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The Book of Exodus

In ancient times, this second book of the Bible had four titles:

Sh’mot – shortened from its initial Hebrew “words”

Sefer Y’tzi-at Mitzrayim – “The Book of the Departure from Egypt”

Exodus Aigyptous, given by Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria in Egypt – a title that was adopted in the Latin versions

Its abbreviated form, Exodus, which passed into European languages.

Exodus is basically divided into three sections:

Chapters 1 – 15:21 deal with the Egyptian oppression of Israel, the struggle for liberation and its achievements

Chapters 15:22 to 18:27 take place on the way from the Sea of Reeds to Mount Sinai

Chapters 19 – 40 have their setting at Sinai itself

The elements of Exodus reveal an account in an extremely limited time frame. Although one tradition has 140 years elapsing between the death of Joseph (Exodus 1:6) and the construction of the Tabernacle, the last dated occurrence (Exodus 40:2), the book actually covers the events of only 2 years.

A high degree of selectivity was used in the compilation of Exodus – details relating to the period of oppression are sparse – there is no mention of the life and communal existence of the people.

Exodus provides us with the Israelite concepts of God and His relationship to the world.

The different aspects of the divine personality, as told in Exodus, is a single God who demands exclusive service and loyalty. God is presented as the Creator of all existence, wholly independent of His creations and totally beyond the constraints of the world of nature. The Book of Exodus also affirms that God is deeply involved in human affairs. Human history is the deliberate, purposeful plan of Divine intelligence. Furthermore, God chooses to enter into a covenantal relationship with Israel, a reality that entails immutable and inescapable obligations on Israel’s part as spelled out in a series of laws.

In the Book of Exodus, we see the seeds planted by the forefathers sprout: their descendants are transformed into a nation, receive their code of life—the Torah, and prepare to fulfill their mission in life by building the Tabernacle, God's "home" on earth.

It is here in the Book of Exodus , the Jewish nation and each individual Jew receives their national and personal identities as Jews. The key to this process is exile. Exile calls forth the individual's hidden potential, his drive to survive despite the odds against him. In exile, a person cannot take life for granted; he must constantly decide whether to succumb or to overcome. The essential point of self-determination that lies dormant during periods of prosperity and freedom is bared and tested during exile. This is why King Solomon called the Egyptian exile "the iron furnace" it burned away the dross covering the innate Jewish soul.

The Egyptian exile was both physical and spiritual. In fact, as we shall see, the spiritual exile preceded and precipitated the physical exile, since every physical phenomenon is just an expression of its spiritual precursor. The Jews' physical exile entailed loss of autonomy and backbreaking bondage; their spiritual exile was enslavement to the host culture, which led to the loss of Divine consciousness and the loss of their awareness of God's involvement in life. As we witness the descent of Jacob's family into progressively more severe physical exile, we can read between the lines and discern their descent into greater and deeper spiritual exile.

As the spiritual and physical exiles both intensified, the Jews were forced to confront their identity. Many of them succumbed to assimilation and were lost, but others struggled to retain their Jewish identity: they tenaciously held on to their traditions, refusing to give up even such incidental aspects of their heritage as their Jewish names and their Jewish language.  The fact that they refused to give up even these external trappings of their cultural heritage indicated that they still nurtured their inner seed of faith in their destiny, even though they adopted certain aspects of the Egyptian mindset and lifestyle.

This explains why the Book of Exodus opens with a list of Jacob's sons, even though such a list seems superfluous. We already know the names of Jacobs' sons: we have seen them born and listed twice, the second time in even greater detail than here. Furthermore, this list contributes nothing to the narrative flow of the Biblical story. After we read how Joseph was interred in Egypt at the end of the Book of Genesis, the narrative should logically continue with how "the Israelites were fertile and multiplied...and a new king, who did not know Joseph, arose over Egypt."

The sages give three reasons why Jacob's sons are listed again:

  1. to stress that the Jews did not change their Jewish names to Egyptian ones, that is, that they refused to assimilate totally into Egyptian culture;

  2. to inform us that God considers the Jews as precious as the stars, whom He also counts by name when they go into "exile" (at daybreak) and when they come out of "exile" (at nightfall); and

  3. to tell us that Jews are essentially good, for the Torah introduces righteous people with the formula "his name was x" and wicked people with the formula "x was his name." Here, too, the phrase "these are the names" precedes the list of proper names.

So, we see that the emphasis on names alludes to both the condition of exile (i.e., that assimilation has progressed to the point where we are Jewish in name only) and the means to overcome it (i.e., that we possess a core-essence of Jewish identity that cannot be defiled).

Therefore, the first parsha of the book, which describes the exile—the spiritual descent the Jewish people underwent and the horrors of their enslavement—is also called Shemot, "Names," even though the list of names with which it opens emphasizes that the Jew's essence is beyond exile.

So, let us begin with Chapter 1 of Shemot.

The Children of Israel multiply in Egypt. Threatened by their growing numbers, Pharaoh enslaves them and orders the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all male babies at birth. When they do not comply, he commands his people to cast the Hebrew babies into the Nile.

A child is born to Jocheved, the daughter of Levi, and her husband, Amram, and placed in a basket on the river, while the baby's sister, Miriam, stands watch from afar. Pharaoh's daughter discovers the boy, raises him as her son, and names him Moses.

As a young man, Moses leaves the palace and discovers the hardship of his brethren. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and kills the Egyptian. The next day he sees two Jews fighting; when he admonishes them, they reveal his deed of the previous day, and Moses is forced to flee to Midian. There he rescues Jethro's daughters, marries one of them - Zipporah - and becomes a shepherd of his father-in-law's flocks.

God appears to Moses in a burning bush at the foot of Mount Sinai and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and demand: "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me." Moses' brother, Aaron, is appointed to serve as his spokesman. In Egypt, Moses and Aaron assemble the elders of Israel to tell them that the time of their redemption has come. The people believe; but Pharaoh refuses to let them go, and even intensifies the suffering of Israel.

Moses returns to God to protest: "Why have You done evil to this people?" God promises that the redemption is close at hand.


THERE IS NO GROWTH WITHOUT SUFFERING: The Egyptian exile is known as, the iron furnace that smelts away the imperfections in the gold. The underlying principle to every event is that everything happens for a purpose. This includes everything that happened to Moses as well as the Hebrew people at that time. Their "fall" from a place of a relatively "good life" to one of serving the Egyptians as slaves. The Kabbalistic belief is that it’s all part of God's "master plan" to "lower" something before bringing it to new heights.

MAKING HOLY: In all cases, the path for the individual (as well as for Moses and the Hebrews as a people) is one moving from the mundane physical world, through the spiritual realm (which includes both good and bad entities) toward the heavenly realm and ultimately to God.

As such we see things like:

  • Struggling with leaving the comfort of the physical world for spiritual enlightenment

  • Dealing with forces from the evil realm that challenge you at every level

  • Frustration at what seems to be obeying God only to find things getting worse

  • As we move forward in Exodus we will see both Moses and the Hebrew people taking on these issues - and sometimes failing the test.


I thought we’d spend the bulk of our time this evening on a study of the Midwives – because it is a fascinating story that presents a picture of bravery and strength that we haven’t seen before

In a paranoid attempt to curtail the Jewish birth rate, Pharaoh ordered all Jewish men into backbreaking slave labor (Ibn Ezra). But when the Jews continued to multiply, Pharaoh, driven by evil and desperation, commanded Shifra and Puah (midwives to the Jewish women) to kill all newborn Jewish boys.

Critical pieces of information are not provided by the text. When was this murderous edict issued, early in the enslavement or late? What were Pharaoh’s reasons for issuing this command? Surely an edict this horrendous should be explained. This textual deficiency is so glaring that the reading of Rashi has become as accepted as though it were present in the passage. According to Rashi, following the Midrash Tanhuma, Pharaoh’s astrologers prophesied the birth of a Redeemer, and thus chose to slay all the male children (this is akin to the New Testament story of Herod, and is of course, the version presented by Cecil B. DeMille).

It is interesting to note that this reading is not found in the Talmud’s discussion of this story, in Sotah 11, which leaves the reasons for this edict a mystery.

The midwives take a brave stand and disobey the edict. When they are brought onto the carpet before Pharaoh and asked why they are not obeying the edict, they respond by asserting (verse 19) that the “Israelite women” are not like the “Egyptian women”, because before medical care arrives they have already successfully given birth.

Hence, we turn to a remarkable reading by the Tiferet Shelomo. He cites the Midrash Rabba which picks up on the phrase “yir’at Elokim“, awe, fear and reverence of God, used to describe the midwives here is the same term used to describe Abraham after the Binding of Isaac. This linguistic link, explains the Tiferet Shelomo, teaches that the actions of the midwives achieved the exact same effect as Abraham’s sacrifice! In other words, perhaps in Abraham’s situation a willingness to sacrifice that most dear to him for God was paralleled by the actions of the midwives to make the children survive.

When death is the bottom line and the given state of affairs, then survival must be the response. If death is meaningless, then life in its fullest is the surest act of revolution. The refusal of the midwives to allow death to proceed made them the vehicle for the archetype of social change, the Exodus.

As the Tiferet Shelmo implies, this act of making-live transformed all the Israelite women, so that they became “huyot hena“, makers of life, conspirators of survival, the vanguard against an unjust society.

The critical moment of liberation is implied not in the later Moshe narrative, but here, in the victory of the midwives. Pharaoh’s goal was the subjugation of a people by not granting the right to live to an entire population. The response of the midwives was to make live, to make the giving of life, rather than the taking of life, the key towards liberation. Faced with this, Pharaoh had no alternative but to turn his entire nation into murderers – verse 22: And Pharaoh commanded all his nation saying, all male children must be tossed into the sea…

According to one Rabbinic position, Shiphrah and Puah were mother and daughter: Jochebed and Miriam; and according to another view, daughter-in-law and mother-in-law: Jochebed and Elisheba daughter of Amminadab. In both identifications, these are prominent Hebrew women who were celebrated for their righteousness. These identifications are based on the Biblical account that the midwives did not obey the royal edict because they feared God. Additionally, God rewarded them for their actions, as verse 21 attests: “He established households [batim] for them,” which the Rabbis understand as priestly and Levitical households, or as royal households. This in turn led the exegetes to conclude that the midwives were connected with the leadership of the generation that went forth from Egypt, along with the priests and Levites. Jochebed, Miriam and Elisheba were indeed related to these leading families .” (BT Sotah 11b)

However, according to one unique tradition, Shiphrah and Puah were non-Jewish midwives, who were said to be pious women and true converts (Midrash Tadshe, Ozar ha-Midrashim [Eisenstein], p. 474). This tradition would read the phrase “the Hebrew midwives” as “the midwives of the Hebrew women.”

The Torah tells us (v. 17) that the midwives did not heed Pharaoh, and “did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them; they let the boys live.” The Rabbis ask why it was necessary to write “they let the boys live,” if Scripture already stated that the midwives did not do the king of Egypt’s bidding. They answer that the end of the verse teaches that not only did they not kill the boys, they actively aided them to live, by giving them food and water (BT Sotah, loc. cit.). The midrash explains that if the midwives saw poor women, they would go and collect food and water from the houses of wealthy women, which they gave to the poor ones, thus enabling them to provide for their children. Another midrash relates that the midwives knew that fetuses are liable to be harmed during the course of the delivery and be born with some physical defect. They therefore stood and prayed: “Master of the Universe, You know that we did not fulfill Pharaoh’s edict, but we seek to fulfill Your word. Master of the worlds, may the child emerge unscathed, so that the Israelites will not find a reason to speak against us, saying that we wanted to kill them, and they were born with defects.” God immediately accepted the prayer of the midwives and all the children were born without flaw. According to an additional tradition, in order to avoid such mishaps during the course of the delivery, the midwives prayed to God, saying: “Master of the worlds, Punish them for their sins now [i.e., in some way other than by death], and give them life, so it will not be said that we killed them by order of Pharaoh.” God did as they requested and let both the mothers and the children live (Ex. Rabbah 1:15).

The Rabbis inquire concerning the nature of the excuse given to Pharaoh by the midwives in v. 19: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous [hayyot].” This cannot mean that the Hebrew women themselves were midwives (one meaning of the word hayyot), since the midwife herself requires another midwife to give birth. Rather, they told Pharaoh that this nation is like the beasts (hayyot) of the field; the women, who are like beasts, do not need the help of any human. This idea is similar to Jacob’s blessing to his sons in Gen. 49, Judah is compared to a lion’s whelp, Dan to a serpent, Naphtali to a hind let loose, Issachar to a strong-boned ass, and so forth.

The Torah (Ex. 1:20) narrates that God rewarded the midwives for fearing Him, “And God dealt well [va-yetev] with the midwives.” What is the reward for fear of God? Torah. By merit of Shiphrah’s fear of God, Moses was descended from her. This is learned from the similar language of the verse (Ex. 2:2) relating to the latter: “when she saw how beautiful [tov] he was”; also, Moses was the vehicle for the transmission of the Torah, which Scripture (Prov. 4:2) calls “good [tov] instruction.” Another tradition states that as reward for Shiphrah’s deeds, the priestly and Levitical houses of Aaron and Moses would come from her. Yet another tradition understands this divine boon to the midwives as Pharaoh’s believing them and not harming them after they failed to implement his edict (Ex. Rabbah 1:16–17). “It is for her fear of the Lord that a woman is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30) refers to these God-fearing women (Ex. Rabbah 1:15).

Here is another perspective:

The initiative and resourcefulness shown by women in all that has to do with saving life is consonant with the larger picture that emerges from the Bible as a whole: since women are entrusted with producing offspring to maintain the human species, in Scripture one frequently finds that in time of danger "the Holy One, blessed be He, gave women more understanding than men" (Niddah 45b), and that women's resourcefulness is what leads to life being saved.

For example, a woman from Thebez saved the people of her city from burning by killing Abimelech (Jud. 9:53), and a wise woman from Abel of Beth-Maacah negotiated with Joab, saving her city from destruction (II Sam. 20:15-22).[4] One should add that the motivation of the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh's orders and save lives stemmed not only from their being women, but also from the fact that their profession is intrinsically associated with bringing new life into the world, not destroying it.

Pharaoh ordered the midwives to establish the gender of the newborn at the earliest possible stage of birth so that they could carry out his hideous order: "if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live" (v. 16). The midrash comments on this decree: "This was a wise decree that they made against us. If they had said to kill the daughters and let the sons live, the Israelite population would have decreased immediately. For it is the way of men to take ten wives and have many sons circumcised, but it is not the way of women to marry even two men."[5] Similarly, Abarbanel raises the following difficulty (his sixth question): "The possibility of increasing progeny depends more on women than on men, therefore it would have been better for them to put to death every newborn, whether male or female, or to put to death the females and not the males." His response, like that of other commentators and scholars, is two-fold: first, Pharaoh wanted to create a shortage of men, so that "The women would marry Egyptians and be drawn after them," and thus be assimilated to the Egyptian people; second, Pharaoh only saw the men as posing a military threat, since men are usually the fighters, not women. To this we must respond that had he known that Jewish women would play such an important role in the deliverance of their people, he probably would not have let them live.

And here is another perspective.

According to Torah Commentary Barry Leff, Why did (the midwives) take this risk? The Torah tells us it was because they were God fearing. They had yirat Hashem, fear/awe of God.  What does it mean to be "God fearing?" The commentator Ibn Ezra tells us that Shifra and Puah were not afraid of the king of Egypt, they only feared God. Is this what it means to be God fearing? To fear ONLY God?  Rebbe Nachman teaches that there are two kinds of yirat Hashem, fear of God. The first is a fear which comes from fear of other things: fear of a wild animal, or fear of a powerful person. Ibn Ezra is saying that this is the kind of fear that Shifra and Puah had: if they were scared by Pharaoh, they were even more scared of God. However, Rebbe Nachman teaches there is another kind of yirat Hashem. One that comes from recognizing God's exaltedness and greatness; this kind of yirah adds completeness to God's name.  To be a God-fearing person means you will put your obligations to God - your obligations to a Higher Authority - above your obligations to secular authorities. When faced with a conflict between an instruction from a boss or a government official, and a teaching from God, you will choose the teaching from God.  Resistance to an illegal order is an important principle in the Torah. The fifth commandment says to "honour your parents," not obey your parents. While one should generally obey one's parents, the Talmud tells us that if your parent tells you to do something wrong, to disobey the Torah, you should ignore their order. Fidelity to God's teachings takes priority even over your parents.  This is what makes Shifra and Puah so special. Without regard to their personal safety, they did what they believed God wanted them to do. They resisted the tyranny of Pharaoh, and instead chose to do the right thing.

And here is one more interesting perspective – from Chabad actually – it addresses the houses that the midwives were given:

"G-d bestowed goodness upon the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. It was because the midwives feared God, that He made houses for them." (Exodus 1:20-21)

The "Houses" G-d made for Shifra and Puah were in fact dynasties born through them. Our Sages explain that Shifra was a pseudonym for Jochebed, and Puah was another name for Miriam. The name "Shifra" comes from the Hebrew word "meshaperet" which means "to beautify", and/or "to swaddle and clean" (i.e. a baby). Miriam was called Puah, from the Hebrew verb "Po’ah" that means "cry, coo or groan" because of the way she soothed and cooed the crying newborn infants.

Jochebed was blessed to give birth not only to her daughter Miriam, but also to Moses and Aaron. Through Jochebed (Shifra), a nation of priests was born. And Miriam (Puah) was blessed to mother the Royal dynasty, the "House of David."

There is much commentary about the rewards given to the midwives.

Here is a typical study - The comments that follow are intended to demonstrate a three-stage methodology whereby one identifies a textual problem in the Torah text, then examines the responses of various commentators to the textual question, and finally attempts to derive meaning from the comments.

So let’s look in depth at Exodus 1, verses 20 and 21:

God did good to the midwives And the people increased and became very vast And it was since the midwives feared God That He/he made them houses/households

Two questions arise. What is the “good” and who is the “HE in the phrase “he made them houses”?

Rashi (1040–1105, France), asks our question: “What was the good” and answers that the reward is stated in the following verse (Exod. 1:21): that God made them [metaphorical] houses of the priesthood, Levites and royalty. In other words, God established households or families for them. The implied theology of Rashi’s comment is articulated by Cassuto (1883–1951, Italy, Israel): that God rewarded the midwives measure for measure (“middah keneged middah”), as is his custom. The midwives save the Hebrew children and families, so God provides them with their own distinguished families as a reward.

Many commentators find fault with Rashi’s skipping to verse 21 in order to find the good, insisting instead that the good must be found in verse 20 itself: “the people increased and became very vast.” Yitzhaq Caro (Toledot Yitzhaq, 1458–1535, Spain) states that the fact that the people increased so greatly was the midwives’ reward. It was good for business! In other words, the more children being born, the busier the midwives would be. The implied theology of his comment may be that God will reward us with a decent livelihood if we are deserving (Jews have been praying for parnasah, a respectable livelihood, for centuries).

Zalman Sorotzkin (Oznayim LaTorah, 1881–1966, Lithuania, Jerusalem) like Caro, also suggests that the reward is to be found in verse 20: “the people increased and became very vast.” For him, the reward is absolutely not a material reward, but rather the intrinsic reward of the selfless act. He explicitly articulates the theology by quoting the rabbis who say sekhar mitzvah, mitzvah: the reward of performing God’s mitzvah or will is the mitzvah or the act itself. “What greater reward for the midwives who endangered their lives to save the children than to see the children flourishing—what more do they need?!”

Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508, Lisbon) also looks for the good in verse 20, but he suggests, along with his other interpretations, that the good that God did for the midwives is found in the statement itself; that “God did good to the midwives,” meaning God made the midwives good. According to Abarbanel, the midwives were Egyptian and not Hebrews (as Rashi interprets). The reason that Egyptian midwives disobeyed their own king and saved the Hebrew children was a result of God’s intervention, His causing the midwives to be “righteous in their hearts.” The implied theology of Abarbanel’s comment is, perhaps, that there is hope that God can influence our enemies to change their attitude—and that there is hope for all of us, both Gentile and Jew, that God can move our hearts to act righteously.

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