Summary: Shemot (Names) is the 1st parasha in the book with the same title. It spans chapters 1:1-6:1 and serves as the starting point for the long Jewish servitude.
Shemot begins with a summary of the names of Jacob’s 12 children – part of the 70 souls who came to Egypt; Joseph and his brothers died off and their descendants proliferated filling the land.
When a new king arose in Egypt, Bnei Yisrael were perceived as a dangerous element to be dealt with cleverly. Slowly they were ensnared until their freedoms were lost and they were enslaved building the towns of Pitom & Ramses. As they continued to flourish, a more drastic solution was required – Pharaoh demanding the midwives kill the new-born children and failing that, commanding the nation to cast all male babies into the Nile.
Shemot includes the story of Moshe’s birth, his mother illegally hiding him for 3 months before sending him in a basket down the Nile, where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised, with the help of a Hebrew nursemaid, in Pharaoh’s palace. As he matured and saw the oppression of the Israelite slaves, one day he killed an Egyptian task master and had to flee to Midian to escape death.
After defending a group of shepherd girls at a well, he was invited to take up residence with Yitro, high priest of Midian, who offered him Tsiporah as a wife. They had 2 sons – Gershon & Eliezer. At that time, the King of Egypt died and the cries of the Israelite slaves rose up to Heaven.
While tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness, Moshe came upon a burning bush where he had a vision of G-d commanding him to go back to Egypt to lead the Israelites to the promised land of Canaan. Putting forward several reasons why not to be the one, G-d provided him with signs and miracles. But, when his refusal persisted, eventually G-d angered, assigning Aaron his brother to be their spokesman.
Asking leave of his father-in-law, Moshe and his family journeyed toward Egypt. Stopping at an Inn along the way, G-d wanted to kill him; relenting only after Tsiporah circumcised their son.
Aaron went to meet Moshe at G-d’s Mountain and there learned of their mission. Together they returned to Egypt, gathered the Jewish elders and announced G-d’s redemptive plans.
Their first attempt to persuade Pharaoh to set the people free went badly. Instead, Pharaoh decreed they would henceforth have to gather their own straw for brickmaking. The Jewish taskmasters being forced to impose these new restrictions were incensed, complaining bitterly to Moshe & Aaron. Seeing his initial failure, Moshe cried out to G-d asking why he was sent, if his efforts would only cause more harm to an already oppressed people.
Comment: A well-known 8th century Midrashic commentary suggests from the opening verses that after the original generation of Jacob and his children died, their descendants assimilated throughout Egypt. The word VaYishretsu (Shemot 1:7), meaning to increase abundantly, also connotes swarming like insects and was, according to this commentary, the reason why Bnei Yisrael were loathed by the Egyptians. Their redemption thus being dependent on Teshuvah (Return).
This interpretation goes against the classical explanation that Abraham was told generations earlier his offspring would be slaves in a foreign land before being redeemed. Nonetheless, perhaps we can understand this Midrashic comment to mean that the more one tries to mimic a culture not their own, the less likely their effort is to succeed.
Egypt was a culture that knew not A-donai. Pharaoh famously asked Moshe ‘who is this G-d that we should pay heed?’ Instead, the most advanced culture of its day would have to suffer 10 plagues and many wonders before relenting. The purpose behind the Exodus was not so much about freeing the Hebrew slaves but about re-establishing a G-d-centred world. This lesson shouldn’t be lost on us today.