Parshat Shemot

Shemot brings us to the birth of our nation, and as before our story is intertwined with a view of the personality and dilemmas faced by the founders of our nation, and now it is the turn of Moshe. The young Moshe was forced to flee and we know little about his whereabouts until he is taken in by Jethro and weds his daughter Zipora.  Here, as a shepherd, Hashem calls to him at the burning bush, and tells him the time has come to deliver Israel from slavery. Moshe responds that he is not the man for the job, and he lacks the power of speech, and it takes a fair amount of persuasion, to get him reluctantly to take on the challenge.

First things first, Moshe asks permission to leave from his father-in-law Jethro who gives his blessing. Then Hashem adds, almost by the way, that he should not fear to return to Egypt as all those who wish to kill him are dead. So, Moshe promptly puts his wife and sons on an ass and sets off for Egypt. This raises two interesting questions, firstly who is Hashem referring to that are dead, and therefore presumably this lessens the danger to him, and secondly, this still seems a dangerous mission, why bring your wife and two young children along.

The Ramban suggests that once Hashem had told that those who wished to kill him were dead, he was relieved and felt safer. Moshe then decided that bringing his family will show his trust in Hashem’s ability to protect them, and that redemption is just around the corner.

Ibn Ezra notes that often there is no order of time in the Torah, and that firstly Hashem had told him that all those wishing to kill him were dead and then he went to ask permission from Jethro. Ibn Ezra then suggests that Moshe’s decision to bring his wife and young family was a bad one and even our greats are not free from error. Bringing his family to Egypt would look as a sign that he meant to settle there. The Torah changed the order to emphasize that Jethro possibly told him to take his family along, and this angered Hashem who almost killed Moshe at the inn on the way. Fortunately, Zipora saves the day by daringly circumcising their son.

Whichever way we look at it, it would appear that Moshe is beginning to understand the challenges that lie ahead and realises that he is putting his family at risk. He promptly sends them back to Midian and they are only reunited after the Exodus, at Mount Sinai.

Our sages also differ on who were those who wished to kill him, who were now dead. Rashi suggests that this was Datan and Aviram who had reported back to Pharaoh that Moshe had killed the Egyptian, but that is odd as they were very much around later in Korach’s gang. Rashi explains that at this time they had lost all their wealth and a poor person is considered dead. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson prefers the plain text and suggests this refers to the death of the previous Pharaoh and the Egyptian court who had sentenced Moshe to death.

Rashi’s view is interesting in the sense that what Hashem actually said to Moshe was “all those are dead who wished your soul,” using the word “nefesh.” All the way through Bereshit and particularly with Joseph and his brothers, the battle had been internal. If Datan and Aviram were poor they would not have the time or the energy to pressure him from within and he could concentrate on the bigger picture getting Israel out of Egypt. That is what Hashem wanted, the battle with the Egyptian enemy Moshe should fight on his own. Later on, in the wilderness, we see the bigger battles that Moshe constantly faced, of creating a nation.

Watching the unreal attack on democracy in the USA, is perhaps poignantly pointing out to us that the dangers are often from within. Even with our current big battle against the pandemic many of our battles are from within. Moshe was probably physically strong and we see him here helping out Zipora and her sisters at the well. But Hashem taught him to use his staff for the physical battles and he had to learn that the real power is in the word and not in the sword.


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