Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Shmot
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

The Torah leaves us basically unprepared for its description of the events that are recorded for us in this week’s parsha. When we last left the family of Israel at the conclusion of last week’s parsha of Vayechi, the Jews found themselves comfortable, affluent, protected and settled well in the land of Goshen. The Torah does not describe to us the process by which this situation so radically changed into becoming a slave state for the Jews. It only tells us of a new king who knew not Yosef and for reasons not explicitly mentioned in the Torah became a hater and persecutor of the Jews. The Torah seems to indicate that this is almost a natural state of affairs to be exopected. The Egyptian exile begins on a high note, deteriorates into abject sorrow and attempted genocide and ends with miraculous redemption. The Torah does not dwell upon any motives for this pattern of events to occur. What did the Jews do wrong? Why was the Pharaoh such a hater? What were the economic or social factors of the time that allowed for such a dramatic worsening of the Jewish position in Egypt? The Torah addresses none of these issues. It is almost as if the Torah wishes us to understand these things occur in human history and particularly in Jewish history blindly and that the attempts of hindsight historians and sociologists to explain these irrational events and behavior patterns are really useless. As has been often pointed out, all subsequent Jewish exiles - Babylonia, Spain, France, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Moslem Middle East - all seem to eerily conform to this original Egyptian template. As usual the Torah leaves us with more questions than it provides answers for. In effect that is why the Torah is called the book of human life.

We are also unprepared to recognize the savior of Israel in the person of Moses. We are told how he was miraculously saved from the crocodiles of the Nile by the daughter of the Pharaoh and raised in the royal court. He sympathizes with the brutalized Jewish slaves, defends them, and is forced to flee from Egypt. We hear nothing regarding him for the next sixty years until he reemerges as a shepherd in Midian, married to the daughter of Yitro the local religious chief, at this time still a pagan. Hardly the resume’ that one would expect for the leader of Israel and the greatest of all prophets and the teacher of all human kind. Where did his holiness and greatness stem from, how was it developed, who were his mentors and what were his experiences over those long decades of separation from his people? The Torah gives us no clue or answer to these questions. It effectively points out that greatness oftentimes comes from unexpected sources and from people and leaders who operate outside of the usual establishment circles. All of life is a mystery and certainly the Jewish story remains in its base an inexplicable one. This therefore sets the stage for everything else that will now follow in the Torah. It is why the Jewish people when accepting the Torah pledge themselves to God that "we will do and then perhaps try to understand." If we wish to understand first we will never come to do. The Divine hand guides us but it is never subject to our rational thoughts and explanations.
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