Urim Publications was kind enough to send me a copy of Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study from the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary on the book of Shemot quite a while ago. It has taken me a while to read the book, but it was well worth the effort. It is uniquely fitting to read this book before Pesach, and in fact, I think many of you might enjoy reading it, so I recommend ordering it today- that way, you’ll probably get it over Chol Hamoed and will have something interesting to read during the Second Days.
Between the Lines is a thoughtfully considered, well constructed, carefully written text. Etshalom has clearly put a great deal of thought into the issues he addresses, and focuses on overall themes in addition to specific literary techniques (including chiastic structure) in his analysis. His book is academic in nature, and for academic texts, is quite readable. However, I prefer narrative-style books, especially those that weave in the original Hebrew rather than making use of the English translation. They are easier to read, and thus accessible to a larger audience. Ideally, I would have liked this book to have been written more in the style of Rabbi Ari Kahn, who uses that method of writing. While this text does have the Hebrew quoted and highlighted at the beginning of each chapter, I found that flipping back and forth between Etshalom’s analysis and that first page was somewhat of an annoyance.
Topics included in the book range from the binary structure of biblical narrative when it comes to the roots of our subjugation in Egypt, to the different derivations of Moshe’s name, to literary patterns in the education of Pharaoh, studies of intertextuality, a comparison of major characters and a focus on sanctity in time. I am going to sum up one of the Divrei Torah that I found particularly beautiful below.
In Shemot 1:1-4 we read, “These are the names of the Israelites who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher.’ Etshalom notes that:
If we compare this list to the nearly exhaustive list of the seventy members of Jacob’s family who descended to Egypt in Genesis 46:10-17, we notice two glaring differences:
(a) The Genesis list is complete, including grandsons, a granddaughter- and several family events (e.g., the death of Er and Onan, v.12). The second list, on the other hand, only lists the direct sons of Jacob.
(b) This one is a bit more subtle. The order of the list in Genesis is the children of Leah, the children of Zilpah (Leah’s handmaid), the children of Rachel and the children of Bilhah (Rachel’s handmaid).
In other words, the order is by mothers: The house of Leah and the house of Rachel. This is a reasonable order, given that Leah not only bore the most children but that her children were the oldest. In our verse, a slight change has taken place: The first two verses include the sons of Leah and the one son of Rachel (Joseph was already in Egypt). The last verse lists the four sons of the handmaids. What has changed here?
If we look back at Genesis 37:2, we see that the children of the handmaids were set apart from the rest of the sons. (Cf. Between the Lines of the Bible,Vol 1, Ch 3). As we explained, this was because there was a clear-cut class distinction within the family: sons of the wives (Rachel and Leah) occupying a favored status as opposed to the sons of the handmaids. In times of trouble (the famine), this distinction was erased (indicated by the order of the listing in Genesis), but now that the family was firmly settled into life in Egypt, those old differences resurfaced. Setting the tone for our story, we are presented with families which do not see themselves as equals and are not united.
This is not the first time that we have noticed class-distinctions or forms of fractured brotherhood. In this situation, the sons of Rachel and Leah look down upon the sons of the maidservants. (Interestingly, one understanding of the Joseph story says that Joseph took the part of the sons of the maidservants, which is part of the reason that the sons of Leah turned against him and eventually sold him). We have seen fractured brotherhood before when it comes to Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and finally Joseph and his brothers. We end Genesis with the favoring of Ephraim over Menashe, although we are “given no information about either one’s reaction to their grandfather’s blessing. It seems that things are improving in this vein as time goes on (49).”
Here’s the part where Etshalom offers a brilliant reading:
Now, at the beginning of the Exodus, we are introduced to Moses. He is clearly favored by his parents, as he is described as “good” at his birth. They make every effort to shield him, and then, relying on some form of divine intervention, they send him down the Nile. His older brother and sister have every reason to be jealous (following the Genesis model, and the present state of the inter-tribal relations), yet his sister (who is mentioned but not even named in the second chapter) looks after him and ensures his safety and continued relationship with family. When Moses is finally sent by God to Pharaoh, he refuses unless his older brother is included in the mission. God tells him that Aaron will rejoice upon seeing him (Exodus 4:14). We presume that he too would rejoice over Moses’ selection as God’s messenger and not harbor any jealousy.
For his part, Moses includes both of his older siblings in the Exodus and leadership of the people. Aaron is one of his right-hand men (24:14), and Miriam leads the women (15:20).
Moses, Aaron and Miriam have finally corrected the tragic and destructive history of sibling rivalry, which is what got us to Egypt in the first place (Joseph being sold by his brothers).
This only serves to underscore the enormity of the tragedy when Moses’ leadership begins to unravel (see Numbers 12). It only happens when Aaron and Miriam speak “against” Moses, exhibiting jealousy over his unique relationship with God. Even the family which led us from slavery to freedom and to an appreciation of our own great mission couldn’t fully escape the legacy of Genesis.
I love this reading, because in one fell swoop it explains:
1. What got us to Egypt (the legacy of Genesis and inter-sibling rivalry and jealousy)
2. Why Bnei Yisrael specifically needed to be slaves vs. being subjugated in any other manner (because they had attacked and made fun of the children of the handmaidens, they needed the experience of being slaves, servants themselves, in order to learn compassion, as we see by the repeated pesukim that we must not mistreat the ger because we were gerim in Egypt)
3. Why Moshe was the one who could take us out (because Moshe was finally part of a family unit which loved one another and did not exhibit jealousy), and also, what we as a nation needed to be metaken in order to be taken out
4. Why Miriam’s sin was so great when she spoke against him in Bamidbar (and as my husband pointed out, why what she did needs to be remembered in the Sheish Zechiros– because we must guard against this legacy of inter-sibling, inter-nation rivalry, as it has the ability to undo everything)
So to me, that’s genius.
Read more of Etshalom’s book for more wonderful Divrei Torah!
This review originally appeared on The Curious Jew