Parashat Shemot

Slavery VS. The attempt by the Jews to assimilate

Sefer Shemot begins the slavery of the Jewish people. Yosef and his brothers die out, and the next generation of Jews grows up in Egypt. They multiply and begin to move out of Goshen into Egyptian neighborhoods. As has often been when the going has gone well with the Jews, they underwent a process of rapid assimilation, quickly mastering the culture and ascending right to the top of this most ‘civilized’ of nations. In possession of full civil rights, they applied the full force of their expertise to becoming wealthy, prominent socialites disproportionately represented in halls of theatre and culture. In so doing, they abandoned their mandate as the chosen people, and gave up the most obvious sign of their uniqueness, Brit Milah. This was already full-blown Galut, for in the end, Galut is really Galut of the mind – full identity and enthusiasm with the Galut civilization to the point where thinking as a Jew becomes an alien and difficult undertaking.

It was well known that the Egyptian borders were such that no slave could ever flee Egypt. The Jews had become slaves of Egyptian civilization. It was unthinkable for them to leave this cradle of human progress. The physical slavery that occurred later was just a reflection of this. For it was only when the Jews realized the physical pain of being in Egypt that they realized the spiritual price they were paying. The suffering made it very clear to them that they had to get out of there.

Throughout history, the attempt by the Jews to assimilate ironically triggers massive anti-Semitism, and Egypt was no different. G-d takes the hatred of the non-Jew and turns it into a positive message: If the Jews will not choose to be Jews, I will force them to separate themselves using the stick of anti-Semitism. Even more ironic, they will not only survive the anti-Semitism, but will emerge purer and greater. Just like a drop of pure olive oil requires the crushing of the olive to produce it, and just as oil, once produced, will sooner or later emerge to float on the top even when mixed with other substances, the crushing of the Jews not only separated them but was a source of their greatness. It is the very core-goodness of the Jews to begin with that allows for the suffering to help in this way.

But, Egypt was not to be an ordinary master-slave relationship. The slaves were unique and the masters were unique.

The Egyptians, civilized as they were, could not just act suddenly. Egyptian law did not allow for an unfair policy of killing baby boys and not girls, or for killing babies of any sort. Pharaoh could only appeal to the midwives to become accomplices in his crime, and even then, only before the baby had actually been born. In fact, it was only when Pharaoh’s death left a power gap that the Egyptians reached the depraved cruelty that they did.

The Egyptians therefore cleverly disguised their plan as a social action plan, designed to help the Jews overcome inequalities. With a soft mouth, under the cloak of civilization. There will be no Torah learning; this will help the Jews to integrate. We will ban Milah; this will save them from barbaric injury. We will stop Shabbat: This will help them get livelihood. We are not Jew-haters, the Egyptians declared. We are concerned only with humanity and progress. ויענונון‭ ‬המצרים‭ ‬אותנו‭ ‬וירעו – The Egyptians acted in a friendly manner towards us (from רע as‭ ‬כסילים‭ ‬ורע .(The work was initially proclaimed as a national, non-discriminatory public works program. The Jews went enthusiastically along. המצרים אותנו‭ ‬וירעו‭ – ‬Rather‭ ‬than enslave the Jews, the Egyptians tried to corrupt them.

So much for the plans and actions of the masters! And what of the slaves? The Jews are a nation that knows no mediocrity. We either go up and up or down into the abyss. The Jews have a deep relationship with spirituality, which is by its nature hidden below the surface. But the moment we lose that relationship, we tend to the opposite, revealing all. And one of the consequences was to become tattle-tales on each other. Moshe Rabbeinu saw the tale-bearing and shuddered. The unity of the people was beginning to shatter, and with it, the best hope for redemption.

The suffering itself caused a purification of the Jews, like an iron furnace, which in and of itself made the Jews ready for redemption.

יפרוץ וכן ירבה כן אותו יענו כאשר – the very act of the ענוי ,the affliction, is what caused their rise to holiness. The darkness itself served to elevate and raise the Jews. מרור – חייהם את וימררו became a part of the Geula, not just the שעבוד .And this in fact is the lesson of suffering everywhere. Somebody who is graced with all manner of pleasure becomes more physical thereby. Someone in pain will actually find himself greatly aided by that very pain in his quest for spirituality.

But for this to be true, the core of the person must be holy. The Avot had certainly given this foundation to their descendents in Egypt. It was now maintained by G-d Himself, who entered exile together with Yaakov Avinu and personally guaranteed that even if the Jews were to sink they were never to disappear. G-d explained this to Moshe Rabbeinu, who was wrong to give up on the eternal nation.

אהיה‭ ‬אשר‭ ‬אהיה‭ ‬‮–‬‭ ‬“Just as I will be with them in this Tzora‭, ‬so will I‭ ‬be with them in future Tzorot.” Or, as Seforno understands things: “I will always be there to establish and maintain things for their own fundamental value. The death or termination or destruction of something is never why I created it. Therefore, I will always be opposed to distortion and cruelty, which lead to loss and destruction. Therein lies My opposition to the Egyptians.”

The first spark of holiness that was triggered by the suffering was Jewish unity. The Egyptians, having already enslaved the Jews, no longer hated them because they were rich and powerful. They now began to hate them because of their fear of the Jews’ spiritual greatness.

ישראל מפני בני ויקוצו- This unity was not just praiseworthy – it was vital to the future redemption of the Jewish people. For, in the end, all the potential of each and every Jew was to be redeemed, and this could only be done in all its dimensions when each Jew became a part of a greater whole.

The potential of all of these Jews – of the whole Jewish nation – was contained within the 70 people who entered Egypt – Yaakov and his flock. All the potential that went into the Egyptian exile was to be redeemed. The exile itself was like the sowing of a seed, the redemption the flowering of the seed. The seed seems to begin to rot in the ground, but, just at the right moment, it begins to sprout again. Of course, if it would rot any further it would never be able to sprout. But it also cannot sprout too early. So, in the end, the Jews had to be redeemed בחפזון, at the right moment without a further moment’s delay, for redemption would not have been possible after this time.

The need for the Galut to complete each person is also reflected in the fact that none of the Jews changed their names in Egypt. A name reflects the essence of the person, their full potential. Keeping their names means that the Jews never lost touch with their true spiritual potential and that the Galut itself helped them to actualize this. The Jews were in Egypt for 210 years. This comprised at least 4 generations. Someone in the fourth generation would be aware that he was born in Egypt as was his father and grandfather. As far back as he could know, his family had roots in Egypt, and they were still there. Yet, the Jews kept their names. Reuven went in with all his potential and Reuven, all that potential, came out through his descendents.


facts of life: take this serious

The Gift of Life

He said to his people, “Behold! The people, the children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we…

Rabbi Eli Scheller explains in the name of R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz Zt”l

The Egyptians were frightened by the growth of the Jewish population. They were afraid that if a war broke out the Jews would join their enemies and force them out of their own land. Pharaoh summoned his three chief advisors: Bilam, Yiov and Yitro, to ask their advice on how to deal with this situation. Bilam advised killing the Jews, and he himself was later killed. Yiov kept quiet and was punished with a life of suffering. Yitro ran away and was rewarded with descendants who became the heads of the Sanhedrin. It is clear that Bilam deserved a far greater punishment than Yiov, since Yiov didn’t commit an active crime – he merely remained silent. However, it seems that Yiov ‘s punishment was actually greater than that of Bilam. While Bilam suffered a quick death, Yiov had to endure suffering the likes of which no other man has ever experienced. How can this be understood?

To be alive is, in itself, the greatest gift possible. Life is full of opportunities, and despite the presence of any pain or suffering no matter how bad, life is still infinitely greater than death. Consequently, Bilam’s punishment was far more severe than Yiov ‘s. While Yiov still had the gift of life, Bilam lost it forever.

To determine whether a fish is alive one must see if it can swim upstream. Being alive means that you’re accomplishing and growing. Every moment in life is a priceless opportunity to grow and create a connection with God.

Late one night, R’ Yisrael Salanter noticed a shoe maker at work fixing shoes. He asked him, “Why are you working so late?” The man replied, “As long as the candle is still burning, I can still fix the shoes.” As long as we are still in this world we can grow and do good deeds, but once the candle goes out our time is up. Whatever we have we have, but we can’t fix any more.

Parsha Summary 

First Aliyah: The Jews had been in Mitzrayim since 2238. The Parsha begins as Pharaoh orchestrated the oppression of the Bnai Yitroel. Starting in 2362, with the birth of Miriam, the oppression began in earnest as newborn males were drowned in the Nile. The bravery of the two Midwives was rewarded.

second Aliya: Moshe’s birth and “Basket River cruise” is detailed. He was adopted by Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, and raised by his own mother, Yocheved.

third Aliya: Moshe killed the Egyptian but was turned in by his own people. Forced to flee, he ended up in the house of Yitro. Moshe married Tziporah, Yitro’s daughter, and Gershon, his first son, was born. The year was approximately 2428, and Moshe was 60.

fourth and fifth Aliyot: Moshe received his mission at the Burning Bush. The Midrash says that the entire conversation lasted 7 days. At its conclusion, Moshe, armed with the power of Hashem’s promise and the three “signs”, was prepared to confront Pharaoh.

sixth Aliya: Moshe asked Yitro for permission to go on his mission. Along the way, Hashem attempted to kill Moshe, but Tziporah saves him by giving their son a Brit Milah. Aaron went to greet Moshe, as per G-d’s commandment. Moshe and Aaron met with the Elders and received their support.

seventh Aliya: Moshe and Aaron unsuccessfully confronted Pharaoh. Pharaoh punished the Jews by refusing to supply straw for the making of bricks. The Jewish officers were held responsible and were beaten by the Egyptian overseers. The Jewish officers confronted Moshe and Moshe then confronted G-d. Hashem reassured Moshe that his mission would be successful.come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has mistreated this people, and You have not saved Your people.” G‑d responded: “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out…”

simcha corner

Beth Israel synagogue in New York provides marriage seminars: some are for women, some are for men and some for couples.

At the men’s seminar last week, the rabbi asked Shlomo about his marriage. Shlomo replied that he had been married for almost 50 years. The rabbi was impressed and asked him to take a few minutes and share some insight into how he had managed to stay married to the same woman all these years.

Shlomo replied to the assembled husbands, “Nu, I’ve tried to treat her nice, spend money on her, help her keep a Kosher home, and take her on trips. Best of all, I took her to Israel for our 25th anniversary!”

The rabbi responded, “Shlomo, you are an amazing inspiration to all the husbands here! Please tell us what you are planning for your wife for your 50th anniversary?”

Shlomo proudly replied, “I’m going back to Israel to pick her up.”


The Kabbalists reveal that the six week period that begins with the Parasha of Shemot and ends with the Parasha of Mishpatim is a period of potential Teshuvah for any errors created by us in the Sefirah of Yesod.

Shovavim is the Hebrew term for mischief-makers. Fittingly, the word is also an acronym for the six weekly Torah portions Shemot, Vaera, Bo, Beshelah, Yitro and Mishpatim. The reading of these portions fall within the two Hebrew months of Tevet and Shevat. This period is considered favorable for fasting and the rectification of the sins of character weakness