Questions and Concepts for Parsha Shemot
(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

Although Exodus is the second book of the Torah, it can also be viewed as the "final" one. When Jewish children begin their formal study of Torah they don't start with Genesis, but rather Leviticus. The reason for this is that they already know God created the world and gave Israel to the Jewish people (as explained in Genesis and Exodus), so they go right to the study of the commandments, Temple, etc., as found in Leviticus. By starting there, the fifth and final book read becomes Exodus.

However, the book of Exodus can be read on more than one level. Though the historical narrative with its overt miracles is profitable reading, we can also seek to understand its teachings on a deeper level - one of spiritual development - at both a personal and communal level. This is the ultimate purpose of the Torah - to conform us to the image of God.

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, is similar to the situations faced by others including; Adam, Job and the Messiah. It is all part of God's "master plan" to "lower" something before bringing it to new heights.

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.

Exodus begins with the Children of Israel (i.e., Jacob) being in Egypt. Some questions to ask are;

  • Why were they still there? Initially they had come to escape the famine, but could they not have returned to their homeland? (They certainly did not "belong" in Egypt.)
  • Did the lure of their relatively comfortable life there blind them to their true destiny?
  • Did God "give them enough rope to hang themselves?" (i.e., Did He "send them strong delusion so they would believe a lie?")
  • Why didn't Joseph pack up the caravan and lead them all back to Israel the moment the famine ended?
  • Was a great tzaddik like Joseph guilty of an error in judgment?
  • Did he do this simply to "force" the prophecy given to Abraham to come true? (That his decendants would be enslaved.)
  • Or did Joseph understand God's "game plan" for His people and simply allow things to go as they were "supposed to?"

Israel in Egypt at this point can be viewed as us in our physical world/bodies. Within us remains a connection to our spiritual roots, but this becomes dim the more we become involved with the physical. In some cases an event may even cause us to lose "memory" of this completely. In Exodus, the death of Joseph plunges them into their downward spiral.

However, within the community of Israel are those who remain faithful. Especially significant in this portion of Exodus are three women - the midwives Shiphral and Puah, who risk their live in disobedience of Pharaoh's decree to kill the male children - and Miriam, the older sister of Moses, who chastised her parents who had foregone having any more children in light of their current conditions. On the "other side" we also have a good person - the daughter of Pharaoh, who went against her father's orders and saved Moses. (One teaching even says that she was so sickened by her father's decree to kill the Hebrew children that she went to the river to convert to Judaism (via a mikvah) and was rewarded by God with the appearance of Moses!)

It might be viewed that the purpose of Israel's enslavement was to set up the conditions for Moses to be born and raised as he was. Emerging from the world of enslavement within the physical (the lowest of the lowest) Moses first achieves success in the physical realm, becoming very learned in the process. Unlike many however, he begins to sense there is more to life (and himself) as seen in his reaction to the Egyptian beating a Hebrew (2:11) where Moses kills the former.

There comes a point where Moses departs from Egypt and goes into the wilderness - unsure, perhaps even uncaring, of what his future holds. Though he has "left Egypt" in the sense that he may realize there is more to life than just physical pleasure, there is much that has to be done (to him, by God) to prepare him for his task ahead. Although Moses is not "moving in the right direction" on his own, God does not force the issue, but rather steers the course of events in Moses life to eventually bring him where He wants him. As discussed in a previous parsha, when God selects you there is an inevitable choice, you can take the short route or the longer (more "painful") one.

While in Midian (with Jethro and Ziporrah) Moses begins the next stage of his spiritual development. Not coincidentally, this saga starts at the well where Moses helped Jethro's daughters -- a well being a symbol of truth and knowledge. Jethro was a righteous man and Moses' first spiritual teacher. After spending time learning from Jethro, Moses was ready for the next step.

God chooses to communicate with Moses through a burning bush - in a way representative of the lowest form of life in the physical realm. God "descended" to this mundane level for the purpose of showing that He exists everywhere. Here Moses is made aware of God's special plan for him -- and he struggles with the thought of accepting such a task. (The sages teach that Moses argued with God for seven entire days before agreeing to go.) It is interesting to compare this disagreement (where Moses does not yet understand the will of God) to a later discussion where God says he intends to wipe out all of Israel and Moses "argues" God out of His position - thus showing the major strides Moses made in his spiritual development.

Another key lesson is found in 4:24 where God seeks to kill Moses for not circumcizing his son in a timely manner. (Zipporah steps in to do the job and save Moses' life - yet another righeous woman saves the day!) Although his oversight was not an offense punishable by death according to Torah, it shows that Moses was now being held to a higher level of Torah accountability. Later in the Torah we see Moses losing the right to enter the land for what some would argue is a relatively "minor" infraction. This is an important lesson for anyone embarking on the path of Torah student/teacher.

When Moses did approach Pharaoh he was prepared, having a higher level of understanding and power than the Egyptian leader and his magicians. (More on this in a later parsha study!) In chapter 5, Moses brings this higher realm into the life of Pharaoh, revealing to him that the Almighty God existed and wanted His people out of Egypt. Pharaoh, operating below the upper spiritual world (at a "lower psychological" level), could only respond in like terms, asking mudane questions like, "Just who is this God?" and lashing out by making things harder for the Hebrews.

Finally, we should note the fact that Moses' mission initially met with failure -- not only did Pharaoh not release the people, he increased their work load. This is another important lesson for us all - our sincerity will be tested. God allows the adversary to make things difficult in order to attempt to convince us that God's Word is not true. If we are faithful with what has been given us - more will be given.