Shemot – Rishon

History Repeats Itself for the Very First Time

By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

This aliyah begins with a recap of the names of Yaakov’s sons, who descended to Egypt. (Names = Shemos, hence the name of this sedra and the Hebrew name of this Book!) All told, there were seventy blood relatives of Yaakov, including Yoseif and his sons, who were already in Egypt. The generation of Yoseif and his brothers passed away, but their descendants were impressively prolific.

A new king – perhaps a whole new dynasty – arose and, under this new regime, Yoseif’s contributions to Egypt’s survival and prosperity were not acknowledged. Just the opposite – the nation was becoming anxious about the growing number of Jews in their midst! The Egyptian king told his people that they must deal with the “Jewish problem” before the Jews join Egypt’s enemies and go out of the land. (This was a euphemism for driving the Egyptians themselves out of the land.)

And so, the Israelites were enslaved and forced to build storage cities. The Egyptians increasingly oppressed them, but the Jews remained distressingly prolific, so the intensity of the work was stepped up. Something had to be done about the birth rate, so Pharaoh summoned the Jewish midwives. (We are told that the midwives’ names were Shifra and Puah; they are Midrashically identified with Yocheved and Miriam, although that interpretation is not universal.)

Pharaoh instructed the midwives when they delivered babies, not to let the males survive. The midwives were righteous and they risked their own lives by disobeying Pharaoh rather than carrying out this heinous order.

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