“These are the names of the Bnai Yisrael that came to Egypt with Yaakov, each man and his household.” (Shemot 1:1)
This pasuk introduces Sefer Shemot. Nachmanides, in his introduction to Sefer Shemot discusses the theme of Sefer Beresheit and this Sefer. He explains that the theme of Sefer Beresheit is creation. He acknowledges that this assertion raises a question. It is true that Parshat Beresheit describes the creation of the universe. Parshat Noach is a continuation of this discussion. Hashem destroyed the world through the Deluge and then reconstructed it. At the end of Parshat Noach the Dispersion is discussed. This event was crucial in forming the various peoples and societies. However, beginning from the end of Parshat Noach the theme seems to change. Avraham is introduced. From that point forward, the Sefer deals with the forefathers. In short, only a small portion of the Sefer seems to deal with creation. How can this be reconciled the Nachmanides claim that the entire Sefer is an account of creation?
Nachmaindes explains that the account of the lives of the Avot the forefathers is also a description of creation. These events tell of the creation of Bnai Yisrael. The theme is still creation. In other words, first the Sefer begins with the creation of the universe. Then, it continues with the description of the formation of the Jewish people. Nachmaides seems to imply that these two aspects of creation are related. The implication is that the creation of a nation that will receive the Torah is central to the purpose of the universe. The revelation of the Torah is essential to the completion of the universe. Nachmanides further elaborates on Sefer Beresheit’s discussion of the formation of Bnai Yisrael. He explains that the account of the lives of the Avot provides many illusions to the events that would occur to their descendants. In other words, many of the experiences of the Avot were harbingers of Bnai Yisrael’s future. According to this assertion, the Avot were not merely the ancestors of the Jewish people. Their lives presaged the experiences of their descendants. In a sense, their lives and experiences formed the future of Bnai Yisrael.
This thesis appears to be somewhat mystical. However, it does not need to be explained as a mystical concept. Perhaps, Nachmanides maintains that the Almighty used the lives of the Avot to provide guidance to Bnai Yisrael. An example will clarify this concept. Avraham went to Egypt in order to escape famine in Canaan. In Egypt, Sara was taken by Paroh. Hashem punished Paroh. Paroh released Sara. Avraham and Sara returned to Canaan. Nachmanides explains, based on the Midrash, that these events served as a precursor to the experiences of Bnai Yisrael. Avraham’s descendants would also be confronted with famine. At Yosef’s behest, they would descend to Egypt. They too would be persecuted by Paroh. However, eventually Paroh and the Egyptians would be severely punished. Bnai Yisrael would be redeemed. The nation would return to the Land of Israel. What is the function of this precursor? Avraham’s experiences offered hope to Bnai Yisrael. The nation knew that their forefather Avraham had also suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. He too was in an apparently hopeless situation. However, the Almighty miraculously saved Avraham and redeemed him from his suffering. Avraham’s experiences offered hope to the Jewish people. The redemption of Avraham proved that they too could depend on the salvation of Hashem. Based on this example, we can explain Nachmanides’ thesis.
The Almighty provides counsel and hope to Bnai Yisrael through the experiences of the Avot. Through the lives of the forefathers, Hashem instructs Bnai Yisrael. The people can study the experiences of their ancestors. These events offer hope and guidance to the nation. According to Nachmanides, the theme of Sefer Shemot is redemption. The Sefer begins with the redemption of the Jewish nation from Egypt. However, this rescue from persecution was not a complete redemption. The Sefer discusses the receiving of the Torah and the building of the Tabernacle. Nachmanides explains that these events were part of the process of redemption. The redemption was not complete until the Tabernacle was constructed and the Divine Presence rested among Bnai Yisrael. These comments seem to contradict Nachmanides’ position on the importance of the Land of Israel. Nachmanides maintains that the Torah is fundamentally designed to be observed as a comprehensive system. It governs individual action and also national behavior. The Torah only realizes this design when the nation is in the Land of Israel. In other words, the Torah is designed for observance in the Land of Israel. Clearly, Nachmanides maintains that the Land of Israel is central to the observance of the Torah. Therefore, it would seem that the redemption was not complete until the nation entered and captured the Land of Israel. Yet, Nachmanides asserts that the redemption was completed in the wilderness! The presence of the Almighty in the camp of Bnai Yisrael completed the redemption.
It seems that Nachmanides maintains that there are two aspects to redemption. Redemption is both a personal and a national experience. On a personal level, redemption occurs through establishing an intimate relationship with the Almighty. This relationship can occur in the Land of Israel and also in exile. The nation that left Egypt was able to achieve this intimacy with Hashem while still in the wilderness. They attained personal redemption. However, national redemption cannot be achieved in the wilderness. National redemption requires the complete implementation of the Torah. This only occurs with the possession of the Land of Israel. This resolves the contradiction in Nachmanides. Sefer Shemot tells the story of the redemption. The generation of the wilderness achieved complete personal redemption when the Divine Presence descended within the camp. However, Nachmanides maintains that, as a nation, the redemption process was only completed with the occupation of the Land of Israel and the complete implementation of the Torah.
“And take this staff in your hand. You will perform with it the signs.” (Shemot 4:17)
Hashem tells Moshe to return to Egypt. He is to take his staff with him. With the staff, he will perform wonders. What was the purpose of the staff? Moshe performed miracles through the Almighty’s intervention into nature. Hashem does not need Moshe’s staff! This staff did not have magical powers. Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) suggests a simple interpretation of the staff. He maintains that the staff is a symbol of authority. Moshe would turn water into blood, cover Egypt in darkness and even split the sea. Moshe, through Hashem, would alter the natural order. Hashem had accorded Moshe power and authority over nature. Moshe was to be nature’s ruler. The staff symbolized this authority over natural law.
“And Moshe returned to Hashem and he said, “G-d, why have you mistreated this nation? Why have you sent me?” (Shemot 5:22)
Moshe goes to Paroh. He tells Paroh that the Almighty has commanded Bnai Yisrael to go out to the wilderness. There, they are to worship Hashem. Paroh refuses to allow Bnai Yisrael to travel into the wilderness or worship the Almighty. Furthermore, Paroh increases the burden of Bnai Yisrael. He demands more labor from the Jewish people. Moshe is troubled by this outcome. In our pasuk Moshe addresses the Almighty. He recounts that Hashem told him that the Jewish people would be redeemed. G-d sent him to Paroh to demand their freedom. Moshe had dutifully followed Hashem’s directions. However, he had failed to achieve any positive result. Instead, Moshe’s actions had increased the suffering of the nation! How can this outcome be reconciled with Hashem’s promise to redeem His nation? The commentaries are troubled by Moshe’s question. The Almighty had revealed to Moshe that Paroh would not acquiesce to his request. Paroh would only relent as a result of overpowering plagues. Moshe should not have been surprised by Paroh’s response. The required plagues had not yet begun!
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers an interesting response. The final redemption would be the exodus from Egypt. Moshe understood that this ultimate step would require overwhelming force. Moshe did not question the delay in this final stage of rescue. However, Moshe expected some immediate improvement in the condition of Bnai Yisrael. In other words, he assumed that redemption would be a process. The final step would only be secured through the plagues. But the process would begin immediately. Therefore, Moshe was shocked by the deterioration in Bnai Yisrael’s condition. Nachmanides explains Moshe’s question differently. Moshe understood that Paroh would only respond to force. He was not surprised that Paroh increased his torment of the Jewish people. But he was shocked that the Almighty did not respond and punish Paroh. Moshe expected the plagues to begin immediately. Instead, the Almighty was silent. Moshe was puzzled. If the time had come for redemption, let the process begin. If the moment of redemption had not yet arrived, why had he been sent to Egypt? Moshe had spoken to the people of their salvation but not produced any positive results. This could only undermine Moshe’s credibility.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot Introduction.
Sefer Beresheit 12:10-20.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 12:10.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot Introduction.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 11:18.
Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer BeMidbar Introduction
Sefer Shemot 3:20.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 5:22-23.
Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 5:22.