Parshat Shemot: Of Stars and Civil Disobedience

by

By Rabbi Mira Rivera

Synopsis of Shemot 1: 1-17

 

  • Seventy descendants of Yaakov came down to Egypt. The seventy increased in number and filled the land. (v.1-7)
  • After Yosef and his generation died, a new Pharaoh came into power who no longer knew Yosef. (v. 6-8)
  • He informed his subjects that the Israelite population had multiplied and needed to be managed with cunning, or they might join with adversaries of Egypt in war and aggression. (v. 9-10)
  • The Egyptians let taskmasters loose on them with the order to construct storage cities for Pharaoh, Pithom and Raamses. Nevertheless, the Israelites continued to increase in number (v. 10-12)
  • Back-breaking work embittered them. They labored hard in brick and mortar and worked in the fields. (v.14)
  • The Pharaoh ordered Shiphrah and Puah, midwives to Hebrew women or Hebrew midwives, to kill the sons but to allow the daughters to live. (v. 15-16)
  • Fear of God prevailed upon the midwives. They saved the male children and allowed the daughters to survive. (v. 17)

Shemot Verses 1 -4

 

  1. “These are the names of the sons of Yisrael who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household:
  2. Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah;
  3. Issachar, Zebulun, and Binyamin;
  4. Dan and Naftali; Gad and Asher.”

Traditional text explains “These are the names of the sons of Yisrael.” The Rabbis explain the list of names in Shemot 1:1 in the light of the names in Psalm 147:4: “He counts the number of the stars; He assigns names שמות to all of them.” Thus when Yisrael came down to Egypt, God counted their number and having been compared to stars, God addressed them by their names.

 

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, reads the text as saying that since “the Israelites were fertile and prolific”, it was necessary to repeat that when they came to Egypt, there were no more than seventy of them. But after the death of that generation, “they were fruitful and they teemed,” and “a new king arose” who tried to deal wisely with them in order to diminish their numbers – but it did him no good.

 

“But the Israelites were fertile and they teemed וישרצו, they multiplied and increased abundantly, so that the land was filled with them.”

 

In his commentary Rashi points out that “They teemed.” refers to the Israelite women giving birth to six children from a single pregnancy and derives this from counting the six verbs that connote “fruitfulness” in verse 7.

 

“they were fruitful” פרו – paru
“they teemed” וישרתצו – va-yishretzu
“they increased” וירבו – va-yirbu
“they became strong” ויעצמו – va-ya’tzmu
“very” במאד – bim’od
“Very much” מאד – m’od

 

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool; if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. The midwives fearing God, didn’t do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” And God dealt well with the midwives, and the people multiplied and increased greatly.

 

DISCUSS:

  • In what way does verse 7 echo present discomfort with increasing diversity?
  • Shiphrah and Puah are one of the first examples of civil disobedience; what are small and large things we can do in our own lives to stand for the right thing even when it’s not easy?
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Rabbi Mira Rivera was ordained at The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015 with an M.A. in Jewish Studies and a Certificate in Clinical Pastoral Education. Mira is the first JOC and Filipino-American Rabbi ordained at JTS. She served as a Chaplain Resident at Mount Sinai Hospital and serves currently as Chaplain Fellow at DOROT and co-founder of the Jewish Youth Chorus of Beit Midrash NYC. Born in Detroit but reared in the Philippines, she came to New York to study dance. She performed with the Martha Graham Dance Company and Actors’ Equity productions, then taught dance as a teaching artist to NY public school children through the National Dance Institute. She is passionate about leyning and davening, as well as Jewish education and Bnei Mitzvah/Torah/conversion preparation for those who have been told that they do not have “the proper background and yichus.”