Shemot

  • Rav Moshe Aberman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT SHEMOT

by Rav Moshe Aberman

"The king of Egypt died ... and the Jews cried out, and their beseeching rose up to God ... And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov" (2:23-24).

After the death of Par'o, Benei Yisrael call out to Hashem, their cry is heard and as a result God remembers his promise to the patriarchs. The relationship between Benei Yisrael's cry and God's response is further reiterated when God asks Moshe to accept the leadership of the Jewish nation. First God states "I have surely seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and I have heard their cry ... I have come down to save them from the hand of Egypt" (3:7-8). God then repeats, "And now, the cry of Benei Yisrael has come before Me, and I have also seen the oppression ... Therefore go, for I will send you to Par'o, and bring out My people Benei Yisrael" (3:9-10).

It seems clear that there is some causal relationship between the people's crying and God's remembering and responding. Yet, we would be hard-pressed to assume that without the outcry of Benei Yisrael, God does not remember his promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, nor can we posit that Hashem is unaware of the hardship to Am Yisrael before he hears their cries. We therefore need to understand what the repeated connection between the outcry and God's response is meant to convey.

Before we proceed with this point, let us list a number of questions pertaining to the parasha.

1. Sefer Shemot opens by repeating the information given in Sefer Bereishit. As a matter of fact, the first verse is almost a word for word quotation of a verse in Vayigash (46:8). We have been taught that the Torah does not repeat information without a particular purpose. Why does Sefer Shemot need to recapitulate the family information presented previously in Vayigash?

2. It should also be noted that the words "ve-Yosef haya be-Mitzrayim" (1:5) do not stand only in contrast to "ha-ba'im Mitzraymah" (1:1). Were the purpose to contrast Yosef's being in Mitzrayim to his brothers coming from Canaan, then the phrase "ve-Yosef haya be-Mitzrayim" should have appeared immediately after the list of those who came from Canaan (i.e., immediately after verse 4), before "And the total number of Yaakov's descendants was seventy souls" (1:5). From the position of the statement concerning Yosef being in Egypt, it appears to relate to the fact that the Jewish family consisted of seventy souls. What is the relationship between those two facts?

3. Why does the Torah elaborate on two stories which could have been skipped or told in much less detail? The first of these stories is that of the midwives. Why does the Torah describe in such length the resistance these two women gave Par'o? What is the particular idea conveyed in this story? Similarly, we may wonder why the pesukim elaborate so on the conception and birth of Moshe while they ignore other lengthy parts of his life?

We may be able to answer all these questions using a basic principle of Jewish thought. In trying to explain the purpose of prayer, Rav Yosef Albo in his "Sefer Ha-Ikarim" states: "For the influences from above come down upon the recipient when he is in a certain degree and state of preparation to receive them. And if a person does not prepare himself, he withholds the good from himself. For example, if it has been determined from on high that a given person's crops shall prosper in a given year, then God may bring the most abundant rain upon the land, but his crops will not prosper, seeing that he has not plowed or sowed. He precluded himself from receiving that benefit. Our idea therefore is that when a benefit is determined in favor of any one, it is conditional upon a certain degree of right conduct. This must be taken to be a general principle as regards the promises in the Bible."

Rav Albo is teaching us that though Hashem decrees certain things, He conditions their implementation on human initiative. Without the proper human participation, God's decrees and promises may not be fulfilled. It would seem that the promise to the Patriarchs to redeem Benei Yisrael from Egypt is such a case. The prayer and cries of the Jews in Egypt activated the promise to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. This is what the Torah expresses by linking "Va-yishma ... et na'akatam va-yizkor ... et berito" to God's decision to come and save them. Because of VA-YISHMA there was VA-YIZKOR. "Zekhira" in reference to God does not refer to memory in the human sense. Zekhira is a form of acknowledgment that the conditions are appropriate for implementation of a promise or decree. Here too, only after Benei Yisrael turn to Hashem in prayer, can the promise of the "berit Avot" be fulfilled.

The idea that prayer activates berit Avot is found in a midrash as well. At the end of Midrash Rabba on parashat Mishpatim, we find a lengthy discourse on the symbolism of the term "malakh" as a sign of redemption. In midst of this discourse the Midrash states: "What's more, when the Jews cry out before Him, salvation comes to them. So it was at the (burning) bush, as is written, 'For the cry of Benei Yisrael has come before Me." The Midrash is saying that "tza'aka," a prayer from the depth of the hearts of Am Yisrael, has the power of activating the redemption.

Similarly, the Yerushalmi in the beginning of masekhet Ta'anit lists the components that enabled the redemption from Egypt: "Five things were behind the redemption of the Jews, 'ketz' (time-period), trouble, 'tzevacha' (crying-out), zekhut avot, and repentance." The Gemara goes on to show how each of the components can be found in a different verse, learning "crying-out" from "And God heard their groans." The Yerushalmi would appear to be of the opinion that without the tzevacha (a term used to express fervent prayer) the redemption could not take place. Without tefila there is no zekhira, in other words no redemption, even though other conditions appear. (The necessity of repentance as a condition for the redemption from Egypt was discussed at length last year in the shiur to parashat Bo.)

Now we can understand the earlier parts of the parasha. Why is it that the Torah repeats information known to us from Sefer Bereishit? What is the purpose of stressing that Yosef was in Egypt? The answer is that the Torah is trying to depict the state of mind of Benei Yisrael in Egypt. Yaakov's sons and their children were accustomed to special conditions in Egypt. They were related to a prince of the realm, their father was credited with bringing about the end of the drought, and people respected them and treated them accordingly. As result of the "good life," they forgot that this was exile, that there was a homeland, and they even began to forget Hashem. Comes the Torah and teaches us, "Ve-Yosef haya be-Mitzrayim," - all this time, Yosef was in Egypt, that's why life was so good. "Ve-Yosef haya be-Mitzrayim" is therefore a summation of Jewish life in Egypt. The family of Yaakov - seventy souls - came down to Egypt, which is characterized by the fact that Yosef, viceroy to the king, was then in charge. Life is good, because they have entrusted their welfare to their powerful relative and they became totally dependent on him.

But then, "Yosef died," the people multiplied, and finally, "a new king arose, who knew not Yosef." Benei Yisrael are no longer royal guests. The princes are dead and their descendants are not merely a family any longer but rather a nation. There is a new regime that has no ties with Yosef and his brothers. No longer are Benei Yisrael an asset, but rather, in the somewhat paranoid mind of the new king, they represent a real threat. At this point, new rules are promulgated, putting Am Yisrael in a lower working class. Yet, they do not respond actively. Benei Yisrael still expect the solution to come from someone or somewhere else, they still vthemselves as "achei Yosef," dependent on a royal sponsor. It is the passive non-involved attitude of Am Yisrael that deepens the enslavement on the one hand, and precludes divine redemption on the other. Only after they "groan from their work and cry out" can things start changing.

To this quiescent nation there is one exception, the Jewish midwives. These two women put up a struggle and do not obey the king's orders; they would rather risk their lives than sin. "The midwives feared God and did not do that which the king of Egypt had told them." These two women are, according to the Midrash, the mother and sister of Moshe. Further, it is the daughter who, after Par'o's decree on Jewish male children, encourages her mother and father to go on as man and wife and have more children. And it is the mother who returns to live with her husband in spite of all the dangers. This is the spirit needed to bring about a divine intervention and redemption and this is the family that can bring to the world a child who is capable of leading the nation out of slavery. It is for this reason that the Torah elaborates on these two seemingly irrelevant stories, ignoring everything else during the years of servitude.

We are given a picture of an accepting quiescent Jewish people, as opposed to the resisting midwives, mother and sister of Moshe. Ultimately, the Jews cry out to God in prayer and this initializes the redemption. It should be noted that the action necessary on the part of the Jews is not one of auto-emancipation. The Jews do not break the bonds of slavery. The resistance of the midwives did also not consist of successful rebellion. Like the continued marital relations of Yocheved and Amram, so too the non-compliance of the midwives are acts of spiritual resistance, non-acceptance of fate. It would seem that God's plan is that the Jews will be saved solely through Divine intervention - this is the clear message of parashat Bo, culminating in the splitting of the Sea and "God will fight for you and you shall be silent." This is in contradistinction to Moshe himself, who in the incidents related of his early life before the burning bush (in Mitzrayim and at the well in Midian) fights against tyranny and oppression. Moshe as the instrument of redemption must be free and capable of freeing others. The Jews need to desire freedom and to actively beseech God's intervention.

The idea that God intervenes only after man does his part can be seen in the story of Rachel and Yaakov. Rachel childless comes to Yaakov and demands "Hava li banim" - give me children! Why does Rachel turn to Yaakov with such a demand? More perplexing is Yaakov's seeming cold response. "Am I in place of God?" Yaakov gets angry at Rachel and reprimands her, rejecting her very request.

If we take the approach that has been proposed, this parasha becomes clear. Rachel understands that Yaakov can not give her children. She is demanding that Yaakov intercede with God to give her children. Yaakov is angry at Rachel for thinking he can do the praying in her stead. His reprimand to Rachel is that she is turning to the wrong address; if she wants children she must turn to Hashem on her own.

Later the Torah tells us "God REMEMBERED RACHEL and HEARD HER." "Va-yizkor, remembered, because of Vayishma, He heard HER. Only after Rachel takes steps of her own to try and have children does Hashem give her the children she was meant to have.

It is a recurring theme in the Torah that man must prepare himself to deserve God's blessing and help. If one is passive, he may not be deserving of Hashem's gift even if the gift has been decreed for him.

Further study:

1. Moshe is instructed to take the elders of Israel with him to see Par'o (3:16). A famous midrash explains their absence from the description of the actual encounter (5:1) as being due to their "dropping out" on the way to the king's palace (see 4:31; 5:1). What does this say about the psychological readiness of the Jews for redemption?

2. The Jewish officers, after Par'o doubles the workload of the Jews, verbally attacks Moshe and Aharon (5:19-21). Are we meant to admire or condemn their conduct? In light of today's shiur, what does this conduct say about them? How does their complaint compare to Moshe's response (5:22) in this respect?