Israelite population statistics, but rather of its potential growth, precisely because of their success, and the application of their keen intellect almost exclusively toward the accumulation of wealth rather than to the public good.

Pharaoh declares, “Let us outsmart them … lest they ascend from the land” (1:10). Clearly, he is manifesting his fear of Hebrew shrewdness.  At the same time, and paradoxically, he dreads the possibility of losing his “Jews”, who, under controlled circumstances have proven invaluable to the Egyptian economy.   He likes having his Israelite bankers and business moguls, but doesn’t trust their allegiance, seeking to create a delicate balance whereby Egypt can have its Jewish cake and eat it too.

Before proceeding, let us understand what the term “slave” meant in Egypt.  Our reflexive image of slavery is that of African slaves in the American south, replete with auctions, the sundering of families, and the right of owners to abuse their human chattel. We apply this picture to the Israelites in Egypt much the way Raphael or Tintoretto applied contemporary Italian visages and vistas to their depictions of first century Jews and the landscape of Eretz Israel.

In fact everyone in Egypt was a slave to Pharaoh.  And, in concentric circles of descending order, everyone was technically a slave to anyone located on a higher rung, and the master of everyone situated on the rungs below.  Being a ‘slave’ did not necessarily mean doing menial work or being bereft of possessions, or being beaten breakfast, lunch and dinner. Indeed even the wealthiest aristocrats in ancient Egypt were slaves, if only to Pharaoh.

Clearly, as the Israelite population increased, there were those who became oligarchs, and a much larger percentage who were laborers.  Yet at no time were they homeless, relegated to ghettos, or denied the right to normal family relations. At least not until very late in the game. And even then, there were clearly masses of Israelites who were subjected to cruel labor conditions, while others could apparently waltz into Pharaoh’s chambers and make demands, without risking their lives.

“And the more (the Egyptians) oppressed (Israel) the more (Israel) proliferated and multiplied” (1:12) Yet again we see how when we Jews are an oppressed minority, or perceive ourselves as such, our birthrate peaks.  It is only when we feel we’ve made it, having become sophisticated, acculturated and above all wealthy, that we tie our virtual tubes, and self-vasectomize into a negative, and suicidally low, birthrate.  One can even speculate, for example, if German Jewry had remained culturally ‘primitive’ yet fecund, whether the Shoah might ever have happened.  Jew-haters may have contempt for those bearded and sidelocked shtiebel-goers, but it is the after-shaved Jewish banker and media mogul that inspires visions of gas chambers and death camps.

Question: If the Israelites were indeed so fruitful, how can it be they had only two doulas to handle all the midwifery? And how can it be that the king of Egypt himself would deign to interface with these midwives; “And the King of Egypt called in the midwives and he said to them; ‘ Why did you do this thing, and allow the males to live?’ “.  And finally, how can it be that, having disobeyed a direct order from the King himself, not only does their lame response not result in summary execution or imprisonment, but he simply lets them go back to business as usual?

“And Pharaoh commanded his entire nation; every male child that is born should be cast into the river, and all the females shall be allowed to live” (1:22). This is exceedingly bizarre.  One would expect him to make an opposite ruling.  Kill all the girls, we need the boys as our laborers.  Of what use are girls who merely make babies and eat?

The decision to destroy the males can perhaps be better understood in the context of assimilation and intermarriage.  The statistical likelihood of an Israelite male taking an Egyptian bride was – as in our times – significantly higher than that of an Israelite girl being wedded to an Egyptian.  Again, we saw it in Germany, and we see it in America and throughout Europe today. Pharaoh was trying to minimize the mongrelization of Egyptian society, even as the assimilated Israelite boys were sniffing successfully after the contemporary shiksas.  Perhaps it is for this reason that the Torah makes a point of saying “And a man from the House of Levi went and took (for his bride) a daughter of Levi” (2:1). Apparently this was a striking example of bucking the trend, so unusual in fact that it merits special mention.

And now for the iconic, and very puzzling, debut of Moses:

Here we have the Israelite midwife herself, the master of flouting Pharaoh’s ruling regarding Hebrew male infants, suddenly in need of a way to rescue her own son. “…And she saw that he was good, and she hid him for three months. And she could no longer keep him hidden etc.” (2:2-3).  Why was Moses a problem but not his slightly elder brother Aaron? In what way was Moses “good” and how did his being good differentiate him from his older brother to the degree that he needed special treatment?  How was it that Aaron managed to survive without cruising the Nile in a basket?

Above all, why did his mother attempt to save Moses by floating him on the river, the very waters in which male Hebrew babies were being drowned as a matter of routine?  This does seem rather counterintuitive – especially as Moses was clearly circumcised, which explains the ability of Pharaoh’s daughter to declare; “This is from the Hebrew boys” (2:6).

Apparently Shifra and Puah, Moses’ mother and sister knew exactly what they were doing. They knew the princess’s habits – she, like her father, performed her daily ablutions while camouflaged among the reeds along the banks of the Nile. Hence it must have been their intention to have the boy discovered by the princess and thus have him raised as an Egyptian prince. It can be argued that this was inspired by divine revelation, or by expediency and opportunism.  But one thing seems fairly evident; there was nothing fortuitous about the way this saga evolves. And, indeed, Moses – despite his Hebrew birth – is raised as a prince of Egypt, and as an Egyptian in every respect.

Despite being a fully acculturated Egyptian aristocrat, Moses is not unaware of his DNA and he is curious about his origins. “ …And Moses grew up  and he went out to his brethren and he saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew from his brothers.” (2:11). It appears Moses had simply gone out slumming in the ghetto, utterly innocent of the circumstances under which some Hebrews were living.  Seeing an Egyptian beating an Israelite was the moment of epiphany for Moses, “And he smote the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (2:12).

The very next day Moses is once again out and about “And behold two Hebrew men are fighting, and he says to the wicked one, ‘why do you beat your fellow’ “ (2:13).  And (the wicked Hebrew) said; ‘Who placed you as master and judge over us? Are you going to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? (2:14).  it appears this wicked Hebrew is none other than the one Moses avenged the day before. In all likelihood he was one of the Hebrew ‘kapos’ who had no compunctions about harassing those under them, even as they were harassed by the Egyptians immediately above them. “And Moses was afraid, apparently the matter (of his having killed the Egyptian) is known. And Pharaoh heard about it, and sought to kill Moses… (2:14-15).

The above two passages are both illuminating and puzzling. It appears that the culmination of Moses’ epiphany is not merely the fact of Jewish subjugation, but rather that Israelites were abusing their fellow Israelites. And, moreover, that even an Israelite whom he himself had rescued, could stoop so low as to inform on his rescuer. This, more than any other abuse suffered by the Israelites, convinces Moses of the need to emancipate them.  It took an Egyptian prince to have both the noblesse oblige and self-confidence to rise to the occasion.

Having said this, it is indeed puzzling that Pharaoh would seek Moses’ death. After all, it seems rather unlikely that a lowly Israelite kapo could so immediately motivate the king to execute a member of his own household, the adopted son of his own daughter.

Moses now escapes to Midian where we are treated to a variation of the shepherdess/well scene with which we are familiar from Genesis; “And the shepherds came and expelled (the daughters of the Priest of Midian), and Moses rose and rescued them and gave their sheep to drink” (2:17).

I am puzzled by this episode, as it would seem this was a regular occurrence – the shepherds bullying the shepherdesses.  If so why did Jethro allow his daughters to be subjected to such humiliation on a daily basis? Moreover, surely the shepherds knew who the father of these girls was, making them unlikely subjects for harassment. Possibly, their behavior that day was aberrant, and those shepherds were merely showing off in front of the stranger?

“And (the girls said to their father) an Egyptian man rescued us from the shepherds” (2:19).  Note the fact that Moses was unmistakably Egyptian, not Hebrew.

Moses marries Zipporah who gives birth to a boy whom he names Gershom “because I was a stranger in a foreign land” (2:22).  At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I would suggest that the foreign land he refers to is Midian, not Egypt. Unlike his fellow Israelites, Moses never saw himself as a stranger in Egypt and could only identify with his brethren fully after having himself been a stranger in Midian.

And now comes the ultimate non-sequitur, “And it was over the course of time, and the king of Egypt died, and the Children of Israel sighed from all their labor and cried out ….” (2:23)

Jacob and Moses – The Remarkable Similarities

There are striking parallels between Jacob and Moses which are evoked in Parshat Shemot:

  1. Both men had spent their youths, if not plain spoiled, then certainly in comfort and idle pursuits. Jacob the “ish tam yoshev ohalim” – the naïve swelller of tents, and Moses as a privileged prince in the Pharaonic palace.
  2. Both have to undergo a sort of baptism by fire – escaping alone and empty-handed into the wilderness =because they feel threatened, whether or not with justification can be debated.
  3. Both Jacob and Moses manifest heroism as they come to the rescue of a damsel, or damsels in distress who are being harassed by local shepherds at the communal well.
  4. Both marry the girl, or one of the girls, they rescue.
  5. Both then become shepherds, tending the flocks of their respective fathers in law – an experience which is not merely an empty phase but rather one that is necessary in order for them to emerge as leaders. If nothing else, spending long years tending flocks of livestock can work wonders in terms of turning a timid, unskilled, even spoiled male into a real man. And both show no inclination to return to their place of birth until circumstances and revelation prompt them to do so.
  6. Both have mystical experiences with an unnamed spirit. Jacob with the person/angel with him he wrestles and who refuses to provide a name, Moses with the angel/Elohim who is likewise coy about providing a name.

“And Jacob asked, and told him, please tell me your name, and he replied why do you ask my name…” (Gen 32:30)

“And when they will ask me what is His name what shall I tell them (Exodus 3:13) And Elohim said to Moses I will be what I will be” (3:14)

7. And, finally, both – with great trepidation – have to encounter older brothers who are heading out to greet them. They are worried for the same reason. Both Esau and Aaron are older brothers who are being circumvented for primacy by their younger siblings Jacob and Moses. In societies in which primogeniture, pride, jealousy and humiliation are powerful factors, it is understandable that a younger brother will be fearful of his elder’s wrath for having been pre-empted.

“We have come to your brother to Esau and also (V’GAM) he goes toward you (LIKRATKHA)” (Gen 32:7)

And also (VGAM) and behold he (Aaron) goes out toward you (LIKRATKHA)…. (Exodus 4:14)

And he (Esau) fell upon his (Jacob’s) neck and he kissed him” ( Gen. 33:4)

And he (Moses) went and they met in the Mountain of the Elohim and he kissed him (Exodus 4:27)

Could these parallels be coincidental? I doubt it. So what then are we supposed to derive from these remarkable similarities?

JJ Gross