Parshat Shemot: How Moses Tries to Alleviate the Hardship of Jewish Slaves in Egypt

“Burning Bush” painting by Sébastien Bourdon, oil on canvas, 17th century (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is worried that there are too many Jews, and they are becoming too powerful. So he decides to enslave them, forcing all the Jews to do backbreaking labor working in the fields, schlepping bricks and building cities for him. Next he calls in the two Jewish midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and tells them that whenever they are helping a woman give birth, if a boy is born, they must kill him. But the midwives know what a horrible thing to do that is, so they don’t listen to him. So Pharaoh makes a new decree that all Jewish newborn boys must be thrown into the Nile River.

Jocheved gives birth to a son, and of course, she is afraid that he will be killed, so at first, she hides him in her house. But then, when she is afraid that the Egyptians will find him, she makes him a little waterproof cradle and hides it in the long grasses near the edge of the river. As it so happens, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the river to bathe and notices this strange little basket floating in the river. She sends her maid to get it, and she sees a crying little baby inside! She names the boy Moses, and decides to take him home and raise him as her son. That’s how it happens that Moses, a Jewish boy, grows up in the palace.

When Moses grows up, he learns of the many hardships his people, the Jews, are experiencing. One day, he sees an Egyptian beating a Jew and becomes so angry that he kills the Egyptian. When he realizes that he might get into trouble, he has to escape Egypt and runs off to a faraway country called Midian. There, he helps the daughter of Jethro and marries one, Tzipporah, and becomes a shepherd to his father-in-law’s flock.

Moses is taking care of the sheep when one runs away. He goes after it and sees a burning bush on fire, though not actually burning. There, he hears G-d tell him to go to Pharaoh and get the Jews out of Egypt. At first, Moses balks, thinking: “How can I be a messenger of G-d? And what if the Jews don’t listen to me?” So G-d gives him three signs. In one, he picks up a stick, and it turns into a snake; in the second, he puts his hand into his jacket, and it becomes all scaly; and in the third, G-d tells him that if they still don’t listen, he should spill water from the Nile River onto the ground, and it will become blood.

When Moses returns to Egypt and tells the Jews that he has come to rescue them, they believe him and are happy. But then he goes to Pharaoh and passes on G-d’s message that Pharaoh should free the Jews and let them leave Egypt. Pharaoh responds by saying: “Who do you think you are? Stop disturbing the Jews from their work!” And on that very day, Pharaoh orders that the Jews’ labor should become even harder.

The work becomes so difficult that the Jews cannot do it, and the Egyptian taskmasters beat them. When Moses sees this, he cries to G-d: “What have You done to the Jews? Why did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh, he has only made things worse for them!”

So G-d promises that he really will save the Jews.

Copyright and reprinted with permission from For more insights on the Torah portion, visit:

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