Parashat Shemot: We Cannot Outsmart G-d
The Torah in Parashat Shemot tells of Pharaoh’s decree that every newborn Jewish boy be thrown into the river. The Sages explain that Pharaoh saw through astrology that the redeemer of Beneh Yisrael would soon be born. In an attempt to stop this from happening, he issued a decree that all newborns among Beneh Yisrael should be killed. He felt confident that this measure would prevent the leader from emerging.
In the end, of course, his plan failed, Moshe was saved, and Beneh Yisrael were led out of Egypt. But the plan’s failure runs even deeper. It was Pharaoh’s own daughter who rescued Moshe and raised him in the palace. Pharaoh was determined the kill the leader while he was still an infant, but in the end, the leader was raised in his own home. He himself fed and supported the man whose existence he feared.
We cannot outsmart G-d. As much as we would like to think that we can control our destiny, and that we hold the keys to our success, G-d exercises complete control over us.
We see this message unfold in a different aspect of the Exodus story, as well. The Torah describes the Pharaoh who enslaved Beneh Yisrael as “not knowing” Yosef (“Asher Lo Yada Et Yosef” – 1:8). As the Rabbis note, it is inconceivable that a king would arise over Egypt who had never heard about Yosef. Yosef was the one who saved Egypt from widespread hunger and economic ruin, leading it to become the wealthiest and most prosperous nation on earth. Undoubtedly, the new Pharaoh heard about Yosef. The Hachamim thus explain this verse to mean that the new king reversed Yosef’s policies. One of the measures undertaken by Yosef during the years of drought was requiring the Egyptians to undergo circumcision. This was done in an effort to curb the nation’s population growth, in order that there would not be so many people to feed, given the limited food supply. But Pharaoh saw that Beneh Yisrael were rapidly reproducing despite practicing the custom of circumcision, and thus concluded that there was no longer any purpose served by enforcing this law. And so he revoked Yosef’s legislation requiring the Egyptian males to undergo circumcision.
This revocation of Yosef’s decree is what paved the way for Beneh Yisrael’s redemption. When Pharaoh’s daughter saw a baby floating in a basket in the river, she looked at the baby and immediately recognized him as a Jew (“Mi’yaldeh Ha’ibrim Zeh” – 2:5). How did she know this baby belonged to Beneh Yisrael? The Sages explain that she noticed Moshe was circumcised, and thus immediately identified him as a Jew. If her father had not revoked the decree requiring all Egyptians to be circumcised, she would not have been able to identify Moshe as a Jew, and he would thus not have been nursed and raised by his mother. He would have been raised never knowing his Israelite origins, and would thus not have emerged as Beneh Yisrael’s leader. Remarkably, it was Pharaoh himself who paved the way for Beneh Yisrael’s redemption.
One of the famous passages in the Haggadah that we sing at the Seder is “Ve’hi She’ameda,” where we proclaim how in every generation people rise against us, “Ve’ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu Masilenu Mi’yadam” – “But the Almighty rescues us from their hand.” Some commentators explain the phrase “Masilenu Mi’yadam” to mean that Hashem saves us “from their hands” – through the enemies’ own efforts. They plot and conspire against us, but those efforts themselves become the cause and source of our salvation – as was the case with Pharaoh.
This is one of the many lessons to be learned from the story of Yesi’at Misrayim. Although we can and must make an effort to care for ourselves and do what we think is the best for us, ultimately, Hashem exercises full control over us, our lives and the world. Even the most sophisticated, well-planned strategies can backfire and have the opposite effect if this is what Hashem decides to do. We should try our hardest – but while recognizing that ultimately we are powerless and everything is controlled by the Almighty.