Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh'mot (Exodus)


Hebrew Insights into Parashat Sh’mot – Sh’mot (Exodus) 1– 6:1


The opening verses of this Parasha reiterate what we read recently in Parashat Va’yigash; namely, the names of the sons of Yisrael who had gone down to Egypt. Compared to the first list (Gen. 46:8-25), this one is much more brief and 'basic.' It is these "names" (“sh’mot”), which lend the title to the Parasha, as well as to the whole book. The fruitfulness promised to the Patriarchs is already starting to be evident. "And the children of Israel were fruitful (of the root p.r.h for “fruit”), and increased (of the root applied to the animals in Gen. 1:20-21) abundantly, and multiplied - va’yirbu - and became exceeding mighty – va’ya’atzmu; and the land was filled with them” (Ex. 1: 7 italics added). This verse sums up one of the first phases of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt, while at the same time also echoing B’resheet (Genesis) 47:27: "So Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen; and they took a hold of it - va'ye'ach'zu - and grew and multiplied exceedingly" (italics added). The above-mentioned verb for “increase” – va’yishretzu – is not mentioned in the Genesis 47 scripture and as noted, it is generally applied to animals. Is this a hint as to the condition of the Israelites at this point? Last week we noticed how Ya'acov, when bringing up the “land of Yisrael” in the course of blessing Ephraim and Menashe, emphasized "achuzat olam" (48:4), "everlasting possession", or literally, the “everlasting hold". But while the old patriarch stressed "holding" or "grasping tightly" on to the Land of Promise, his descendants seemed to be very quick to "take hold" of foreign soil (as seen in the above quoted Gen.  47:27).   


According to Nehama Leibowitz[1], by their settling and establishing a foothold in Egypt, the Israelites committed a sin. Thus, their new home turned into a place of exile and bondage, as the Parasha clearly points out. The commentary goes on to say, however, that the suffering and exile also produced refining and purification (e.g. Deut. 4:20; Is. 48:10; Jer.11:4), had an educational value (e.g. Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 16:11-12), and motivated the humanitarian treatment of others (e.g. Lev. 25:38-43; Deut. 5:14-15). Slavery and bondage demand redemption, and according to the commentary such a redemption "serves as a spur for a religious duty, imposing on every Israelite the duty to redeem his fellow being from slavery". With this said, we also cannot ignore the unequivocal and somewhat inauspicious prediction YHVH announced to Avraham in B’resheet (Genesis) 15, at the covenant ‘between the cut up pieces’, namely, "Your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (vs. 13, 16).


"The iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”. “Yet” (in the above quote) is "ad heh'na", literally "thus far". In Vayikra (Leviticus) 18:25 we read: "For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants". From the time YHVH made His declaration to Avraham it took well over 600 years for the Amorites’ (a generic name for the Canaanite people groups) iniquity to be "sha'lem", “complete”.  The 'quota of their iniquity' was only made full when the Children of Yisrael entered the Land of C’na’an, and thus the former were being "vomited out by the land".  In this way, the four hundred years of Egyptian exile, and another forty of wandering in the desert, were necessary for the completion of Elohim’s objectives for the Israelites, while this time capsule was also instrumental in fulfilling a larger and more global 'judicial plan'. In the Divine economy nothing is ever meaningless or lost. The Great Economist is very precise, and is sovereign over time, events and the protagonists’ roles therein.


Let us return now to the present situation in Egypt. The rising of the new king "who does not know Joseph" (1:8) introduces us to a new phase into which Ya'acov's children are being thrust quite unawares. This king identifies the Israelites as a Nation, or People - "am", thus referring to them in singular person, rather than plural. "The people [am] of the sons of Israel is mightier [‘rav ve'atzum’] than we” (v. 9), while in the above (v. 7) description the plural form is employed in describing the sons of Yisrael. This multiplicity and might appear to constitute a threat to Egypt’s king and to his people, hence the above description of this foreign race (being "more numerous and mightier than us", italics added). It seems that exaggeration and bigotry play no small part in these words which are used to form and instigate a plan to solve the “Hebrew problem”. Interestingly, at the very end of last week’s Parasha, Yoseph charged his brothers concerning taking his bones back to the land, whenever YHVH would visit (pakod) them (Gen. 50:25). In our Parasha, at the very beginning of the book of Sh’mot (Exodus), we read about the “might” of the People of Yisrael. Both bone and might share the same root of (ayin, tzadi, mem). This root lends itself to several significant words, which we will examine more thoroughly in Parashat B’ha’a’lot’cha (Numbers 8-12). Suffice it to say here that Yoseph’s bones “multiplied” greatly, in accordance with the promise granted to his sons, although at present this blessing appears to pose the threat of adversity.


Thus, to counter this (hypothetical) danger of a population explosion, the king takes a number of measures, all of which are expressed in verbs denoting suffering, suppression and servitude (ref. 1:11-14). However, these measures are not taken before Par’oh declares his intention to “deal shrewdly” with this people. “Shrewdly” – nitchakma - rooted in (chet, chaf, mem) which is “wise” or “wisdom”. However, the particular conjugation used here implies the misuse of wisdom for the purpose of outsmarting or taking advantage. Thus, an evil plan is devised. First they "set over them" “sa'rey mi’sim” - tax collecting princes - to (literally) "afflict them with suffering". But "the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew” (v. 12). The verb "grew" is "yifrotz", of the root which we examined in Parashat Va’yeshev (Gen. 38:29), where we noted that it means "to break forth".  This caused the Egyptians "to loath" or "abhore" (“va’yakutzu”) them, and in turn they made them do rigorous labor (“va'ya'vidu” - a.v.d. - laborwork; while “eh’ved” is “slave”). "And they made their lives bitter with hard labor in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of work in the field. All their work in which they made them work with rigor" (v. 14 italics added). In verses 13-14 the root a.v.d (ayin, vet, dalet) - work, labor, slave - occurs five times, impressing upon the reader the sense of perpetual toil.


The commentator Benno Jacob [2] observes that the initiators of the acts of ritual enslavement are always mentioned (in their acts of harassment) in the plural, whereas the Israelites are referred to as a singular entity (in 1:10-12 each reference to the Israelites reads "he", although not translated that way in English). The commentator goes on to say, "Israel is pictured here as characterless, faceless, bereft of leadership". Interestingly, the Parasha opens with the names of the individuals whose descendants, in just a matter of a few verses, are described as being submerged in a sea of suffering and oblivion (although, as mentioned above, the singular person was also used because the Israelites were viewed as an “am” – a single nation, a people).


 The only two characters singled out here are the midwives (who are mentioned by name). They were assigned the heinous task of doing away with every Hebrew male newborn. The Hebrew reads: “me’yaldot ha’eev’riyot”, which may be read as “the Hebrew midwives” or the “midwives of the Hebrew (women)”, thus calling into question the identity of the midwives: were they Israelites or Egyptian? Their defiance of the king's edict (1:17) results in Yisrael becoming even more numerous and mighy – rav and atzum (the same term we notved above, stemming from the root, v. 20b). These two Elohim-fearing women testify of the full involvement of Yisrael's Elohim with His People, even at a time when the Nation was under conditions of bondage and forgetfulness. However, whereas "am Yisrael" as a whole was occupied with endless and huge building projects for their taskmasters, it says about the midwives that Elohim established their "batim" – 1:21 literally “homeshouses" and also “familiesdynasties” (translated “households”)!


 The subjugating process gathers momentum; taxing turns into hard labor (1:11), then to enslavement (vs. 13, 14) and to 'limited' infanticide (v. 16), which finally becomes an imposition on the entire Egyptian nation, compelling it to engage in a full-blown genocide by exterminating every newborn male (v. 22). Thus, the mere 22 verses of Sh’mot’s first chapter recount a long and eventful span of time.


The next chapter reports a sudden development. Nehama Leibowitz comments, "One family, father, mother, and daughter emerge from the gloom of this faceless mass".[3] The anonymity is only gradually broken, though, as the protagonists of this first part of the chapter remain nameless, albeit distinct. The only specific name in this narrative is the name that Par’oh's daughter gives the baby whom she finds: It is to be Moshe, "because I drew him out of the water" (2:10 emphasis added). And as we observed in Parashat Miketz (Gen. 41-44:17), this name is probably an Egyptian one, as "mes" or "mesu" in ancient Egyptian mean "child" or "son", [4]  yet the Hebrew language adapts to foreign terms by employing puns or a 'play on words' (such as the in the name "Bavel," Gen. 11:9). There is, however, one other instance in Scripture where the root  (mem, shin, hey) is used: "He drew me out - yimsheni - of many waters", intones King David (2nd Sam. 22:17; Ps. 18:16), being an apt description of Moshe’s current condition, and also of his future role, when he will lead his people out of a large body of water. The basket that baby Moshe was put in is called "tey'va", the identical term used for Noach's ark! The gigantic structure and the little basket, both, were havens of safety and protection ‘upon the waters’ that, spelt ultimate deliverance with large-scale ramifications.


It took the death of the king (2:23) for the Children of Yisrael to "groan" and "cry out" -"va'yiz'aku" - and “their cry" - "shava'atam" - went up to Elohim. Notice that here the verb “to cry out” is different from the noun “cry”. In other words, by the time the cry (“za’a’ka”) reached heaven, it turned into a "sha'v'a" (sh.v.a. shin, vav, ayin), a noun which is "akin to deliverance or salvation" (which is - yod, shin, ayin) [5]. Thus, by the time the cry ‘made its way’ to YHVH it had already formulated into His response! Thusly, Elohim "heard", "remembered", "looked" (or "saw"), and "acknowledged" (2:24-25) – all of which make up the components of His response.


Chapter 3 elaborates on the implementation of the above verbs through the person of Moshe and his mission. It will be by Moshe that YHVH will reveal Himself to His People. Moshe spends time in the desert, "midbar", "tending the flock of Yitro (Jethro), his father-in-law… and he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of Elohim” (3:1). "Midbar" stems from the root d.v.r (dalet, vet/bet, resh), meaning “speech” or “speaking”, but this root also supplies us with “to drive” (as in “push out”) and “defeat”. It shares the same root with "pestilence" or “plague”, and with the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple ("dvir"). It seems that when one is stricken with a plague (sin) and is driven to the ‘backside’ of the desert, it is there that he hears YHVH’s still small voice speaking, and before long finds himself in the Holy of Holies, with Moshe being a case in point. Thus, in the 4:10–16 passage in which is Moshe is heard attempting to ‘convince’ YHVH that he was not the right choice for the mission, the root d.b/v.r is repeated seven times in various forms, such as “words” and “speaking”.


YHVH reveals Himself to Moshe, talking to Him by the “Mountain of Elohim” in Chorev (Horeb”, 3:1). Chorev stems from the root ch.r.v. (chet, resh, bet/vet), which means “desolation, waste”. The sea, for example, that will face the Israelites in their future escape, will turn into "dry land" which will enable their passage. This “dryness” or “parched land” is called "charava" (Parashat B'shalach, Ex. 14:21). This root also forms the word for "cherev" - “sword” and “churban” – “destruction”. Not surprisingly, in this part of the world where water is scarce, “dryness” and “destruction” are almost synonymous.


Elohim’s plans for His people may be elicited from some of the terms used here. He declares that He Himself "will go down" to rescue His people from Mitzrayim (Egypt - straitsnarrownessadversity), and "will bring them up" to "a good and broad land" (3:8 emphases added). When Moshe is to assemble the elders of Yisrael he is to convey to them that, the Elohim of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov literally, "visiting has visited you and that which has been done to you in Egypt" (3:16). We also noticed above, in Yoseph’s request at the end of the B’resheet (50:25), that he used the same term when he expressed his faith about Elohim visiting His people to take them back to the land. In both these cases "visit" is "pakod", the root being p.k.d (pey, kof, dalet), and means “to visitattendmusterappoint,[6] count, or miss”. This word is also known as "precept" (e.g. Ps. 119:15, 27). Like several of the other words for "commandments" and "laws" this one also has, as is evident here, a different or broader meaning than what is generally perceived - something that we will be taking a closer look at when several of these terms will surface in future Parashot (Parasha – singular; Parashot – plural). This verb appropriately sums up YHVH’s multi-facetted plan for His people.


 The long discourse that the reluctant Moshe has with YHVH is about to end when YHVH tells him: "Now therefore, go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall say" (4:12). Similar words are repeated in verse 15, with the promise to instruct him and his brother A’ha’ron (Aaron) as to what they will have to do. It was likewise a totally submissive Yeshua who expressed a similar idea during His earthly ministry, "The son can do nothing by himself, he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the son does also" (John 5:19, see also 8:28; 12:49; 14:10).


Moshe and A’ha’ron comply and go to see Par’oh. In 5:4 we read: “And the king of Egypt said to them, Moses and Aaron, why do you keep the people from their work? Get to your burdens!” “Keep the people” is “tafri’ou”, from the root p.r.a., (pey, resh ayin), which we examined in Parashat Miketz (Ge. 41-44:17), where we also noticed its (coincidental?) similarity with the name Par’oh.  The meaning of this root, being “unruliness” is not incompatible with this king’s conduct toward his Hebrew subjects.


We noted above that, possibly because of their lowly state the Hebrews were referred to in singular person. In 4:22-23 (and 3:7-8) they are referred to once again in this manner; but this time for an entirely different reason. Here YHVH calls Yisrael, "My first born son". Later, when Moshe and A’haron address Par’oh, they say to him: "The Elohim of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go three days' journey into the desert and sacrifice to YHVH our Elohim…” (5:3). However, the non-normative spelling of “has met with us” – nikra – can also be read as “who is named/called”, thus rendering this excerpt as, “The Elohim of the Hebrews Who is named after us (the “us” implying Avraham, Yitchak and Yaacov)…” Indeed in 3:15 Elohim calls Himself the “Elohim of Avraham, the Elohim of Yitzchak, the Elohim of Ya’acov”. (By comparison in 3:18, the same word “has met”, is spelt in the conventional manner, with its meaning, therefore, remaining ‘plain and simple’, unlike the above.)


Even though by the end of the Parasha the lot of the Israelites is made (temporarily) even worse than it had been before Moshe's audience with Par'oh, the People, who at the beginning of Sh'mot are presented as a forgotten and maltreated mass, are now the object of YHVH's direct intervention. It is, therefore, with these words that our Parasha ends: "Then YHVH said to Moses, 'Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will expel them out of his land'" (6:1).


In Parashat Sh’mot we see once again the sovereignty of YHVH over the schemes and intentions of the enemy. Just as in the case of Yoseph, whose destiny the enemy attempted to disrupt, yet YHVH used this very plan to catapult him into the place that He had designed for him, so too in regards to Moshe (and in an even greater measure to Yeshua, see 1 Cor. 2:7, 8). The very man whose command should have brought about this infant’s death, ended being the one in whose palace this infant was protected, raised, and groomed for leading the Israelites out and away from under his (and his follower’s) despotic and tyrannical control and dominion.



1 New Studies in Shemot, by Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman,  

 Eliner Library, Jerusalem, 1995

2 Ibid

3 Ibid

4 The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon,  

ed. Francis Brown, Hendrickson Publishers, PeabodyMass.

5 Ibid

6 Ibid

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