Sh’mot–Exodus 1:1-6:1: As the Book of Exodus begins, the story moves from individuals to nation building under leadership of Moses. But, why was Moses chosen as a leader? He is advanced in age and has no recent contact with the Isrealites or Egyptians.
This week we begin a new book of Torah – Sh’mot / Exodus. The Hebrew title, Sh’mot, is translated into English as “names,” It refers back to the end of Genesis…. “There are the names of the sons of Israel who cam to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt.” (Ex. 1:1-5) This week we will see new names, but the focus of what we will read will be on the formation of the Israeli nation: “Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.” (Ex. 1:6 -7)
This is the major change between the first and second books of Torah. In Genesis we followed stories about individuals – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph. In Sh’mot / Exodus, we read about the formation of a nation. We will read about their journey from Egypt to Israel… from slavery to freedom… from a people commanded by a person, Pharaoh, to a nation dedicated to worship of one God…. We start with the departure from Egypt and slavery…. Hence, the title Exodus.
From the start of this week’s parsha we are made aware that the “people of Israel” are making an impact. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’” (Ex. 1:8-10)
In Genesis, God spoke directly to the Patriarchs. But, now Israel has become a huge nation. Direct communication with all the people of Israel would be difficult, even for God. So a single person is selected to communicate God’s message. And that person is Moses.
Why Moses? When God speaks to him at the Burning Bush Moses is a relatively older man…. He escaped from Egypt in fear after killing an Egyptian…. He married a Midianite woman and is living in Midian as an established shepherd …. It’s been many years since he was in Egypt.
When God asks Moses to go to Egypt and free the Hebrews, Moses asks: “ ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?’ And [God] said, ‘I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain.’” (Ex. 3:11-12) The question of Moses is never really answered…. He is told that he will be successful with the power of God behind him.
But, why was Moses chosen? Rabbi Sacks (Former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain) answers by looking back into the life of Moses. He notes that Moses was born an Israelite, but was never part of the Israelite community. He grew up in the home of Pharaoh, but fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian taskmaster.
Moses now resides in Midian with his wife Zipporah. “She bore a son whom he named Gershom, for he said, ‘I have been a stranger in a foreign land.’” (Ex. 2:22) So, based on this statement, Rabbi Sacks sees that Moses didn’t consider himself a Midianite.
To find a hint as to who Moses was, Rabbi Sacks looks back into Moses’ past while he was still in Egypt. “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen…. He struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Ex. 2:11-12) The Hebrews were his people. Even though Moses looked like an Egyptian, he was still a Hebrew. And this event may have become a transforming moment for Moses.
Rabbi Sacks continues: “ ‘Who am I?’ asked Moses, but in his heart he knows the answer. ‘I am not Moses the Egyptian or Moses the Midianite. When I see my people suffer I am, and cannot be other then, Moses the Jew. And if that imposes responsibilities on me, than I must shoulder them. For I am who I am because my people are who they are.…. That is Jewish identity, then and now.” (Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, appearing in Aish.com, week of December 16, 2013)
Then if we add the fact that Moses has escaped the slavery of Egypt, no longer held down by the bonds of slavery, and is ready to fight for the freedom of the Israelites…. He is God’s choice to lead the Hebrews to freedom.
All Torah quotations are from The Torah-A Modern Commentary edited by W. Gunther Plaut … These quotes are shown in Blue Type.