A Thought Journal by Ben Kohane
There are a number of characters whose identities play a major role in shaping the narrative. Which characters have ambiguous or hybrid identities of some sort? Which do not? Check the מפרשים for comments on specific characters. Reflect on how identities are complicated in these פרקים, and why this might be of central importance at the beginning of the book.
When reading through the first chapters of Shemot, it is easy to notice the significance of each and every one of the interesting personalities that we are introduced to. From the Pharaoh and his paranoia in Chapter 1 to Moshe, his family, his countrymen and his in-laws, each character plays a unique role in the narrative to come.
Chapter 1, while serving as a resumptive repetition of the narrative by bringing our attention back to the plight of the Jews who made their way down to Egypt years ago, also introduces the Pharaoh - "Vayakam Melech Chadash Al Mitzrayim" - whose public policy regarding the Jews will be the major focal point for most of the Sefer's first. While some of the other characters we are introduced to are not clearly described (as I will address shortly), the king of Egypt's strong and decisive personality clearly shines through. Confronted with a growing minority, instead of embracing these citizens, his xenophobia leads to crushing labor and ultimately gendercide. The text does not describe why Pharaoh feels this way. Rashi quotes the Gemara's dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether this was actually a new king or just the old king that pretended not to remember Yosef, a machloket that really tries to understand how a land that was saved by Yosef's economic ideas, could quickly turn against his and his brothers' descendants. The Jews, for their part, take a passive role in this chapter (except for the heroic midwives), and as we will see in the rest of the book, remain on the sidelines, letting a few brave leaders take charge and lead them to freedom.
As the Jews' numbers continued to swell, thanks to the efforts of Shifra and Puah, as well as God's hand in their fruitfulness, Pharaoh clearly steps into the role of first true Anti-Semitism; unlike the negative characters of the past - Avimelech, Esav, Lot - Pharaoh embarks on a nationwide campaign of slavery and population control.
In the second chapter, the identities of so many of the characters are simply ambiguous if not completely unknown. From the leader of Midian (Yitro) and Moshe's family (Amram, Yocheved, Miriam, and Aaron) to the two Jews fighting in Egypt (Dasan and Aviram), none of these characters' names are provided. The only significant character given a name is Moshe himself. It is up to us, with the help of the biblical commentaries, to fill in those gaps.
The question that remains is why. Why avoid ascribing names to the supporting cast, as we learn more about the Jews' travails in Egpyt, Moshe's upbringing, and his ultimate escape to Midian?
The answer lies in the purpose of this chapter. This is Moshe's origin story; like a superhero or legend, the focus needs to be on him. We need to learn about his conception and birth to a well-respected Levite household. We need to hear about how the daughter of the Jews' sworn enemy found him, and instead of committing him to the fate of any other Jewish male, saved him, introduced him to a life in the palace, and gave him a royal upbringing that would further clarify the dichotomy between Jews and Egpytians once he stepped out for the first time - "Vayetze El Achav." We need to learn about his heroism, his daunting escape, and how he finds his wife through kindness and courteous manners. The book of Shemot will ultimately turn out to be Moshe's book; therefore, this introductory chapter is exclusively focused on him. The identities of the supporting cast ultimately do not matter. It is through Moshe alone that the redemption that highlights Shemot will come.
Read the text "Birth Legend of Sargon," posted on Angel in this folder. Reflect on the similarities between this text and Shemot 2. Consider in this light what Moshe's birth story contributes to the Torah's portrayal of Moshe, and to our understanding of his character.
The "Birth Legend of Sargon" and Perek 2, which tells the story of Moshe's birth and the early stages of his development, certainly do not overlap completely. However, certain similarities between the two narratives do highlight the underlying theme and purpose of each of the stories. Sargon's legend intends to both detail this first world emperor's humble beginnings but also glorify his successful conquests as king for "fifty-five years." Perek 2, though told within the larger context of the enslaved Jews' travails in Egypt, seeks to introduce the character of a savior, of a boy destined for leadership and greatness, whose unique childhood offered him the opportunity to observe his brothers' burdens without being subjugated himself.
As far as the similarities: Moshe's parents are both Levites - the future priestly tribe of the Jewish people - as is Sargon's mother. Conception and birth in secret happens to both characters, as does subsequent placement in a basket of reeds in the river and serendipitous discovery.
Written around the same time, both of the narratives highlight that these characters' origins are not the norm. Babies are not meant to be born in secret and hidden in baskets in rivers. Exposure was often used as a method of abandoning one's child, not save it. However, despite these early challenges, by being found by successful and influential personages, whether it be the important drawer of water or the daughter of the Pharaoh, these leaders manage to persevere, to rise to power over their respective peoples.
פרק ב: The Growth of Moshe
1. How does Pharaoh's daughter know the Moshe is a "Hebrew" when she sees him?
2. Where does Moshe grow up, for how long?
3. When does Moshe find out that he is actually Jewish?
4. What motivates him to "go out to his BROTHERS"?
5. What do we learn about Moshe from his two interactions in vv. 11-14?
The Sforno's interpretation of the story of Moshe's birth and early growth cast Pharaoh's daughter as an interesting and compassionate foil to the child she saves. After heading down to the river to bathe, she sent her handmaiden to fetch the basket containing what she discovered to be an exceptionally beautiful child; this child, so perfect (or with the potential for perfection) couldn't be an illegitimate foundling but a child of the Hebrews, whose appearance and attributes could serve the king well. (1)
After living in the Palace of the Pharaoh as he matured - it seems as though, after being nursed by his own mother, he was taken in by Bas Pharaoh until he "grew up," perhaps until adolescence or puberty (2) - he goes out and sees a fellow Jew being hit by an Egyptian. The Sforno explains that a "sense of brotherhood" overcame him and aroused him to strike the Egyptian taskmaster down. This is an interesting remark - somehow, even though Moshe seemingly had no interaction with his family after being transferred to the care of Bas Pharaoh shortly after his weaning, he felt some sort of inward connection to his fellow Hebrew. (3) His mother must have imbued him with this sense of Jewish pride, this national pride that will continue to be a theme developed throughout the story of Exodus, and that stuck with him throughout his time in the splendorous anti-Semitism of Pharaoh's palace. Instead of enjoying the good life within the king's estate, Moshe turns his attention out towards the state of his fellow Jews (4), towards his Hebrew brothers whose harsh suffering he observes almost immediately after leaving the palace.
The two interactions - both with the Egyptian taskmaster and the slave, and then the two sparring Jews - provides us a lens into the mind of a youthful Moshe (5). He wants to be involved. He wants to solve his fellow Jews' problems, either physically in the case of the Egpyitian, or through verbal admonishment in the case of the two Hebrews, "since they were both his brothers." As we will continue to see throughout Sefer Shemot, this personality of interventionism, though Moshe is first hesitant to employ it on a larger scale, will ultimately lead his troubled people out of slavery.
The Character of Moshe
1. What we can say about the character of Moshe based on the early narratives of his life?
No hero is without a back-story, and Moshe, the savior and chosen representative of God in our Exodus story is no different. Beginning with his miraculous birth and rescue from the Nile River, Chapters 2 and 3 of Shemot introduce the character that would go on to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt and through the desert for forty years. These early narratives do not just provide the objective, bland facts that serve to simply construct Moshe’s years before his appearance in Pharaoh’s court. Indeed, essayist Ahad ha-'Am exclaims that the Bible’s audience receives only a couple of stories – “all that we know from the life of Moshe until he stands before Pharaoh – and then he is already ‘eighty years old’!” Clearly, the narratives contained within these two chapters are meant to provide a deeper look into Moshe’s formation and transformation into a leader.
While Ahad ha-'Am maintains that the three stories presented – delivering justice against the Egyptian taskmaster striking the Jew, confronting the dispute between two Jews, and intervening on behalf of Yitro’s daughters at the well – weave a specific tale of Moshe's progression as a tzaddik, easing him into the role of navi, prophet, and leader, by examining the details of the stories, other character traits emerge as well. Immediately after emerging from the decadence of Pharaoh’s palace, Moshe looks into the burdens of his brethren. Both his loyalty to his original genetic roots and his quick jump to action to dispense justice lay the foundation for a leader that will stick by his people and take action on their behalf.
How Moshe deals with the two Jews fighting with each other, on the other hand, complicates Moshe’s character. Though he refuses to punish either side in the dispute, maintaining a level, judicial mindset, his hesitation and ultimate flight away from his homeland shows that nobdody is perfect, even Moshe. Finally, as ha-'Am argues, the way Moshe stands up for Yitro’s daughters at the well demonstrates that he “does not discriminate between people (foreign or countrymen), but between good and bad.
2. What does his Egyptian upbringing (and name) contribute to our appreciation of Moshe Rabbenu?
While Moshe certainly demonstrates traits of a classic Jewish leader – compassion, justice, righteousness – in these narratives, his upbringing as an Egyptian certainly influences how he understood his own life experiences and how we are meant to appreciate his character. How was he, inculcated by the polytheistic theologies of Egypt, was to react to a single, solitary God revealing himself at a burning bush? With religious values reinforced by being married to the daughter of the head priest of polytheism, it is clear that Hashem’s revelation was necessary not just to convince him to return to Egypt to ask for the freedom all the Jews, but just to prove to Moshe himself that the source of the burning bush was “the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Reflecting Moshe’s name through the ancient Egyptian sources we have previously encountered, including the arguments that “Moses” was simply a surname and imply that there was actually an Egyptian god’s name attached to his title, only further the impressive nature of his turnaround to become the spokesman for God, the leader of the Jewish people, and the figurehead of monotheism.
Theophany in the Bush: Perek 3
1. What does the form God adopted here signify?
2. Consider the issue of sacred space here. What do we know about this place, in the text and in the commentators?
3. How does God introduce himself? How does this introduction relate to the book of Bereshit and God’s persona there, and how does it foretell what is to come?
It is interesting to note, right off the bat, that this appearance of God begins with "an angel of Hashem...in a blaze of fire from amid the bush." God himself does not appear on scene until two verses later, to call out to Moshe and encourage him to stay. Was the angel the fire itself? We know of the idea of "Seraphim" - literally "burning ones" - which are a type of angel - perhaps this was the herald of God's own appearance moments later. Indeed, it does seem, from God's own introductory words, that there is a need to reintroduce himself to Moshe. All but erased from the collective memory of the Jews - remember, "the entire generation" had passed away, as Perek 1 reports - God seems to need to explain himself to Moshe, as the deity of his father and his forefathers.
This entire episode seems to take place "far into the wilderness" - Midrashim explain that Moshe chased a runaway sheep to the location - at Har Horeb, a mountain which continues to come up in the story of Exodus and the subsequent wanderings of the Jewish people. Though first mentioned here, this is also the site where Moshe struck the rock and is also included in the descriptions of the Jews' travels. A second layer is added with the interpretation that Horeb was synonymous with Har Sinai, the site of the giving of the Torah and many other momentous occasions in the desert. Therefore, the choice of this location is extremely precise, providing us with a true example of where God's presence may dwell in this world - "Holy ground," as God himself describes.
God's introduction is split into two parts. He first explains who He is, Moshe "hides his face out of fear," and then God resumes his introduction, explaining his appearance and the current situation of the Jews within the context of the mission and objectives He intends to assign to Moshe. One interesting aspect is that while the term for God when he calls out to Moshe is "Elokim" (the more judicial designation), the dialogue utilizes the Tetragrammaton, which invokes the pity and mercy that Hashem indeed is exuding, as he describes the Jewish affliction and suffering in Egypt. He also repeats the "God of" term in his initial introduction, perhaps alluding to the fact that He is the diety of not just the entire world, but each and every individual, and as the Jews will soon find out, Hashem cares about each and every one of their plights, with the effort to retrieve them from their slavery.
Exodus 3, continued
God introduces himself within this פרק in 3:6 and then – in response to Moshe’s question – again in 3:14-15. Also please see 6:3 (and the context, 6:2-9). What is the significance of the way(s) in which God introduced himself? Is this new, or old, information? What do the names mean?
It is interesting to note that God - whose connection to the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob we first hear about in Exodus 2:24 - re-introduces himself here as God of these three characters, further bridging the gaps between Genesis and Exodus. Indeed, in the dialogue in Exodus 6, Hashem re-acknowledges this history of His covenantal connection with the Jewish people. While "old" information for the reader, this repetition of God's care reinforces a key concept of divine continuity for Moshe and the Jews. However, the names themselves that are utilized in these passages differ widely: first "Elokim" and its variant "Elokei" is used, then the "YKVK" is incorporated as well as "I AM THAT I AM," and finally, in Chapter 6, "I appeared as Kel Shakkai, and my name is YKVK." This wide variety is not just a review of all the ways to refer to God, but indeed invokes a certain personality trait or message we can infuse into the overall story, depending on the context. "Elokim" might be a more nationalistic side to God, while the Tetragrammaton is more personal (or merciful, see above); "I AM THAT I AM" is an answer to Moshe's question of how to introduce God to the Jewish slaves - living in the present of nationwide exodus - while Kel Shakkai could imply formidable strength of a deity that partnered solely with the individualistic forefathers.
Exodus 12: Stories and Commandments
This פרק contains some fundamental commandments and ideas, all centered around the Exodus. Using your commentator and your own interpretive abilities, please address some of the following issues:
1. What is the connection between the calendar reform in 12:2-3 and the Exodus?
2. What is the meaning and significance of matzah in 12:8, prior to the Exodus taking place?
3. What is the festival in 12:14-20 called, and what characterizes it?
4. What role(s) does the ger play in the rituals described in Exodus 12?
5. In what ways do Moshe’s instructions in 12:21-28 agree with, and in what ways do they disagree with, what we have read until this point?
6. 12:40-41 are very explicit about the length of time the Israelites spent in Egypt. What problems does this number create, and how may it be resolved?
7. What laws are added to the pesach in 12:43-49? What are they doing here?
8. What in the פרק is relevant only to פסח מצרים, and what to פסח דורות? Is such a distinction even evident in the פרק?
When reading through Chapter 12, it certainly seems like the text cannot decide whether to focus on laws or the story of the Exodus. Up to this point, all of Genesis and the first 11 chapters of Exodus have all been squarely focused on developing a rich narrative. With powerful characters and a quick pace of story, the reader has almost been conditioned into reading story after story of the forefathers and Moses. Now, however, we encounter the first, second, and third official commandments from God - Rosh Chodesh, Korban Pesach, and the Passover holiday with matzot. With a structure reminiscent of strictly legal passages like those in Mishpatim or Sefer Vayikra, this text introduces a more rigid form to the religion that has so far been spoken about as just a family or group of slaves. The redemption from Egypt creates a physical nation; however, it is the rules and regulations, begun here at this tipping point, that create a legislated and spiritual one.
Each of the mitzvot presented in the chapter has a unique connection to the exodus story that it interrupts and punctuates. The calendar reform, as the Sforno comments, realizes that the Jews will now be in control of the months of the year, as opposed to "during the bondage when your days (time) did not belong to you but (were used) to work for others and fulfill their will" (1). Once the structure of months have been established, God can enhance and use dates to assign certain holidays to further develop a Jewish identity. Of course, the first festival, Passover, described in 12:14-20, would commemorate this time of redemption (3). Celebrated as an "eternal statute," the most striking demarcation of the holiday seems to be eating matzot - and eliminating all leaven from one's possession. Interestingly, the relevance and importance of the matzvot seems to only be mentioned after the fact - when the story resumes and explains that because they were in a hurry, "the people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened." The only other mention of the matzot occurs as an aside, in which it seems to be a side-dish for the lamb meat sacrifice; this allusion simply seems to foreshadow the speed of the redemption soon to come, without any implication for the future (2).
Moshe, after receiving these instructions from God, turns to the elders to relate over the laws of the sacrifice. There are some discrepancies in the details - the transposition of the lintel and doorposts for blood smearing, Moshe doesn't go through the legal minutiae of the sacrifice - but it seems the texts do match (5). Moshe certainly would've mentioned the particulars for the Jewish people, but there is no need for the Torah to repeat these details, especially when additional laws for the future are further explicated later in the chapter. Though most commentators like Rashi explain that the additional laws of Pesach written in the last verses of the chapter were indeed given on the 14th of Nissan, the greater implication is that these laws are also listed for future generations, both with regards to the Passover holiday and the sacrifice (7). Though these distinctions are not so evident, perhaps that is the point - the Pesach of the future is meant to incorporate the Pesach of the past and bring us back to that time - not create a disparate holiday (8). In these future-focused laws, God is alsosure to include the "ger" - convert - in the conversation (4). Unlike the present, future generations would certainly include new additions to the religion, and instead of shunning these people with a legal structure that focus on teaching your curious children of the exodus story, converts are included, even emphasized, in order to stress that they should be welcomed and added to the Jewish family.
Moshe, after receiving these instructions from God, turns to the elders to relate over the laws of the sacrifice. There are some discrepancies in the details - the transposition of the lintel and doorposts for blood smearing, Moshe doesn't go through the legal minutiae of the sacrifice - but it seems the texts do match (5). Moshe certainly would've mentioned the particulars for the Jewish people, but there is no need for the Torah to repeat these details, especially when additional laws for the future are further explicated later in the chapter. Though most commentators like Rashi explain that the additional laws of Pesach written in the last verses of the chapter were indeed given on the 14th of Nissan, the greater implication is that these laws are also listed for future generations, both with regards to the Passover holiday and the sacrifice (7). Though these distinctions are not so evident, perhaps that is the point - the Pesach of the future is meant to incorporate the Pesach of the past and bring us back to that time - not create a disparate holiday (8). In these future-focused laws, God is also sure to include the "ger" - convert - in the conversation (4). Unlike the present, future generations would certainly include new additions to the religion, and instead of shunning these people with a legal structure that focus on teaching your curious children of the exodus story, converts are included, even emphasized, in order to stress that they should be welcomed and added to the Jewish family.
The text mentions that the Jews had been in Israel for 430 years - which does conflict and confuse the calculations, if we use the simple ages given to us by following the Levi-Yocheved-Moses genealogy (6). However, as most commentators mention, the count of 430 began much earlier, with the election of Abraham as the forefather of monotheism and the exact promise of such a long exile - which allow for only 210 years of actual servitude. The 400 vs. 430 debate is similarly explained as a difference between "covenant" and "affliction as strangers."
2 Passovers and a Song
A) פסח מצרים vs פסח דורות & the laws of פסח in Devarim 16:1-12.
As discussed in class, there are a couple of different topics within Perek 12, separated only with ambiguous transitional statements. Interspersed with the first laws given to the Jewish people - calendar reform, Passover offering, the holiday - is a continuation of the story of Exodus. Paying attention to the terms of audience and given reasons from God and Moshe are one way of determining which laws and passages relate to the current Passover, "פסח מצרים," and the Passover for future generations, "פסח דורות," one of the harder task of differentiation in this chapter.
For instance, the initial laws, directed at "the entire assembly of Israel," provides the basic foundations of the halakhot of the korban pesach. Painting a timeline for these instructions which begin on the 10th of Nissan and include the curious decree to cover the doorposts in blood are obviously directed at the Passover of Egypt. Laws so obviously dedicated to the current situation - signifying which houses are Jewish or eating with bags packed, sticks in hand, and shoes on feet - seem to be directed at the Jews of that time only.
On the other hand, as the Ibn Ezra points out in multiple comments, the general framework of the offering and its subsequent holiday, described in the verses 14-20, are retained as an "eternal decree" for the generations. If the holiday is meant to be "zecher l'yetziat mitzrayim," the sense of haste is to be preserved in the method of cooking (roasting) and timing (around noon). Haste and timing are both restated within the repetition of the laws of Passover in Devarim, a passage which also reiterates the importance of physically remembering the day of exodus.
The passage in Devarim curiously allows for both flock and cattle. which takes away from the commandment at the time specifically for "seh"; the Ibn Ezra explains that cattle are meant to be for the supplementary offerings, but other commentators like the Sforno explain that these animals were suitable for the Generational Pesach. The Sforno continues to inspect the other differences that emerge, especially the requirement to perform the offering at the altar in the Bet Mikdash (which obviously did not occur in Egpyt). Perhaps this latter direction was optimal, as it better centered Jews' focus on their Savior in His Temple.
Back in Exodus, the text's inclusion of key phrases like "when your children ask" or "when you come to the land" clearly indicates passages related to the Generational Pesach. These hints generally introduce a series commandments for the future. After describing the 15th night of Nissan as a "leil shimurim" or "night of protection" for the generations, Hashem is almost forced into returning to the topic of the offering, this time around listing all the relevant halachot in Verses 43-49, even though the paschal offering of "פסח מצרים" was already completely explicated previously. These verses are clearly dedicated for the "פסח דורות."
B) The שירה
n what ways does the שירה recapitulate the prose narrative? In what ways does it differ? Read the שירה as poetry. What literary features do you notice? How does it say what it says? If poetry is literature that uses form to make meaning, how does this poem work? Read the short analysis of the poem by Robert Alter (posted on Angel).
After the dramatic scene at the sea depicted in Chapter 14, the Jewish people break out in song, praising Hashem "for he is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea" (15:2). However, while the song does retain some of the prose, describing Pharaoh and his army's demise into the deep waters of the Sea after their hasty pursuit of the Jews - in fact repeating some of their punishment story several times over - there is very little mention of the actual salvation of the Jews. Between the first and last verses of the song, there is no direct mention of the Jewish component of the story.
While surprising at first, viewing the passage through the eyes of the Jews clarifies things to a certain extent. Recently enslaved, they were most likely in shock, if not for the past months with all the plagues, certainly by the time the splitting of the sea occurred and God drowned their former taskmasters. Dumbstruck, it is much easier to cheer and thank God for the death and downfall of their physical oppressors than realize their own salvation.
Looking at the song purely as poetry reveals a second layer of interpretation. The structure of the text presented on the page/parchment - not common within the Torah - looks like a wall of bricks, as some commentators describe, alluding to its foundational message as the beginning of the Jewish people. The sectional nature of the text, the narrative sandwiched between a preamble and conclusion of praise, further develop this poem. Within the text, emotions and mood are enhanced with similes: "sinking like stone," waters straight as a wall," and "sinking like lead," while the constant contrast between the pure goodness of God and the evil characters of Pharaoh and the Egyptians is clear.
In his book, Robert Alter indeed mentions the similes, as they provide the staccato of an ending of several of the strophes that make up the poem. The strophic nature of the song, in his opinion, creates a systematic progression through the exodus story and its wonderful consequences for the Jews, developing a narrative momentum that cannot be presented within simple prose. Each strophe, Alter argues, both offers its own unique view of the salvation at the sea, but also relate back to the general theme in one way or another.