The Long Road to Liberation
Last week, we concluded the Book of Bereishit, which is primarily concerned with the story of individuals, the forebears of our people, and their life-long quest to achieve trust in God. The Book of Shemot, in contrast, describes the founding of a nation. Settled in the verdant Delta under Yosef's watchful eye, Ya'acov's descendents promptly establish themselves as a privileged and prosperous class. Growing in numbers, they begin to fill the region of Goshen and to expand beyond its borders. The native backlash, as harsh as it is inevitable, is not long in coming, for the new Pharaoh who arises after Yosef's death is quick to initiate a policy of disenfranchisement, dehumanization and demonization of the Hebrew masses.
Able to easily tap into a well-established Egyptian tradition of xenophobia, Pharaoh at first acts quietly to subdue the growing numbers and power of the budding Israelite tribe. Adopting insidious methods that would make any tyrant proud, Pharaoh introduces his policies of exclusion and oppression incrementally. Thus, the Hebrews are first pressed into national service, which is only later followed by more rigorous and severe forms of forced labor. Pharaoh's successively more repressive goals are thus accomplished with a minimum of domestic protest and a complete absence of Israelite opposition.
But alarmed by continuing reports of their unnatural increase in spite of his new policies, Pharaoh decides to curb their numbers by introducing a series of more ominous and drastic decrees. The midwives are officially informed that they must surreptitiously slay all male newborns at the moment of birth. They refuse to comply, however, thus performing one of humanity's earliest recorded acts of civil disobedience. Although failing in his attempt to win over the righteous midwives to his racist cause, Pharaoh nevertheless decides that his policies have finally laid the groundwork for the public introduction of the most drastic "solution" of all: "Pharaoh commanded his whole nation saying: 'Cast all male newborns into the Nile, but allow the females to live!'" (Shemot 1:22). So concludes the FIRST section of the Parasha, and here its horrors appear to come to an end.
MOSHE'S BIRTH – A CAUSE FOR HOPE
Against that backdrop of disillusion and despair, "a man from the house of Levi took the daughter of Levi as his wife. The woman conceived and gave birth. Seeing that the child was good, she hid him for three months. When she was no longer able to hide him, she prepared a box of reeds and covered it with a coat of clay and pitch. She put the child in it, and placed it in the rushes by the banks of the Nile" (Shemot 2:1-3). This account of an anonymous Levite couple, as pathetic as it is brief, is the Torah's introduction to the birth of Moshe. Although the child is painfully let go, but his route down the river is far from aimless.
At the very moment that the Hebrew mother reluctantly casts the box of reeds upon the waters, Pharaoh's own daughter comes down to the Nile to bathe and spies the fragile box in the distance. Prying off its muck-encrusted lid, she finds a crying infant and immediately recognizes his Hebrew origins. Her heart overflowing with maternal pity, she resolves to preserve the child and to raise him as her own. So it is that Moshe, the deliverer and the Lawgiver, is saved from certain death to be raised by the daughter of the vicious tyrant who at that very moment busies himself with new and oppressive measures to impose upon the enslaved Hebrews. Thus, this SECOND more sanguine section of the Parasha, in glaring contrast to the first, indicates that the mechanism of redemption, set into motion by the silent but never absent God of Israel while unconsciously triggered by mundane human choices, cannot be stayed.
THE EARLY STIRRINGS OF LEADERSHIP
But there is much distance to be covered before Moshe dons the mantle of liberator! His attainment of manhood coincides with a growing identification with his enslaved brethren and a heightened sensitivity to their plight, that eventually finds expression in his indignant killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, and later still in his retort to the striving Hebrews. Forced to flee in the aftermath of those events, he eventually arrives at Midyan where he rescues the daughters of Yitro from the shepherds. Though a cursory reading of the text might suggest a quick succession of events, in the view of the Ramban (13th century, Spain), Moshe is in flight from Egypt and from the Pharaoh for a very long time:
In my opinion…Moshe fled from Pharaoh when he was a young man…certainly not older than twenty, and he was eighty years old when he stood before him again (7:7). If so, Moshe spent about sixty years in flight…from place to place to far-off lands…coming to Midyan towards the end of that period and there remaining…(commentary to 2:23-24).
RELUCTANT MOSHE'S ELECTION AT THE BURNING BUSH
In Midyan, Moshe takes Zippora for his wife, and while the Israelites chafe interminably under the yoke of Pharaoh, Moshe's self-imposed exile unfolds uneventfully. Until, that is, the fateful day that he leads the flocks to farther pastures:
Moshe was shepherding the sheep of Yitro his father-in-law who was the priest of Midyan. He led the sheep beyond the wilderness until he came to the mountain of the Lord at Chorev. The angel of God appeared to him in the heart of fire from the midst of the bush. He saw that while the bush burned with fire, it was not consumed. Moshe said: 'I will turn aside and see this awesome sight, why does the bush not burn?' God saw that he turned aside to see, and the Lord called to him from the midst of the bush saying 'Moshe, Moshe', and he said 'here I am.' He said: 'do not draw close to here. Rather, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is hallowed earth.' He said: 'I am the Lord of your ancestors, the Lord of Avraham, the Lord of Yitzchak, and the Lord of Ya'acov', but Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to gaze upon the Lord…(3:1-6).
Eventually, after much heated discussion and with the Divine patience for Moshe's continued reluctance finally wearing thin, the former shepherd is sent on his way, signs and wonders in hand. Taking leave of his father-in-law, he sets out for Egypt with his wife and young children, as the momentum of the narratives continues to build. Though Moshe's budding career is almost derailed by the strange and frightful encounter with God's angel at the lodging place, Zippora's quick action spares him from harm. By circumcising her infant as Moshe stands to the side stricken motionless by dread, she thus reinforces by her deed a central tenet of God's charge: there can be no turning back for her husband from ineluctable destiny, and no relief from his God-given mission. The themes of land, nationhood and higher purpose that constitute the essence of the covenant of circumcision (see Bereishit Chapter 17) are the very same elements that God emphasized to Moshe during the encounter at the burning bush when He spoke of extricating the people from Egypt by his hand. Woe to Moshe if he would delay the fulfillment of God's plan even for a moment by giving tangible expression to his personal feelings of inadequacy and paralysis. With the incident safely behind him, the THIRD section of the Parasha is concluded.
Finally, Moshe arrives in Egypt having been met along the way by his dependable and supportive brother Aharon. Immediately, the two gather the elders of Israel and proclaim to them God's reassuring words of liberation. Breathlessly, they perform the wonders with which God had armed them, and miraculously "the people believe". Buoyed by their initial success, encouraged by Israel's unconditional support, the two head off for Pharaoh's imposing palace, proudly bearing God's defiant message to the powerful tyrant who fancied himself a direct descendent of the sun. As this FINAL section unfolds, the anticipation is almost palpable, for the narratives until this point have all been building up towards this climactic meeting. The initially negative opening of the Parasha, fraught with suffering and tinged with pain, had given way to the account of Moshe's miraculous preservation from Pharaoh's clutches, then his fiery appointment as leader and finally his triumphant return to Egypt. The momentum was thus very clearly pointed in a positive direction, for what force could possibly derail the process now?
Afterwards, Moshe and Aharon arrived and they said to Pharaoh: thus says God the Lord of Israel: "send forth My people so that they might offer sacrifice to Me in the wilderness!" (5:1).
Interminably their words hang in the air as they search Pharaoh's impassive face for any indication that he has comprehended the implication of their words. But then, he forcefully and most resoundingly responds:
Who is God that I should hearken to His voice to send forth Israel? I know not God, nor will I let Israel go!
The two aged emissaries are taken aback by the unexpected defiance, but, struggling to maintain their composure, they attempt to rescue the mission with a more softly stated version of the Divine demand, now placing the harsh consequences of Pharaoh's non-compliance upon themselves:
They said: the Lord of the Hebrews has encountered us. Please let us journey a distance of three days into the wilderness so that we might sacrifice to God our Lord, lest He smite us with pestilence or the sword! (5:3).
But Pharaoh is unmoved. Now tellingly described by the text as "the King of Egypt," he mocks them, powerless plebeians, with his rhetoric: "why, Moshe and Aharon, do you disturb the people from their work? Go attend to your matters!" (5:4). And wasting no time at all in reinforcing his authority as absolute arbiter of life and death, Pharaoh "that day" (5:6) proclaims his new and diabolical decree: henceforth no straw will be given to the wretched slaves to fashion bricks, but their daily quota will remain undiminished. What follows next is perhaps the most pathetic image in the Parasha, for it might have been comical had it not been so tragic: "The people scattered throughout the land of Egypt to gather stubble for straw" (5:12).
Like frightened mice now scattering to avoid the inevitable blows to come, the hapless slaves instantaneously forget their short-lived dreams of liberation. The pathos of the moment is made more palpable by the sobering fact that the task that Pharaoh has assigned is anywise impossible. The quota cannot possibly be met. And so the Egyptian taskmasters unleash their fury, the anguished cries ascend towards a silent and blue heaven, and the makeshift bricks are tinged with blood. The Israelite officers over the people, maliciously but effectively appointed by the Pharaoh to oversee their brethren's efforts, mount an emergency delegation to the king but leave his invincible presence empty-handed. Though they show utter obeisance, now crying out to him and calling themselves "Pharaoh's servants" (5:15), now sheepishly admitting wrongdoing where none had taken place (5:16), the tyrant is unmoved. Instead, he accuses them of sloth and laziness, charges them with being the authors of their own misfortune, and then they are summarily dismissed, to powerlessly press on with the toil of making bricks without straw.
Unexpectedly, the officers cross the path of Moshe and Aharon, who linger at the palace portal, stunned at how terribly awry the mission has gone and at how helpless they are to alleviate their people's plight. "Encountering" (5:20) them, the officers unleash their fury:
May God look upon you and judge, for you have made us disgusting in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants, placing a sword in their hand to kill us! (5:21).
It will noted how this concluding section of the narrative has effectively turned things completely upside down. By the end of the Parasha, the promised exodus has not materialized, the mission of Moshe has entirely failed, the Hebrew slaves are a thousand times worse off than they were, and there is no relief in sight! Moshe and Aharon, ostensibly Israel's leaders, are shown by Pharaoh to be anything but. Their invisible and all-powerful God, who had earlier "encountered" them while He threatened Pharaoh with "pestilence and the sword" is now shown to have in fact inflicted His threat, but not upon the Pharaoh or his minions! On this terrible note, our Parasha concludes. It remains to be judged what might the significance of this turn of events, so catastrophically sudden and astonishing. Next week, we will resume our lesson by considering the approach of the commentaries.
TO BE CONTINUED