From Slavery to Redemption
Summarized by Matan Glidai
Translated from Hebrew by David Silverberg
The transition from Sefer Bereishit to Sefer Shemot is marked by a great and tragic fall. The end of Parashat Vayechi describes the situation of Yaakov's family in cheerful, optimistic terms, as it speaks of their settlement in Goshen and development of total autonomy. Their economic situation was stable and promising; they enjoyed longevity and harmonious family lives; they sent their children to yeshiva (Rashi 46:28); and they lived with a sense of peace and security. At the outset of Sefer Shemot, by contrast, we read of the unfolding of a grim reality. The Nation of Israel is subjugated and forced to engage in back-breaking labor; their lives become crushed and embittered.
At the end of Sefer Bereishit, children sit on their great-grandfathers' laps - "the children of Machir son of Menasheh were likewise raised upon Yosef's knees" (50:22) - whereas in Sefer Shemot, children are cast into the river. While the end of Sefer Bereishit features the residence of the Shekhina among the people, the opening of Sefer Shemot is characterized by "hester panim," God's turning away His face, as it were, from Benei Yisrael. Commenting on the verse, "and God took notice of them" (2:25), Rashi explains that "He paid attention to them, and did not turn away His eyes," implying that heretofore this had not been the case. Similarly, the Ramban writes, "In the beginning He hid His face from them, and they were thus consumed… Now, God heeded their cry."
Yet, at the same time, Sefer Shemot gives us a sense of optimism over the emergence of a new era. The end of Sefer Bereishit gives the impression of the flickering of an age, as the patriarchs pass away, effectively bringing the period of the "avot" to an end. The beginning of Sefer Shemot already speaks of "Am Benei Yisrael;" Yaakov's family has now become a nation. This nation begins its history through pain and suffering, though it eventually realizes the glory of redemption.
Sefer Shemot describes two parallel processes. First, the Nation of Israel undergoes the transition from bondage to redemption, from the lowest depths of slave-labor and torment to the greatest heights of the Exodus. This process is marked as well by a change in their experience of the Shekhina - from complete "hester panim" to the zenith of the Revelation, where they merited a direct encounter with the Shekhina.
Secondly, Moshe Rabbenu himself undergoes a personal transition from a "novice prophet" (as Chazal describe him in the Midrash) to the level of "adon ha-nevi'im" - the premier of all prophets, as he reaches the stage where "God would speak to Moshe face to face, as one man speaks to another" (33:11).
In his introduction to Sefer Shemot, the Ramban explains:
"When they left Egypt, even though they had emerged from their state of slavery they were still considered to be in exile, since they were in a foreign land wandering through the wilderness. But when they came to Mount Sinai and built the mishkan, and God returned and had His Shekhina dwell among them, only then did they return to the exalted level of their forefathers, by which the spirit of the Almighty rested upon their tents and they themselves were the 'Merkava' [Divine Chariot]. Then they were considered redeemed."
In this sense, the situation of Sefer Shemot was far superior to that of Sefer Bereishit. In Sefer Bereishit, the Shekhina rested only upon individuals, while in Sefer Shemot the Shekhina descended upon an entire nation. The Torah refers to Egypt as "the iron crucible" (Devarim 2:20), and the Zohar explains that the Egyptian servitude served to purify Benei Yisrael. Am Yisrael required this experience of subjugation and suffering in order to reach the level of "hashra'at Shekhina."
Despite their pain and subjugation, Am Yisrael continued to believe in the Almighty and refused to despair. Amram, for example, exhibited heroic faith by remarrying Yocheved, refusing to give in to Pharaoh's decree. Thus our parasha teaches us never to despair, no matter how difficult the situation may appear.
(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Shemot 5756.)
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