Seeing The Broader Picture

The differences between the midwives' encounter with Pharaoh and the officers' and taskmasters' encounter teach us to appreciate the context of biblical narratives.

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Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

This week, we begin the Book of Exodus with Parashat Sh'mot. Setting the stage for the events that will unfold throughout the book and the rest of the Torah, this portion introduces us to many central characters, including Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Pharaoh, and Jethro.

Pharaoh & The Midwives

At both the parashah's beginning and at its end, we read of two groups of "minor characters." Each group undergoes an encounter with Pharaoh that follows a somewhat parallel sequence of events. However, a critical aspect differentiates the ways in which the Torah portrays these episodes. By examining these two narratives and the difference between them, we can appreciate some of the nuances of the Torah's literary methodology.

In Exodus 1:15, Pharaoh summons two Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and commands them to carry out an evil decree: every boy born to a Jewish woman is to be killed. However, "fearing the Lord," the midwives don't heed Pharaoh, and allow the newborn boys to live.

When Pharaoh confronts them, asking why they have not acted in accordance with his wishes, the midwives concoct an excuse. They claim that the Jewish women bear their children "like animals," and that by the time the midwife arrives, the baby already is born. The Torah tells us that God favored the midwives for their courage by rewarding them "with homes" (i.e. families), while the people's numbers continued to swell.

Pitting Jew vs. Jew

Toward the end of the parashah, in Exodus 5:6, Pharaoh issues a new decree. Until this point, the Egyptians had provided the Jewish slaves with straw in order to assemble the bricks necessary for their work. Now, in retaliation for Moses asking that the people be set free, Pharaoh orders that the Jews themselves shall be responsible for collecting the straw, yet they will be held accountable to maintain the same output of bricks as before.

This decree was delivered to the taskmasters and officers (nogsim and shotrim).

According to an interpretation by Rashi, the well-known 11th century commentator, the taskmasters were Egyptian, while the officers were Jewish. The taskmasters oversaw the officers, who in turn were responsible for directly supervising the slaves, their own brothers. Thus, the Egyptians pitted Jew against Jew, threatening the officers with severe punishment if they didn't spur their brothers to produce enough.

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Yossi Ziffer works in the interactive services department of UJA-Federation of New York.