Parashat Shemot: The Birth of a Nation
By Michal Groushko Taitel, Prinicipal of OTS’s Jennie Sapirstein High School for Girls in Ramot, Jerusalem
In the first few verses of the Book of Exodus, we encounter several expressions reminiscent of Parashat Bereishit and the dawn of humanity. For example, the expression in this week’s Parasha, “were fruitful… and multiplied” echoes the expression “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28), and “… and the Earth became full with them” seems to be a fulfillment of the commandment in Parashat Bereishit – “and they multiplied, and filled the land…” (Genesis 1:28). Even Pharaoh’s warning, “and it [the Jewish people] went up from the land” (Exodus 1:10) alludes to the mist that emanated from the soil moments before man was created.
The linguistic allusions at the beginning of the Book of Exodus to the story of creation indicate that if the creation of the world is recounted in the Book of Genesis, and if humanity took its first steps at that time, here, at the beginning of the Book of Exodus, another type of creation is described: the creation of a nation. The nation of Israel. This might help us understand what the Netziv (Rabbi Hirsch Leib Berlin) wrote in his introduction to Ha’amek Davar, his commentary on the Book of Exodus: “This is meant to teach us that this book, in particular, is the second [book] after the book describing creation, since it is the second part of this book.”
Reinforcing the idea of the birth of a nation in Parashat Shmot, the plot here focuses on the “delivery room”, drawing our attention to the midwives and their deeds. This story is just one more allusion to the narrative we are commenting on – the story of the nation’s birth. The following story in Parashat Shmot also centers on childbirth – namely, the birth of Moses.
Yet it is here that the similarity ends. Parashat Shmot unveils the birth of the Jewish people, while revealing certain new relationships within families that we weren’t familiar with until now. In the book of Genesis, we constantly read of envy and tension between brothers. This theme pervades throughout, from Cain and Abel, the first brothers mentioned in Genesis, to Joseph and his brothers, at the end of the book. In the book of Exodus, however, we read about another type of relationship – one involving brotherly love. We read of the sense of dedication and care within Moses’ family.
At the beginning of Chapter 2, we read about Moses’ birth: “And a man went… and took for himself the daughter of Levi… and the woman became pregnant… and gave birth to a son”. It seems as though the Torah is referring to her eldest son, but in verse four, we discover, to our great surprise, that this child had an older sister. Later, we find out that Moses had an older brother, too – Aaron. The rights of the firstborn had always been a bone of contention and a cause for scheming in the stories of the book of Genesis, yet here, in the book of Exodus, they are a non-issue.
Later in the story, the text underscores how the siblings cared deeply for each other. Miriam stood beside her baby brother, keeping watch as he floated down the Nile, and Aaron went out to welcome Moses. Subsequently, Miriam, Aaron and Moses cooperated to act in the bests interests of the Jewish people. The relationships between the members of Moses’ family, in which each sibling believes and proclaims that the other sibling is greater and more important, are clearly antithetical to the relationships between siblings described in the Book of Genesis.
This similarity and disparity convey an important message at the very beginning of the book. A nation was born in the book of Exodus, but it needed to follow the model of brotherly love, described in the same book, to persevere. This model champions cooperation and caring for one another, and these traits ensure the continued survival of the Jewish people.