Photo of Rabbi Ettedgui

Parashat Shemot - 5777

Dear friends,

This Shabbat we begin the reading of the second book of the Torah, known as Shemot in Hebrew and Exodus in English.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, which we completed last week, we left the Children of Israel as a well-established family in Egypt. Joseph has been privileged to witness the birth of great-grandchildren and so have his brothers. The Book of Shemot devotes the first seven verses to describing the extraordinary increase in the numbers of the Children of Israel. From the original seventy who came with their father Jacob, they are now a large nation that has filled the Land of Egypt.

The next seven verses describe the ascent of a new Pharaoh. His fear is that the Children of Israel's increase in numbers is a threat to the Egyptian people. He says 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." (Exodus 1:9-10)

The next four verses describe the enactment of labor camps where the Israelites are given the task of building storage cities for Pharaoh. First it is seen as a special tax, but then taskmasters are assigned upon them to inflict much pain and torture. But the Children of Israel continue to increase.

From hard labor and torture, Pharaoh turns to murder. He orders the murder of all newborn Jewish boys.

If that was the end-goal of Pharaoh, the annihilation of the people of Israel, why didn't he do it all at once? Why the setting of labor camps and enslavement of the people?

Nachmanides, who lived during the 13th century in Spain, explains that Pharaoh's key words in enslaving the people was "let us deal shrewdly with them". Reducing their numbers was acceptable to the Egyptians. But there was no reason to kill them. The Israelites had been good citizens who had arrived in Egypt at the invitation of the former Pharaoh. Another reason could be that, had the Israelites known Pharaoh's true intentions, they would not have allowed their men to be taken to labor camps. They would have fought back.

We, the post-Holocaust generation, can clearly understand how things progressed in Egypt. From being asked to pay special taxes in the form of helping Egypt's infrastructure, to total imprisonment, to the murder of children. The Jewish experience in the Diaspora has witnessed the rise of hateful leaders who have used the same tactics as this Pharaoh of old. We must always question the true intentions of our leaders.

The readings in the next few weeks become more hopeful and cheerful as we begin the fight for liberation and redemption from slavery.

Shabbat Shalom,

Avram