Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz
  • What incident made the Egyptians so fearful of the children of Israel?
  • Why was it so important to Moshe that he kill the Egyptian overseer when he could have simply ordered him to stop beating the Hebrew slave?
  • What was the incident with Moshe nearly being killed at the inn for not circumcising his son really about?

Parshat Sh’mot begins by presenting Israel’s transition from a clan to a people. The first verses of the parsha offer us an overview of Israel’s roots, of which there are two complementary aspects – the twelve tribes, represented by Yaakov’s sons, and the seventy souls, who are all Yaakov’s direct biological descendants.


As we explored in our last episode, each Hebrew tribe constituted a unique entity with its own tribal personality and special contribution to the future life of the nation. According to the Midrash, the Israelis in Egypt had a number of special merits that made them worthy of ultimate liberation from slavery. One of those was that they did not change their names. From a Hebrew perspective, a name is a carrier of a person’s purpose and the meaning and essence of their life.

People who are mindful of where they come from, where they are going and why they are here, generally tend to have an easier time realizing their purpose in life. Despite all the burdens of slavery, the Hebrews remembered that they were descendants of Avraham, Yitzḥak and Yaakov, and they remembered the land to which they were destined to return.

The Torah tells us in Sh’mot 1, verse 6, that Yosef and his brothers and their entire generation had died. And the next verse tells us that Israel had greatly increased in number and even spread out beyond Goshen to the entire country.

But verse 8 shows us that a new king arose who hadn’t known Yosef and that this Pharaoh began to plot against the Hebrews, who he and apparently much of Egyptian society had found threatening. Not knowing Yosef shouldn’t necessarily be taken here to mean that the new king literally wasn’t aware of Yosef or his contributions to Egypt but rather that he didn’t want to know Yosef and had no interest in recognizing the Hebrew community as playing a positive role in Egyptian society.

Sefer HaYashar elaborates on why this new Pharaoh and his court felt so threatened by Israel. Tzefo ben Eliphaz – a grandson of Esav – had led a great army against Egypt. And 150 Hebrew fighters were enlisted to defend the country from the attack. During the battle, the Egyptians were overwhelmed and retreated in such a way that left the children of Israel alone and exposed on the battlefield. The 150 Hebrew fighters called out for HaShem’s help and were given victory over their enemies, killing roughly 4,000 of Tzefo’s soldiers. Once triumphant, the Hebrews confronted the Egyptian soldiers who had betrayed them and left them to be attacked by Tzefo’s army. And in the course of the altercation, Israel killed 200 Egyptians. The children of Israel constituted a strong population that was constantly growing more numerous.

This initially led to Pharaoh enslaving the children of Israel. And because a policy of forced labor didn’t succeed in weakening the Hebrew population or containing its growth, Pharaoh ultimately opted for a policy of murdering all newborn Hebrew males.

This sets the scene for the birth of Moshe, who will ultimately become not only Israel’s teacher and leader but also something even greater than a prophet that we don’t even have a word for because in all of human history, Moshe has been the only one.

In Sh’mot chapter 2, verse 1, we see that a man from the house of Levi took a daughter of Levi. This Levi was Amram ben K’hat. We don’t learn his name until the next parsha because at this point the Hebrews were so suppressed by the oppression we suffered under Egypt that it was as if our personal names had been erased. This might actually be one of the reasons this parsha is called Sh’mot, because names and even a lack of names, play a central role in what’s being conveyed to us.

Although we aren’t told Amram’s name at this point, we are told his tribe. The oppression had nullified our personal identities but not our tribal identities and we were still very much aware of ourselves as children of Israel.

Our Sages teach in Midrash Tanḥuma that the tribe of Levi was never enslaved with the rest of Israel. Levi served as Israel’s spiritual leadership and had been exempt from manual labor. But due to a deep identification with the Hebrew collective, the priestly tribe still suffered as a result of Israel’s overall subjugation. And Pharaoh’s decree of infanticide against male Hebrew babies applied to the tribe of Levi no less than to the other tribes.

Amram – a respected leader of the Levi tribe – was not taking his wife Yoḥeved for the first time in this verse. They already had two children. We learn in the Talmud, in Sotah 12a, that Amram had divorced his wife as a means of avoiding Pharaoh’s decree, and that many Hebrews had followed his example. But then Amram’s daughter Miriam convinced him to reconsider, arguing that Pharaoh’s edict condemned male babies to death while Amram’s response condemned also the females.

Amram saw the wisdom in his daughter’s argument and remarried Yoḥeved, setting an example for the rest of Israel, who also then remarried their wives. This entire episode shows the extent to which Amram had been a recognized leader among Egypt’s Hebrew population.

Verse 2 states that “The woman conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good and she hid him for three months.”

Regarding the Torah’s statement that she saw that he was good, Sotah 12a offers different explanations – one that the son was born already circumcised and another that upon his birth the entire house was filled with light. One of Moshe’s most important qualities will be that he will strive to spread light and to personify an intolerance towards evil and injustice. Whenever Moshe will encounter evil during his life, he will feel an immediate drive to challenge and defeat it.

After hiding Moshe for three months, the next verses tell us that his mother put him into a wicker basket smeared with tar and clay and placed him among the reeds at the river bank where Pharaoh’s daughter was known to bathe. Miriam was meanwhile stationed nearby to keep watch. Once Pharaoh’s daughter took the basket and identified the baby as Hebrew, Miriam offered to arrange for a Hebrew woman to nurse the child.

What’s clear from these verses is that this area of the riverbank was reserved for royalty yet no one seemed to object to Miriam’s presence there. This, combined with the fact that Miriam addressed Pharaoh’s daughter directly in verse 7, indicates that the entire episode might have been orchestrated in advance. It’s possible that the princess was part of a group within Egypt that disapproved of Pharaoh’s treatment of Israel and that this group had contact with certain Hebrew leaders. If the tribe of Levi had been exempt from forced labor and Amram was a recognized leader among the Hebrews, it would make sense that his family would have had contact with Egyptian allies.

The fact that Pharaoh’s daughter responded so positively to Miriam’s offer also strengthens the theory that there existed a contingent within Egypt’s ruling class that was sympathetic to the Hebrews.

Moshe was thus nursed by his biological mother and raised in his early years by both the families of Amram and Pharaoh. For Moshe to become the type of leader he would become, it was important that he be raised by the Egyptian royal family. Within the palace, he would receive a proper education and gain essential experience from the kingdom’s governmental structure.

But this also led to something of a duel identity within Moshe, which may have caused him to experience an internal conflict as he matured. Sh’mot 2, verse 11 tells us that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers. Nursed by his biological Hebrew mother but raised and educated in Pharaoh’s home as a prince of Egypt, Moshe eventually had to decide who his brothers were – which people he identified with more strongly. His leaving the comforts of the palace to discover what was taking place outside his privileged existence was a major part of Moshe’s psychological growth.

Despite being nursed by his birth mother and spending time as a child with his biological family, it’s unlikely that Moshe had given much thought to the Hebrew question until this point. His psychological disengagement from Israel’s situation was actually necessary for his personal development as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, where he received an education in managing a nation. But now, having grown up, he was interested in understanding the plight of the Hebrews and perhaps confronting an internal struggle he had until this point avoided.

Verse 11 also tells us that Moshe witnessed his people’s burdens. His awareness of the injustices taking place in society led him to strongly identify with the Hebrews. And then he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Not only had Moshe been confronted with the truth of how unjust a society Egypt was. Not only did he see one population benefitting from the slave labor of another. But now he even saw those unjust power dynamics being violently enforced. And this led Moshe to fully identify with Israel.

As a prince of the kingdom, Moshe could have very easily ordered the Egyptian to stop beating the slave. But verse 12 tells us that he decided instead to kill the Egyptian. The verse also tells us that Moshe turned this way and that and saw that there was no man before acting. When the Torah uses the term “ein ish” – “there was no man” – it might actually be telling us that there was no worthy person to be found. Moshe scanned the entire governmental system of the kingdom and saw that there was no one to come to the defense of the oppressed. From this perspective, Moshe wasn’t merely intervening in a specific incident but actually revolting against the entire Egyptian system.

We should understand Moshe’s identity as containing two complementary tendencies. On the one hand, he had been raised in the royal Egyptian palace. But on the other hand, his roots were entirely Hebrew from the tribe of Levi. The typical Hebrew desire to challenging injustice, coupled with the Egyptian self-image of a ruling dynasty wielding world power, created in Moshe an explosive personality capable of shaking human civilization to its core.

According to Manitou, Moshe chose to kill the Egyptian in order to set an example and encourage the Hebrew slaves to find their self-respect and fight back. He was hoping to spark a revolution and tear down the entire system. But unlike Moshe, who had been raised as royalty, the Hebrew slaves had been oppressed so harshly for so long that they began to develop what the Ibn Ezra will call a “low soul.”

Verse 13 tells us that on the next day, Moshe saw two Hebrews fighting and attempted to intervene, asking the aggressor why he was hitting his fellow Hebrew. And the slave responded contemptuously to Moshe, challenging his authority and disclosing that he knew what Moshe had done the day before. Not only did this Hebrew slave disobey Moshe but he also rejected the very notion of justice as relevant to the lives and conditions of his people.

When Moshe had killed the Egyptian the day before, he hadn’t done so merely to save one particular victim of abuse. If that was all Moshe had wanted to do, he could have simply used his royal authority to command the Egyptian to stop harming the slave. But we should understand Moshe as wanting to arouse a sense of dignity in the Hebrews so that they would no longer tolerate Egyptian violence against them.

Moshe had already resolved his own identity crisis by fully identifying as a Hebrew. This didn’t only mean siding with the slaves and seeking to end their oppression but also identifying with the ideology and mission of Israel’s patriarchs. Moshe became committed to establishing a just world built on a universal awareness of HaShem’s Divine Oneness.

Moshe had hoped to free the Hebrew slaves and enlist them in advancing the vision of their ancestors. By killing the Egyptian taskmaster, Moshe was both revolting against the unjust Egyptian system and killing the “Egyptian” within himself so that he had now totally rejected the kingdom’s ideology and value system.

But when he tried to stop two Hebrews from fighting the next day, he discovered that his action hadn’t had the educational impact he had hoped for. After one of the slaves derisively asked Moshe if he planed to murder him as he had murdered the Egyptian, Sh’mot 2, verse 14 tells us that Moshe was frightened and thought “the matter is known.”

Our Sages understand Moshe’s statement “the matter is known” to not only refer to his killing of the Egyptian but also that he now knew why Israel were enslaved. Before this, he saw the Hebrews as physically oppressed and in need of someone to inspire them to find their courage so they could fight. But instead of feeling empowered by Moshe’s deed, a slave lashed out at him for it. If the Hebrews had fallen so low, perhaps they were already beyond saving.

It now made sense to Moshe why Israel was enslaved. The Hebrews seemed completely incapable of appreciating that someone had come to empower them to rise up and win their freedom. When the verse tells us that Moshe was frightened, we should understand this to mean a crisis in his world view. He had previously seen the Hebrews as oppressed and in need of a leader.

But now he saw them as slaves on a deeper level and concluded that they were incapable of participating in the revolution he sought. Disappointed by the very people he had identified with and sought to liberate, Moshe fled the country. Not only because Pharaoh had discovered what he had done and sentenced him to death but also because Moshe concluded that the Hebrew slaves had lost the potential to accomplish the mission entrusted to their ancestors.

According to Sefer HaYashar, Moshe had many adventures after fleeing Egypt and even spent many years as king of Ethiopia. But following this, he found his way to Midian with the possible intention of creating a new nation to accomplish the Hebrew mission. Midian was one of the sons Avraham had fathered in later life and perhaps Moshe hoped to find a revolutionary spark of Avraham’s legacy among his descendants.

Moshe arrived in Midian and rested near a well. As we’ve already seen with Eliezer and Yaakov, the well was a traditional place for finding a wife. It appears that Moshe desired to find a wife in Midian with whom he could create a new Hebrew nation that would be free from the psychological degradation of slavery.

Upon witnessing the daughters of Yitro being harassed by a group of shepherds while trying to water their father’s flock, Moshe intervened on behalf of the women. The fact that he took action despite being a defenseless stranger in Midian shows the extent to which Moshe’s predisposition to defending the oppressed was one of his most central qualities. In fact, this is already the third time we see Moshe intervening in the conflicts of others.

Moshe was a man of impressive strength who – even as a stranger in a new country – appears to have been unafraid of confrontation. He had a great thirst for justice and the self-awareness of a king who felt responsible for maintaining a proper order in the world around him.

We see a discrepancy between Sh’mot 2, verse 16’s description of Yitro as a priest of Midian and the fact that his daughters were unmarried and harassed at the well. Our Sages teach that Yitro had come into conflict with the people of Midian for refusing to participate in idolatrous practices. Verse 20 focuses on Yitro’s hospitality to Moshe, clearly showing us that in addition to being a biological descendent of Avraham, the priest of Midian had also maintained Avraham’s values.

The Midrash teaches that Yitro had a staff made of sapphire stone fixed in the ground of his garden. According to legend, this staff had been forged in the twilight between the sixth day of Creation and the first Shabbat. It had been given to Adam in the Garden of Eden and eventually given by Adam to Shem ben Noaḥ, who kept it with him in his father’s ark during the flood. Shem eventually gave the staff to Avraham who passed it on to Yitzḥak and then Yaakov, who eventually gave it to Yosef in Egypt.

Following Yosef’s death, Pharaoh had taken the sapphire staff for himself. But Yitro, who had at one time been an advisor to Pharaoh, managed to obtain the staff and bring it to Midian, where he stuck it into the ground among the trees of his garden.

When it was subsequently discovered that no one could remove the staff from the ground, Yitro decided that he would allow the first man who could extricate it to marry his daughter. When Moshe took up the challenge and pulled the staff from the earth, Yitro gave him Tzipora as a wife and became a mentor to his new son-in-law. Moshe, in turn, became a shepherd of Yitro’s flocks. This should be understood both in the literal sense in regards to actual livestock but also in the figurative sense that Moshe became a teacher of Yitro’s followers.

As a disciple of Yitro, Moshe must have gained an understanding of the different peoples and cultures of the world, as well as their histories and interactions. Combined with his Hebrew soul and royal Egyptian upbringing, this time in Midian helped develop Moshe into the leader he would need to become. One of the fundamental features of Manitou’s teachings, which we’ve already discussed in many previous episodes, is the fact that our ancestors and ancient heroes weren’t static personalities.

Despite ultimately attaining a connection with HaShem even greater than that of a prophet, Moshe was still a human being who had to make mistakes in the course of his development. Only by understanding the giants of our past within the context of the growth they experienced through the personal challenges they had to overcome can we fully benefit from their examples and legacies in our own lives. This doesn’t mean lowering our ancestors to the level of our own weaknesses, ḥas v’shalom, but rather elevating and strengthening ourselves through learning how they struggled and ultimately tread new pathways in order to build the nation of Israel and advance its mission.

Once Moshe had learned all there was for him to learn from Yitro, he took his father-in-law’s flock of sheep deep into the wilderness. When he reached Mount Ḥorev, also known as Sinai, a malakh – an angel – appeared to Moshe in the form of a bush that was burning but wasn’t consumed. This burning bush symbolized the children of Israel. Moshe had believed until this point that the hardships of Egyptian slavery had snuffed out Israel’s flame but the fact that the bush burned but wasn’t consumed was expressive of Israel’s true indestructibility.

In Sh’mot 3, verse 3, Moshe expressed a desire to see the burning bush, which we should understand as an interest in better understanding the meaning of Israel’s history. This desire elevated Moshe to the point of being able to receive a higher level of Divine revelation. Until this point, Moshe had only seen the malakh. But once he took the initiative to understand Israel’s story better, verse 4 shows us that the Creator called out to Moshe directly, calling him “Moshe Moshe.” As we’ve seen in previous episodes, the double name indicates the unification of a person’s nefesh and neshama. Moshe answered hineini, indicating a readiness to accept the mission he would be given.

But we see that throughout the course of the dialogue that follows, Moshe made several attempts to avoid the mission of freeing Israel. We’re often taught to understand Moshe’s hesitancy as stemming from his humility. But in addition to the fact that true humility isn’t so much expressed as “who am I to do this?” but rather by the question “who am I not to do this?” it’s hard to accept such an explanation after seeing how assertively Moshe intervened in so many conflicts. It might make more sense to understand Moshe’s attempts to avoid becoming Israel’s savior as simply being a result of his earlier disappointment with Israel and his subsequent efforts to create a new nation in Midian.

The Creator began to correct Moshe’s orientation at the very beginning of their encounter. In verse 6, He identified Himself with the patriarchs of Israel and then Moshe hid his face. He had already answered hineini when first addressed so it’s likely that hearing the association of the Creator with Israel was difficult for Moshe because it challenged his plan.

Moshe likely thought that he had long ago severed ties with the Hebrew slaves of Egypt and had already begun to implement his new program. But now he was being told that discarding the children of Israel and starting over with a new nation won’t work.

In verse 7, we see HaShem emphasize to Moshe Israel’s great suffering in Egypt, essentially telling him not to be so judgmental. Being raised a prince of a mighty kingdom, Moshe clearly had high standards that the Hebrews hadn’t lived up to. Moshe needed to become more understanding of the conditions that led to Israel behaving as we did. And then in verse 8, we see HaShem continue by stating that He will not only rescue Israel from Egypt but also return us to our land. It wouldn’t be enough to break Israel’s material chains. For the Hebrews to realize our mission, we would have to return to the unique land that the Creator designated for us.

But Moshe wasn’t interested in this mission, asking in verse 11 “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moshe had long ago severed his ties with both Egypt and Israel so being tasked with this mission was very difficult to accept.

Then in verse 12, we see HaShem add something to His instructions – that Israel shall serve the Creator on this mountain. This is actually the first mention in the Torah of the Sinai revelation, where Israel will receive an expanded system of commandments. This likely appealed to Moshe because, given his upbringing, he probably saw law as central for managing a nation.

Israel received two separate but connected covenants. The Brit Avot – the covenant of the fathers – and the Brit Sinai – the covenant of Sinai. The first defines Israel’s identity. It’s a national culture and a value system and a world view and a land-based civilization and a goal for the world. And it’s also a special relationship with the Creator. The sign of the Brit Avot is of course circumcision, which makes sense given the fact that the organ on which this sign is made is the part of the male body that enables us to emulate the Creator and actually make new human beings. But other than this sign, the Brit Avot doesn’t really posses any detailed legislation or system of commandments.

We do know that our ancestors for the most part lived according to halakha before the Written Torah was officially given to us at the Brit Sinai. The Torah had been an integral part of Israel’s internal identity but it was experienced more as a family culture. The legal component of our civilization was still at the periphery of our identity and relationship with HaShem. But as Israel developed from a family to a nation, our legal system had to begin taking a more central role because social relationships are constructed differently at the national level than they are in a family.

Unlike a family, where mutual love should primarily govern our social relations, nations tend to operate best when there’s a set of rules everyone agrees to adhere to. So life at the national level requires a legislative system.

Another major difference between the Brit Avot – relationship of the patriarchs to the Torah – verses the Brit Sinai – the relationship of the nation to the Torah – is that the former is experienced as coming from within us while the latter is experienced as coming from outside ourselves.

Because Israel’s mission required us to become a nation, it was important for us to receive the Brit Sinai as a supplement to the Brit Avot. And being raised in the house of Pharaoh, the head of a powerful and efficient kingdom, made Moshe uniquely qualified to induct us into the Brit Sinai.

But it’s important that this legal system not be detached from Israel’s actual mission and ideals. The mitzvot are ultimately the tools through which we express our ideals and accomplish our mission. So the central foundations of our identity should always remain the Brit Avot.

The duality of Israel’s two covenants with the Creator can be seen in the double meaning of the commandment of circumcision. Circumcision is an important element of both the Brit Avot and the Brit Sinai, but its meaning in these two covenants is different. In the Brit Sinai, it’s one of the 613 commandments, but in the Brit Avot, it’s symbolic of the entire covenant.

Once Moses finally accepted his mission and embarked on his journey to lead Israel out of Egypt, he did so with the understanding that there would be a national legal system, meaning that Moshe was already working within the framework of that future Brit Sinai. And it would make sense that he might’ve assumed that just like the Hebrews in Egypt who hadn’t been circumcised as babies and would have to be circumcised before the Exodus, so could Moshe’s own sons be circumcised at that same time, along with the rest of the nation.

Because Moshe might have related to the Brit Avot as having lost its relevance, he likely related to circumcision as just one of 613 mitzvot and not as a symbol of our entire relationship with HaShem. But Moshe was taught otherwise when he stopped with his family at an inn on their way to Egypt. In Sh’mot 4, verses 24-26, we see that Moshe was nearly killed until his wife took a flint and circumcised their son.

Tzipora’s act, which saved Moshe’s life, demonstrated that the Brit Avot was still central to Israel’s identity. It also taught Moshe that our legal structure must be based on our identity and can’t bypass our national values or ideals.

HaShem had convinced Moshe at the burning bush to abandon his plan to create a new people and instead take Israel out of Egypt and assume leadership of the patriarch’s physical heritage. But Moshe had not yet fully accepted the patriarchs’ spiritual heritage, the Brit Avot, which he might have seen as weak and ineffective. The incident at the inn taught him that the covenant of the Patriarchs still retained its relevancy and would actually provide the inner meaning for the Brit Sinai.

These were both important milestones in Moshe’s personal growth but they were also both coercively forced on him from without. The extent of his true development and internalization of these lessons will only be revealed later on, after the episode of the Golden Calf, when Moshe will suddenly be offered the option of creating a new nation to replace Israel.

HaShem sent Moshe’s brother Aharon, who had become Israel’s spiritual leader, to meet Moshe at Sinai and travel with him back to Egypt. The two met with the Hebrew elders and representatives of the nation, informing them that redemption was at hand. The brothers then presented themselves before Pharaoh in Sh’mot 5, verse 1, and demanded in the name of “HaShem God of Israel” that the Hebrews be permitted to celebrate a festival in the desert.

Moshe and Aharon had couched their demand in terms of a ritual that would fulfill a religious obligation. It appears they were careful not to present their agenda as having national ramifications. But the fact that they mentioned that the festival would be on behalf of the “God of Israel” did allude to a nationalist sentiment.

Verse 2 seems to show us that Pharaoh genuinely didn’t know of HaShem and therefore refused their demand. So in verse 3 the brothers responded by referring to HaShem as the God of the Hebrews, which Pharaoh could better understand. The Hebrews, well-known descendants of Ever, had been a recognized ethnic group with a recognized set of beliefs. But according to what Pharaoh understood about the Hebrews, the slaves could fulfill their obligations from Egypt and not have to travel into the desert.

There have been two distinct versions of the Hebrew mission. The one that’s relevant to us is the national mission, as formulated by the Israeli family established by Avraham, Yitzḥak and Yaakov.

But there was also a previous mission formulated by the “original patriarchs” Noaḥ, Shem and Ever. These two missions, that of the children of Israel and that of the descendants of Ever, are significantly different.

The pre-Israel Hebrews sought to spread ethical panentheism all over the world. But the Creator instructed Avraham to establish a separate nation in a specific country that would spread the Hebrew message through the unique civilization it would create.

In any case, Pharaoh was not convinced by the brothers and actually punished Israel by forcing them to work even harder. In Sh’mot 5, verses 6-9, Pharaoh ordered the taskmasters and foremen to make the slaves produce the same amount of bricks as always but without being provided with straw.

The taskmasters were the Egyptian overseers and the foremen were the Hebrew supervisors. In verse 14, we see that these Hebrew supervisors were beaten for the failure of their people to produce their quota of bricks. A conflict now arose between the Egyptian taskmasters and the Hebrew foremen. Verse 10 shows these two groups working together to manage Israel’s labor, implying that the foremen had been loyal to Egypt.

But now that these more privileged Hebrews were feeling the oppression themselves, their national consciousness and ties to their people were becoming stronger. And this will also be a necessary component of our redemption.

The Hebrew foremen lashed out at Moshe and Aharon, blaming them for the persecution that they were now suddenly getting a taste of. But Moshe didn’t react as he once did by blaming the slaves. He instead turned to HaShem and expressed genuine concern that he had made life more difficult for his people. HaShem then responded by assuring Moshe that he would now see how Israel will be taken out of Egypt with a strong hand.

[Published in Vision Magazine]

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Rav Yehuda HaKohen is an organizer and educator living in northern Judea. As a leader in the Vision movement, he works to empower students and young professionals to become active participants in the current chapter of Jewish history.