01/12/2012 10:59 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Parshat Shemot: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. At press time, God could not be reached for comment. Read the full text of Parshat Shemot with interlinear Hebrew/English.

These are the names of the children of Israel, who came to Egypt with Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Along with their children, 70 souls in total went down into Egypt.

Joseph was there waiting for them. But then Joseph died. And his brothers died, too. And all the people of their generation passed. But their children multiplied until they filled the land of Egypt.

And now, a new king arises in Egypt. This king does not know Joseph. All he sees is this nation before him, this foreign nation, more numerous than his own. And he is fearful.

"Look," he says to his people, "we should deal with this now. They'll only become stronger, and if war comes, they'll side with our enemies, fight us and leave."

So, tax collectors are appointed over the Hebrews, which is a nice way of saying they became slaves. They build storage cities for Pharaoh. Despite their enslavement, the Children of Israel continue to grow in number.

The Egyptians are disgusted. They make the work even harder -- crushing.

The Water Is Wide

Pharaoh speaks to two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah (aka Jochebed and Miriam): "When a Hebrew woman gives birth to a son, kill it," he says. "If it's a girl, let it live." But the women are in awe of God, and they let the boys live. (For their awe, God later made the children of these women into priests and kings.) So Pharaoh summons them: "Why are you doing this?"

"It is not us! Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. They are skilled. By the time we arrive to assist them, the child is already born."

And the Children of Israel grow and grow.

So Pharaoh cuts out the middlewomen, talks to all the Hebrews at once: "All your newborn sons -- throw them in the Nile. Let your daughters live."

Then men don't know what to do. They fear giving sons to their wives, lest the babies immediately die. All the men divorce their wives to avoid this problem.

Miriam sees a flaw in this logic. She says to Amram, her father, "What you're doing is worse than Pharaoh. He only wants to kill the boys, but you're preventing even the girls from being born! Surely, Pharaoh is evil and God will not listen to his words. But you are righteous and God hears your prayers. Should the Children of Israel cease to be?"

Amram can't argue. He remarries Jochebed, who soon has a son. She sees that her son is good, so she hides him. But his crying becomes louder and louder as the months go on and she cannot keep him hidden for long. She waterproofs a basket, places the boy inside and sets the basket among the reeds at the edge of the Nile.

And Miriam stands by to watch what happens next: Pharaoh's daughter comes to the river to bathe. Some say she meant to wash herself of her father's idols. While her servants walk along the bank, Pharaoh's daughter notices a basket in the reeds on the other side of the Nile. She reaches across the great distance, grabs hold of the basket and discovers the baby boy inside. And she has compassion.

Miriam approaches: "Should I find someone to help you nurse the child?"

"Go!" Pharaoh's daughter orders. So Miriam runs and gets her mother and brings her to the princess, who tells the Jochebed to nurse him. The child grows a bit and Jochebed brings him to Pharaoh's daughter. And she raises him like a son. She names him Moses because she drew him from the water.

Down With Disease

Moses grows up, and he leaves the palace to see the world. What he sees are his people enslaved. What he sees is an Egyptian slave master striking his brother. Moses is already a prophet. He looks into the future of the brutal Egyptian, sees that the coast is clear, and kills the man, burying him in the sand.

Moses leaves the palace again the following day. This time, he sees two Hebrews arguing. One hits the other. "Why would you hit your friend like that?" Moses asks.

The Hebrew, indignant: "Who are you to tell me what to do? A prince? A judge? Will you kill me like you killed that Egyptian?"

And Moses is afraid. Pharaoh must know about this, he thinks. And indeed, Pharaoh tries to kill him. So Moses runs. He gets out of town. He leaves Egypt completely. Goes to Midian, where he sits by a well. (Always a well.) Soon, the seven daughters of the governor of Midian approach the well to water the governor's flock. While they fill troughs with water, shepherds come. Bad shepherds. They attack. But Moses rescues the women and helps them water the flocks. When the daughters return to Reuel, their father, he's surprised: "Back already!? Why?"

"An Egyptian man was there. He stopped the evil shepherds and helped us."

"Nu. Where is this man? Invite him here to eat!"

Moses knows a good thing when he sees it, and he takes the man up on an offer to live there. And the man gives his daughter, Zipporah, to Moses as a wife. And Zipporah has a son. Moses names the boy Gershom, because he is a stranger in a strange land.

Meanwhile, Pharaoh comes down with the ol' leprosy and thinks the blood of Hebrew children will cure him. And now the Children of Israel are truly afflicted. They cry out. God hears their cries and remembers his covenant. He sees their suffering, and he knows.

Your Word Is Fire

Moses is pasturing the flocks for Jethro, his father-in-law. (Always pasturing the flocks.) He leads the flocks into the desert and comes to a mountain. The Mountain of God, actually. Sinai.

A strange thing: Moses sees a thornbush. He gazes at it and lo! the bush is on fire. But the fire does not burn the bush. The bush and the fire remain. "Let me get a closer look at this," Moses says.

God sees that Moses sees, and he calls to him from within the thornbush: "Moses! Moses!"

"Here I am," Moses says.

"Stand back," God says. "Take off your shoes. This place is holy. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." Moses hides his face, afraid. God continues: "I've seen the suffering of the people of Israel. Truly. I will descend to save them and deliver them to the land of milk and honey. I have heard their cries. Now, you must go to Pharaoh and take them out of Egypt."

"Who am I?" Moses asks. "Why should I take them out of Egypt?"

God: "Because I am with you, and this thornbush is a sign. When you take them out of Egypt, you will come here and worship me on this mountain."

"OK. But when I come to the people and say that God has sent me and they ask for your name, what should I say?"

God: "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh -- I-Will-Be-What-I-Will-Be. Say to them, 'Ehyeh sent me.' And then say, 'God, the God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob sent me.' For this is my eternal name. Now go! Tell them I have sent you. Tell them I have heard their cries. Tell them I will redeem them. They will listen. And then you should go with the elders to Pharaoh and tell him that God has descended, that you must go to the desert to worship me. He will not let you go, I already know. Not unless I show him my might. So I will perform miracles in Egypt. I will smite them. Then, he will send you out. And you will take much with you. You will empty the land of its wealth..."

"Stop!" Moses cries. "They will not believe me. They will not listen to my voice. They will say I am lying."

God: "What is that in your hand?"

"A staff."

God: "Perceptive. Throw it to the ground." Moses does this and the staff becomes a snake. "Grab the tail," God says. Moses does this and the snake turns back to staff. "Now, place your hand on your chest." Moses does this, and then removes it, and his hand is white from leprosy. "Place it on your chest again." Moses does this and his hand returns to normal. "These signs will convince them. If they do not, take water from the Nile and pour it on the ground and it will become blood."

"Stop!" Moses cries. "I beg you. I am not a man of many words. Never have been. My mouth and my tongue are heavy."

God: "And who gave you this mouth? Who gave you this tongue? Was it not I? Go! I will teach you what to say."

"Stop! Please! Send someone else."

God, angry: "Fine. Your brother, Aaron, will speak for you. I will instruct you both. But you will be the leader. Now, take the staff."

Mixed Messages

Moses returns to his father-in-law, Jether, and says, "Let me return to Egypt and see if my people are alive."

"Go in peace," he says.

And God tells him to go again, too. So Moses takes his wife and children, places them on a donkey -- Abraham's donkey -- grabs his staff and goes.

God reminds him: "When you get to Egypt and perform the miracles before Pharaoh, his heart will be hardened, and he will not send you out with your people. So you should tell Pharaoh that I say Israel is my son, my firstborn -- that if he refuses, I will slay his firstborn."

Along the way, at an inn, an angel of God comes to kill Moses because he has not yet circumcised his son. Zipporah sees the angel take hold of her husband and understands. She takes a sharp stone and quickly circumcises the boy. The angel relents.

God tells Aaron: "Go meet Moses in the desert." The brothers meet, and Moses relays the heavenly happenings. They assemble the elders and Aaron tells them everything. The people believe what they hear and bow before God.

Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh: "The God of Israel kindly requests that you send his people out to the desert to worship."

"Who is God that I should listen? I don't know God. And I will not let you go."

"Let us go, Pharaoh. Otherwise God will strike us with a plague, with death."

Pharaoh: "Why do you meddle? Go about your business. You're Levites, the privileged class. Why do you worry? The Children of Israel are everywhere, and they must work. Why do you suggest otherwise?"

Conditions worsen. Pharaoh tells the taskmasters to withhold straw from the slaves but keep the quota for bricks the same. "When they ask for straw," Pharaoh says, "tell them they must find their own."

So the slaves scour the land looking for straw they will not find. And they are beaten. They cry out to Pharaoh about injustice.

"You're lazy!" Pharaoh says. "This is ridiculous. No straw for you. Go make bricks. The same amount as always. Go."

The Children of Israel come to Moses and Aaron: "May God judge you. You have made us abhorrent to the Egyptians. You have armed them. They will kill us."

Moses to God, complaining: "Why do you let them suffer? And why have you sent me? Since I spoke to Pharaoh, things have only gotten worse."

"Now you'll see what happens to Pharaoh," God replies. "He will send the Children out with a mighty hand, he will drive them out of this land with a mighty hand."

Questions for Reflection

How does Moses know that he is not Egyptian, that he is a Hebrew?

Why is Moses' father-in-law referred to by different names?

How does Moses use Abraham's donkey? What is the symbolism here?

What does it mean that Israel is God's firstborn?

Why hadn't Moses circumcised his son? And if he had good reason (like that he was busy fulfilling God's other command), why did God send an angel to kill him?

Why does God harden Pharaoh's heart?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: