Shabbat: Parsha Shemot

The Torah portion for this week is Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1. There are many very well-known stories in this parsha. It is the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story of how the Hebrew people left Egypt and received the Ten Mitzvot and the Torah. It is essentially the story of how a people not unlike most other peoples at the time came to be the first Jews. But before that happens, they have to endure a lot of hardship. Just like Joseph, the Israelites first go through a period of slavery and pain, then through great and difficult acts they become the people they were meant to be. In Shemot, we learn how the Israelites came to be slaves in Egypt in the first place. If you recall from last week's parsha, Joseph called his entire clan to come live in Goshen, a territory of Egypt. Because of Joseph's service, his people were welcome. Unfortunately, the king of Egypt from Joseph's time dies and the next king is far less kind. Because the Israelites become a numerous and prosperous people, the pharaoh worries that they would be a liability in times of war. In fact, there are so many Hebrews that the pharaoh believes they would overtake Egypt should they side with Egypt's enemies. The pharaoh's solution to this problem is to enslave the Israelites in order to weaken them. When that doesn't work, he orders the nurses of Goshen to kill every newborn Israelite male. This is the parsha's first instance of women playing an integral role in the survival of the Hebrew people. Against the pharaoh's wishes, the nurses secretly save the boys of Goshen and lie to cover up the rescue effort. For this, God protects them. It's an all-too-frequent exercise to point out the misogyny of the bible. Certainly, there are many instances of females being treated worse than males simply for being female. However obvious these moments are, for its time the Torah is actually startling in its progressive outlook on gender. In fact, Exodus is a book that is particularly focused on the raising up of women. The nurses not only defy a man, they defy the most powerful man in Egypt, all because they have their own notions of what is right. That God protects them is a sign that free-thinking women are exalted in the Torah. The story could just as easily feature men saving the Israelite boys. The fact that women are the saviors is deliberate. There is another, very similar episode later in the parsha. After God charges Moses with the task of going to the pharaoh and demanding the release of the Israelites, Moses is in something of a hurry. He packs up his family and starts on the road to central Egypt. His pursuit is so single-minded that he neglects to circumcise his newborn son. Just because Moses is God's emissary to the pharaoh doesn't mean he gets special privileges. God begins to kill Moses for his transgression. The only reason he survives is because his wife, Zapporah, realizes what's happening and quickly performs the circumcision. In a particularly dramatic moment, Zapporah casts the recently amputated foreskin at Moses's feet. Repetition, as I've previously mentioned (no pun intended), is a common Toritic method of creating emphasis. That we get two separate episodes of women saving the children of Israel despite the men around them is important. We are meant to see these women as strong, active and mindful individuals. It's rather plain that, at least in this parsha, the women have a much more solid moral core than the men. They are not passive nurturers, but people willing to fight for what they believe is right and true. This not only lifts them up, it plants a responsibility in them that will follow for the rest of Jewish history.
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