Shemot’s Main Characters

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shemot: Gd, the Egyptians, and the Jews

Taken broadly enough, the three major actors in the Exodus are named in the title to this essay (if we put Par’oh with the Egyptians, Moshe with the Jews). Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban draw our attention to aspects of each, a fitting way to start our review of the events of yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt.

Gd Is Compassionate, Just, and Develops Lasting Connections

Gd in Shemot is portrayed as compassionate yet just, whose decrees can be unavoidable. To start on a gentle note, let’s remember the “effort” Ramban thought it took for Gd to redeem the Jewish people. He pointed out 2;24-25 has four verbs for the decision to take them out, Gd heard their cries, remembered the covenant, saw, and knew.

Ramban assumes justice would have prevented the Jews from being redeemed, as Yehezkel 20;5 confirms when it says Gd’s only condition for the Jews to leave Egypt was for them to discard their idols, and they refused. In Yehezkel, the Jews’ only saving grace was other nations’ being prone to take punishment of the Jews as an expression of Gd’s inability to redeem them. Ramban thinks the Jews’ cries also helped, showing us a “side” to Gd we might forget, compassionate response to prayers, with the supplicant not necessarily deserving the compassion.

We also see stricter sides of Gd in the parsha. 4;24 depicts an incident at an inn, where an angel appears to kill Moshe, on the latter’s way back to Egypt to begin the redemption. Rashi quotes the Talmudic tradition Gd was reacting to Moshe’s failure to circumcise the newborn Eliezer quickly enough. While he chose correctly in heading out on the journey without circumcising the boy, to avoid the wait for the baby to recover, he was faulted for setting up accommodations rather than circumcise Eliezer right away.

In that case, Gd’s justice was swift, if somewhat cryptic. In Rashi’s portrayal, Tzipporah had to infer what Moshe had done wrong from how the angel was threatening Moshe. For great people, at least, the obligation to understand Gd’s justice involves effort.

And patience, we see in 6;1, where Rashi thought Gd rebuked Moshe for complaining about the pace of the Exodus. Avraham obeyed unprotestingly when Gd told him to sacrifice Yitzhak, in contradiction of a previous promise Yitzhak would be his posterity, and Moshe was upset the Exodus did not happen immediately.

Rashi also assumes this moment doomed Moshe to be kept out of Israel. Aside from how he would fit the idea with the Torah’s explicit and repeat attribution of Moshe’s punishment to the incident of Mei Merivah, Rashi is giving us another example of swift (in this case, irrevocable) justice by Gd.

Onkelos drew our attention to the lasting nature of a connection to Gd. The Torah twice in our parsha refers to an item as “belonging” to Gd, Moshe’s staff and the mountain where the Jews would eventually get the Torah (4;20 and 27). Onkelos avoids such humanizations, and instead describes the staff as one used to perform divine miracles, with the mountain being one where Gd’s glory appeared.

In his view, they become permanently identified with Gd because of their role in manifesting Gd’s Presence in the world.

Idolaters Misunderstand Gd, Sincerely

Comments of Rashi’s gave insight into the kinds of errors the Egyptians made in their view of Gd. First, when they enslave the Jews, the verse (1;12) notes the people thrived in proportion to the oppression. Rashi quotes a Midrash that it was intentional, Gd as it were saying to them, you hope to avert the growth of the people (Par’oh had said pen yirbeh, lest the Jews multiply), where I say they will grow and multiply.

Similarly, the plan to kill Jewish babies, 1;22, started with Par’oh’s astrologers’ correct prediction of Moshe’s birth. Rashi apparently assumes they could figure out the future, including the date of Moshe’s birth; Yokheved had three months with him because he was born prematurely. The astrologers also knew his downfall would come through water, yet also thought they could work their way around those events.

Gd shows them the futility of attempts to do what Gd has decided should not happen.

One more insight into idolaters comes when Rashi notes how the people of Midian rejected Yitro after he turned away from idolatry. Although he had been their leader, his abandoning their religion, as it were, led them to shun him. Rashi thinks their commitment to their way of life was deep and sincere enough that a leader who went against their principles had to be excommunicated (as opposed to today, for example, when we watch people reverse long-held and loudly proclaimed principles because some leader tells them to.)

[This Rashi always bothers me for another reason, his assumption the idolaters of Midian were dedicated to their religion, showing how hard it can be to tell right from wrong. Their idol-worship wasn’t utilitarian, social, or cultural; it was deeply held.]

Par’oh and the Egyptians

Of the idolaters in the parsha, none figures more prominently than Par’oh. As he comes to power, verse 1;8 describes him as a new king asher lo yada et Yosef, who did not know Yosef. Onkelos renders this as a matter of Par’oh repealing laws Yosef had made. ArtScroll quoted two supercommentaries to Onkelos, Midreshei HaTorah and Tosafos u-Milu’im, who point to the only Egyptian law we know Yosef made, the one-fifth tax he instituted at the end of Parshat VaYigash.

Aside from setting the stage for a Par’oh who felt no indebtedness to the past, or the relatives of the man who had previously been thought of as a hero of the kingdom (in my mind, similar to when Hitler, yemakh shemo, wiped away the decorated World War I service of German Jews. Or Gold Star families in the United States in the age of Trump; but that’s another matter).

It also gives another motive for Par’oh’s decision to tax and enslave the Jews. Foregoing a twenty percent income tax will leave a hole in a palace’s finances, one a cadre of slaves could fill nicely. For the Egyptians as a people, it’s a reminder (as I used to hear R. Mordechai Willig say, in other contexts) every humra leads to a kula, being stringent in one area—limited taxation—leads to being looser in another, the welcome tax rollback taking them down a road to being slaveowners, willing to stick with it to their destruction and demise when Gd comes to take the Jews out.

Onkelos gives another idea of Par’oh’s complex motives when Gd tells Moshe Par’oh will not let the Jews go ve-lo be-yad hazzaka, 3;19. Instead of Rashi’s interpretation, Par’oh will not let the Jews go until and unless Gd shows a strong hand, Onkelos writes ve-la min kodam de-hela takif, not because his army is strong.

I understand Onkelos to be saying Par’oh will resist Gd’s call to release the Jews not only because he has a strong army. Long after Gd makes clear Par’oh’s army is useless in resisting, Par’oh will nonetheless refuse to let them go. Another example of motives more complex than they might seem at first.

Ramban suggests an unexpected motive for some of Par’oh’s actions, convincing his people to go along with. He thinks Par’oh started the killing of Jewish babies with the midwives because he did not think his people would tolerate such a decree. For Ramban, Par’oh did not have so much power as to force his will on the people; he had to tread carefully within the limits they would accept.

Somewhat paradoxically, Ramban did think the Egyptians were comfortable with Par’oh letting it be known the government would not prosecute those who killed Jewish babies (the second stage of the decree, in Ramban’s view). Sadly, and as history has shown in other societies, all it took for Egyptians to happily drown Jewish babies was their being told the government would protect them from Jewish parents’ accusations, by making the bureaucracy of justice so cumbersome as to mean no one would ever be convicted of the crimes.

A limited Par’oh, who has to keep his people happy, can cause great suffering, for a mix of motives.

The Growing and Suffering Jewish People

Par’oh’s attempts to restrict the Jews could have had their roots in Moshe’s birth, as we saw above. Ramban notes the decree did not seem to affect Aharon’s birth, three years before Moshe’s, and ended soon thereafter. In this time, the Jews were growing remarkably, as Rashi noted on 1;7, the verse’s use of six adjectives for the Jewish growth leading him to cite the Midrash that Jewish women gave birth to six children at a time. Leaving the Midrash aside, the verse certainly indicates a growth that could take the Jews from the seventy who came to Egypt to the 600,000 who left in the two-odd centuries they were in Egypt.

More, by the beginning of Shemot, they seem to have become an identifiable nation, as Onkelos tells us by translating ha-meyaledot ha-ivriyyot, 1;15, literally Hebrew midwives, as Yehudayata, Jewish ones. They had become the nation of Yehudim.

They may not have noticed it right away. After Par’oh dies and a new one arises, 2;23, the verse tells us the Jews sighed from their labors. Onkelos adds de-hava keshe alehon, were harsh on them. Ramban thought the sighs came because the death of a Par’oh led to a temporary easing of troubles; when the hopes were dashed, they sighed, more aware of their burdens because of the brief respite. Onkelos doesn’t have to go that far; he may have thought the transition to a new king was itself a moment for pause and consideration, leading the Jews to realize how hard they had it.

Parshat Shemot shows us figures with complicated motives not always easily understood, as the Jews grow into the people Gd would soon take out of Egypt.

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