Kol HaBirah and the Book of Shemot: A New Sefer for a New Newspaper

Written by Alan Fisher on . Posted in Torah

As the Book of Shemot opens, Yosef and his brothers have all died, a new Pharaoh has emerged in Egypt and enslaved Bnei Yisrael, and the Jews have gone through tremendous population growth. The subject of Shemot, Vayeira, Bo and Beshalach is the process of freeing this large group from Pharaoh’s control. While we read these opening chapters, the editorial board of Kol HaBirah is giving birth to a new newspaper for the Greater Washington area’s Jewish community.

According to Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, King David was the first to use the term HaBirah, to describe the Beit HaMikdash. Prior to the time-period of the Purim story, there is no other mention of “birah” in Tanach. To a Jew in the time of Esther, “Kol HaBirah” would mean a lot more than the voice of Washington, DC, the capital–– it would mean the voice of Hashem, from the central focal point of Judaism. Referring to the capital city of Shushan as “HaBirah” in the Megillah is a sarcastic condemnation of the failure of the people of that generation to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Mishkan.  


As Sefer Shemot opens, the Jews are in exile, as they were at the time of Queen Esther – but this time as slaves to Pharaoh. One can calculate that Sefer Shemot opens approximately 50 to 60 years after the death of Yosef. Bnei Yisrael were in exile in Egypt for 210 years. Yosef was 40 years old when his family joined him, and he died 70 years later, at age 110. The other brothers died after Yosef. Bnei Yisrael were therefore in Egypt 140 years after Yosef’s death. Moshe was 80 years old when G-d called to him to go to Pharaoh. Moshe, therefore, was born 60 years after Yosef died and less than 60 years after the other brothers died.

While Yaakov was alive, Yosef invited the entire family to have all meals at his home. Nothing in Sefer Bereshit suggests unusual population growth among the Jews. However, only 50 years later, in Parshat Shemot, the Torah reports that Bnei Yisrael had grown so numerous that they were overrunning Goshen. The entire first generation has died, and the Torah does not mention any of the newer generations by individual name. We have gone from individuals and a family to a nation – but the language in the Torah describes the people as “sheretz,” a swarm, the language normally reserved to describe cockroaches or rats. We have a generation without leaders, a generation of anonymous pests without one individual worth mentioning by name. The language of the Torah here reflects the incredible anti-Semitism of Egypt. Pharaoh instituted pest control the way we would call an exterminator for cockroaches or rats. Pharaoh enslaved the Jews and forced them to do hard labor, enlisted the midwives, and then all the Egyptian people, in an unsuccessful attempt to keep the Jewish population from growing.

In this intensely anti-Semitic environment, the Jews who were swarming and overcrowding Goshen were anonymous and had no leaders. Until Pharaoh’s daughter saves the baby and names him Moshe, the Torah does not identify by name any of the two million Jews of that generation. The Torah only identifies Moshe’s family as a man and a woman of the tribe of Levi, and the baby’s sister. Other than Moshe, his wife and older son, and Aaron, the Torah does not mention any other Jew of that generation until chapter 6:14. This no-name policy vividly reinforces the message that there was no individual worthy of mentioning by name. This no-name policy also contrasts vividly with 6:14-25, when G-d starts the program to redeem the Jews, and the Torah mentions more than 30 individual members of the families of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi.

The Torah says (2:23): “the Children of Israel groaned because of the work and they cried out. Their outcry because of the work went up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant. . .” Once Bnei Yisrael cried out to G-d–– that is, once they davened–– G-d responded and started the redemption process. We have a very Jewish message here. Our role as Jews is tikkun olam. We are to work with G-d to perfect the world. Redemption of the Jews could only start once the Jews participated. This message appears many times in Jewish history, perhaps most famously in Parshat Beshalach where the waters of the Sea of Reeds did not split for the Jews until Nachshon ben Aminadav went into the water until it was up to his neck (Shemos Rabbah 21:9).

G-d tells Moshe that He had not appeared to the patriarchs as Hashem. The Torah uses G-d’s name “Hashem” many times, so this comment requires explanation. What G-d meant was that He was about to take an obvious, direct role in the world. When Moshe took G-d’s message to Pharaoh, his response was, “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel!” (5:2). G-d decided to appear as Hashem, to engage directly in the human world, to give Pharaoh, Bnei Yisrael, the Egyptian people and other people in the world a graduate course in who Hashem was. He would redeem the Jews with an outstretched arm and great judgments (6:6). This overt participation in the human world contrasts sharply with G-d’s role in Megillat Esther, where G-d appears b’hesder panim, hiding his face, participating by manipulating events behind the scene. (G-d’s name does not even appear in the Megillah.) Since the end of the period of the prophets, G-d has continued to operate Hesder Panim. An important role for all Jews is to recognize G-d’s role behind the scenes, as He continues to watch and guide us, often in ways that no one would have predicted.

May Kol HaBirah help us recognize G-d’s role in our lives.

Alan Fisher, a retired economist with a government agency, is the membership chairman of the American Dahlia Society. He produces and shares a weekly compilation of divrei Torah (Potomac Torah Study Center) and davens most often at Beth Sholom.