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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemot
January 9, 2010 – 23 Tevet 5770

Annual (Ex. 1:1-6:1): Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206
Triennial (Ex. 4:18-6:1): Etz Hayim, p. 335; Hertz p. 220
Haftarah (A – Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23; S - Jeremiah 1:1-2:3)
Etz Hayim, p. 343 (A), p. 347 (S); Hertz p. 225 (A), p. 229 (S)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Shemot begins with a list of the sons of Israel/Jacob who came to Egypt. At this point, the Torah transitions from the story of a family to the story of a people. The Egyptian king fears and hates the Israelites and enslaves them, forcing them to perform hard labor. When this oppression fails to curb the growth of the Israelite population, Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill all the newborn boys. When the midwives refuse to obey the order, Pharaoh issues a general order that every baby boy born to Hebrew parents is to be drowned in the Nile.

Against this background, Moses is born. When his mother can no longer hide her baby son, she places him in a basket in the river, hoping he might survive. Moses is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who recognizes that he is a Hebrew child but still decides to adopt him as her son and raise him in the royal palace.

Once Moses has grown up, he goes out to see the state of his people. He comes upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and kills the Egyptian. When he learns that the killing is known, he flees to Midian. He marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and becomes a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flocks.

One day, when Moses is tending the sheep, he comes upon a burning bush. God speaks to Moses from the bush and tells him that he is being sent to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Moses objects, insisting that he is neither worthy nor capable of this mission. God counters Moses’ arguments, reassures him, and gives him signs that will show that he is God’s messenger.

Moses sets out for Egypt with his wife and sons. God sends Aaron to meet him and together they assemble the Israelite elders and tell them that God has promised to end their servitude. Moses and Aaron then go to Pharaoh and ask that the Israelites be allowed to go into the wilderness to worship God. Pharaoh not only refuses but retaliates by increasing the severity of the Israelites’ oppression. The people blame Moses and Aaron for their punishment, but God tells Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh.”

1. How Odd

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son.” (Exodus 4:22)

  1. An expression of greatness, as in Psalm 89:28: “I will appoint him first-born, highest of the kings of the earth.” This is its plain meaning. (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  2. The first-born son is given the distinction of receiving a double share of his father’s inheritance, because he was the son who first made him a father. Since the people of Israel is that nation that by proclaiming the belief in God, in His Providence, and in His almighty power, first caused God to be acknowledged as the Father of the Universe, it, too, can lay claim to the title and privileges of a “first-born son.” (Meshekh Hokhma (Rabbi Meir Simha Hakohen of Dvinsk), 1843-1926, Latvia)
  3. God speaking of Israel as “My first-born son” expresses the idea that with Israel ... is commenced the list in which the names of all the nations should appear as My sons. So that in your own name and in the name of the whole of humanity I come to you. Israel is My first but not My only child, it is only the first nation that I have won as Mine. Not as “My first-born son” but as “My son” do I demand freedom for Israel, as I would for any nation that gave itself to Me as My son. Israel is not the first in rank, but the first in time. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. It becomes obvious that we are not discussing a dogma incapable of verification, but the recognition of sober historical fact. The world owes Israel the idea of the One God of righteousness and holiness... Clearly God used Israel for this great purpose. (Rabbi Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, p. 274.)
  5. How odd/Of God/To choose/The Jews. (William Norman Ewer, 1885-1976)
  6. It’s not/So odd/The Jews/Chose God. (Author unknown, variously attributed)

Sparks for Discussion

What is meant by saying that the Jews are God’s “first-born son,” God’s “chosen people?” Does God like us better than other people or religions? Does it mean that we are first in rank or first in time? What privileges does a first-born child have? What responsibilities? How would you explain the concept of “chosen people” to a non-Jewish friend?

2. Tell Me Why

Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?” (Exodus 5:22)

  1. This is not a complaint or insolence; rather it is a question. Moses asked God, why is it this way – an innocent person experiences evil while good befalls a wicked person? For he had seen Israel enslaved, experiencing oppression and great suffering, while the wicked Egyptians experienced success and tranquility. (Rabbenu Hananel ben Hushiel, 990-1053, Tunisia)
  2. The sages said in the name of Rav Huna: When a person sees that sufferings come upon him, he should examine his conduct. If, in examining it, he finds [wrongdoing in himself], let him repent. If, after examining his conduct, he finds no wrongdoing, let him attribute the sufferings to his neglect of the study of the Torah. If, after attempting to attribute them to such neglect, he finds this could not [have been the cause], he may be certain that his sufferings are the rebukes of [God’s] love, “For whom the Lord loves, He rebukes.” (Proverbs 3:12) (Berakhot 5a)
  3. Moses asked God two questions: “Why did You bring harm upon this people?” and “Why did you send me?” To the second he was given the answer (6:1), “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might.” As to his first question, why God had brought harm upon the people, He did not give him an answer, because God’s ways are hidden from man. (Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Zavlin, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  4. A popular formulation of the dilemma posed by [the Book of Job] is to make three claims:
    1. God is righteous, just, and nice.
    2. God is omnipotent.
    3. Job ... was blameless.

    Then it is asserted that we cannot accept all three claims simultaneously. One of the three must be rejected. Job’s consolers reject the third claim, but God weighs in at the end to reprimand them for doing so and confirms Job’s blamelessness. So Job remains blameless.

    We are left, then, with having to reject one of the first two claims. If a blameless Job suffers terribly, then how can God be either omnipotent or just? The weight of the Jewish tradition, together with God in the last chapters of the book, rejects the apparent contradiction by insisting that our human understanding of righteousness, justice, and niceness is not necessarily God’s. God then remains both omnipotent and righteous, and God’s treatment of Job ... is vindicated. (Rabbi Neil Gillman, The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism, pp. 100-101)
  5. Rabbi Yannai taught: The tranquility of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous – these are beyond human understanding. (Pirkei Avot 4:19)

Sparks for Discussion

The “problem of evil” – why the innocent suffer –is perhaps the greatest challenge to religious faith. Rav Huna’s teaching (source B) implies that there is no undeserved suffering. How do you react to this? Is such a position defensible after the Shoah? Our other commentators take the position that the suffering of the innocent is simply beyond our understanding. How comfortable are you with this explanation? Have you thought seriously about the problem of evil? What conclusions have you come to?

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