Shemot: Choosing Life

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

At the end of his life, Moses says:

…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)

le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.

lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.

ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.

At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.

The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:

…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

Goshen and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom
Nile delta circa 1250 B.C.E., with the capital, Tanis, and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.

Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.

But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)

In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)

The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)

During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)

And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)

ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.

Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.

And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)

What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good.  When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.

Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.

Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)

meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.

In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries.  When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.

Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.

Meritamun, one of Rameses II's daughters
Meritamun, one of Rameses II’s daughters

Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)

Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.

Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)

Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.

Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.

All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.

May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.

Shemot: Hebrews vs. Children of Israel

Both the book of Exodus and its first Torah portion are called Shemot (“Names”) after a key word in the first sentence.  But that sentence also includes the two names of Jacob and all his descendants:

Jacob and his Family Go to Egypt, by Jean Bondol, 14th century CE

And these are the names of the Children of Yisra-eil who came to Egypt with Ya-akov, each man and his household. (Exodus/Shemot 1:1)

shemot (שְׁמוֹת) = names.

Yisra-eil (יִשְׂרָאֵל) = Israel (in English).  Yisra (ישׂר) is derived from either yisar (יִּשַׂר) = he strives, contends, struggles; or yasor (יָשֹׂר) = he rules, directs.  Eil (אֵל) = god, God.

(Jacob earned the name Yisra-eil after wrestling with a mysterious being.1  The possible meanings of Yisra-eil have spurred a lot of commentary.  Likely translations are “He struggles with God”, “God strives”, or “God rules”. Calling Jacob’s descendants the children of Israel, instead of the children of Jacob, focuses on their active and sometimes insecure relationship with their god.)

Ya-akov (יַעֲקֹב) = Jacob (in English); he grabs the heel (from the verb akav, (עָקַב) = came from behind, grabbed by the heel, supplanted, circumvented, held back).

(Jacob’s father, Isaac son of Abraham, named him Ya-akov when he was born, because he emerged holding the heel of his twin brother Esau.2)

The second sentence in Exodus lists the names of eleven of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Joseph is already a viceroy of Egypt when his extended family moves down.  He invited them to resettle in the Goshen area so he could guarantee they would have food during the seven-year famine.

Over the next few centuries or generations the descendants of Jacob multiply, and a new dynasty takes over Egypt.3

And a new king rose over Egypt who did not know [about] Joseph.  And he said to his people: “Hey! The people of the children of Yisra-eil are more numerous and more mighty than we are!  … What if a war happens, and they even join our enemies and wage war against us, or they go up out of the land?” (Exodus/Shemot 1:8-10)

Here the pharaoh is superficially respectful, referring to the children of Israel by their own name for themselves.  Perhaps at this point most Egyptians had nothing against their Israelite neighbors.

Having identified a potential problem, Pharaoh assigns the Israelites to corvée labor (forced and unpaid labor on a state project).  They must build storage cities in the eastern delta of the Nile, near the Goshen region where they live.  This move establishes their lower-class status, and puts them under close supervision so they cannot defend themselves against any future injustice.

Pharaoh and Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century CE

The pharaoh’s next move is to order the midwives to kill all the Israelites’ newborn sons.  At this point, Pharaoh calls the Israelite women “Hebrews”.

And he said: When you deliver the ivriyot, and you look at the pair of stones [the birthing seat], if it is a son, then you shall kill him.  But if it is a daughter, then she shall live. (Exodus 2:16)

ivriyot (עִבְרִיּוֹת) = Hebrew women; the feminine plural of ivri (עִבְרִי) = a Hebrew person.  (From the root verb avar, עבר = passed through, passed by, crossed over.  Ivri is an imperative form of this verb.)

The word ivri is etymologically related to the Egyptian word ‘apiru and the Mesopotamian word habiru (as well as the English word “Hebrew”).  Several thousand years ago, the countries surrounding Canaan used the term to mean any Semitic immigrants on the fringes of society.  Surviving ancient texts refer to Hebrews as nomadic herders, temporary laborers, mercenaries, or outlaws.  They are not permanent residents.

Yet when the book of Exodus opens, the children of Israel have been living in Egypt for somewhere between two generations and 350 years.Although they belong to a distinct ethnic group, they have a long-established place in Egyptian society.

Nevertheless, the pharaoh switches from calling them “children of Israel” to calling them “Hebrews”.  This change in language signals that they are aliens who do not really belong in Egypt.  Given the usual meaning of the Egyptian word ‘apiru, the pharaoh also implies that the Israelites are low-class migrant workers and potential outlaws.  His racial slur probably makes the idea of killing the newborn males more palatable to ordinary Egyptians.

Yet the midwives do not carry out the pharaoh’s hate crime; they come up with an excuse for letting the baby boys live.  Although the pharaoh does not punish them, he remains determined to eliminate the “Hebrews” by attrition, letting the old ones work until they die without a new generation to replace them.  His next move is to incite the whole native Egyptian population to commit a form of genocide.

Pharaoh gave orders to all his people, saying: “Every son that is born, you shall throw away into the Great River; but every daughter, you shall let live.” (Exodus/Shemot 1:22)

Why does the pharaoh want to kill only the newborn boys, and not the girls?  In the ancient world of the Torah, men carry the identity of a tribe or nation; women become members of their husbands’ tribes when they marry.  If the only young Israelites were female, they would merely become wives, prostitutes, or servants to native Egyptians.

I would add that adolescent boys and young men are always seen as the most dangerous members of an out-group.

The children of Israel are already subject to corvée labor with no fixed endpoint—in practice, a kind of slavery.  Now they are also helpless against any Egyptians who decide to drown their male children.

Moses from the River, detail from Dura Europos, 244 CE

Only a hero and some miracles can reverse the situation.  The miracles will come from God; the hero is born among the Israelites in Egypt.  His mother hides him for three months before putting him inside a waterproof papyrus box and floating it among the reeds on the bank of the Nile.  When the pharaoh’s daughter finds the  box and sees a baby boy inside, she says:

This is one of the children of the ivrim!”  (Exodus 2:6)

ivrim (עִבְרִים) = Hebrews; the male or all-purpose plural of ivri.

Thus the infant whom she adopts and names Moses begins life identified as an ivri, a nomad, immigrant, outsider.  Eighty years later, Moses leads the ivrim out of Egypt and toward Canaan, the land where ivrim originally came from, the land where they can live as children of Yisra-eil.

Once the Israelites leave Egypt, the Torah rarely calls them ivrim.  References to “Hebrew” people appear only in rules regarding Israelites who have sold themselves as slaves, and in conversations with non-Israelites.

The Israelite occupation of Canaan was not permanent.  The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., and it took 2,534 years before the land became an independent nation of Israel again, rather than a province of a larger country.  During much of that time Jews in Palestine and in the diaspora were treated like ivrim, unsavory migrants.


No group of people is permanent.  Identifying some residents of a country as natives, and others as migrants, outsiders, ivrim, is only a way for demagogues to stir up enough fear and hatred to get what they want.

None of us are natives, if you look back far enough in history.  None of us have an exclusive claim to a patch of land.  All of us are temporary residents—in our countries, and on this earth.  We are all ivrim.

Our challenge is to recognize that everything is temporary, and dedicate our short lives to becoming true children of yisra-el by wrestling with God and changing the fate of the earth.

  1. Genesis 32:25-29.
  2. Genesis 25:26.
  3. Neither the Torah nor the classic commentary are consistent about how much time passed between the immigration to Egypt of Jacob and family, and the imposition of corvée labor by the first pharaoh alarmed by the strength and numbers of his descendants.  According to Exodus 12:14, the Israelites were in Egypt a total of 430 years, making the time between their arrival and their initial enslavement no more than 340 years.  In Genesis 15:13-14 God says the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years, bringing that time down to no more than 310 years, which  Genesis 15:16 considers four generations.  Yet according to Exodus 6:16-20, Moses’ grandfather Kehat came down with Jacob, so there were only two generations.