Numbers in [brackets] are the mitzva-count according to the Sefer HaChinuch. Other counts vary.
First Aliya – First Aliya – 17 p’sukim – 1:1-17
Sh’mot begins with the conjunctive VAV to link the birth of the Jewish Nation with the foundation laid by the Patriarchs in the book of B’reishit. The sons of Yaakov are lovingly enumerated once again. The starting number of “70 souls” is repeated to impress upon us the tremendous growth of the people even under the oppressionofEgypt.[SDT] The opening words of the sedra/book of Shmot form the initial letters of V’chayav Adam Lilmod Sh’nayim Mikra V’echad Targum – And a person is obligated to review the Torah text twice and once in translation. Baal HaTurim extends this acronym to the next two words. His whole statement is: “One who learns the sedra2+1,singing it pleasantly, shall merit long life.” [SDT] The final letters of the opening words (sofei teivot) rearrange to spell the word T’HILIM. When the People of Israel are in trouble (a play-on- words of the name for Egypt – MITZRAYIM), they shall use T’hilim to help them focus their prayers to G-d, thereby meriting redemption. [SDT] Our first exile was associated with the number 70, the number assigned the members of Yaakov’s family who went down to Egypt. The exile following the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash lasted 70 years. The termination of the final exile will be associated with our dominance over, or recognition and respect bythe 70 nations of the world.
A new king “who does not know Yosef” considers the Jewish people a threat and takes measures to enslave and demoralize them. (Interestingly, he is the first one to refer to us as a nation – “Am Bnei Yisrael”, has a nice ring, no?) He even instructs the midwives to kill the baby boys at birth to prevent the development ofhis “potential enemies” (or to kill off the potential redeemer of the People). They refuse to do his bidding and save the lives of the boys.[SDT] Va’t’chayena et HaY’ladim …and they gave life to the boys”. The Midrash says that not only did the midwives defy Par’o by not killing the boys, they also were responsible for saving those that might have died during childbirth. It is natural that some babies do not survive birth. The midwives were concerned thatif they happened to deliver a stillborn, it should not appear as if they had carried out Par’o’s orders. Their prayers were answered, and miraculously none of the babies died. Thus they are credited, not just with assisting the births, but also with giving life to some of the babies.
There is a parallel idea re the night of the Exodus. It is said that even the normal deaths that might be expected in a large population did not occur on the night of the Exodus, lest it detract from the miraculous nature of the Night.[sdt] AND THEY EMBITTERED THEIR LIVES… The trup (Torah notes) on these words seem unduly happy for such sad words. The Vilna Gaon points out the “happy” result of the unusually harsh oppression of the Egyptians, namely, that G-d reacted to Egypt’s excesses by cutting down our time in bondage to 210 years from the originalprophecy of 400 years. This was done by counting from the birth of Yitzchak, rather than from Yaakov’s descent into Egypt. This can be seen as the sweet Charoset on the Bitter Maror.
Second Aliya – 15 p’sukim – 1:18-2:10
When Par’o sees that his goal is not being accomplished, he orders that all male babies (Jew & non-Jew alike) be drowned. The People of Israel miraculously flourish under these adverse conditions.[SDT] The Midrash matches the three redeemers of Israel with three different threats to the people, as follows: “And they embittered their lives with hard labor…” – Miriam the Prophetess was born to be instrumental in the redemption. The root of the name MIRIAM is the same as “bitter”. “If it is a boy, you shall killhim.”- corresponding to this threat to pregnancy (in Hebrew, HEIRAYON), Aharon was born (his name has a similar root). “All boys shall be thrown into the river” – Moshe (“for from the water he was drawn”) is the antidote to that terrible decree.
Amram reunites with Yocheved and a baby boy is born. When he is no longer able to be hidden (some say that Moshe was three months premature; that the Egyptians knew when Yocheved was due; therefore she was able to hide him only for those three months), Yocheved prepares a waterproof basket and sets him on the river underthe watchful eye of his sister.
Bat Par’o finds Moshe and sends Miriam to bring a wetnurse for the crying infant who apparently will not nurse from an Egyptian breast. Miriam brings Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who takes Moshe until he is weaned. From that point on, Moshe is raised in the royal palace by Bat Par’o (Batya). She names him Moshe.[SDT] Egyptian astrologers read in the stars that Israel’s redeemer was soon to be born. They recommended the systematic drowning of all baby boys (including non-Jews, since they were not sure of what nation this redeemer would come). When Moshe was floated on the Nile, the astrologers reported to Par’o that Israel’s redeemerwas indeed “cast into the river”. As a result of this not quite accurate reading of the stars, Par’o withdrew the decree to drown the boys. [SDT] On the phrase: VAYEILECH ISH… And a man (from the house of Levi) went… the Baal HaTurim points out the only other occurrence of that phrase, in the book of Ruth: VAYEILECH ISH MI’BEIT LECHEM YEHUDA… In both cases, a redeemer of Israel results. In our case, Moshe. In Megilat Ruth, the progenitor of Mashiach benDavid.
“And she called his name Moses, for from the water he was drawn.”
Does not quite make it in English. This is one of the proofs that the Torah was written in Hebrew. Similarly, ADAM was made from the ADAMA. Try that in English. Or other languages.
Third Aliya – 15 p’sukim – 2:11-25
It is noteworthy how many significant events are packed into these 15 p’sukim. Moshe goes out to see what is happening with the Jewish People. He kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. He breaks up a fight between two Jews (Datan & Aviram). They had seen him kill the Egyptian and report him to Par’o. Moshe flees to Midyanwhere he saves Yitro’s daughters from danger. He takes Tzipora as a wife. She gives birth to a son, Gershom. Meanwhile, the oppression in Egypt is greatly intensified. The People react by calling out to G-d. He too, reacts…[sdt] Yosef was identified by the Wine Steward as a NAAR IVRI, a Jewish lad. Moshe was identified by Yitro’s daughters as ISH MITZRI, an Egyptian man. Yosef was privileged to have his remains buried in the Land of Israel. Moshe apparently did not have that same “z’chut”. [sdt] Moshe said ACHEIN NODA HADAVAR, thus the fact is known. The Sfat Emet sees in these words a powerful Mussar lesson for us. When two Jews would fight each other, when Jews would inform on another to Par’o, then the fact is obvious – why do the Jewish People suffer exile more bitterly than other nations.
Fourth Aliya – 15 p’sukim – 3:1-15
Moshe is tending Yitro’s sheep. An angel appears to him from a “burning bush that is not consumed”. Moshe shies away; G-d calls to him. He tells Moshe that He has heard the screams of the People and that he is going to take them out of Egypt and bring them to a Land of Milk and Honey.[SDT] The Gemara in Brachot teaches us that it is from the Torah’s reference to “a Land flowing with milk & honey” that we learn that milk (of a kosher animal) is permissible for us to drink. We might have thought that an animal’s milk is akin to “limb from a living animal”, which would render it a forbidden food. It isinconceivable, though, that the Torah would choose a non-kosher product in describing the Holy Land. Similarly, honey appears to be the product of the non-kosher bee. If so, it would not be permitted. But the bee processes the honey – it is not considered coming from the bee. It is permissible to us.
Moshe asks “why me?”. G-d assures Moshe that He will be with him and that as proof of the divine nature of his mission, Moshe will be bringing the people back to “this spot” (Sinai) to “serve G-d” (and receive the Torah). Furthermore, Moshe is to “reintroduce” G-d to the People.
Moshe asks G-d what he should tell the People when he comes to them at G-d command. G-d’s answer spans 9 p’sukim (3:14-22). G-d identifies Himself as E’H’YEH ASHER E’H’YEH (Alef-Hei-Yud-Hei is one of the 7 names of G-d that may not be erased.) G-d gives Moshe detailed instructions as to what to say to the people. He tellsMoshe how the people will react and how Par’o will react. He tells him about the plagues and about the “friendly” reaction of the Egyptian people.
Fifth Aliya – 24 p’sukim – 3:16-4:17
The prophecy at the Bush continues… G-d tells Moshe: (a) to gather the elders of Israel and tell them that G-d will be taking them out of Egypt and bringing them to the Land of Israel, (b) the elders will accompany Moshe to present the demand for release before Par’o, (c) Par’o will not acquiesce, (d) I will smite Egyptand then they will send you out, (e) the Egyptians will “lend” the People of Israel many belongings.
Moshe asks “on what basis will they believe me?” G-d gives Moshe three signs to perform for Par’o and the People. Moshe still questions G-d as to why him; G-d gets angry at Moshe for doubting His choice of leader. G-d informs Moshe that Aharon will assist in these matters. Moshe is instructed to have his special staff withhimwhen he presents himself to the People and Par’o.[sdt] The Staff – HAMATEH. Baal HaTurim says that there is/was a scribal custom to put Torah crowns on the TET in the word THE STAFF. This, to say that Moshe was the ninth righteous individual who had the miraculous staff in hand. (Pirkei Avot tells us that the Staff was one of the items created in the instant between theSix Days of Creation and the first Shabbat B’reishit.) The previous 8: Adam, Chanoch, No’ach, Shem, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef. [SDT] The Midrash says that Moshe had several names – Yered, Chever, Y’kutiel, Avigdor, Avi-Socho, Avi-Zanu’ach, Tovia, Heiman, Sh’maya. The Midrash further tells us that of all his names he is only called Moshe – even by G-d – to give honor to the acts of kindness of the one who found him and saved him from the water -Bat Par’o
Sixth Aliya – 14 p’sukim – 4:18-31
Moshe returns to Yitro and tells him that he must go to his brethren. Yitro sends Moshe on his way.
G-d tells Moshe that it is safe for him to do so.
Moshe takes his wife and sons and returns to Egypt. G-d reminds Moshe about the signs he is to use before Par’o, that Par’o will not listen, and that he (Moshe) is to say to Par’o that if he does not release the People, G-d will kill his firstborn.
On the way, Tzipora circumcises her son. Commentaries explain that Moshe had neither circumcised his son Eliezer because of the danger in traveling when recently circumcised, nor did he postpone his return to Egypt, which would have been in defiance of G-d’s command. It seems that he was in error in not having circumcisedhim, hence his life was in jeopardy until Tzipora performed the circumcision.
G-d tells Aharon to greet Moshe. Moshe tells Aharon all that has happened. They gather the elders and Aharon tells them what will occur.The People believe what they hear and bow to G-d.[sdt] Rashi says that the donkey that Moshe used to bring his family to Mitzrayim was the same one that Avraham took to the Akeida and the one that the Moshiach will ride upon. Why not a regular donkey? To convey the idea that these monumental events were not haphazard, but specially prepared parts of G-d’s master planfor the world.
Seventh Aliya – 24 p’sukim – 5:1-6:1
“And afterwards, Moshe and Aharon go” to Par’o and say to him “Let my People go…”[SDT] Notice that the elders are not mentioned. Rashi tells us that one- by-one the elders “disappeared” (in fear of Par’o) as the entourage was going to Par’o, until only Moshe and Aharon were left. So it was to be at Sinai. The elders were left at the foot of the mountain and Aharon and Moshe ascended. (Then Aharon stoppedand Moshe proceeded to the top alone.)
Par’o refuses, questioning who this G-d of Israel is. He then increases the burden on the People (who obviously have too much free time because they ask for a 3-day release). The leaders of the People bear the brunt of the new edicts and complain to Par’o. Par’o blames Moshe; the People react with anger and disappointment.Moshe tells G-d that his efforts were counter-productive. G-d says that NOW you (Moshe) will see what G-d will do to Par’o…[SDT] G-d explains to Moshe that this “failure” is a prelude to the grand Exodus. The Gemara says that “Ben David (the Moshiach) will not come until… the people will despair of Redemption”. (There are many variant ways that statement is made in the Gemara; this is one of them.) Here is the “proof” of the statement: G-dsays NOW (and not before, when the People were still hopeful) the Geula is ready to come, because the people are so disappointed with the results of the latest visit with Par’o.
The final 3 p’sukim are reread for the Maftir.
23 p’sukim – Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13 and 29:22-23
As the sedra tells of the family of Yaakov in exile, so does the prophet tell of the exiles of the People of Israel. The sedra contains G-d’s prophecy to Moshe Rabeinu at the Burning Bush of the redemption of Israel, the subsequent Standing at Sinai, and the entrance into the Land flowing with Milk and Honey. The Haftaracontains the prophecy that there will come a day when the Great Shofar will sound, and the exiles will come from their places of dispersion, and they will come to serve HaShem and bow to Him in Yerushalayim. The sedra speaks of the First Redemption; the haftara refers to the Final Redemption.
The parallels are very strong. We can summarize all of Jewish National life by saying that it began with the slavery in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus from there, and it “ends” (this long chapter of our existence) with the Ingathering of the Exiles and the other events associated with that great and greatly anticipatedera.
This is one of the sedras for which different communities read different Haftaras.
Sephardim read as the Haftara for Sh’mot, the first chapter in Yirmiyahu, which is also the Haftara for Pinchas or Matot (the first of the 3 “sad” haftaras during the Three Weeks). In A Haftara Companion, Rabbi Jacobs points out the “obvious” connections between Parshat Sh’mot and the beginning of Yirmiyahu. We read ofthe first prophecies of Moshe and Yirmiyahu, their hesitations to respond to the call, and the fact that they were saved from the Nile by a maidservant and saved from a pit by a manservant respectively. Both had an active prophecy-career of 40 years. In the final p’sukim of the Haftara (S’fardi version) there is a beautifulreference made to our wandering in the Midbar. This is alluded to in Moshe’s very first prophecy at the Burning Bush.