Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:23): The Message of the Bible

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

This week we move from the first book of the Torah, Genesis, to Exodus. Genesis, which largely concerns the development of human relations as it details the spiritual and physical journey of Abraham and his descendants. In a personal revolt against an immoral pagan society, the young Abraham follows a divine inner call: It urges him — Lech Lecha!  — to go forth, to live by his perceived understanding of an abstract God who will make his descendants as numberless as the stars in the sky. By the close of Genesis (which incidentally is not governed by Jewish law, halakha), the ancient Ivri, the Hebrews, have not as yet received the Ten Commandments to govern their moral behavior. This will take place in the book of Exodus, which concerns the development of the Jewish people from an enslaved bunch of semi-nomadic tribes to an independent nation upholding some of the highest moral standards in our world; it is a process that is some ways is still taking place. Perhaps it always will.

In the beginning pages of Exodus, we note that the initial group of 70 people who fled the famine in Canaan when Joseph held a high position at the side of the Egyptian Pharaoh has greatly multiplied. Four hundred years later, the current Pharaoh has no memory of Joseph, and the phenomenal growth of the Hebrews is politically worrisome to the Egyptians.. What if these Hebrews, who breed in such numerous swarms despite enslavement and continual hard labor, should side with Egypt’s enemies? So the Pharaoh issues a decree to the mid-wives, personified in the Torah as Shiphrah and Puah: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: If it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl let her live” (Exodus 1:16).

The courageous midwives, risking their own lives, were not about to commit infanticide, however. They feared God more than the Pharaoh. “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” In what is likely the first recorded case of civil disobedience, the mid-wives did not obey immoral orders. The Torah is teaching us that we can disobey laws that are crimes against humanity. In other words, moral right supersedes sovereign might. In fact, there is a moral imperative to disobey laws that are crimes against humanity.  Perhaps they would not have been able to put it into words, but Shiphrah and Puah, understood that it was their role, even as humble midwives, to be God’s partners in upholding a just and compassionate world. That is the message of the Bible in the first pages of Exodus.

It is a lesson that has not been fully understood even in the 21st century. In our time, the power of high office or money or both all too often still supersede moral right.

Even though the Pharaoh summoned them to account for their actions, the midwives placated him:

“The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth’ ” (Exodus 1: 18-19).

But when the Hebrew women continued to “multiply” by giving birth, the Pharaoh was enraged and ordered his people: “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

That’s how it happened, the Torah portrays, that when Moses was born, his mother hid him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile while his sister, Miriam watched him from a distance until the Pharaoh’s own daughter, sympathetic to the plight of a child, rescued him. The Egyptian princess brought him up as her own son, as an Egyptian prince. This was the Moses who, as a grown man, was to discover the moral responsibility of his own heritage. He would free the enslaved Hebrews by leading them through the desert for 40 years to the shores of the Promised Land. This parasha and the chapters to follow are the very foundation of the Liberation Theology inherent in Judaism.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved