By Rabbi David Gross of Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem, who grew up in the South Hampstead United Synagogue community.
Sefer Shemot (the book of Exodus) presents us a challenge in that so many films have been produced about it, we may find it all too easy to fall back on easy stereotypes, thereby missing many of the subtleties and the nuances that are contained within it.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, d. 1174), in his introduction to Shemot describes it as the Book of Exile and Redemption, which forms the paradigm as to suffering in exile – even now – and how ultimately, with all the complications and difficulties of exile, we will be redeemed.
This can be seen from right at the beginning of Shemot where within seven verses, we are informed that ‘a new king arose in Egypt, who did not know Yosef.’ This is puzzling. Yosef was feted as the saviour of Egypt, who enacted an economic plan that saved Egypt, the preeminent power of the day, from collapsing because of famine. How could there be anyone who did not who Yosef was? It would be like a British politician having never heard of Winston Churchill just because that politician lived later than Churchill.
To answer this, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167), and later Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt (d. 1888) suggests that at the time of the beginning of Shemot, there was a revolution in Egypt which had brought another ethnic clan to power, who therefore had no previous allegiance to the preceding regime. Hence, we can infer that it would suit the new regime to play down accomplishments of its predecessor.
This approach makes the following verses more understandable. The new Pharaoh approaches his people and proceeds to blame all the ills of their society of a certain group of people – the Jewish People. He casts aspersions on their loyalty and voices suspicions that they are a fifth column.
This approach is also useful in analysing the development of Moshe’s role, not just the Jewish people as a whole. On a micro level, we also see the ravages of exile within Moshe himself. Before he returns to Egypt as the appointed prophet of God, the Torah informs us of only two episodes in Egypt in his adult life: The instance where he saves a Jew from the Egyptian; and when he tries to intervene in an argument between two Jews.
In relation to the first of these episodes, the Torah relates that Moshe looked this way and that, saw that there was no man, smote the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand. The late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein (d. 1994), formerly the rabbi at the Hampstead Garden Suburb and the Finchley United Synagogues, explained this presentation as follows, homiletically. Moshe looked within himself and saw that both the Egyptian and Jewish parts to his personality were battling for recognition and ultimately dominance. Without resolution of this, he would ultimately be of no identity. Therefore he smote and removed the Egyptian part of his identity to the extent it was ‘buried’.