Parshat Shemot 4

“And a new king arose that did not know Yosef.” (Shemot 1:8)

This passage introduces the initiation of Bnai Yisrael’s subjugation in Egypt. Our Sages disagree on the meaning of this passage. Rav understands the pasuk literally. The previous king died and a new king assumed authority. Shmuel disagrees. He argues that a new king did not come to power. The existing king changed his policies. He is called a new king because of this reversal.[1]

Both of these interpretations are designed to explain the sudden change in the Egyptian king’s attitude toward Bnai Yisrael. However these explanations share a problem. The pasuk describes a reversal. Bnai Yisrael were invited into Egypt. They were given autonomy and treated with respect. Suddenly, this changed. Paroh and his government began sponsoring the persecution of Bnai Yisrael. What caused this sudden change? The Chumash provides one hint. It comments that this new king did not know Yosef. Rav and Shmuel argue over whether this king was newly appointed or merely established new policies. Bur regardless of the interpretation, the implication of this hint is clear. Bnai Yisrael were treated well by the Egyptians in deference to Yosef. Once the Paroh and the Egyptians forgot Yosef, the persecution of the Jewish people began.

However, this hint does not provide a complete explanation of the change in treatment.. In order to appreciate the limitations of the pasuk’s explanation, some introduction is required. The Egyptian people respected Yosef. Understandably, they were grateful to him. He had saved Egypt from a destructive famine. It follows that this gratitude extended to Yosef’s family. The Egyptians’ regard for Yosef had tremendous impact on their treatment of his family. Generally, immigrant populations can expect little tolerance. Persecution of alien minorities is common. As long as Yosef was alive, his family was spared this treatment. Furthermore, the Egyptians treated Bnai Yisrael with a respect that sometimes bordered on awe. This is most apparent at Yaakov’s death. The Egyptians accompanied Yaakov’s children to Canaan in order to honor Yaakov. The respect showed by the Egyptians was so grand that the people of Canaan were deeply impressed.[2] In short, the treatment Bnai Yisrael received was the opposite of the norm for immigrant groups.

This raises two questions. First, why were the Egyptians so devoted to Bnai Yisrael? True, Yosef had saved Egypt. Certainly, the Egyptians were obligated to treat his family fairly. But the respect of the Egyptians for Yosef’s family went far beyond this requirement. What motivated the Egyptians? Second, as our pasuk explains, the Egyptians eventually forgot Yosef’s contribution to their country. It is understandable that this would lead to a cessation of the deferential treatment received by Bnai Yisrael. However, this is not what happened. The Egyptians initiated a policy of persecution. What caused this extreme change in the Egyptian attitude?

Nachmanides asks a related question in Parshat VaYigash. In that parasha, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers. He urges Yaakov to settle in Egypt with his family. In Egypt, he can protect them from ravages of the famine. The Torah comments that Paroh and his servants were pleased with this idea.[3] Why did Paroh and his government wish Yosef’s family to settle in Egypt? Nachmanides responds that Yosef created somewhat of an embarrassment for the Egyptians. He was a freed prisoner and a former servant. These are not the usual credentials for a prime minister. The Egyptians were far from comfortable with this situation. Now, the Egyptians discovered that Yosef was a member of a prestigious family. His brothers were regarded, in their land, as princes. This solved the Egyptians’ problem. Yosef’s brothers added to his credibility. He was worthy to serve as prime minister. He was a member of a distinguished family! The Egyptians were eager to receive Yosef’s family. They were the proof of Yosef’s worthiness to hold a high position.[4]

Nachmanides’ insight has far-reaching implications. The honor the Egyptians bestowed on Yosef’s family was not an expression of love or appreciation. The Egyptian’s did not overcome the prejudices that are generally felt towards foreigners. However, these feelings were suppressed. The Egyptians needed to elevate Bnai Yisrael in order to preserve their own self-respect! This explains the Egyptians unusual deference towards Bnai Yisrael. It was not motivated by gratitude. It was an expression of self-interest.

This need only existed as long as Yosef lived. With Yosef’s death, the Egyptians no longer needed to venerate his family. Now, all the suppressed prejudices emerged. Bnai Yisrael received the same treatment typically offered to the Jewish people in foreign lands. The persecution of Bnai Yisrael began!

“And He said, ‘Do not come close to here. Remove your shoes from your feet. For the place upon which you stand is holy ground.” (Shemot 3:5)

Moshe has his first prophetic vision. He sees a bush that is completely aflame. But the bush is not consumed. Moshe begins to contemplate the meaning of this strange vision. A voice calls to him from the bush. The voice instructs him to remove his shoes before approaching closer. He is treading upon sanctified ground.

What is the meaning of this command? Many of the commentaries choose a similar approach to interpreting this element of the vision. Moshe is preparing to consider the meaning of the burning bush. The voice instructs Moshe that some form of preparation is needed before he can proceed. This preparation is related to the sacred meaning of the vision.

Gershonides explains that the Almighty was directing Moshe to seek the inner meaning of the vision. Shoes protect our feet from the ground. They also prevent us from feeling the texture and detail under our feet. If we wish to fully feel with our feet, we must remove our shoes. The voice told Moshe that if he hoped to understand the inner meaning of this vision, he must apply himself fully. He must open his mind and feel carefully for both the subtlety and depth of the message.[5]

Abravanel offers a different explanation of this command. Moshe understood the vision as a representation of the suffering of Bnai Yisrael. This people had been thrown into the fire of persecution. Yet, they were not consumed. The survival of this tormented nation was a mystery to Moshe. He recognized that somehow the answer was contained in the vision. He began to contemplate the meaning of the vision more deeply. The voice instructed Moshe that he stood upon holy ground. The explanation of Bnai Yisrael’s survival could not be found in natural causes. The continued existence of Bnai Yisrael was an expression of G-d’s providence. Moshe must enter upon holy ground. He must contemplate the ways of the Almighty and His providence to find the answer. This requires that Moshe remove his material shoes. He must abandon the search for material explanations.

“And Moshe answered, ‘They will not believe me and they will not obey my voice. For they will say, ‘Hashem has not appeared to you.” (Shemot 4:1)

Hashem directs Moshe to address Bnai Yisrael. He is to reveal to them his mission. He is to tell them that Hashem will redeem them from Egypt. Through Moshe, the Almighty will take Bnai Yisrael out of Egypt and lead them to the land of Israel.

Moshe protests. The people will not follow him. They will not believe that Hashem has spoken to him. Certainly, they will not follow him through the wilderness to the land of Israel.

Moshe’s objections are difficult to understand. Moshe was not the first prophet. Hashem had spoken to the forefathers and others. None of these prophets raised Moshe’s objections. They did not contend that their prophecies would be denied or that they would be dismissed as madmen. Why did Moshe bring up these issues?

Maimonides deals with this question in his Moreh Nevuchim. He offers an amazing answer. Maimonides begins by explaining that Moshe’s objections were completely appropriate. He was to represent himself as the Almighty’s emissary. The nation should require Moshe to provide credentials. They would be fools if the followed Moshe without proof of his authenticity. Moshe recognized the legitimacy of Bnai YisraeVs suspicions.

Therefore, he asked Hashem to provide him with the means to verify his authenticity.

Based on this analysis, Maimonides reformulates our question. We cannot criticize Moshe’s concerns. However, we must ask a different question. Why did previous prophets not raise these issues? Why did Avraham not ask Hashem for some means to confirm his authenticity? Why was Moshe the first prophet to raise this issue?

Maimonides explains that Moshe was different from previous prophets. Previous prophets received prophecies aimed at guiding them towards their own personal perfection. Alternatively, their prophecies provided knowledge of their destiny or the future of their progeny. The people did not require these prophets to prove their authenticity. They did not speak to the people in the name of Hashem.

Maimonides further explains that Avraham did not speak to humanity as the Almighty’s spokesman. He addressed humankind as a teacher. He provided instruction based upon reason and argument. He presented rational proofs for his theology and philosophy. Avraham did not need to prove his prophetic status to the people. He never insisted that he be followed and obeyed as Hashem’s spokesman.

Moshe was the first prophet instructed to address a nation on behalf of the Almighty. Moshe was to reveal Hashem’s will and act as His spokesman. Moshe needed proof. He was confronted with a different and new mission. He was to represent the Almighty. He

needed to prove his authenticity.[6]

[1] Mesechet Eruvin 53a.

[2] Sefer Beresheit 50:11.

[3] Sefer Beresheit 45:16.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 45:16.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 9.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 63.