Haftarah: Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23 (Ashkenazi) | Yirmiyahu 1:1-2:3 (Sefardi) | Yechezkel 16:1-14 (Teimani)
[על-התורה] הפטרה: ישעיהו כז ו-כח יג; כט כב-כג (אשכנזים) | ירמיהו א א-ב ג (ספרדים) | יחזקאל טז א-יד (תימנים)
- After Yosef’s Generation
- Enslaved in Egypt
- The Hebrew Midwives
- Moshe in the Teva (Ark)
- Moshe Kills the Oppressive Egyptian and Flees to Midian
- The Burning Bush
- Moshe’s Rod
- The Appointment of Aharon
- Moshe Returns to Egypt
- “Let My People Go”
- Haftarah Summary
In Parashat Shemot, we are introduced to Bnei Yisrael’s greatest leader, Moshe Rabbenu. The literal bnei Yisrael, the children of Yaakov/Yisrael, have grown into an am, an entire nation. Sadly, as Yosef’s generation dies out and a new king arises in Egypt, the nascent nation of Israel is viewed with suspicion as a future threat to the Egyptians. The descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov are oppressed with hard labor and a decree that all male babies be killed at birth. G-d, however, remembers His promise to the forefathers and takes heed of Bnei Yisrael’s pain.
After Yosef’s Generation
Sefer Shemot (“The Book of Names”)1 opens with, indeed, a list of names: those of, literally, bnei Yisrael—the twelve sons of Yaakov/Yisrael—a total of seventy descendents. Yosef dies, along with his brothers and their entire generation (וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל אֶחָיו וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא). Then something surprising happens:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם:
But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them.Shemot 1:7
From the seventy descendants of Yaakov, a multitude issues.
Enslaved in Egypt
In this new generation, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Yosef” (וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף). Faced with a large non-Egyptian population that he views as a potential fifth column, the new pharaoh appoints “taskmasters” (sarei misim – שָׂרֵי מִסִּים) to supervise Bnei Yisrael. The intention was that the taskmasters oppress them (לְמַעַן עַנֹּתוֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָם); with forced labor, Bnei Yisrael were tasked with building the garrison cities (מִסְכְּנוֹת) of Pitom (פִּתֹם) and Raamses (רַעַמְסֵס). In spite of the rampant oppression, Bnei Yisrael continue to proliferate.
In response, the Egyptians double down on the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael:
וַיַּעֲבִדוּ מִצְרַיִם אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּפָרֶךְ: וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים וּבְכָל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה אֵת כָּל עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם בְּפָרֶךְ.
The Egyptians ruthlessly (be-farech) imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly (be-farech) they made life bitter (va-imareru) for them with harsh (kasha) labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.Shemot 1:13-14
The Hebrew Midwives
Then, the pharaoh devises a new cruel policy to impose on Bnei Yisrael. He instructs Hebrew midwives (מְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת) to check the sex of the newborn babies they deliver and to kill the males. Among the midwives, two, Shifra (שִׁפְרָה) and Puah (פּוּעָה) are mentioned by name. According to Midrash, these were alternate names for, respectively, Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, and either Miriam, Moshe’s sister, or Elisheva, the wife of Moshe’s brother Aharon.3
Paraoh, stymied, turns to citizen arrest. He instructs his people to seize Hebrew male babies and through them into the Nile.
Moshe in the Teva (Ark)
The narrative now tells us the story of a man from the tribe of Levi who marries a Levite woman. Together they have a son, who is so wonderful (כִּי טוֹב הוּא) that she hides him for three months.
When the mother can no longer conceal her baby, she prepares an wicker ark (tevat gomeh – תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא) for him, sealing it against water with bitumen (asphalt) and pitch (tar) (בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת). She places the baby carefully into the ark and sets it afloat on the Nile. The baby’s sister positions herself strategically by the river’s edge so she can see what happens to her brother.
Paroah’s daughter (בַּת פַּרְעֹה) goes down to the Nile, accompanied by her servants, to bathe. Spotting the ark, she sends a servant to fetch the basket. Opening it, she sees the baby, who is crying. Taking compassion on the baby, Paraoh’s daughter realizes that he must be one of the Hebrew children (מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה).
Sensing the opportunity, the baby’s sister offers to get a Hebrew wetnurse for Paraoh’s daughter. When Paraoh’s daughter agrees, the sister naturally enough gets her (and the baby’s) mother. The baby’s mother thus is able to care for him for a time longer.
After the child grows, his mother takes him back to Paraoh’s daughter, who adopts the boy as her son. She names his Moshe, “because I drew him (meshitihu) out of the water” (כִּי מִן הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ).
Moshe Kills the Oppressive Egyptian and Flees to Midian
Having reached maturity, Moshe witnesses the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians:
וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו:
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.4Shemot 2:11
Making sure no one is looking, Moshe strikes down the oppressor and buries him in the sand. However, the next day, when he seeks to break up a fight between two Hebrews, they complain: “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט עָלֵינוּ הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי). This indicates to Moshe that word has gotten out that he killed the Egyptian. He’s frightened and for good reason: when Paraoh learns of the situation, he seeks capital punishment for Moshe. But Moshe manages to flee from Paraoh and finds shelter in Midian.
In Midian, which is outside of Egypt, Moshe sits down by the well. Seven sisters, the daughters of a priest of Midian (כֹהֵן מִדְיָן), come to draw water from the well. When local shepherds try to chase them off, Moshe comes to their assistance. They return home early and tell their father,5 whose name is now given as Reuel (רְעוּאֵל), who has helped them. He tells them to bring the man in for a meal, and Moshe stays in the house of Reuel.
Moshe eventually married his daughter, Tzippora (צִפֹּרָה). They have a son together who Moshe names Gershom (גֵּרְשֹׁם), because “I have been a stranger (ger) in a foreign land.” (גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה). Moshe stays in Midian for a long time.
Back in Egypt, the oppression of Bnei Yisrael remains difficult. They cry out for help and Hashem hears their cries. Remembering His covenant (brit) with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Hashem “took notice of them” (וַיֵּדַע).
The Burning Bush
One day, tending his father-in-law’s flock, Moshe drives the animals into the wilderness (midbar – מִּדְבָּר) to Chorev, “which is the mountain of G-d” (הַר הָאֱלֹקים חֹרֵבָה).6 (Here Moshe’s father-in-law is called Yitro – יִתְרוֹ). There a messenger of G-d appears to him:
וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל:
A messenger of Hashem appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumedShemot 3:2
When Hashem sees that he has Moshe’s attention, he calls out to him, twice, as he did with Avraham. Moshe responds with the significant answer: hineni – הִנֵּנִי, “Here I am.” Hashem tells Moshe to remove his shoes, because “the place on which you stand is holy ground” (הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת קֹדֶשׁ הוּא). He then tells Moshe that he is the G-d of his forefathers; Moshe turns away in awe. Hashem informs Moshe that he has heard the cries of Bnei Yisrael. Then He promises:
וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה אֶל אֶרֶץ :זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ אֶל מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי
I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Chivites, and the Yevusites.Shemot 3:8
Hashem then tells Moshe that he will return to Eygpt and be the one through which Bnei Yisrael will be freed. Moshe demurs, feeling himself inadequate to the task, but Hashem promises to be with him and tells him he and all the people will come to freely worship G-d at Chorev.
Moshe asks Hashem what to say when the people ask about G-d’s Name. The response is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh—אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה,” meaning I Will Be As I Will Be or I Am as I Am or (per the Koren translation) I Will Ever Be What I Now Am. Hashem repeats the enduring promises made to the patriarchs and the promise of the Land, saying, “
וַאֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי לֹא יִתֵּן אֶתְכֶם מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַהֲלֹךְ וְלֹא בְּיָד חֲזָקָה: וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת יָדִי :וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת מִצְרַיִם בְּכֹל נִפְלְאֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יְשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם
Yet I know that the king of Egypt will let you go only because of a mighty hand (yad chazaka). So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.Shemot 3:19-20
In addition, Hashem instructs Moshe in how the people might amass wealth, such that they do not leave Egypt empty-handed.
Moshe is still concerned that the people will not believe him and follow him. G-d tells him to take his rod and cast it on the ground. When Moshe does so, the rod turns into a snake. Though Moshe recoils, G-d tells him to reach out and grasp it by the tail, whereupon it returns to being a rod.
Next, Moshe is instructed to hold his hand against his body; when he removes it, it is “encrusted with snowy scales” of tzaraat (מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג). Told to put his hand back, he then sees it turn back into healthy skin. This is the second sign that Moshe is given to show to the people. But in case it too proves ineffective, Hashem tells him to take water from the Nile and spill it on the ground, whereupon it will turn into blood.
The Appointment of Aharon
Moshe next worries that his poor speech will get in the way of his leadership:
לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי:
“I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”Shemot 4:10
Hashem responds with encouragement, reminding Moshe that it is He who grants the ability to speak, see, and hear to humans. But Moshe still asks: “Please make someone else Your agent” (שְׁלַח נָא בְּיַד תִּשְׁלָח). Angered (‘וַיִּחַר אַף ה), Hashem finally agrees:
הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי יָדַעְתִּי כִּי דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא וְגַם הִנֵּה הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ: וְדִבַּרְתָּ אֵלָיו וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת הַדְּבָרִים בְּפִיו וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִם פִּיךָ וְעִם פִּיהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן: וְדִבֶּר הוּא לְךָ אֶל הָעָם וְהָיָה הוּא יִהְיֶה לְּךָ לְפֶה :וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים
“There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do—and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the leader.”Shemot 4:14-16
Moshe Returns to Egypt
Moshe returns to his Midianite father-in-law, and asks to take leave of him to return to his people. Yitro tells him to go in peace (לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם). Hashem tells Moshe that all those who sought to kill him in Egypt have died themselves. And so Moshe sets off with his wife, children, and the rod of G-d (מַטֵּה הָאֱלֹ’הִקים).
Hashem reminds Moshe to perform all the wonders He has shown him but explains, “I, however, will stiffen (echazek) his [Paraoh’s] heart so that he will not let the people (am) go” (וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח אֶת הָעָם).
At an encampment along the way, Hashem encounters Moshe again and seeks to kill him. Rashi on Shemot 4:24 explains that this is because Moshe had failed to circumcise his son Eliezer. Tzippora, Moshe’s wife, takes a flint and cuts offher son’s foreskin. She takes the blood, touches it to his legs, and says to him: “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” (כִּי חֲתַן דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי). It is not entirely clear who the referent is here; Rashi on Shemot 4:25 suggests the “he” is the son and Ibn Ezra on Shemot 4:25 says it refers to Moshe. Either way, Tzipporah staves off the threat to Moshe’s life by performing the circumcision.
Moshe goes on ahead to meet Aharon. He tells Aharon about all that has happened and about his mission. Moshe and Aharon go and assemble of elders of Bnei Yisrael and Moshe performs the wonders for them. The elders are convinced of the veracity of G-d’s words and bow in homage.
“Let My People Go”
Moshe and Aharon go to Paraoh and say to him:
:כֹּה אָמַר ה’ אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר
“Thus says Hashem, the G-d of Yisrael: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.”Shemot 5:1
Paraoh, with his hardened heart, objects that he is unfamiliar with the G-d of Yisrael and he won’t accede to the demand. He barks at Moshe and Aharon to get back to their slave labor. In fact, he decides to make life even harder for Bnei Yisrael: instead of providing them with straw for their mandatory brick-making, they’ll now have to gather it themselves.
The taskmasters report this decree to the people, emphasizing that they are still responsible for producing just as many bricks as before. Those who fail are beaten. When Bnei Yisrael explain that the task is impossible, Paraoh insists that they are just trying to shirk their responsibilities and giving the excuse of worshipping their G-d.
When the people take leave of Paraoh, they blame Moshe and Aharon for worsening the condition of their lives. Moshe turns to Hashem and asks him why He has put him in this position: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has dealt worse with this people” (וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל פַּרְעֹה לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ הֵרַע לָעָם הַזֶּה ). But Hashem reassures Moshe:
עַתָּה תִרְאֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לְפַרְעֹה כִּי בְיָד חֲזָקָה יְשַׁלְּחֵם וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה יְגָרְשֵׁם :מֵאַרְצוֹ
“You shall soon see what I will do to Paraoh: he shall let them go because of a mighty hand (be-yad chazaka); indeed, because of a mighty hand (be-yad chazaka) he shall drive them from his land.”Shemot 6:1
The haftarot for Parashat Shemot vary substantially among the different minhagim. This is due to two factors. One is that the Sefardi haftarah is based on the Babylonian custom while the Ashkenazi haftarah derives from the custom of Eretz-Yisrael. Secondarily, the Babylonian haftarah is the difficult, harsh prophecy of Yechezkel 16, known as בהודע את ירושלם, preserved in the custom of Teiman (Yemen). Due to the explicit statement of Rabbi Eliezer in Mishnah Megillah 4:10 that we do not read בהודע את ירושלם for haftarah, as well as its subject matter, it was replaced for the most part in Sefarad by the opening prophecy of Yirmiyahu.7
Sefardi Haftarah – דברי ירמיהו בן חלקיהו
The haftarah adopted in Sefarad is from the beginning of Sefer Yirmiyahu, in which Yirmiyahu, like Moshe, worries that he is not equal to the mission he is being given by Hashem. Just as Moshe objects that his speech is imperfect, Yirmiyahu says: “I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy”(אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי).
Ashkenazi Haftarah – הבאים ישרש יעקב
[Yeshayahu 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23]
The Ashkenazi haftarah is based on the practice for the ancient triennial cycle of Torah reading (in which the Torah was completed every three and a half years rather than annually). According to this practice, haftarot are selected for literary ties to the parsha rather than thematic ones, as for the annual cycle’s haftarot. Thus, the opening pasuk of this haftarah recalls the opening of Sefer Shemot, containing several of the same words. After some harsh rebuke, the haftarah kumps to perek 29 for twp pesukim of consolation.
Teimani Haftarah – בהודע את ירושלם
As mentioned above, the Teimani tradition preserves the haftarah used in Babylonia, which is the haunting, distressing prophecy in Yechezkel 16. In this vision, Israel is likened to an abandoned baby. The graphic description of the child’s plight recall the difficult fate decreed by Paraoh for Jewish baby boys, and in particular the helplessness of Moshe as an abandoned baby. However, the baby is adopted and cared for by G-d Himself.
Image: Frida Kahlo, Moisés, 1945.
- For more on the (various) names by which the books of the Torah are known, see the my introduction to Sefer Bereshit.
- That is, either a mother and daughter or a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. See Sotah 11b.
The midwives, however, out of reverence for Hashem, ignore the pharaoh’s directive (וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹקים). Called to question for their failure to kill the male babies, the midwives reply that Hebrew women are vigorous and generally give birth before a midwife can even reach them.
As a result of this subterfuge and Hashem’s guidance, Bnei Yisrael continue to grow in large numbers. In response to the midwives’ fauthfulness, Hashem “established households (batim) for them” (וַיְהִי כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹקים וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים).2Rashi, following Sotah 11b, sees this as a reference to the building up of the houses of Levites (through Yocheved) and a royal dynasty (through Miriam). See Rashi on Shemot 1:21.
- Does this mean that Moshe knew he was a Hebrew? Ibn Ezra on Shemot 2:11 assumes that Moshe thought of himself as an Egyptian; Ramban on Shemot 2:11 states that Moshe had been informed he was from Bnei Yisrael.
- Or grandfather—see Ibn Ezra on Shemot 2:18.
- Ibn Ezra on Shemot 3:1 suggests that this identification was later made by Moshe; Rashi on Shemot 3:1 also suggests that it’s a future-oriented statement.
- For more on this, including lots of great manuscript evidence, see Eli Duker, “The Haftarah of Parashat Shemot,” The Seforim Blog (blog), January 7, 2021.