Good Times, Bad Times! That epitomises this week’s sedra. We’ve just had the good times in Egypt with a Pharaoh who valued Joseph’s work and welcomed his family and treated them well. And now the bad times arrive with a new Pharaoh who begins by treating Joseph’s descendants harshly.
‘What’s in a name?’ as Juliet asked Romeo, in the eponymous play.
The first chapter of Shemot begins with a list of the names of Ya’akov and his sons who went to dwell in Egypt – and Yoseph – who was already there.
The second chapter, after Yoseph’s death, begins: ‘A man of the tribe of Levi married a daughter of Levi, and she gave birth to a son.’
Parsha Shemot, begins with a summary of the end of Sefer Bereishit.
“And these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt with Yaakov, each man and his household came: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehudah… [In total] seventy souls, and Yosef was in Egypt. (1:1-5)”
Rashi asks ‘Was Yosef in Egypt more so than any of the other brothers? And didn’t we already know that Yosef was in Egypt – he was, after all, a major focus of the last part of Sefer Bereishit?’
As the book of Exodus begins, it is important to ponder what catapulted Moshe (Moses) from the position of valiant citizen to national leader. The story of Moshe’s youth in Egypt is hardly expounded upon in the Torah. Yes, it tells the story of his birth and his escape in the Nile River. The Torah even mentions his great vigilance in smiting an Egyptian who struck a Hebrew. But in relating those stories, it does not leave us feeling that those acts merited Divine ordination.
In this week’s parsha we are introduced to the most central figure in all of Jewish history - even in all civilized history, our teacher Moshe. The Torah, as is its wont, does not tell us many details about the life of Moshe from the time he was just past twenty years of age, fleeing from Pharaoh’s wrath at his killing of an Egyptian taskmaster, until his reemergence as the leader of the enslaved Jewish people when he is already eighty years of age.
In his introduction, Nachmanides describes the Book of Exodus as the Book of Exile and Redemption. The Exile began when Jacob’s family went to Egypt and the moment of the Redemption was reached when the erection of the Tabernacle was completed and the glory of the Lord rested within its precincts.
Over the last weeks, we have been acknowledging the leadership of Nelson Mandela – tribal leader, national icon and a man widely seen as “the father of the nation”.This Shabbat, we start to read about our own “long road to freedom” and the making of the greatest leader to ever guide the Jewish people – Moses. We have a glimpse into the character of Moses while he is still work in progress. We see a vulnerable man, lacking in confidence, unaware of his true potential, and clearly wrestling with his identity.
Nechama Leibowits, renowned teacher of text, observes that in the first chapters of Shemot, the God who had promised Ya’akov that He would go down into Egypt with him seems remarkably absent. Except in the story of the midwives, where did He disappear to? Was the text expressing the feelings of abandonment that B’nai Israel must have felt during this time – did they indeed perhaps cause it by their inattention to Him?
The book of Sh’mot is described as the book of Exile and Redemption. It opens with the account of the Israelites’ integration into Egyptian society. By the time of Joseph’s death, at the age of 110 years, it became impossible for them to leave, for legal and economic reasons. Due to Joseph’s measures during the famine, the entire Egyptian farming population became enslaved to Pharaoh, but the Israelites remained relatively free, in the land of Goshen. In the course of the few generations, their numbers grew miraculously.