Transitioning into a harsh life in Egypt

This week, we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus). Moving on from Bereisheet — the rich and vibrant verses relating the mysteries of creation, the human portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs, through Joseph’s majestic triumph in a foreign land — is a rough transition. We shift from a mood of fruitful accomplishments into scenes of cruelty, blood, sweat and tears.
This opening parasha is heavy and dark, detailing the rise of an evil ruler who enslaved the Children of Israel and caused them unthinkable suffering. When 30 years of harsh labor could not break the Jewish spirit and they continued to grow, Pharaoh intensified their workload. But in the middle of this bitter exile comes a beam of light. Moses, the redeemer of Israel, is born.
This idea emerges as a pattern through the generations. Whenever a period of terrible hardship and persecution arises for the Jewish people, the soul of a special leader descends into this world to counteract the darkness. Furthermore, there is a principle in Judaism that “God creates the cure before the illness” — it’s already there but needs to be discovered.
In this story, Pharaoh’s astrologers discerned that the Jews’ future savior had arrived, and so to prevent this event, Pharaoh “charged his people, saying: Every son that is born shall be cast into the river…” Describing Moses’ birth, the Torah mentions that after the delivery, his mother Yocheved looked at her newborn baby and “she saw that he was good.” (Exodus 2:1) Then she hid him away for three months.
The commentaries wonder what this seemingly extraneous phrase — “she saw that he was good” — tells us. After all, it’s natural for any mother, upon seeing her newborn baby, to immediately be overcome with an intense feeling of love, joy and gratitude and to embrace the child — so, of course, he was good in her eyes. But because every word is precise and relevant (how much more so concerning the focal figure in the Torah), there must have been some unique goodness that she noticed.
One interpretation, brought by the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan, is that Moses was born in the seventh month of pregnancy, an early birth that could have resulted in death. Nevertheless, he was complete and strong. Another explanation, cited by the most literal commentary of Rashi, is that this additional comment of “she saw he was good” is reminiscent of (and linked to) the very first time the Hebrew word “good” is used in the Torah:
God’s first creation was light, whereupon the verse in Bereisheet (1:4) states: “God saw that the light was good.” Just as God created light, then saw that the light was good, so too Yocheved gave birth and saw that he was good. This remarkable similarity, therefore, hints at some connection between the birth of Moses and the appearance of newly created light.
The Talmud explains that the moment Moses emerged from the womb, the entire room was suddenly filled with light, a sign that a special soul had entered the world.
The heroine
The backstory of Moses’ birth involves a discussion with Moses’ sister, Miriam. Jewish tradition recounts that when Amram, Moses’ father, first learned of Pharaoh’s decree, he reasoned (and likewise persuaded others) that any procreation would be in vain — their children would be killed anyway. After hearing this, Miriam, his daughter, strongly opposed his reasoning. She argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a definite reality that must be heeded without any calculations of future outcomes, which are merely possibilities. As a result, Amram and other men reunited with their wives, providing the impetus for the Exodus.
The Jewish Sages declare: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” And a key characteristic is reflected in this story. Imagine the strength that it took for a mother to make such a dreadful decision, knowing that her newborn son would immediately be killed. Yet, the cosmic effect of such faith — inspired by Miriam — brought about the redeemer and most famous spiritual leader in history.
One simple message is clear: Each child is an entire universe, unlocking channels of blessing for its family and the world at large.
A double decree
Like the abovementioned hint at the light that entered the room, there is another revealing subtlety in a famous verse, quoted in the Passover Haggadah, regarding the attempt to prevent the Jewish redemption. “Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river; and every daughter techayun (you shall sustain, keep them alive).’” The precise wording sparks an inquiry: If Pharaoh’s sole concern was for all Jewish boys to be drowned in the river, why bother adding the obvious ending — “and every daughter you shall sustain”?
The superficial understanding of this phrase is that the fate of the girls did not interest Pharaoh; “just leave them alone.” Yet the juxtaposition — two instructions within the same verse — suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some harsh decree. Picking up this nuance, the commentaries point to the meaning of the word techayun — “you shall sustain them, keep them alive.” They explain that the additional wording — “to sustain” — connotes a more active expression, an instruction to raise every daughter in the ways and practices of Egyptian culture.
Thus, Pharaoh gave two messages, one related to killing the bodies and the other to the souls: Pharaoh ordered his people drown the Jewish boys in the river in order to bring about physical death. Those same Egyptians were commanded to actively “sustain” (i.e., raise) the girls as Egyptians, by immersing them in the prevalent culture, and thereby causing them to forget their roots.
Egyptian traps
Since Egyptian exile is mentioned as the root of all subsequent exiles, its harsh decrees — as well as its recipes for persevering — apply (in some form) to all periods in our history. In this regard, we may encounter a prevailing attitude and pressure to immerse children in the popular way of life, even if it runs contrary to essential Jewish values. More specifically, Jewish children are often taught more about the modern political figures and heroes, before they can explore their own roots. In this week’s parasha, we have two heroes to celebrate and educate about: Moses and Miriam.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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