Five Rashis a Week, Parashat Shemot: Bringing a New World

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

The Rashis that caught my eye this week show the Jews going from a small family to a nation surrounded by nations committed to a worldview very much opposed to theirs. Once Moshe is chosen as leader, he seems to need to learn lessons about God, about the seriousness of Hashem’s justice, and about the patience that can be required in waiting for Hashem’s salvation.

The Power of Geometric Progressions

Some people are bothered by the plausibility of seventy men going down to Egypt and leaving as 600,000 210 years later. Rashi to Shmot 1;7 shows us that Chazal were already aware of the issue, and understood the verses to have addressed that.

In their reading, the Torah’s speaking of the Jews as having פרו, been fruitful, means women did not miscarry, and children did not die. All the children born lived to adulthood and childbearing, Chazal are saying. The next word, וישרצו, tells Chazal the women gave birth to six children at a time.

They probably took the number six from the verse’s using six words to describe their growth, פרו וישרצו וירבו ויעצמו במאד מאד, but it also offers a view of the Jews’ population growth while in Egypt. If they meant it literally (which Midrash sometimes does), they would be saying that even if a woman had only two such pregnancies in her lifetime, there would be more than enough births to get us to 60000 men leaving Egypt, even if we allow for four-fifths of the population to have been killed in the plague of darkness.

In fact, taking away miscarriage or death before having a full complement of children, we need to assume only that there were seven generations of childbearing over 210 years, and that each woman bore nine children, half of them male, to get very close to the 3 million men needed to leave 600,000 behind after the decimation during darkness.

Nine children is certainly a lot (although not unheard of), but the verse tells us the Jews were exceedingly fruitful, multiplied greatly, and all that.

It’s a reminder that we can dismiss too quickly that which seems impossible. It turns out it was merely improbable, which was what the sources said all along—during their years in Egypt, the Jews grew improbably quickly. But not impossibly.

You Can’t Beat Hashem

Rashi several times comments on the futility of the Egyptians’ attempts to forestall what Hashem had decided. First, they wanted to halt or hinder the Jews’ population growth, worried about the power the Jews were developing. 1;12, starting with the words וכאשר יענו אותו, tells us that for all they would try to oppress the Jews, Hashem made sure they multiplied. The next Rashi points out the linguistic parallel, the Egyptians had said פן ירבה, lest they multiply, and Hashem said כן ירבה, yes, they will multiply.

Later in the chapter, Par’oh starts killing Jewish babies. Rashi records the tradition that his astrologers had told him the Jews’ redeemer was about to be born. In verse 22, on the words לכל עמו, Rashi notes that the verse speaks of Par’oh commanding all his people to kill babies. The astrologers couldn’t tell if the baby would be born Egyptian or Israelite, but did know he would be destroyed by water (they foresaw Moshe hitting the rock at Mei Merivah; here and elsewhere, Rashi thinks astrologers get predictions right, but still miss their true import).

Par’oh therefore commands all his people to kill any male babies born that day. I am struck by the desperation Chazal see in Par’oh—he had become so attached to holding on to the Jews, so caught up in averting their leaving, that he was willing to demand the death of his own people’s babies (and his people did not rebel).

The practice also extended beyond that day, because Yocheved hides Moshe for three months, yet still puts him in the river. However Rashi would have explained that, the words ולא יכלה עוד הצפינו, she could no longer hide him, 2;3, are odd; what happened after three months that she could no longer hide him? Rashi’s answer is that the Egyptians counted months from her resumption of married life with Amram; nine months later—three months after she had given birth– they came to check.

We still struggle with the balance between privacy rights and national needs. But in our world, those willing to err on the side of intrusion do it to avoid terrorist attacks that are an actual and recognized threat.  For Rashi and Chazal, the Egyptians were tracking pregnancies, to kill babies, to avoid the Jews perhaps having a redeemer who, eighty years hence, would lead his people out of the land.

All these Rashis together remind me of how frantically we can work to avert Hashem’s plan. The Egyptians did all they could to stem Jewish population growth, and it didn’t work. They perhaps gave up their own children, and certainly intruded on Jews’ privacy, to stop Moshe from being born or to kill him as a young infant.

It doesn’t work, ever. Where Hashem declares a future, there’s less than no point in trying to stop it.

The Sincerity of Idolaters

Perhaps I am about to reveal a flaw in my absorption of what teachers tried to tell me as I grew up, but idolatry always seemed silly to me, the kind of belief only primitives and the unsophisticated could hold. Today, of course, we’ve seen a return to literal idolatry in many areas of the world (meaning: not only religious beliefs halachah would deem idolatry but that general intuition would think of as religious beliefs), including pockets of the United States.

But there’s a broader point that comes out of Rashi’s explanation of our first introduction to Yitro, Moshe’s father in law. 2;16 tells us the “priest of Midian” had seven daughters, who came to the well, drew water, and filled the troughs. In the next verse, the other shepherds come and chase them away, only to have Moshe rescue them.

The text does not explain how the shepherds openly mistreat the daughters of the priest of Midian. Rashi explains that Yitro had been their priest until he abandoned idolatry. Then they shunned him. Many today shun shunning over religious disagreements, and this Rashi does not force us to have that conversation. But it does claim that the idolaters of Midian were committed enough to their idolatry to be offended by Yitro’s apostasy. He had been their leader, whom they followed, but when he rejected idolatry, they rejected him.

We would hope to do the same if even the greatest Torah scholar suddenly renounced the religion, or adopted an unacceptable view of the religion (as in the case of Yochanan the High Priest, who became a Saduccee at age eighty). But seeing idolaters do it reminds us that idolaters throughout history actively and deeply disagreed with our worldview, not just had not yet been exposed to it.

It’s not that they hadn’t yet learned of monotheism, and had fallen into whatever ism guided their lives.  The idolaters of Midian, and many since, were deeply attached. It was their ideology and way of life, and we miss an important piece of the picture if we neglect that. Avraham Avinu, and now Moshe, spoke to contemporaries positive that they misunderstood the fundamentals of how the world works. As do many of us today, when we speak with those sure there cannot be a God Who runs the world.

The Swiftness, Strictness, and Secrecy of Hashem’s Justice

4;24-6 tells an opaque story about Moshe at the inn. An angel comes to kill him, for reasons not explained in the text. Rashi, on 4;24’s words ויבקש המיתו, he sought to kill him, says it was for having neglected to circumcise Eliezer at the first opportunity.

Rashi continues that the angel would first swallow Moshe from his head until the place of circumcision, and then from his feet up to that place. Tzipporah understood the message and circumcised Eliezer, saving Moshe’s life.

There is much to say about the story. Here, I see three claims in Rashi we sometimes neglect to notice. First, that Moshe’s failure to circumcise his son could be an omission worthy of death. Second, it wasn’t even a refusal to circumcise the baby, it was waiting longer than necessary. And, third, that when we sin, Hashem doesn’t always confront us directly, laying out clearly what we did and how to rectify it. Sometimes, at least with people as great as Moshe and Tzipporah, our actions lead to consequences; there can be a way to avert those, but it might be our job to figure that out, with only hints from Hashem as to what is happening.

Reigning in Our Impatience

In 5;22-23, after the people’s leaders telling him off for having worsened their situation, Moshe complains to Hashem. In 6;1, the last verse of the parsha, Hashem says, now you’ll see what I’m about to do to Par’oh, how he will send the Jews out.

Rashi infers a rebuke in the words עתה תראה, now you will see. Avraham was told that Yitzchak would be his posterity, but when Hashem told him to offer him as a sacrifice, he obeyed unquestioningly.  In the beginning of the next parsha, 6;3, on the words ושמי ה’, Hashem says He never made His four-letter Name known to the Avot, which Rashi understands to mean they never saw the fulfillment of the promises made to them. Moshe’s demand to see immediate results shines an unflattering light on him, as compared to the Avot.

As punishment, Rashi says, he’ll see the Exodus, but not the conquest of the Canaanite kings. This is surprising, since the Torah and Rashi elsewhere stress that it was only the incident at the rock that cost Moshe the right to enter the Land. However we answer that, this Rashi wants us to see that faith is not always instantly rewarded; faith involves the confidence in the future we are told, even if we don’t live to see it.

We can hope to avoid the Egyptians’ error, thinking we can stop Hashem’s plan; the Midianites’ error, becoming deeply and sincerely attached to a worldview that is completely wrong; and Moshe’s errors, fulfilling Hashem’s commands with alacrity and not falling into the trap of assuming we know when and how the Divine Plan will be fulfilled.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.