Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5770/ January 9, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The Path to a Nation

Prof. Moshe Kaveh

President, Bar Ilan University

Parashat Shemot, which begins the second book of the Pentateuch, provides a primal glimpse at an interesting question:   what comprises the unique identity of the people of Israel?   Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, tells the story of great figures in our national heritage, their faith, morality and way of life.  The narrative concludes with their descent to Egypt, where they settled, and with this same narrative the next book, Exodus, begins:  “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household.”  Immediately thereafter we are told the names of those who came, listed one by one.  Note that we are still dealing with the story of individuals, highlighted by their specific names: Reuben, Simeon, etc.

The transition from named individuals to a collective people is a fascinating process, in particular because the first time the tribes of Israel are historically defined as a nation, we hear it from the mouth of Pharaoh. Here we have the first anti-Semite, a man who fears that the people emerging from a union of individuals will go to war against him, and therefore he devises evil plans to destroy them.  Exodus Chapter 1 presents the historical setting:  “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8).  That being so, he did not view the descendants of Jacob’s sons – “the total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue” – in terms of their connection with Joseph, rather he viewed them as a large and threatening group:   “And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us’” (Ex. 1:9).   In other words, Pharaoh was making a comparison, mentioning almost in the same breath his own people and the “Israelite people,” who in his opinion were endangering his rule.   Therefore he suggested, “Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us” (Ex. 1:10).

In any definition of an individual, a group, or a nation, there are at least two points of view: how others define the the individual or the group, and more significantly, how the individual or group define themselves.   The external definition of the people of Israel has generally been negative (perhaps excluding the story of Balaam), and throughout most of history this definition has not only been negative, but also anti-Semitic. Since time immemorial, Jew-haters have baited us for being different in our faith and for our stubbornness in maintaining our ways even under the most difficult physical conditions.  The beginning of this dreadful path is found in this week’s reading, in the words of the first Jew-hater, Pharaoh, who ordered the physical annihilation of half the people:  “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” (Ex. 1:16).  Needless to say, the painful history and tremendous suffering that our people experienced and the dreadful loss of many of its sons and daughters, culminating in the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe and the slaughter of six million Jews, which we survived only by a miracle – all this served to unite the people and strengthen its sense of distinction.


There can be no doubt that the external definition of the “people of Israel” by one who hates Jews does not constitute the identity of a nation, particularly one that wishes to be liberated from the bondage of Egypt and to build its own identity as a people.   To that end one needs, first and foremost, an internal definition.  The first conflict between these two definitions – the internal and the external – is revealed in this week’s reading in the context of Moses’ first mission to Pharaoh.

Let us follow the course of the first mission assigned to Moses by the Holy One, blessed be He, in order to liberate the Israelites from Egypt:  The Almighty opens with the following: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them:   the Lord, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, ‘I have taken note of you’” (Ex. 3:16).  The first important self-identification of the “group” that was in Egypt is to believe in the “G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”   This is the internal defining characteristic, without which the group does not have its own identity; this is our first identifying characteristic, given from the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses.

G-d of our Fathers

 The Sages, recognizing this identifying characteristic, established for subsequent generations the three amidah prayers recited each day by devout Jews, beginning with the words:   “Blessed art thou, O Lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob.”   This was the beginning of our coming into being and was later formulated in Deuteronomy in the statement:   “Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut.  33:4). This week’s reading is the historical nexus between “G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and “Moses charged us with the Teaching.”

Let us follow further the specific instructions given Moses for carrying out the mission of the Holy One, blessed be He:   “They will listen to you; then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us.  Now therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our G-d” (Ex. 3:18).  That is, Moses was to go, not as the leader of a people, as Pharaoh viewed us, [1] but in the name of the “G-d of the Hebrews.”  In this week’s reading the Israelites are called Hebrews, and therefore it is fully justified for the mission to be in the name of the common basis of that group.

Of particular interest is the fact that Moses, the great leader, failed in his first mission.  Unlike subsequent attempts, in which Moses took care to repeat to his people the words of the Lord exactly as they had been said, when he now came before the king of Egypt he did not begin with the Lord’s words, “the G-d of the Hebrews manifested Himself to us,” as he had been commanded; rather, he assailed Pharaoh with the demand, “Let My people go” (Ex. 5:1). [2]   First he changed the way the Lord was called from “G-d of the Hebrews” to “G-d of Israel" (Ex.5:1), and immediately thereafter he related to Israel itself as a “people.”   Indeed, this is the first time the well-known phrase, G-d of Israel, appears, and the person who coined it was Moses.   Pharaoh was not slow to detect the nationalist approach taken by Moses, and on the spot he tried to challenge the source of the new identity of the people of Israel that was being drawn by Moses:  “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?   I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).  Later, too, Pharaoh used the same tactics.  Throughout the course of the plagues he denied the concept of divinity and refused to believe that the miraculous plagues delivered to him originated from a supreme force that Moses called the “G-d of Israel.”   However, Pharaoh did not deny the entity known as Israel and did not view its members simply as “Hebrews.”   To his response, “I do not know the Lord,” he added, “nor will I let Israel go.”

Moses understood the mistake he had made in defining his mission as one originating from the G-d of Israel and in demanding, “Let My people go,” and so he proceeded to repeat the formulation by the Lord, word for word:  “They answered, ‘the G-d of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us.  Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our G-d” (Ex. 5:3).  Pharaoh understood that Moses was retreating from the nationalist definition, but did not accept this ploy:  “But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why do you distract the people from their tasks?  Get to your labors!’” (Ex. 5:4).  That is, Pharaoh stood by his definition of the Hebrews as a people, and viewed them and their leaders as a threat. 

Thus, Moses’ first mission failed, and the trust that he was to have inspired among the children of Israel was badly impugned, to the point of severe verbal confrontation:  “As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path, and they said to them, ‘May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers – putting a sword in their hands to slay us’” (Ex. 5:20-21).   Moses returned, understanding that he had failed, and lay his complaint before the Holy One, blessed be He:   “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people?   Why did You send me?” (Ex. 5:22).   It is interesting that in his complaint he continued to use the expression “people,” an expression which he had never heard from the Holy One, blessed be He.  Interestingly, the response of the Holy One, blessed be He, makes no mention of the people of Israel.   Instead, it says, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh:   he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land” (Ex. 6:1).  Note, Pharaoh will let them go, even though they have not yet been defined.

How did this tension between Moses and the Holy One, blessed be He, come about?  The source seems to me to be the absence of a basic definition of “people” at this stage.  The only definition is an external one by the anti-Semitic Pharaoh, who views the Israelites as a foreign body that must be annihilated, and in order to define the focal point of the threat to his people he speaks of the “Israelite people.”   As far as the Holy One, blessed be He, is concerned, the children of Israel have not yet attained the status of a people. 


In the next week’s reading, Va-Era, in the second mission assigned to Moses, the Holy One, blessed be He, reduces the tension between the various definitions of the group dwelling in Egypt.   Again, the historical beginnings of the people are noted:  “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai” (Ex. 6:3), and the mission given Moses is:  “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people:  I am the Lord.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.   I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements” (Ex. 6:6).   Note that the “group” is defined here as the Israelites, and their special distinction is that the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   The natural succession of this chain is to be found in the children of Jacob, the children of Israel.   In order to turn the children of Israel into the people of Israel, an internal or self-definition is required.  Bear in mind that the people of Israel are defined in terms of their Torah, both the written law and the oral law (as defined, for example, by Saadiah Gaon).   In other words, receiving the Torah is what defines the Israelites as a people.  Indeed, only after they receive the Torah does the Holy One, blessed be He, proclaim:  “Today you have become the people of the Lord” (Deut. 27:9).

The second defining characteristic is the land of Israel.   A people is generally defined by a territory in which it lives and the norms by which it lives. When speaking of the people of Israel, these norms are the laws of the Torah. 

In light of this, it is clear why the first mission given to Moses was a failure.  He had not yet brought the people of Israel the Torah, and the land of Israel was but a distant goal at this stage.  The first mission spoke of leaving Egypt in order to sacrifice in the wilderness.  That did not suffice to define the children of Israel as the Israelite people.  Moses’ essential mission was a long-range one:  to take the children of Israel out of Egypt, to give them the Torah at Mount Sinai, and to direct them to the land of Israel, where their identity as a people would be completed, based on the Torah of Israel as practiced in the land of Israel.  These are the components of the inner identity, and Moses had to prove to himself and to the children of Israel that the goal of making the transition from an external, anti-Semitic definition of the “Israelite people” to an the inner definition is impossible before the giving of the Torah; hence, until then they are only called the “children of Israel.”

We, who have been so fortunate as to witness the establishment of the State of Israel, following the terrible Holocaust that threatened to annihilate our people, ought to remember that a state alone, regardless of how important it may be in our identity, is only one part of the picture.  Without a bond with the Torah of Israel we would be a people no different from all other peoples, instead of being a chosen people and a light unto the nations.



[1] Moses does not become such a leader until later, after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

[2] This phrase became the watchword for the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, two thousand years later.