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Torah Sparks

January 20, 2001 - 5761

Prepared by Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
Temple Sinai, Hollywood, FL

Edited by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Exodus 1:1-6:1; Hertz Chumash, page 206
Triennial Cycle III: Exodus 4:18-6:1; Hertz Chumash, page 220
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23; Hertz Chumash, page 225

(1:1-14) A list of the sons of Jacob/Israel who came to Egypt. The beginning of the enslavement. The building of the store-cities and other acts of oppression.

(1:15-22) The midwives disobey Pharoah’s orders to kill all male Israelite newborns. He then orders every newborn boy to be drowned in the Nile.

(2:1-10) A boy is born. His parents hide him for three months. His mother puts him into a reed basket and floats him on the Nile, where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter. She names him Moses. He is raised in the royal palace.

(2:11-25) Moses goes out to his people and sees their suffering. He kills an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite, and is forced to flee to Midian. He marries Zipporah and works for her father as a shepherd. Meanwhile, God hears the suffering of the Israelites, and determines to help.

(3:1-10) The revelation at the burning bush. Moses is called by God to be a prophet and a leader of the people. He will be God’s agent in freeing Israel from slavery in Egypt.

(3:11-4:17) Moses expresses anxiety and doubt about his worthiness for the task. God encourages and reassures him, and gives signs to Moses to prove to the Israelites that he is indeed God’s messenger. All in all, Moses refuses God’s assignment five times, and God provides five counterarguments. Finally, Moses accepts the task.

(4:18-23) Further instructions from God to Moses. (4:24-26) A peculiar incident during the journey to Egypt: Zipporah circumcises their son to ward off danger to Moses.

(4:27-31) God sends Aaron to meet Moses, and together they convince the people that God has sent them. (5:1-6:1) Moses and Aaron’s first confrontation with Pharaoh fails. Pharaoh retaliates by oppressing the Israelites even more harshly. The Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for making their plight worse. Moses complains to God, who reassures him that he will soon see what God will do to Pharaoh.

Discussion Theme 1: Confronting the Enemy

Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the G-d of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2)

  1. Cecil B. DeMille did it differently, and in the difference lies the gap between western culture and biblical culture. In the movie, “The Ten Commandments,... great stress is put on the physical, visual trappings of Pharaoh’s court, apparently no expense was spared to bring costumes, sets, and extras, and the result causes the audience to focus on the splendor of Egyptian culture, despite the fact that it is peopled by the villains of the story. In contrast, the Bible says practically nothing about the visual backdrop of the Plague Narrative... Exodus strips down Egyptian culture by making it disappear, and by ridiculing its gods... This profoundly “anti-cultural” stance... was characteristic of Israel’s world view and was a mystery to the Greeks and Romans who centuries later conquered the land; it was to stand the people of Israel in good stead in the wanderings though the centuries. (Everett Fox, “Now These Are The Names,” p. 9-10)
  2. Thus, the scene is set for the first confrontation between Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh. It is not a happy scene, either. Pharaoh displays remarkable arrogance. “Who is this ‘G-d’ that I should obey him and send forth Israel? I do not know G-d, nor will I send forth Israel.” Ironically, Pharaoh’s opening salvo, so full of bravado, seals his death sentence. In denying knowledge of G-d, much like his predecessor denied knowledge of Joseph, he calls down divine wrath. Pharaoh, who claims to be a creator-god, “The Nile is mine, I have created it” (Ezek. 29:3), will be utterly smashed by the Creator of the Universe. Pharaoh either mistakes Aaron and Moses’ mission for one of posturing - they do not really have divine power behind them - or, worse, thinks he can take on G-d. His dismissal of Moses and Aaron and subsequent intensification of oppression of the Israelites is a Pyrrhic victory. His brash challenge will be brief and result in enormous cost to all of Egypt. (Burton L. Visotzky, “The Road to Redemption,” p. 87-88)

Discussion Sparks:

We know this story so well that we often don’t stop to see the subtle lessons the narrative has to teach. What does this story have to teach us about popular uprisings? What is the difference in the situation between the citizens of Yugoslavia and those living under the Palestinian Authority? What turns a cause into a revolution? Which revolution is similar to our text and which is not? Why? Why did the Israelites fail to stage a popular uprising if their ‘cause’ was just? Why was Moses uniquely qualified to be their spokesperson in this confrontation?

Discussion Theme 2: Confronting G-d

Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still you have not delivered Your People.” (Exodus 5:22-23)

  1. “Good morning to You, Lord of the world! I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, approach you with a legal matter concerning Your people of Israel. What do you want of Israel? It is always, ‘Command the Children of Israel!’ It is always, ‘Speak to the Children of Israel!’ Merciful Father; There are so many people in the world! Persians, Babylonians, Edomites! Russians, Germans English... What do they say: ‘Our kingdom is the kingdom!’ ‘Our emperor is the emperor!’ But I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say, Yisgadal v’ Yiskadash Shemay Rabo! Glorified and sanctified be His great name! And I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, say: I shall not go hence, nor budge from my place until there will be a finish until there be an end to our suffering...Glorified and Sanctified be His name!” (SimonCertner, “101 Jewish Stories,” Board of Jewish Education NY, p.53-54)

Discussion Sparks:

How do we, as Jews, question G-d’s will? Does Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev sound a little more defiant than he’should be? Have there been other Jews and other instances in history when this kind of ‘defiance’ of G-d took place? How might G-d respond to our confrontation? Why does Judaism allow “loving defiance” of G-d?

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