Sign In Forgot Password

Dan Has Questions About The Second Book Of The Torah: Parshat Shemot

01/12/2023 09:46:23 AM


Dan Leemon

Last week, we concluded the first book of the Torah, Bereisheet, the story of the origins of the world, the first Jews, and our relationship with God.

This week, we begin to read the second book of the Torah, Shemot, which is also the name of the Parshah. Shemot means names, and the reading begins with a list of the names of all the sons of Jacob (Israel) who moved to Egypt. Many generations later, the people of Isabel are prospering in Goshen, and there is new Pharaoh, who does not remember who Joseph was or all that Joseph did for the earlier Pharaoh. This new Pharaoh sees that there are many Jews, and that they are prospering. Pharaoh feels threatened by them, concerned that they will join up with Egypt's enemies to take over Egypt. 

- Why might Pharaoh have felt threatened?

- Do you think the Jews were doing anything to make Pharaoh concerned?

Pharaoh decides to weaken the Jews by taxing them heavily. By the Jews prosper despite the taxes, and continue to grow in numbers and in wealth. So Pharaoh enslaves them - or should I say "us", since, when we tell this story every Passover, we are told to hear the story as though we experienced it ourselves.

- When we study history - of the Jews, or of America, or of the world - how does it affect your learning to imagine that you are there, that the history is happening to you? Does that deepen your understanding?

And as though being put into slavery isn't enough, it gets worse: Pharaoh wants to reduce the population of Jews, so he orders the midwives - the women who help deliver the babies - to kill all the male babies. But the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, refuse to do so because the Torah says, they fear God more than Pharaoh. Let's stop and think about this for a moment: Pharaoh is the all-powerful king, powerful enough to enslave an entire community of Jews, and Shifrah and Puah are defying a direct order. Some scholars identify this as the first recorded instance of "civil disobedience" in history - putting one's own values and beliefs ahead of what the kind says.

- Were Shifrah and Puah taking a risk by doing this? What might have happened to them for refusing to obey Pharaoh's orders?

- What does this tell you about them - what does it take to save other people's lives? Can you think of other people who take risks to save others' lives?

- Is there a rule or a law you would like to defy - maybe it's a government rule, or maybe it's a family or school rule? Why would you defy it? What would you risk if you did so?

Shifrah and Puah tell Pharaoh that the babies are born so quickly they don't have a chance to carry out Pharaoh's death order. So Pharaoh commands that all the male babies be thrown into the Nile river. One of the mothers hides her son for three months so that he will not be killed and, when she can no longer hide him, fashions a basket of reeds, seals it with pitch and clay, and sends her baby off down the river. Again, let's stop for a second and contemplate that mother trying to think og some way that her baby can survive, even though she may never see him again. What a horrible choice she has to make - allow her baby to be thrown into the Nile, or float him away not knowing what might happen to him or to herself.

- What does this story tell you about how parents love their children?

Pharaoh's daughter is bathing in the Nile and sees the baby in the basket. She knows it is a Jewish baby, and decides to keep him as her own. But she needs someone to nurse the baby - and the baby's mother is the one she finds to nurse him. 

Oh, and in case you haven’t remembered by now, Pharaoh’s daughter names the baby for the word for being drawn out of the water — Moshe (Moses).  Moshe knows he is Jewish, but grows up as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  One day, he sees an Egyptian slavemaster beating a Jewish slave.  Moshe looks around and, believing he is alone, kills and buries the Egyptian.  The next day, Moshe sees two Jewish slaves fighting and goes to break up the fight.  One of them says to him, “Who made you a prince and judge over us?  Are you going to kill us as you did the Egyptian?”  Pharaoh has heard about it, too, and seeks to find Moshe and have him killed, but Moshe runs off to the land of Midian, where he settles long enough to get married and become a shepherd.

- From this very first story of Moshe, what do you learn about him?  What kind of person was he?  How would you describe him?


The Torah tells us that God heard the cries of the Jews, cries of pain and misery from being slaves, and that God  remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  It is apparent that God decides to do something about the suffering of the Jews.  But the Torah doesn’t say why their cries suddenly got God’s attention, after years and years (the Torah says over 400 years) of slavery and suffering.

- What do you think — could God have controlled the enslavement of our ancestors in the first place and, if so, why didn’t God do something?

- Why do you think God suddenly decides it is time to end the slavery?

This story continues:  Moshe is out taking care of his father-in-law’s flocks of sheep and sees a bush that is burning but is not consumed by the fire.  Moshe comes forward to see how this could be happening.  God sees him come forward and calls to him.  God tells Moshe that God has heard the cries of the Jews, and wants to rescue them from slavery and take them back to the land of Canaan that God promised to their ancestors.  He tells Moshe to go to Pharaoh and tell Pharaoh to free the slaves.

- How do you think Moshe reacts to this?

- Why did God choose Moshe for this task?

Moshe not only questions God’s decision — saying “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and take the Jews out of Egypt?” — but also says “When I tell the people that you have sent me to save them, and they ask me your name, what do I tell them?”  Moshe certainly has doubts about the task in front of him.   God tells Moshe to tell them that this is the "God of their ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob".  

- Do you know in what prayer — that we say at every service — we refer to God in this way (we also say “God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah, God of Rachel)?

- Why don’t we just say, “God of the Jews”?


God tells Moshe to tell the people that he has been sent by God to bring them out of Egypt to a land “flowing with milk and honey”, that Pharaoh will not want to let them go, and that God will bring miracles to punish the Egyptians.  Moshe is pretty sure they will not believe him, so God gives him some small miracles as signs that God is real — turning his walking stick into a serpent, turning water into blood — but Moshe still thinks putting him in charge is a bad idea, saying that he is not up to the job and not well spoken.  But God orders him to go, even getting angry at Moshe’s resistance, telling him to get help from his brother Aaron if he needs it.  

- Why do you think Moshe is so averse to taking on the task of freeing the slaves?

- Would you have taken on this task if God ordered you to?


Moshe and Aaron go to the Jewish people with God’s message, and perform the signs, and the people believe them.  And Moshe goes to Pharaoh and does as God has ordered — tells Pharaoh to let the Jews go for three days to worship God.  Pharaoh no only refuses, but he makes the work of the slaves harder, forcing them to gather the straw used to make bricks, without reducing the number of bricks they are required to make.  And the people complain to Moshe and Aaron that all they’ve managed to do is make their lives harder.  And Moshe complains to God — that God has not saved the people, but made their lives harder.  And God says, " "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh”.

- If you had been there — if you have been one of the Jewish slaves, who had not heard from God for many years —  would you have believed Moshe and Aaron?

- Why is God making the process so difficult — ordering Moshe to make demands that Pharaoh will not agree to, allowing the work of the slaves to become harder before they are freed, compromising Moshe's and Aaron’s credibility with the people?

More of this story — one of struggle and freedom — in next week’s Parshah!

Shabbat shalom,


Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784