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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT SHEMOT
January 21, 2006 - 21 Tevet 5766

Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial Cycle: Exodus 3:1-4:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 326; Hertz p. 213)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 - 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343, 347; Hertz p. 225, 228)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Summary

A new pharaoh arises in Egypt who did not know Joseph. He fears that the people Israel will continue to multiply and become more powerful than the Egyptians, so he appoints taskmasters over the Israelites and enslaves them. He makes them build the cities of Pithom and Raamses. Pharaoh also tells the two midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill every baby boy born to the Hebrew women. But the midwives, in an act of civil disobedience, refuse. Finally Pharaoh declares that every Hebrew baby boy be thrown into the Nile and drowned.

A baby boy is born to a Hebrew woman from the tribe of Levi. After hiding him for three months, she places the baby in a basket and sets him afloat on the Nile River. Pharaoh's daughter rescues the baby, names him Moses, and raises him as her own. Moses' birth mother becomes his wet nurse. As a young man, Moses sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite. He kills the Egyptian; when word gets out, Moses flees from Egypt. He goes to Midian, marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and prepares to live a peaceful life as a shepherd.

Moses spots a bush that burns but is not consumed. He approaches the bush and hears the voice of God telling him to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. When Moses asks who God is, God simply answers, "I am Who I am." Moses tries to come up with various excuses not to go, including the fact that he is "heavy of tongue." God says that his brother Aaron can go to speak for him, so Moses leaves for Egypt.

On the journey back, Moses almost dies from an illness. Zipporah takes a sharp flint and circumcises their son. Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh and Pharaoh replies, "Who is this God that I should let his people go?" Pharaoh increases the burden of the people's slavery, and the people blame Moses for their suffering.

Issue #1 - The Role of Women

"But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive" (Exodus 1:17)

Discussion

  1. We often hear that women played a somewhat passive role in the Bible. This certainly is not true of the events leading to the redemption from Egypt. No fewer than six women had major roles in the events leading up to the Exodus. (Before reading further, can you name these women?)
  2. Shifra and Puah were the midwives who refused to kill the Israelite's baby boys. Rashi on Exodus 1:15 says these midwives really were Moses' mother and sister Yocheved and Miriam. Why might Rashi not have made them separate heroines in their own right?
  3. Yocheved gave birth to Moses and saved him in a basket. Miriam followed the basket and brought Yocheved to Pharaoh's daughter as a wet nurse. Even more! The Talmud records that Miriam actually convinced her parents to resume full life as husband and wife. They had separated following Pharaoh's decree. The Talmud quotes Miriam as saying, "Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh only decreed against males, (by separating from your wife) you decreed against males and females." (See Talmud Sota 12a.) Was Miriam right? Should a couple chance having children in a time of danger?
  4. Bitya, Pharaoh's daughter, rescued Moses and raised him in her household. And later in the portion, Zipporah circumcised their son and saved Moses' life. Here we see evidence of the first female mohelet, (ritual circumciser). Is there any reason a woman cannot be a mohelet today?
  5. Has Judaism downplayed the role of women in Jewish history? If so, can this portion become a paradigm of the centrality of women in Jewish survival?

Issue #2 - Anger

"And he looked this way and that way, and when he [Moses] saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand" (Shemot 2:12)

Discussion

  1. The story of Moses as a person begins when he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite. Moses looks this way and that way, and when he sees that there is no other man present, in a moment of anger and passion, he kills the Egyptian. Was Moses justified in this reaction to what he saw? Are there times when is anger justified? Are there times when anger is an inappropriate reaction, no matter what?
  2. The Talmud sees anger as an example of the evil inclination at work. The discussion begins with someone who tears his clothing in a fit of anger. "Rabbi Avin said this has a positive effect, for it appeases the evil inclination" (Shabbat 105b). Is this similar to the therapeutic notion popular today that a person should express anger in order to keep it from building up inside?
  3. The Talmud continues in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, "One who tears his clothing in anger, breaks dishes in anger, scatters coins in anger, should see himself as if he has worshipped idols. He does it once, does it again, and then he is worshipping idols. … What is the strange god within a man? It is the evil inclination." According to this Talmudic passage, losing one's temper is like worshipping idols. It calls for an absolute control of anger. Is it really possible never to get angry? Is anger ever justified? Might there be times when squelching an angry reaction might be like worshipping idols?
  4. Imagine a world where there is not anger. Would anybody be motivated to fight injustice? On the other hand, imagine a world where people feel free to express their anger without limits. It would be an unpleasant place to live. Controlled anger has a place in the world. How can we keep our balance? Did Moses lose his right to go into the land because he could no longer control his anger (as in the book of Numbers, when he struck the rock)?

 
 
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