Parshat Shemot Exodus 1:1 - 6:1                                                       

This week we begin reading the book of Exodus. Both the book of Exodus and this week’s parasha are called Shemot because they begin with a list of the names (Hebrew: shemot) of the sons of Jacob who came to the Egyptian province of Goshen on account of the famine in the land of Canaan.

Many years have passed since their arrival. The Children of Israel, fat and happy in Goshen, get a wake-up call. A new Pharaoh has arisen who did not know Joseph and his role in saving the Egyptian people from starvation. Because there were now so many Israelites, this Pharaoh feared that they would eventually outnumber and overpower the Egyptians. As a result, he enslaved the Israelites and made them build treasure cities for him and work in his fields. Despite these hardships, the Israelite community continued to grow. This led Pharaoh to order that all male babies born to Israelite women be murdered at birth. But two Egyptian midwives, Shifra and Pu’ah, refused to obey this evil order so Pharaoh then ordered the entire Egyptian people to drown all the newborn boys in the Nile.

An Israelite couple, Amram and Yocheved, had a baby boy. In an attempt to save his life, Yocheved put the newborn in a basket which she placed in the reeds along the banks of the Nile. The infant was found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who named the child Moses. (According to tradition the name means “drawn out of the water.”) Watching from the shore, the baby’s sister, Miriam, stepped forward and offered their mother as a wet nurse. Thus, Moses was raised by his own people even though he lived the privileged life of a prince. One day he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave. Seeking to defend the Israelite, Moses killed the Egyptian and hastily buried his body in the sand. The next day, Moses intervened between two Israelites fighting with one another. They sneered at his attempt to settle their dispute saying “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” Fearing for his own life, Moses ran away from Egypt and went to the country of Midian.

Yitro, the high priest in Midian, had seven daughters who tended his flocks. When Moses arrived in Midian, he saw Yitro’s daughters being chased away from the well by the other shepherds. He spoke to the shepherds, defending the women and then proceeded to give water to Yitro’s thirsty animals. Moses became a shepherd and married Yitro’s daughter, Tzipporah. They had two sons. One day, while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flocks on Mount Horeb, God spoke to him from within a burning thorn bush. God indicated a divine plan to free the Hebrews from slavery and to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. God ordered Moses to be his messenger. When Moses protested that he was not up to the task, God gave him signs through which to convince both Pharaoh and the Israelites. In particular, God revealed God’s name as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” – “I will be What I will be/ I Am Who I Am/ I Am That I Am.” Moses tried again to get out of the assignment on the grounds that he was heavy of speech. God angrily agreed to let Aaron, Moses’ brother, speak for Moses as well.

A strange, terrifying incident happened on the road to back to Egypt: Moses was attacked at night by a demon or, perhaps, by God. Tzipporah saved her husband by circumcising their son, Gershom (whose name means “I am a stranger in a strange land”). In chapter 5, Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refused because he did not believe in God whom Moses and Aaron claimed to represent. As a challenge to God’s demand, Pharaoh made conditions worse for the Israelites. When Moses complained to God about this response, God assured Moses that eventually Pharaoh “will let them go because of a greater might.”


  • God chose Moses to help free the Israelite people from slavery. However, the Torah doesn’t give a rea- son for his election. There is a midrash, a rabbinic legend, that attempts to explain God’s choice: One day, when Moses was tending Yitro’s flock in the desert, a lamb escaped from the rest of the flock. Fol- lowing the baby sheep, Moses saw that it stopped at a pool of water to drink. Moses said to the animal, “I didn’t know that you were thirsty. That must be why you ran away. You must be tired from all your running.” Then Moses lifted the lamb in his arms and carried it back to the flock. God told Moses, “Because you showed such compassion and mercy for a flock belonging to a man, you will tend Israel, My flock” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2). Why do you think the midrash identified compassion and mercy as the two reasons Moses was chosen as God’s representative? Why do you think these attributes are important for helping free the Israelites from slavery? Think of someone you know who is both compassion- ate and merciful. What kinds of things does this person do that you admire?

  •  Moses alludes to the fact that he is slow of speech and slow of tongue. The midrash explains that, as a child, Moses grabbed Pharaoh’s crown and placed it upon his own head. Concerned that this was a sign that Moses would one day replace Pharaoh, a test was arranged. A bright jewel and a hot coal were placed before Moses. Choosing the jewel would mean that Moses was a threat and must be put to death. Moses reached for the jewel, but an angel pushed his hand toward the coal. He chose the hot coal instead and was spared. However, when Moses grabbed the coal, it burned his hand and he stuck his burning hand in his mouth. Thus, his lips and tongue were burned and his speech was affected.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Rashi said, “For the sake of the righteous women, we were delivered from Egypt” (Pesachim 108b). Who were the righteous women in this parasha? Why? Who are the righteous women in your life? How are these women important role models?

  2. A thorn bush may seem like an odd place to find God. The midrash tells us that God appeared in a lowly thorn bush in order to teach us that no place is devoid of God’s presence. Moses was going through what seems to have been his daily routine. It is easy to become complacent, almost numb to the world around us, as we walk through the routine activities of our own day. Moses, however, was able to find holiness in what initially appeared to be the mundane. Think about your own life. When were you able to find something extraordinary in what seemed like the ordinary or usual? Moses was clearly changed by his experience with the burning bush. How did your “burning bush” experience change you?

  3. Several times in the Torah portion, Moses notices human injustice. How did Moses react to the beating of an Israelite slave by an Egyptian when he was a young man in Egypt? What was his response to the fight between the two Israelites? How did he react later in Midian when the daughters of Yitro are denied water for their flocks? What is the difference between his responses? Think about a time that you have witnessed unjust treatment. How did you react? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

  4. Jewish tradition has many ideas about why Moses hesitated when God asked him to lead the people. Some say that Moses did not want to hurt the feelings of his older brother, Aaron, by taking the job that could go to him. Others say that Moses was truly humble, and felt that he was not as capable to lead the Jewish people as another might be. Elie Wiesel speculates that Moses refused God’s request at first because “Moses was disappointed in his Jews.” Moses was angry because no one had helped him defend the Jew who was being beaten by an Egyptian. And when Pharaoh had called for Moses’ arrest, no Israelite came to his aid. Moses “had no wish to reopen a wound that had still not healed” (Messengers of God, pages 188-190). What are the greatest difficulties in taking on a role of leadership, especially under such desperate circumstances? What are the rewards of leadership? How does one decide to become a leader? What is the appropriate way to accept a leadership role? How should leaders respond when their people make them angry?