Shemos: Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Torah Reading: SHEMOS Exodus 1:1-6:1; Haftara: Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Sephardi ritual: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3).


With the beginning of the book of SHEMOS, “Exodus”, Israel enters the world stage as a people. Pharaoh himself, their oppressor, recognizes them as “the PEOPLE of the Children of Israel, many and mighty.” (Ex. 1:9). Their servitude in Egypt is in fulfillment of the promise given to their founding father, Abraham: “Surely KNOW that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will serve them and they will oppress them. And also the people that they will serve I will judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great wealth” (Gen. 15:13-14).

The Exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt is the pivotal event in the history of mankind, paradigm of all true freedom and liberation, the eternal proof that G-d is not only the Creator of the natural world but also directs and controls all aspects of human affairs with HASHGACHAH PRATIS – “providence in every detail” – for good.

For the sake of G-d’s self-revelation to the world, it is not sufficient that He should be known privately to a select few. The climax of G-d’s revelation is when “the earth will be full of the KNOWLEDGE of G-d like the waters cover the seas” (Isaiah 11:9). Even those who are turned away from G-d, even those who resist knowing Him, must be forced to admit — even against their will — that G-d is King of the whole world.

Thus when Moses first calls on Pharaoh in the name of G-d to release His People, “…and Pharaoh said, ‘Who is HaShem that I should listen to His voice. I do not KNOW HaShem.” (Ex. 5:2). But in the end Pharaoh himself was forced to send them away: “Go, serve HaShem as YOU said” (12:31); “And Egypt said, let me flee from Israel, for HaShem is fighting for them against Egypt” (14:25).

In Egypt the Children of Israel, G-d’s emissaries, were in an upside-down world. “There is an evil that I have seen beneath the sun like a mistake that went forth from before the Ruler: folly is put in many high places while the wealthy [=Israel, Rashi] sit in the low place. I have seen slaves on horses while princes walk like slaves on the ground” (Koheles 10:5-7). Noah cursed the nations of Ham to be “a servant of servants to his brothers” (Gen. 10:25). But now Ham’s second-born, MITZRAIM (Gen. 10:6) — Egypt — were lording it over the choicest of the line of Shem. It looked as though Pharaoh was the “first-born”. G-d’s revelation to the world depended upon showing that “My son, My first-born is Israel” (Ex. 4:22). Even the Egyptians saw this when G-d smote all their first-born while saving all the Israelite first-born.

Even the Egyptians had to come to KNOW. Even Jethro — who tried every religion in the world — had to admit in the end: “Now I KNOW that HaShem is greater than all the gods.” (Ex. 18:11). More than anyone, the Israelites — who in slavery fell into the false consciousness imposed on them by their oppressors — had to learn the lesson on their own flesh. The Exodus from Egypt is the pivotal event in the history of the People of Israel, the very brith of the nation. The climax was to come at Mount Sinai, when the entire nation, together and in unity, witnessed G-d’s revelation. The revelation at Sinai was a “mass conversion”: the Rabbis point out that the three acts associated with conversion — circumcision, immersion in the Mikveh [the Torah root of “baptism”] and [in Temple times,] a sacrificial offering, were all observed at Sinai.

After introducing us to the “upside-down” world of Egypt in the first chapter of Exodus, our parshah of SHEMOS immediately moves to the concepts of revelation and conversion. When Moses was born, “the whole house was filled with light” (Rashi on Ex. 2:2 “and she saw him THAT HE WAS GOOD” corresponding to “and G-d saw the light THAT IT WAS GOOD” Gen. 1:4). Immediately afterwards, “And Pharaoh’s daughter went down to wash by the river” — “she changed her religion and went to convert” (Baal HaTurim ibid.) In the merit of Batya’s compassion for the baby Moses and her act of saving him, she was worthy of being one of the greatest ever converts. Batya’s predecessor, Hagar, daughter of the Pharaoh of Abraham’s days and mother of Ishmael, “went astray” (Gen. 21:14). But Batya married into the princely tribe of Judah (Sanhedrin 19b on Chronicles I, 4:18). The other prominent convert introduced in our parshah is Jethro.


In the upside-down world of Egypt it looks as though not G-d is running the world but Pharaoh. As discussed in the commentaries on Genesis, PhaRaOh is the embodiment of the OrePh, the “back of the neck” of the Creation as opposed to its inner face. Pharaoh is the epitome of worldly power and control, “the great crocodile squatting in his rivers who says ‘the river is mine and I made myself’ ” (Ezekiel 29:3, Haftarah of next week’s parshah when not Rosh Chodesh).

Pharaoh “does not know” HaShem: he resists knowing. Thus MITRAYIM is related to the root MEITZAR, the “narrow strait”, a place of constriction. In kabbalistic literature, Pharaoh is called “the constriction of the throat” (MEITZAR HAGARON). Through the neck run three narrow channels that are vital to survival: the windpipe, the gullet and the jugular veins (corresponding to Pharaoh’s three “officers”, the Butler, the Baker and the Captain of the Guard). Life depends upon the free flow of gases, fluids and solids through these channels from the head down into the body, while all our functioning is governed through the most heavily protected channel of all: the spinal column, which extends down from the brainstem into the body via the neck.

The book of Genesis is the “head” of the Torah: BEREISHIS, “at the head”. The first word and first verse of Genesis contain the entire creation “in a nutshell” (King Solomon’s “garden of nuts”). The first book of the Torah is the head and brain in the sense that it introduces us to all the fundamentals of true religion. The rest of the Torah is the “body”. Exodus is the “arms” (“for with a mighty HAND G-d took you out of Egypt” Ex. 13:9). Leviticus is the middle and heart of the Torah: “You shall be holy, for I HaShem your G-d am holy” — “and love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus ch. 19 v. 2 and v. 18). The Book of Numbers is the “legs”: the Children of Israel are on the move through the wilderness — “these are the journeys of the Children of Israel” (Numbers 33:1). Finally Deuteronomy is the “feet” — Malchus, the lowest level: “the END of the matter, when all has been heard: fear G-d and observe His commandments, for that is the Whole Man” (Koheles 12:13).

With the opening of the book of Exodus, we are at the beginning of the transition from “the head”, Genesis, to the “body”, the rest of the Torah. We are at the “neck”. This is why we must now encounter Pharaoh, the “back of the neck” — the real Pharaoh, no longer Joseph’s “friendly” patron but a wicked tyrant who, to perpetuate his own rule, is hell-bent on keeping the world from KNOWING G-D.

Pharaoh’s scheme is to constrict the passage of DAAS from the head and brain down into the body. Whereas the nervous system connects the body with the brain, bringing sensation, awareness and consciousness to all parts, Pharaoh’s officers work to constrict the flow of awareness. The Butler and the Baker make us want to eat and involve ourselves in the material world, but our material involvements, although vital for our survival, often tend to distract and separate us from the life of the spirit. We fall into false consciousness, and the battle for physical survival and material gratification becomes paramount. We spend our lives building “store cities for Pharaoh” (Ex. 1:11).

The role of Moses is to bring DAAS, spiritual knowledge and awareness from the “head” down into the “body”. It is not enough to know that there is a G-d in our minds. We have to bring that knowledge down into our actual lives and daily activities. “And you shall KNOW TODAY and BRING DOWN INTO YOUR HEART that HaShem is G-d in the heaven above and on the earth below, there is none other” (Deut. 4:39).


Adam was created for the highest mission, to “fill the earth and conquer it and rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and every living being swarming on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). But Adam fell from his mission, and instead of “tending and guarding” the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), he was driven out to become slave to the earth: “With the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” (Gen. 3:19).

The only way for the Children of Adam to escape this servitude is through the Shabbos, which each week releases man from slavery to the material world and the battle for survival, lifting him above it to the world of DAAS, the knowledge and awareness of G-d.

Thus when Moses first went into Pharaoh, his initial request was that the Children of Israel should have a holiday from their slavery: “Let us please go for a journey of three days into the wilderness, and there we will sacrifice to HaShem our G-d” (Ex. 5:3).

Pharaoh’s immediate reaction was to resist the idea: “Why are you disturbing the people from their labors, go back to your tasks. You are causing them to cease from their tasks” (Ex. 5:5). The Hebrew for “you are disturbing” is taPhRiyOO, containing the word PHARAOH — as if Moses and Aaron are the tyrants. The Hebrew for “You are causing them to cease” is ve-hiSHBATem, containing the word SHABBOS. Pharaoh’s scheme for preventing DAAS spreading from the head, Moses, to the Children of Israel, the body, was to make the Children of Israel so busy with this-worldliness that they would not have TIME to be aware of G-d. And indeed the Children of Israel became so wearied by their intensified servitude on the threshold of redemption that “they did not listen to Moses because of shortness of spirit and hard work” (Gen. 6:9).

Moses had to legislate the Shabbos because there is a wicked force in man — Pharaoh — that will not allow him to rest from the world until he must by law! Shabbos was the first commandment given to the Children of Israel directly after their entry into the wilderness following the crossing of the Red Sea (Rashi on Ex. 15:25). Shabbos — SHEVITA, the willful cessation of and resting from MELACHAH, deliberate, manipulative labor — is the very key to man’s freedom from the tyranny of this world


“In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b).

The Midrashim give many examples of the heroism and self-sacrifice of the women of the period of exile and slavery in Egypt in lifting their husbands’ spirits and breeding new generations for a better future.

While our parshah introduces the Savior of Israel — Moses — who was a man, it is striking that the most decisive roles are played by women. In Genesis we saw a succession of great women turning and shaping history on their own initiative, such as Sarah, Rebeccah, Rachel, Leah and Tamar. In our parshah this is a recurring phenomenon: four outstanding women take decisive action on their own initiative to bring about redemption: Jochebed, Miriam, Batya and Tziporah.

Thus when Pharaoh wanted to kill the Israelite boys, it was the two midwives, “Shifra” and “Pu’ah” (= Jochebed and Miriam) who cleverly frustrated his plans. When Amram “took the daughter of Levi (=Jochebed)” (Ex. 2:1) from whom he had separated because he did not want to breed children who would be killed, it was on the initiative of Miriam that he relented (see Rashi ad loc.). By drawing Moses out of the water, Batya saved the entire world. The dauntless Miriam went straight up to the king’s daughter offering to bring someone to take care of the rescued baby. Batya had the good sense to understood the crucial importance of good nurturing. Jethro’s daughters were perhaps too modest to invite Moses home until their father told them — after all, they thought he was an Egyptian (Ex. 2:19-20). However, Tziporah showed no hesitation when she saw an angel consuming her husband Moses for failing to circumcise Eliezer: she took a flint and performed the bloody circumcision herself, showing that as a true righteous convert, her heart was circumcised to G-d.

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