The last word of the Book of Genesis is b'Mitzrayim, "in Egypt," and that is where we find the Israelites at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. The narrator lists "the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob" (Exodus 1:1), hence the Hebrew title for the book, Sh'mot, " Names." We soon learn that these descendants of Jacob have been enslaved by "a new king . . . who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8), who ruthlessly oppressed them with forced labor. When the Israelites continue to increase despite the hardship, Pharaoh orders all infant boys killed.
This command sets the stage for a series of actions by women, all involving vision. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, are ordered to "look, " ur'iten, at the birthstool when they deliver the Hebrew women; to kill the boys and let the girls live. In what may have been the first recorded act of civil disobedience, the midwives refuse to carry out the order. After Pharaoh orders all baby boys thrown in the Nile, we meet a family from the tribe of Levi. When the woman gives birth to a son, she "saw," vateire, how beautiful he was and hid him for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she put the baby in a basket and placed it among the reeds at the riverbank. When Pharaoh's daughter came to bathe in the river, she "saw," vateire, the basket, and "when she opened it, she "saw," vatir'eihu, that it was a child, a boy crying" (Exodus 2:6). Rabbi Ed Feinstein described the scene thus:
"She doesn't see an escaped slave, a plot to subvert the policies of her father, the Pharaoh. She doesn't see an objectified Other—the vermin infecting the Egyptian body politic. She sees a baby. To make the point, the Torah doesn't have her hear a crying baby. Instead, she sees him weeping. She doesn't feel revulsion for an enemy. She feels pity and love for an abandoned child." (Learn Torah With…; Volume 3, Number 13; Torah Aura Productions, 1997)
The compassion, the vision to see the other, exhibited both by Moses's birth mother and his adoptive mother, was passed down to Moses. When Moses grew up, he went out to his kinsfolk and "saw," vayar, their suffering. Raised in the palace, Moses could have remained pampered and insulated, regarding the Hebrew slaves only as those who were there to serve his needs. But he saw them as his kin and tried to help them.
The next mention of seeing in this story is divine vision:
"The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from their bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon [vayar] the Israelites, and God took notice of them." (Exodus 2:23-25)
Perhaps hearing moved God to remember, but seeing moved God to action. As the story continues, we meet Moses again, a shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law. An angel appeared to him in a Burning Bush. Moses "saw," vayar, that "there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed" (Exodus 3:2). We read:
"Moses said, 'I must turn aside to look [v'er'eh] at this marvelous sight; why doesn't the bush burn up?' When the Eternal saw [vayar] that he had turned aside to look [lir'ot], God called to him out of the bush." (Exodus 3:3-4)
In order to notice that the bush was aflame but not burning up, Moses would have had to stop and observe it for a period of time. Something made him turn aside and notice. And when he broke from his routine, when he saw this extraordinary sight, only then was he able to hear God's call.
The repetition of the Hebrew verb lir'ot, "to see," serves as an insight into the characters and their behavior. Each time this word appears in the story, each time someone looks and sees, she or he gains new understanding and changes direction. The midwives disobey royal orders; Moses's mother refuses to let her baby son die; Pharaoh's daughter rescues a child condemned by her father; Moses empathizes with the slave and strikes the taskmaster. Even God, who seems to have been absent from the consciousness of the Israelites in Egypt, begins the process that will lead to their liberation. And finally, Moses steps out of his comfort zone and receives the message that will change his life and that of his people.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein wrote:
"Our study of history typically focuses on the movement of nations, on war and peace, on vast economic and social movements. The Torah knows this perspective. But it also knows that revolutions begin in the eyes—in one individual human being's extraordinary vision. The prophet, taught Heschel, sees the world through the eyes of God. And so it is that only after Moses sees, can God say, 'Ra'o ra'iti et oni ami asher b'mitzraim—I have genuinely seen the pain of My people in Mitzraim.' Redemption begins in the blink of an eye." (Learn Torah With…; Volume 3, Number 13; Torah Aura Productions, 1997)
Like the biblical characters, when we open our eyes and see what is around us, when we look into the eyes of others, we gain the capacity to change direction and the vision to change the world.
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.