Shemot: The Book of Redemption and Creation
Two giants of biblical interpretation, Ramban and Netziv, appear to have more that sets them apart than unites their biographies. One was a 13th-century Sephardic Rishon, the other a late 19th-century Litvish Rosh Yeshiva. Yet, while the eras and milieu in which they composed their biblical commentaries seem worlds apart, there are numerous common concerns which make for fascinating points of intersection. Neither was hesitant to point out the human failings of the Avot and other biblical heroes, yet still find a way to venerate their virtues without tearing them down to size. Most of all, they shared a certain literary sensitivity in their interpretation of Humash, and both authored thematic introductions to each of the Five Books.
In their respective introductions to Exodus, they are motivated by a desire to identify the book’s central theme, and to understand how it connects back to Genesis. While a common question launches their examinations, it leads them to different, yet complimentary, conclusions.
Ramban observes the rabbinic nickname of the Torah’s first book – Sefer Yetzira, the Book of Creation – which not only tells the tale of creation of heaven and earth, but of God’s faithful nation, through Abraham and his descendants, who create a template for the future Jewish people. Exodus unpacks those ma’asim of the Avot as the simanim for the later generations. In that regard, the entire second book can be titled Geula, the Book of Redemption, even though the slaves are freed from Egyptian bondage already in chapter 15 (of 40 chapters in the book). Only once the Israelites have regained the lofty status of their forefathers, in intimate communion with God around Sinai and the Mishkan, have they been fully redeemed. It is this thematic thread that properly titles the whole work as the Book of Redemption – if redemption is properly understood as the physical rescue yoked to the spiritual revival of the children of Abraham.
Netziv, alternatively, points to an enigmatic comment (Sota 36b and Behag), which assigns titles to each of the five books, creative and descriptive names for the other four, while Exodus is dubbed “Book II,” as if to say it’s a mere sequel to Genesis. Netziv suggests that, in fact, Genesis and Exodus really should be viewed as one book, unified by a common theme. Together they recount the tale of creation – from the calling into being of all matter, humanity, the Avot, their descendants’ exile in and redemption from Egypt, leading to the ultimate arrival at the purpose of that creation of heaven and earth: A “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” receiving the commandments and putting divine worship into practice in the Mishkan, initiated only at the end of Exodus. In this regard, Netziv shows that together the Bible’s first two books form one unit: the creation of the physical universe, and the apex of that creation in the actualizing of its spiritual potential, through the Jewish people.
[Those interested in a fuller exploration of these ideas, or access to the sources, can listen and look here.]