This week we start the first sedra from the book of Shemos, which is called… Shemos! The parasha starts with what appears to be a small recap on the names of the children of Yaakov who came down to Egypt originally, this seems strange however because surely we were told who settled in the land in Bereishis, and furthermore we know the Torah doesn’t use a single additional letter without meaning to it, let alone a whole chunk of text?? So what is the reason that the Torah needs to state the names of the brothers? … Rashi explains that since the brothers were being mentioned here for the last time, they are counted by Hashem due to his love for them, he explains that beloved things are counted over and over again as this shows affection, for example a child with his toys or a Jewish businessman with his money. Ramban however sees this as simply a connection between the two books of Bereishis and Shemos, with the names being mentioned in Bereishis introducing the exile and this one simply picking up the thread of the narrative and continuing it. Sforno brings down that there is a slight difference here, in Bereishis (Vayigash) all the names of the Yaakov’s grandchildren are also listed, whereas our passage only lists the names of the sons. He goes on to explain that in the context of resisting the corruptive atmosphere of Egyptian society and preserving the moral and spiritual greatness of the Jewish nation, the sons were equal to the task. His grandchildren, however, were not able to maintain such a level and therefore they are not noted here. Nevertheless their merit was great enough to prevent the onset of the enslavement as long as they were alive, as we see it was not until this generation died that things started to go downhill. Commentators have noted that there were three levels of Jewish greatness, the patriarchs, the twelve brothers and the seventy who came down to Egypt (grandchildren etc.)… once all were dead, the spiritual fall and the descent into slavery accelerated.
Immediately after mentioning the passing away of this generation, the Torah states that the “Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased and became strong – very, very much so; and the land became filled with them”. It is quite apparent that this is where the problems started with Egypt turning its outlook towards anti-semitism. With a drop in spirituality, the Jewish nation was assimilating into Egyptian society rapidly. A Midrash describes how… ‘they no longer wanted to be confined in Goshen, they filled the land, mingling with the Egyptians and attending their theatres and circuses’, this insinuates that if the Jews actually stayed in Goshen and stuck to being Jewish, the problems which followed wouldn’t have taken place… Instead the Jewish nation became very successful within Egyptian society and this bred hatred towards them from the Egyptians who were all too happy to go along with Pharaohs harsh decrees. What is basically spelt out here, in the Torah, is the all too familiar pattern of anti-semitism which we have seen throughout history… first the Jews were welcomed into the land due to the numerous benefits they bring, then they became comfortable and assimilated, the process of hatred and fall out fed off of this success with jealousy or general fear that they will become too strong, what followed and has always followed throughout history was persecution… what should we have learnt and still need to learn… stay Jewish!!
As assimilated as the nation was in Egypt, we find that they were less assimilated than many Jews worldwide today; the Jews in Egypt at least distinguished themselves in four categories…
• None of them would give a child a non-Jewish name
• They did not switch to the language of the country, speaking only lashon hakodesh (Hebrew passed down from previous generations)
• They did not dress according to Egyptian stylesv
• They maintained levels of kindness towards each other and would not betray a fellow-Jew or Egyptian
Unfortunately today majority of Jews worldwide are undistinguishable from their fellow countrymen… Two young Jewish guys were traveling the world and visited a primitive tribe on some primitive island. One night they attended a ritual where a witch doctor, with paint, feathers, and the whole getup, did the traditional dance. Drums were beating, people were chanting, fires were glowing, and the doctor was dancing around the circle. One of the guys turned to the other and said in Yiddish, “if only my mother could see me now.” The witch doctor quickened his pace, stopped in front of them, and leaned over to whisper in his ear in Yiddish… “If only MY mother could see ME now!”
The Torah tells us that ‘a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know of Yoseph’. Rashi highlights a dispute between Rav and Shmuel (a classic Gemara pair) over the translation of this, one view states that he was literally a new king and the other opinion claims that although it was the same Pharaoh, he had new decrees and was therefore acting as if he was a ‘new king’ compared to the times of Yoseph. We therefore see that ‘not knowing Yoseph’ can either mean that he literally never met him or that he had conveniently forgotten his bond with the Jewish leader. Another more cryptic interpretation of these words was brought down by Rabbi Kaplan… he states that it should be read ‘he did not know [the history of] Yoseph’… the more affliction Yoseph endured, the more successful he became and so to we saw this by the Jewish people in Egypt… the more they were afflicted the more they increased and spread out (indicating success), which will be discussed more below.
New leaders spell new policies and what better way to bond your nation than some good old fashioned Jew bashing? One policy which has never failed to promote popularity over the years has been the tormenting of Jews. It is brought down by the Or HaChaim that Pharaoh told his people that the Jews’ power and wealth was not of their own making, it was from Egypt, stating that… “They flourished by taking advantage of our hospitality during the famine years, so now we have every right to take back what is ours”. In this statement we find one of the bases of historic anti-Semitism… by describing the Egyptians as ‘his people’ and the Jews as ‘outsiders’ (even though they had lived in Egypt for well over a hundred years and Yoseph was responsible for huge enrichment of the country), Pharaoh was able to drum up support for his evil policies… sound familiar? At first Pharaoh used tactics of deception to force the nation into unpaid labour, requesting them to show their patriotism by building cities to safeguard the country’s wealth, Pharaoh even set an example by famously joining in with the labour to symbolise that everyone must help Egypt in it’s time of need. Once the Jewish volunteers were mobilised it was an easy next step to enslave them. Ramban highlights that Pharaoh’s goal was not slave labour however, but the extermination of Israel… this was just a smoke screen to get the ball rolling. The Midrash describes how the policies proceeded in steps: first, slavery in the form of labour tax; then ordering midwives to secretly kill babies; then having every Egyptian throw the babies into the River; and finally, sending soldiers to search all Jewish homes for hidden infants.
The Torah states that… ‘as much as they would afflict it, so it would increase and spread out’, the sole purpose of the labour was therefore to inflict suffering on the people with the hope that the backbreaking labour and inevitable breakdown of marriages due to this, would curtail the high birth rate. G-d thwarted the Egyptians plans however and the more they tormented the Jews the more the population grew. Ramban brings down a proof for this in the census we see at the beginning of the book of Devarim… it shows that the Levites were much fewer in number than the other tribes and this was because they were not enslaved in Egypt (they were the priests of course), and so were not threatened with decimation; therefore, G-d did not intervene to increase their numbers as he did with the other tribes. With his policy of slavery miserably failing at destroying the Jews, Pharaoh needed a new strategy… It is brought down by the Sages that the Egyptian astrologers predicted the day that the savior of the Jews would be born, they also foresaw that his downfall would be through water (which it eventually was, when he hit the rock to draw water from it). Rashi notes that with this in mind Pharaoh ordered every male baby, even Egyptians (as he didn’t know if the redeemer would even be Jewish), be killed through drowning. Indeed it was during the time of this cruel decree that Moshe was born and just as the astrologers had seen and predicted his birth, they also saw that Moshe had been cast into the Nile… causing Pharaoh to have no more need for his cruel policy which he did in fact stop… what they didn’t perceive, however, was that he wasn’t really cast into the Nile but rather placed there in a wicker basket by his mother Yocheved who calculated the effects this action might have… Outsmarted!!
Born from Amram, which means great nation, and Yocheved, which has Hashem’s name in it and the word honor, Moshe was conceived amongst all this madness around him. As we all know, Moshe was plucked out of the Nile by none other than Pharaohs own daughter, princess Basyah (which was literally what Moses’s name meant in Egyptian, ‘drawn from the water’, Moshe is simply a Hebrew translation of Moses), and the future redeemer of the Jewish people grew up under the nose of the oblivious Pharaoh who Rashi tells us, even appointed him chamberlain over the palace when he ‘grew up’ [2:11]. We see here another reason why Pharaohs astrologers thought the redeemer of the Jewish people might in fact be an Egyptian, as Moshe basically grew up as one. Regardless of this difficult upbringing with such a heavy Egyptian influence, Moshe maintained his connection identifying himself with the Jewish people whom the Torah describes as ‘his brethren’ and killing an Egyptian who was abusing a ‘Hebrew man’ [2:12], leading to Moshe having to flee Egypt. What we observe is the early character traits of the man who would lead the nation of Israel out of the land of Egypt, coming from such an unlikely background.
We have to learn not to make the same mistakes as our ancestors did in Egypt and throughout history. By assimilating into the societies around them we see that they dampened the natural spirituality we can muster as Jews and inevitably brought on the anti-semitism that always follows. Moshe who was basically brought up as an Egyptian was able to maintain such a high spiritual level that he eventually became the redeemer of the Jewish people, we can take this as a great example that no matter what environment or conditions we find our selves we have to stay Jewish! Simple as…
I wish you all a fantastic Shabbas and successful week ahead,
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)