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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Shemot - A sequel to Bereishit

The beginnings of Sefer Shemot and Sefer Bereishit share a number of interesting parallels. We will identify them and then attempt to understand their meaning.

Shemot begins with a summary of Bereishit's end, establishing continuity between the two books. The first five Pasukim list off the seventy people who traveled to Mitzrayim with Yaakov, a list previously mentioned in Bereishit 46. The text then describes the exponential growth that the nation undergoes, using very familiar terminology:

ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ--בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם
But the Isrealites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Shemot 1:7)

This is very reminiscent of Creation's famous language:

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ
God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it … (Bereishit 1:28)

As well as the conclusion of the Deluge narrative:

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נֹחַ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee . . . that they may swarm in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.' (Bereishit 9:1)

A second connection appears with the birth of Moshe. As soon as he enters the world, one detail is immediately apparent:

ב וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא, וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים.
And the woman conceived, and bore a son; she saw him that he was good and she hid him three months. (Shemot 2:2)

His mother sees that "Ki Tov Hu." Indeed, these are the well-known words that conclude every day of Creation. You may remember that the Midrash interprets the phrase to mean that the room lit up with Moshe's presence. The Midrash is just following the obvious parallel to Bereishit's initial use of the term – God's creation of light.

A few months later, Moshe's life includes another Bereishit connection. No longer able to hide him, Moshe's mother hatches a desperate, almost far-fetched plan. The connection is clear: as she lays the basket upon the
Nile's cool waters, Sefer Shemot begins it's own "Noah's Ark" story.

There is one more pecularity in this section. "Elohim" is the only name of God used in the beginning of Shemot, the same "natural" name of God employed throughought the opening narratives of Bereishit.

So what does this tell us? What themes do these textual clues point to?

The opening chapters of Bereishit emphasize God's total control of world events and, in the end, his total dedication to the human race. In the opening chapters of Am Yisrael's history, Chumash stresses God's total involvement and commitment to His newest creation, the Jewish people. We begin with Pharaoh's three attempts to destroy Am Yisrael, which are met by the Jew's uncanny ability to thrive in the face of persecution. After Pharaoh's first attempt, the Torah pronounces this theme explicitly:

"But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad." No matter what challenges were set before them, Bnei Yisrael somehow continue to exponentially reproduce. Pharaoh then contacts the midwives who famously disobey his orders. Finally, Pharaoh decrees that all male children must be mercilessly tossed into the
Nile. Here the irony is richest – Yocheved uses the very murder weapon, the Nile, to save her child! Thus three times we see Pharaoh attempt to impede Bnei Yisrael and all three times he is grossly disappointed. The theme of a Natural Creator thrice dominating Mortal Evil applies to human history as whole (Garden, Flood, Migdal Bavel) and Jewish history in particular.

But there is more to this multifaceted connection, for the Jewish people are not meant to be just any other nation. To a certain degree, we represent a "new creation," unlike the nations presented in the beginning of Bereishit. They form themselves around their own individualized mission statements, while Bnei Yisrael is established by God and devoted to His Divine mission. The message may be taken one step further: Bnei Yisrael's formation and assignment are the next step in a single, ongoing creation. Our existence helps complete this world, helps guide the world towards the purpose for which it was created. This theme is the perfect way to start the Sefer – it is not a local, narrow glance at a specific nation, an anticlimactic change of focus from universalistic humanism to particularistic tribalism. Rather, it represents the continuation of the mission God put forth for all mankind, the mission that began in those famous Perekim that open Sefer Bereishit. The Bereishit narrative ends anticlimactically, lacking the declarative "Ki Tov Hu" - yet with Moshe's - and Bnei Yisrael's – birth, the maternal "Ki Tov Hu" completes the creation narrative and begins a new chapter in world history.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
--The beginning of Shemot uses some of the most famous phrases from the story of creation.
--Bnei Yisrael is "paru u'rvu", Moshe is seen to be "Ki Tov", Shem Elohim is dominant, and Moshe stays alive on a floating ark.
--The Jewish people represent a "new creation." But what does this mean? Is our special role a privilege or a responsibility? Was the world created for the Jewish people, or was the Jewish people created for the world?

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