“V’eileh shemos Bnei Yisrael ha’ba’im Mitrzayma – These are the names of the children of Israel who are coming to Egypt” (Shemos 1:1). But they had been in Egypt already for 80 years (Bereishis 46:8). So why use the expression “ha’ba’im” in the present tense instead of she’ba’uh, in the past tense? The truth is that Yaakov and his sons never considered themselves settled in Egypt. They always felt like temporary residents who had just disembarked and were still living out of their suitcases, hoping that the day would soon come when they could pack up again and return home to Canaan. When being introduced to Pharaoh, they were warned by Yosef to present themselves as simple herdsman who wanted nothing more than a strip of land for their flock to graze on. And they were content to confine themselves to the ghetto of Goshen.
But that inconspicuous, not-in-your-face existence died out with the death of the twelve brothers.
“U’vnei Yisrael paru v’yishretzu vayirbu va’ya’atzmu bim’od me’od, vatimalei ha’aretz osam” (1:7). The Israelites moved out of the ghetto and hung their doctor, lawyer and businessman shingles in the metropolises of Egypt and the land became full of them. Their power and influence far outstripped their numbers. They changed the rules of the game that Yosef had laid down. And so the same Pharaoh who had been unfazed by the presence of Israelites in his midst and had even appreciated their contributions to Egyptian society now became suspicious of them. The words “melech chadash” (a new king, 1:8) can also be read as “melech chashad” (a suspicious king). In response to the Israelites vaulting over the barriers of separation, the same king changed from being a welcoming host to being a suspicious host.
“Vayomer el amo: Hinei am Bnei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu.” He announced to his people: The Israelites are becoming too numerous and powerful for us (mimenu)” (1:9). Suddenly these simple shepherds were perceived as power brokers who could team up with Egypt’s enemies and take over the land. Surely, this was not the intention of the Israelites. All they wanted was to be prosperous and be considered good Egyptians. So who planted this antisemitic thought in Pharaoh’s head? Mimenu – this thought was planted by G-d. Whenever the Jews become too prosperous and powerful and feel too cozy in the Diaspora, it is time for them to be exiled. “Uvagoyim ha’heim lo sargia” (Devarim 28:65) – you should not become too comfortable in the Diaspora, and if you do you will be driven out of your comfort zone and you will live under harsher conditions.
So Pharaoh devises a plan. First he encourages the Jews to intermarry and become fully fledged Egyptians. But they resist and tenaciously hold on their Israelite names, their language and their distinctive clothes. Next, he encourages them to leave the country and return to Canaan. But like the Jews in the time of Ezra, they are too comfortable in the Diaspora and show little interest in leaving. So he imposes a punitive foreigner’s tax (1:11), but the Israelites are wealthy and they can afford to pay.
He becomes so obsessed with his hatred of the Jews that he now cuts off his nose to spite his face. Let’s take these wealthy professionals, whom we rely upon to heal us and who provide us with legal and financial advice, and turn them into construction workers (1:11). We will make them build arei miskenot, skyscrapers on swamps that will take years to build and when completed will sink into the mud. That will keep them eternally busy and turn them into miskeinim, wretched and demoralized. All of this will solve the problem of the Jews multiplying, because life will be so miserable that they will no longer want to bring children into the world. It will also solve the problem of Jews being too mighty because it will strip them of their power and influence. The fact that it would also be miskein l’Paroh, wretched for Pharaoh, because it would hurt the Egyptian economy was a price Pharaoh was happy to pay.
But this plan backfired too; the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied (1:12). And so there was only one solution left, to kill the males, from whose ranks, so Pharaoh’s soothsayers predicted, the leaders of the Jews would rise (Rashi 1:16). Let the Jews kill the Jews. He ordered the midwives, Shifra and Pu’a, whom Chazal tell us were none other than Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe, to kill the male babies. How does Pharaoh get Jewish mothers to kill Jewish children? He tries to entice them into having relations with him (Sotah 11b). He hopes this infidelity will dull their compassion and develop the cruelty needed for the job. “V’lo asu ka’asher diber aleihen Melech Mitzrayim”(1:17) – but they refused to be enticed by him, they remained compassionate and let the babies live.
In return for saving the Jewish babies, G-d made them “batim” (1:21), houses of kehunah and houses of royalty. Yocheved gave birth to Aharon and Moshe, who became the leaders of the kohanim and the levi’im. Miriam was given David as a descendant, as we are told, “V’Dovid ben ish Ephrasi” (Shmuel I 17:12.). David’s lineage traced back to Efras, a synonym for Miriam.
Wasn’t it enough for Yocheved and Miriam just to be rewarded with bearing children? Why did they deserve to be rewarded with children who would be kings and spiritual leaders? One who saves one Jew is considered to have saved all Jews (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:1). Accordingly, Yocheved and Miriam who saved all the Jews were rewarded with kings and spiritual leaders who were responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of all Jews.
We see the same with the daughter of Pharaoh who pulled Moshe out of the river. It was the name Moshe that she gave him that survived, not the name Tuvia that his birth mother gave him.
“Vayigdal Moshe va’yetzei el echav” (2:11) – Moshe became great because he went out of his palatial comfort zone and identified with his persecuted brothers. Like Esther after him, he realized that G-d had planted him in a position of power, in the palace of the king, in order to advocate for the Jews. “For if you remain silent at this time, then relief and help will come to the Jews from elsewhere, while you and your father’s house will perish and who knows perhaps it was for just such a time that you became queen” (Esther 4:14).
But to stay in the palace as an ambassador for the Jews was not the leadership role that G-d had in mind for Moshe. G-d was looking for a leader who would carry the nation in his bosom as a nurse carries an infant (Bamidbar 11:12). He was looking for a leader who, like David, was plucked from the sheep pens. “Vayivchar b’Dovid avdo, vayikacheihu mi’michl’os tzon: He chose Dovid, his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds” (Tehillim 78:70). And so Moshe was sent by Providence to Midyan to train as a shepherd.
When Moshe reaches Midyan, he chases away the shepherds who want to rob Yisro’s daughters of their pails of water. And they return to their father and tell him “Ish Mitzri hitzilanu miyad ha’ro’im” (2:19) – “an Egyptian man rescued us from the shepherds.” Often one does not know what events trigger fateful consequences in one’s life and what causes lead to what effects. The Ish Mitzri reference in this pasuk might be to the Ish Mitzri mentioned earlier (2:11-12) whom Moshe smote and who was the cause of him having to flee from Pharaoh and seek refuge with Yisro in Midyan.
“V’hinei ha’sneh bo’er ba’aish; v’ha’sneh einenu ukal – The bush burned with fire but was not destroyed.” Seeing this Moshe says to himself, “Asura na, v’ereh es ha’mareh hagadol hazeh: maduah lo yivar ha’sneh.” I must come closer and investigate this phenomenon why the bush is not destroyed. How is it that the Jewish nation who will be persecuted throughout history will survive? And G-d provides him with an answer wrapped up in a mission. The point of the fire of persecution is not to destroy the body of the nation. It is to purify them and eliminate the flaws in their character that hamper the blossoming of their souls. I guarantee the survival of the Jews, says G-d, “va’ered lehatzilo miyad Mitzrayim” (3:8), for I have a mission for you and for them: when you bring the people out of Egypt they will serve Me on Har Sinai, on this very spot where you see the bush burning (Rashi, 3:12). More than the Jews keep the Torah, the Torah will keep the Jews.
So Moshe is sent on his mission. “V’ata lecha v’eshlachacha el Paroh v’hotzei ami Bnei Yisrael miMitzrayim – Now go; I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” Why the double expression lecha v’eshlachacha – if you are already going, why do I have to send you?
No mission will be achieved by relying solely on G-d without investing one’s own effort. One must take the first step – lecha – and only then will G-d take over and help you achieve the impossible.