Identity Matters

By Josh Nagel

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 aof central importance at the beginning of the book.

Chapter 1

The first ambiguous character we meet is the מלך חדש in Egypt. The commentaries differ to what the verse means that he "did not know Joseph":

- Rashi quotes a discussion in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel whether the king was literally new and that is why he did not know Joseph or the king was only pretending he did not know Joseph and issued new decrees as if he was new.

- Ibn Ezra thinks the king was completely new, not even from the royal dynasty.

The next ambiguous characters are שפרה ופועה: Two Hebrew midwives who disregard the king's orders and keep the Israelite male babies alive. These names never appear again and the text gives very little information about them, yet they were worthy to have their names mentioned.

- Rashi explains they are actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses' mother and sister respectively. They have special nicknames that reflect their kindness and skill in assisting births.

- Ibn Ezra approaches this sudden detail indicative of a relationship between these two specific midwives and the king. He thinks they would pay a tax from their payment to the king.

Note that at this point, the King of Egypt becomes less "Ambiguous". He is now referred to as פרעה and his decrees are straightforward and their intentions are clear.

Chapter 2

The chapter begins with a description of a man, איש מבית לוי who marries and gives birth to a son. Nothing else is known of this man and he is never mentioned again. He "goes out" to get his wife, which is by itself an interesting choice of words. The woman too doesn't receive a name nor much description beside her actions to protect her son.

- Rashi explains that this man was once married to this woman but left her due to the decrees against the Israelite male babies.

The boy's sister watches over him, although her birth - clearly before his - is never recorded. Was it through a different marriage? Or the same one and the Torah just skips to the boy's birth?

Pharaoh's daughter is also nameless, yet she is the one to give the first 'name' in this chapter - Moshe. Interestingly, the child did not have a name we know about from his nameless father and mother.

The next characters, also unnamed, are the Egyptian Man and Hebrew Man. Rashi explains the Egyptian was a taskmaster who had relations with the Hebrew man's wife - Dibri - and was trying to intimidate him to keep him quiet about the affair.

The next day Moshe encounters two more "Hebrew men", one who is described as a רשע.

Until now, we have seen the names of Jacob and his 12 sons, Shifra, Puah, Pharaoh - although not introduced to us in that way; also a title - and now Moshe. Everyone else is described. This discrepancy further highlights the strangeness of Shifra and Puah's names being mentioned. Finally we are introduced to more names - רעואל כהן מדין. He has 7 (currently unnamed) daughters who describe Moshe as a simple "Egyptian Man". This interesting take on Moshe's identity, who is one of the few characters given a name, shows that names and identity have some significance.

The chapter (almost) ends with Moshe naming his child and giving a reason for the name.

What's In A Name ?

The Book begins with a list of names that the reader would be familiar with - Jacob and his sons. Things turn for the worst when a "new king" who does not know the name of Joseph enters the scene. Few characters are given names or reasons for their names (it would be great to understand the strange names of Shifra and Puah), but when they are mentioned, wheels start to turn. Shifra and Puah save the baby boys. Pharoah's daughter names  Moshe when she saves him from the river. And then Moshe meets his wife and gives birth to a son, at the cusp of the beginning of the Exodus. Something about having these strong identities and having meaningful names indicates that having a strong identity is important. Perhaps the idea is that the Israelites need to form a strong national identity and name in order to be redeemed? Perhaps that was the entire reason for the Exile in the first place?

Moses's Early Growth

The Birth Legend of Sargon

Similarities: Mother raises child in secret, places child in basket, covered in pitch, and left him in the river. Child is picked up by a stranger, raised by the stranger, and then (somehow) returns to his people.

Foster implies that Sargon commissioned this text purposely to sound like the story of Moses's birth, to bolster Sargon's legitamacy to the throne. So I'm not sure how Sargon can help us understand the Torah's portrayal of Moshe; rather its the Torah portrayal that can help us understand Sargon. Clearly, the story of Moshe was known and Sargon's insistence to have a similar backstory means that the story of Moshe becoming the leader of the Israelites and bringing them out of the Exile had synonymous with leadership and legitimacy. Sargon clearly wants to monopolize on the similarity.

Chapter 2: The Growth of Moses

1. How does Pharaoh's daughter know that Moshe is a "Hebrew" when she sees him?

Ibn Ezra writes that she saw that he was circumcised, a clear sign of being a "Hebrew". This seems to be an appropriate assumption, as the tradition to circumcise was probably not unknown to the Israelites Egyptian neighbors, and she definitely saw this characteristic on the boy.

When I first read the verse, I also considered that she probably knew he was a Hebrew because why would an Egyptian put their male child on the river? The clear attempt to save the boy's life indicates his life was in danger - and the Hebrew boys were in danger. I consequently saw this response in the Ramban.

Although this does raise questions regarding what Moses's mother expected to happen to her son down the river? Would he really have survived that? Or was it a suicide mission, but just so she wouldn't have to see his fate/ he had to die at the hands of the Egyptians? Or perhaps that idea of "honorable suicide" wasn't really around back then.

2. Where does Moshe grow up, for how long?

The verse seems to imply that Moshe grew up in his mother's house, although the time period is not specified, and is then brought to Bat-Pharoah, where he grows up more (Verse 11).

Ramban provides a reasonable time-frame: He was returned to Bat Pharaoh when he was done being weened. Verse 11 occurs when he became a man, an adult.

3. When does Moshe find out that he is actually Jewish?

Ibn Ezra explains that when Moshe first leaves the palace "to his brothers" it refers to the Egyptians, since he grew up in an Egyptian household he thought they were his brothers. But once he was out there, he recognized the Hebrew as family.

4. What motivates him to "go out to his BROTHERS"?

The verse itself gives no indication why. Ramban explains that he was told that he was actually a Hebrew (by whom?), so he wanted to see them, since they were his "brothers". I'm not sure why the household would want to reveal that information to Moshe. That could just lead to trouble - obviously he would want to reconnect to his people when he grows older, to understand why they were being enslaved, ask the hard questions. For whatever reason, the royal family decides to keep and raise Moshe. But it wouldn't make sense to inform him of his true lineage.

5. What do we learn about Moshe from his two interactions in vv. 11-14?

He seems to have a natural inclination towards justice and/or peace. When he sees fighting or violence, he tries to intervene. With the Egyptian, he has no qualms killing him on the spot. With the two Hebrews fighting, he inquires why there is fighting (but doesn't extend to killing). Clearly nationality plays a role in how he judges/ intervenes.

Chapter 3

Introducing God

1. 3:6 - "I am the Elokei of your father: Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, Elokei Yaakov"

2. 3:14-15 - "Eheyeh sent me to you"

3. 6:3 - "Ani Hashem"... "I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as 'Kel Shakai", but the name of Hashem I did not appear to them"... tell Israel that "I am Hashem".

- It seems like saying "Eheyeh" didn't really work the first time, so now Moshe should tell Israel about "Hashem". Also unclear what He means by "Kel Shakai"? He doesn't exclusively use that term with the Avot!

Chapter 12

Chapter Division

1. The 10th-14th of that Month

2. The Holiday for the Future

3. Moshe instructing the Elders of Israel about God's decree

4. The Plague of the First Born and Egypt kicking out the Israelites

5. The Exodus (and a recap of the Israelite time in Egypt)

6. Chukat Hapesach


- Why does the Torah narrate Moshe's retelling of God's decree to the Elders and why is it slightly different and shorter?

- Why do we read the recap of Israel's time in Egypt here in the middle of the narrative?

- Why is Chukat Hapesach here? It's out of order! It should be with the instructions of the 14th.


- The Matza commanded to eat before the Exodus takes place can't really be because of the Matza that didn't have to time to bake before they left- they haven't left yet! Also, when it refers to that event (12:34, 39), it doesn't use the language of Matzah, so it may be a different food. The Matzah here may have to do with the leaving "B'chipazon" - that they should eat like they are hurrying, so they shouldn't have fully baked bread. The problem with this is that they had been preparing the MEAT to eat since the 10th. So if they can roasted meat selected 4 days earlier, why not let the poor people eat real bread?

- Its unclear what the festival in the beginning of the perek is called. The 7 day holiday seems to be a remembrance for that night of the 15th, with the single theme of Matzah. So the Matzah has some deep symbolism that is to be remembered for generations. We just aren't told what that symbol is (here).

     --> Ibn Ezra notes that this holiday is "Chag Hapesach" and we eat Matzah to commemorate the Matzah we ate when left - not the Matza we ate on the night of the 15th before we left. That's why we eat it for 7 days - because the Israelites DID eat just Matzah for 7 days until the Yam Suf was split. (Different than what I wrote above. Its also strange why God was commanding them to eat this Matzah as a commemoration when the events didn't even happen yet).

- It seems that 12:14-20 is describing the holiday for later generations, a holiday of Matzah. But when Moshe repeats the commandment to the Elders, he discusses the "Zevach Pesach" (12:27), not mentioned by God for the 7 day holiday. We only have a Pesach for the night in Egypt. This now complicates what the Chukat Hapesach is for in 12:43 - is it more the night of the 15th or the 7 day holiday in the future?

A Holiday Now; A Holiday for Later


If this passage is coming after the Israelites left Egypt - chronologically within the text - then these laws probably apply to Pesach Dorot. Especially after pasuk 48, when it discusses “when a Ger will live among you”, meaning not yet, but when it happens -in the future. These laws are a bit more specific than necessary to inform the Israelites during the actual Exodus. They were probably given much later, perhaps right before the first Pesach in the desert. But the Torah wanted to keep it near the original telling of the laws, to organize it thematically.

- Compared to Deuteronomy 16:1-2

  • - D: use Tzoan or Bakar VS. E: Seh for the night of the 14th in Mitzrayim, but no sacrifice is mentioned for the dorot/ the holiday l’zicaron (12:14)
  • --> Explanation: In mitzrayim, they were to use a She (either because it was the Egyptian god and Hashem wanted to show His power over it, or because it was all that was available). For Dorot- Hashem makes it more universal, available for wherever the Israelites may be (40 yrs in the desert, Canaan, Diaspora). Its also a way to separate the two holidays: Mitzrayim was holiday 1, using a she, but the holiday to “remember” is commemorated slightly differently, using a Tzoan or Bakar.
  • - D: sacrifice it in a place that Hashem chooses
  • - D: called Lechem Oni
  • - D: Matza is given an explanation: because the Israelites left B’chipazon (in a hurry?). In Mitzrayim, they didn't eat chametz because that’s what God commanded. Therefore they ate Matza, as a post-facto alternative to Chametz. But for Dorot, Matza is now “ideal” because of Chipazon, because that was what happened.
  • --> need to see if Matza is actually the only post-facto alternative. Also, so then why can't they eat Chametz to begin with?
  • - D: U’beshalta, E: Tzli Esh
  • --> Bishul is a general term that includes Tzli Esh. Exodus tells the specific way to do it. But its included in Bishul.
  • OR Mitzrayim is different than Dorot. Need Tzli specifically for Mitrayim, but Dorot can have just Bishul. Why? Different holiday, more freedom, different reasons. Need to explore more.

Shirat HaYam

  • - While it poetically describes the sea closing on the Egyptians, it leaves out that first God made them get stuck there, it just barely mentions the miracle of the sea splitting in the first place to save the Israelites
  • - It adds after-effects not mentioned in 14: other nations hearing about this and fearing God.
  • Had a hard time deciphering the language and style  

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