Yossi Feintuch

On animals (and more) in the Sh’mot Torah portion

The Hebrew mothers in Egypt were ‘’animals’’…

An interesting attestation to the great similarity between humans and animals is found in the opening chapter of Exodus when the two mid-wives, Shifra and Puah, who delivered Hebrew babies in Egypt, favorably resembled their “clients” to “animals”.  The Pharaoh demanded that they explain to him why the male Hebrew babies escaped immediate death at the birth-stool, for he had ordered the midwives to instantly slay the newborn boys.  In response Shifra and Puah said that the Hebrew women ‘’are animals’’; before the midwife comes to them the hardly and expertly Hebrew women give birth like animals do — without any assistance in delivery. The Pharaoh did not challenge their explanation and his thundering silence indicated his acceptance of the midwives’ resemblance of humans to animals at least in times of delivering babies.

Moses’ donkey

When Moses returns to Egypt upon God’s command to oversee the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, he “took his wife and sons, put them on the donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt”; (yet, at some point on that journey Moses sends them back to Midian).  Just like with Abraham’s donkey journey to Mt. Moriah for the intended sacrifice of Isaac, Moses repairing to Egypt with “the donkey” is obviously of crucial importance, even as the donkey is mentioned in the same breath with “God’s staff” that Moses also took along.  Here again the reference to “the donkey” is not gratuitous but is respectful of the animal’s role in a historic event that should be acknowledged.

Who told the Pharaoh?

Before Moses strikes the Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating up on a Hebrew slave, Moses turned his look ”this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he struck the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand”. Yet, the Pharaoh would soon hear about the matter and resolved to kill Moses for his action. Moses had a perfect vision; even at age 120 years, we are told, ”his eye was not dim”.  Besides the Hebrew that he had saved from his Egyptian assailant, there was no one around as Moses observed. And yet, the Pharaoh soon heard about the incident that compelled Moses to flee to Midian for his life.

How did the Pharaoh learn, then, about Moses’ action since ”there was no man” to notice the confrontation?  Rashi connects the mystery with Israelites who were won’t to carry ”tales about one another” and ”snitched on him” (against Moses).  But who were those Israelites?

Our narrative notes that the Pharaoh heard of the event only after Moses’ intervention in a fracas between two Hebrews where he identified the ”evil” offender and demanded to know: ”Why would you strike your fellow”? The overweening response that the culprit shot at him — “Do you propose to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” — left no doubt in Moses’ mind that ”indeed, the matter is known”.

Rashi comments that these two Hebrews were Dathan and Abiram — Moses’ future defamers who will join Korach in a major rebellion against his and Aaron’s leadership roles. And yet, besides the Hebrew man whose Egyptian assailant Moses struck dead there was no one else to witness what had taken place. Hence, it must have been the very Hebrew man whom Moses’ saved from violence, if not from a certain death, who reported to the Egyptian authorities about Moses’ action to curry favor with the government… And it is him whom Moses had rebuked for beating up on his fellowman.  Didn’t Isaiah call such a phenomenon: “Your spoilers and your destroyers shall come out from  y o u” (49:17)?

Finally, it was only  a f t e r Moses had heard from the Hebrew evil offender that his killing of the Egyptian man was already known when he became ”frightened”. But according to our text his great fear that ”indeed, the matter is known” was premature. For it is only now that ”the Pharaoh heard’’. In other words, the text does not tell us that the Pharaoh’s hearing about Moses’ action resulted in Moses’ fright. Rather, Moses’ consternation led to ”The Pharaoh heard about this matter and sought to kill Moses”. Per chance, hadn’t Moses fretted, the Pharaoh might have not heard of the whole affair at all.

Hence, President Franklin D Roosevelt at the time of the Great Depression declared in his (first) inaugural speech in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” … a lesson reflected in Moses’ own fear!

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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