The darkness of Egyptian culture in the time of Moshe

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Shemot

In the yearly cycle, this week brings the commencement of the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus). Transitioning from Beresheet’s vivid tales of creation, the portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs and Yoseph’s triumph in a foreign land, we embark on a rough journey. The narrative shifts from a mood of fruitful accomplishments to scenes of cruelty, blood, sweat and tears.

The opening parashah, at first glance, appears heavy and dark, delving into the rise of an evil ruler who enslaved the Children of Israel, subjecting them to unimaginable suffering. Despite thirty years of harsh labor failing to break the Jewish spirit, Pharaoh intensified their workload. Yet, amidst this bitter exile, a beam of light emerges — the birth of Moshe, the redeemer of Israel. This pattern has repeated through generations. In times of terrible hardship, a special leader with qualities akin to Moshe descends to counteract the darkness and sustain the people of Israel during periods of suffering.

Let there be light!

There is a Torah principle that “G-d creates the cure before the illness.” In this story, Pharaoh’s astrologers foresaw a boy destined to save the Jewish people, prompting Pharaoh’s cruel decree to cast every son into the river. Yet, hidden in Moshe’s birth story is a unique goodness noticed by his mother, Yocheved. After the delivery, she looked at her newborn baby and “she saw that he was good.” (Exodus 2:1)

The commentaries wonder what this seemingly extraneous phrase 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 as she embraces her new creation — so, of course, he was good.

One interpretation, brought by the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan, is that Moshe was born in the seventh month of pregnancy, an early birth that could have resulted in death. Nevertheless, he appeared complete and strong.

Another explanation, cited by the most literal commentary of Rashi, connects the phrase “she saw that he was good” to the Torah’s first use of “G-d saw that it was good” during the creation of light, hinting at a connection between Moshe’s birth and the appearance of new light. The Talmud notes that when Moshe emerged from the womb, the entire room filled with light — a sign of a special soul entering the world.

The heroine

Moshe’s backstory involves an intense family discussion with his sister, Miriam. Tradition recounts that Amram, Moshe’s father, initially considered procreation futile due to Pharaoh’s decree. Miriam vehemently argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a divine precept, a permanent 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, creating the catalyst for the Exodus.

The Jewish sages declare: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” 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 hint at the light that entered the room, there 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 a textual 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 of two instructions within the same verse suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some harsh decree. Picking up this nuance, the commentaries 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. This idea is also reflected by the linguistic contrast with his directives to the Jewish midwives, who were simply told to (passively) leave the girls alone.

Thus, Pharaoh gave two messages, one related to killing the bodies and the other to the souls: Pharaoh ordered his people to drown the Jewish boys in the river 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 in modern times

Since the Egyptian exile is mentioned as the model and source for 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 culture, even if it runs contrary to essential Jewish values.

More specifically, children at school are often taught more about modern figures, famous politicians and champions of other movements (as teachers project their political biases into their history lessons) before these children can explore and appreciate their own roots and rich history. This is especially true in recent times where curriculums are being adjusted to demonize Israel. The results are a persisting estrangement from Judaism, which often feels unnatural or foreign.

In this week’s parashah, we have two genuine heroes to celebrate and educate about: Moshe and Miriam. Embracing their virtues and triumphs through the Torah readings is key to remembering our roots.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit darkness of Egyptian culture in the time of Moshe

Leave a Reply