As we open the book of Exodus, or Shemot, the second book of the Torah, we almost feel as if we have entered into a new story entirely. Until this point, there has been a slow development of relationship between God and the patriarchs and matriarchs: Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Ya’akov and Leah and Rachel. Nearly an entire book has focused on three generations; within a few verses of this book we span hundreds of years, many generations and an entirely different dynamic for our ancestors. Having settled with plenty and protection in Goshen, an area of Egypt, they have now become a nation of hundreds of thousands, enslaved by a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” God seems distanced from the condition of our slavery and suffering. How God allows such suffering remains a vexing question; what God demands in the face of that suffering is dramatically clear in the way the major characters of this week’s parasha act.
Out of the voiceless masses we first engage women who will be heroes: Shifra and Puah, midwives willing to risk their lives when they refuse to follow Pharaoh’s genocidal orders to destroy the male babies of the Hebrews; Pharaoh’s daughter who takes in and saves a young baby boy whose life has been preserved; that boy’s mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, who further take action to nurture that baby through his infancy. All these women share two important qualities: empathic awareness of the suffering of another and the justice-motivated drive to do something to alleviate that suffering.
That young baby boy, Moses, whose life has been preserved, protected and nurtured by those women learns his lesson well from them. He is destined to become the leader of the nation of Israel that is born out of that slavery and suffering. When we first encounter him in action as a young man he is motivated by those same two principles: empathy and a commitment to justice. Moses’ first action is to intervene and stop the beating of a Hebrew slave by an Egyptian taskmaster. Soon thereafter, he is protecting vulnerable women. Compassion and justice. These values are the essence of Torah itself. While hinted at in the stories of Genesis, their centrality to our story and way of life becomes clear with Moses and the women who shaped his life.