Hashavua Study Center
Shemot 5770/ January 9, 2010
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-
in Ramat Gan,
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-
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
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,
G-d of our Fathers
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, 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
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).
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
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
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
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
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.