In a flash, we’ve concluded the first of the five books of the Torah. It’s always hard each year to say goodbye to Sefer Bereisheet (the Book of Genesis), whose passages are so rich and vibrant. It’s been a journey from the mystery and beauty of creation, into human portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs, discovering their brave and lonely journeys, loyal sacrifices to stay the course toward fulfilling their mission, emerging as moral leaders and spiritual lamplighters — and imparting their virtues to the souls of their descendants.
As we conclude the story of Joseph’s majestic triumph and a torn family reunited — it all seems to end well. But the transition into the next book of Shemot, commonly referred to as Exodus, is harsh and abrupt. We quickly shift from a mood of fruitful accomplishments into scary scenes of suffering, cruel slavery and all the sweat, blood and tears along the way — as the children of Israel yearn for redemption.
But the Book of Shemot, as does every piece of Torah, has its unique significance. Shemot captures crucial events (and themes) in Jewish history: the bitter galut (exile) of Egypt which served as a crucible, the spectacular departure marking the birth of the Jewish nation, receiving the Torah, lending purpose to the Jewish people’s existence, and finally the construction of the sanctuary which caused the hashra’at haShechinah (indwelling of holiness), fulfilling the original intention for the most potent divine presence to reside within the nethermost realm.
The focal figure in all these events is Moses — the greatest of all prophets, the “faithful shepherd,” chosen to be the first redeemer of Israel and guide God’s select people.
One verse, two decrees
The backdrop of Moses’ birth involves a dreadful declaration (Exodus 1:22): “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 well-known edict, also quoted in the Passover Haggadah, appears to be straightforward. The precise wording, however, offers an interesting inquiry: If Pharaoh’s sole concern was for all Jewish boys to be drowned in the river, why bother adding the obvious and seemingly extraneous ending — “and every daughter you shall sustain”?
The superficial understanding of this phrase is that the fate of the girls did not interest him — “just leave them alone.” Yet the juxtaposition — two instructions within the same verse — suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some kind of decree. Picking up this subtlety, 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.
This idea is also reflected by the linguistic difference in the instructions to the Jewish midwives and the directive to the Egyptians. The Jewish midwives were simply told to (passively) leave the girls alone: “If it be a girl, vechyah (let her live)” — as opposed to “techayun” (actively sustain). Thus, Pharaoh ordered his people to throw the Jewish children into the river in order to bring about physical death. Those same Egyptians were also commanded to “sustain” those remaining children, i.e., the girls, by immersing them in the Egyptian ways.
The decree relating to every daughter is also alluded to in the original instruction to “cast children into the river.” The Nile was the nature-idol of the land. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the Nile because, with little rainfall in Egypt, the Nile provided central irrigation for their fields; it was the source for their livelihood.
In the merit of righteous women
Regarding the redemption, the Talmud relates: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” One key characteristic is reflected in how they responded to Pharaoh’s order to throw every newborn son into the river:
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. His daughter Miriam disagreed. She argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a definite reality that must be heeded without calculating any eventualities, which are merely possibilities. As a result, Amram and other men reunited with their wives, giving birth to a generation that included Moses, who eventually delivered Israel from Egypt.
The cosmic effect of such decisions is unfathomable. But one simple message is clear: Each child is an entire universe, bringing new mazal — unlocking channels of blessing — for its family and for the world at large. It takes powerful belief and vision to acknowledge this in the midst of immediate dark and intimidating circumstances, yet to remain unmoved, bound to higher principles.
The exile of Egypt is mentioned as the root of all subsequent exiles; its harsh decrees — as well as its recipes for persevering — are prevalent (in some form) in subsequent periods, including our own.
In this regard, we may encounter a spirit and pressure to immerse children in the crazes of society, and often times these pursuits run contrary to essential Jewish values. When educating a Jewish child, parents and educators are charged with the opposite of the above directive, to ensure that these children do not “drown in the Nile.” The underlying task of building a successful Jewish home (or school) is to create a warm and encouraging atmosphere where the enduring fulfillment of “the Torah of life” can be felt.