Shemot: Taking The First Step
This is a challenging Parasha to read. However, the Exodus story is a classic example appreciating the good that happens by remembering the bad. Throughout history, this narrative from slavery to freedom has been used by others to escape tyranny, for example: The founding fathers of The United States of America, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We are commanded to remember the story of the Exodus (Shemot) daily. By remembering, we show gratitude to G-d because, ultimately, G-d is in control. We have dealt with many challenges throughout our history, and we are all going through a big challenge right now. We realize through the challenges what we are truly made of. There are many people who are standing up today, countering the mainstream narrative, at a great cost. Doctors have lost their licenses, people have been censored, and all of us have experienced a loss of freedoms. In Shemot, we cried out to Hashem, and our prayers were answered. We took the first step and G-d did the rest.
In Parashat Shemot, B’nai Yisrael transition from freedom to servitude. The Torah tells us that B’nai Yisrael was fruitful and increased and a new King (Pharaoh) arose in Egypt. He set taskmasters over them and oppressed them with forced labor. When that didn’t work, Pharaoh ordered all of the baby boys to be killed. We learn about the two midwives: Shifrah and Puah, who feared Hashem and didn’t do what Pharaoh asked. Pharaoh confronted them and they said that the Hebrew women give birth before they arrive. (Shemot 1:17-19).
וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים
וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים
וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ
B’nai Yisrael continued to grow, Pharaoh grew angry, and subsequently, ordered all baby boys be thrown into the Nile River. Can you imagine having to deal with this?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote “Often the mark of real moral heroes is that they do not see themselves as moral heroes. They do what they do because that is what a human being is supposed to do. That is probably the meaning of the statement that they “feared God.” It is the Torah’s generic description of those who have a moral sense (Shemot).”
After the Holocaust, the Nuremburg Laws were created to prevent crimes against humanity. As we know, many of the accomplices during the Holocaust simply stated, “I was just following orders.” Some orders are not to be obeyed! History repeats itself!
The Talmud tells us “If there is a conflict between the words of the Master [God] and the words of a disciple [a human being], the words of the Master must prevail” (Kiddushin 42b).
Thomas Paine had a major impact on the American Revolution. He wrote Common Sense, in January1776, it became an instant best seller! He later became known as the “Father of the American Revolution.” The reasons he cited for rebellion against the tyrannical King of England were based on citations from the Book of Shemot. Throughout the writings of the Founding Fathers, there are many parallels to the struggle from slavery to freedom that B’nai Yisrael experienced and what the founders of America experienced.
Just when we think all is lost based on the beginning of Shemot, Moshe is born to Jocheved and Amram, from the Tribe of Levi. She was able to hide him for three months, but when she couldn’t hide him any longer, she made a wicker basket, put him inside, and placed him into the Nile River. Miriam, his sister, watched from a distance. The daughter of Pharaoh found the basket, then, took him out of the water. His sister suggested his own mother nurse him. Rashi tells us that many Egyptian women attempted to nurse him, but he wouldn’t suckle from them (Exodus Rabbah 1:21 and Sotah 12b).
Later, Moshe grew up and saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish slave, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. After an encounter with two Jewish slaves, he flees to Midian. Moshe became a shepherd for Yitro, the priest of Midian, and he married his daughter, Tzipporah. Long after that, Pharaoh died, and B’nai Yisrael cried out to Hashem. While Moshe was tending to the flock, he notices a burning bush, but the bush was not consumed. Rabbi Yaakov Wolbe said that when we’re suffering G-d also suffers. G-d heard our suffering and remembered the covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Hashem speaks to Moshe and tells him to take off his shoes because he is standing on holy ground (Shemot 3:4-5).
וַיַּ֥רְא יְהֹוָ֖ה כִּ֣י סָ֣ר לִרְא֑וֹת וַיִּקְרָא֩ אֵלָ֨יו אֱלֹהִ֜ים מִתּ֣וֹךְ הַסְּנֶ֗ה וַיֹּ֛אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֥ה מֹשֶׁ֖ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא
Moshe was chosen to be the one to go to Pharoah to save B’nai Yisrael. G-d made him worthy of prophecy once he took the first step in initiating a relationship with G-d by investigating the burning bush. After some back and forth between Moshe and G-d, Moshe finally agrees to go to Pharaoh with his brother, Aaron. When Moshe and Aaron approached Pharaoh, he grew angry and ordered his taskmasters to make B’nai Yisrael work even harder.
Rabbi Aharon Loschak says that “Going back to our ancestors in Egypt, the ultimate plan was to usher them to the foot of Mount Sinai and give them the Torah. But such a gift, such a level of closeness between G‑d and the people, is incredibly deep and powerful—deeper than anything that came before it. It was simply impossible to get from the complacency of the beginning days of the Egyptian Jewish experience, when all was fine and dandy, to the awesomeness of Sinai. To bridge this impossible gap, there needed to be a period of breakage in between. A time that would remove the stagnancy of ‘before’ to get to the maturity of ‘after.’ This was the darkness of slavery, the crush of Egyptian oppression.
There’s a saying in Hebrew גם זו לטובה which means “this is also good.” Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz says that we all have adversities in life, it can really get us down, but instead we must recognize that in the adversities are actually hidden blessings. If we can learn to look at each of our challenges גם זו לטובה we realize that through those bad times, we can really appreciate the good times. Even today, these are challenging times, but גם זו לטובה everything will get better. We can use this time to deepen our relationship with Hashem and may we merit to achieve our full redemption soon!