Shemos: The paths of the hated

Vayechi: I go myself

Vayyigash: Two types of power

Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Reader Response

January 23, 1998 / 25 Tevet, 5758
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Vaera

The summoning of courage

G-D PLAYS SUCH AN OVERWHELMING ROLE in the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt that the human side of the struggle is easily eclipsed or missed altogether. I refer specifically to the human dimensions of Moses' leadership, which is hidden not only by G-d's direct intervention in nature - the 10 plagues - but by the dominant conception of Moses as the messenger of G-d. That he is. "And G-d spoke to Moses" is both the opening line of this week's Torah portion and a frequent refrain.

Under this conception of G-d as the actor and Moses as the messenger, the only remaining field of choice and action appears to be in the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. G-d commands Moses, Moses conveys G-d's demand to the Egyptians, and it is up to them (or their leader) to decide whether to obey. They either liberate the Jewish slaves or face the Divine consequences. This, on the face, seems to outline the dynamics and the field of struggle.

But it is impossible for anyone, even Moses, to be a mechanical messenger of G-d. It is no challenge to his unique status among the Prophets of Israel, let alone to his basic faith, to read the initial narrative in this week's Torah portion as recounting Moses' struggle for courage. In a classic expression of raw power, to the complete derogation of moral authority, Stalin once cynically commented, "How many divisions does the Pope command?" No need to put stock in the Pope, Stalin concluded, only in the barrel of a gun. Pharaoh was Stalin's prototype in power and cynicism.

G-d commanded Moses to apply moral persuasion to a Stalin. The human side of the struggle for the exodus is, in good measure, Moses' struggle for the necessary courage.

Later chapters depict Moses as the fearless spokesman of G-d, but Moses was not born that way. He developed. The opening verses of this week's Torah portion trace that development.

On one level, the opening lines of this week's Torah portion can be read as a twofold sequence of philosophy and reassurance -- a discourse on the meaning of G-d's names and a promise of G-d, based on the denotation of one of these names, to liberate the Jews from bondage. But all this masks a deeper transaction -- the struggles of Moses. The opening lines, though addressed to Moses, do not even mention him. They foreshadow the unusual structure of A.B. Yehoshua's novel, Mr. Mani, which consists of dialogues in which only one speaker is recorded and the other needs to be imagined.

At the opening of the Torah portion, Moses' thinking is not recorded, but it is readily imagined.

We last hear from Moses directly at the end of last week's Torah portion. Moses complains to G-d about the harsher working conditions that Pharaoh imposed on the Jewish slaves in response to the first appearance of Moses and Aaron before him. They had demanded of Pharaoh the Jews' liberation.

Since they acted at the behest of G-d, they attributed the Jews' degraded condition to G-d. Moses asks, "My L-rd, why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me?" (Exodus 5:22).

The second part of the phrase ("why have you sent me?"), as well as a string of demurrals by Moses about his ability to become a spokesman for G-d, are commonly read as failings on the part of Moses. I prefer to read them as the perfectly understandable tremblings of a person asked to demonstrate unblemished courage with neither a division nor the pretense of a division on his side. Not failings, but the slow, painful summoning of courage, mark Moses' questions. He is burdened by double necessity: abstract belief and existential fortitude, coherence of mind and courage of soul.

His burden is bodied forth by the unspoken fear in his spoken complaint, "Why have you done evil to this people?" The unspoken fear in Moses' response to G-d may be put thus: I followed Your command to tell Pharaoh to let my people go. This made Pharaoh worsen their conditions and made my people incensed. Won't Your next command to approach Pharaoh just intensify their anger at me, and discredit or endanger me?

This unspoken line of dialogue opens the way for G-d's statements at the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Exodus 6:3-5). G-d's statements make sense when read as responses to Moses' unspoken fears. First, G-d draws a philosophical distinction between two of His names, denoting two separate powers of G-d (6:2): I made Myself known to your illustrious ancestors by My name, "the Alm-ghty"; but to you I reveal My power to fulfill My promises, denoted by My name "Hashem."

G-d's message to Moses: You are the first person in human history to know Me as Hashem, "He Who fulfills promises, He Who carries through." When you approach Pharaoh and state My demands to him, you advance the coming liberation.

Unspoken response of Moses to G-d: I am still threatened by the increased pain and unrest of the Jewish slaves.

G-d's stated response to Moses (6:6): "I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel whom Egypt enslaves and I shall remember My covenant."

G-d's message to Moses: I know I need to relieve the pain of Israel for you to acquire the courage necessary to confront Pharaoh.

Unspoken response of Moses to G-d: To transcend my own inner doubts and to give strength to the slaves, I need a detailed vision -- not just a general one of "fulfilling promises."

G-d's stated response to Moses (6:6-9): "Therefore say to the Children of Israel: I am Hashem [the fulfiller of promises], and I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their [the Egyptians'] enslavement; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall bring you to the land about which I raised My hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I shall give it to you as a heritage -- I am Hashem."

G-d's message to Moses: I am Hashem; My detailed promises substantiate your inner strength.

Unspoken response of Moses to G-d: Though I am utterly lonely, surrounded by hostility -- Pharaoh on the one side and the Children of Israel on the other -- I am buoyed by Your many levels of redemptive commitment.

G-d's promises and Moses' responses having attained this level, Moses is finally able to speak (6:9): "And Moses spoke thus [conveying G-d's promises] to the Children of Israel... "

Moses' courage having been strengthened, it is promptly dashed (6:9): "...And they [the Children of Israel] did not heed Moses [i.e., his conveyance of G-d's promises] because of shortness of breath and hard labor."

Having held Moses' hand, so to speak, G-d now neither softens Moses' task nor saves him from facing it. With all the assurances G-d could offer, the people remained stubborn. But Moses remains G-d's chosen instrument and G-d has no choice but to press on (6:10-11): "And G-d spoke to Moses saying: 'Come, speak to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that he send the Children of Israel from his land.'"

Moses now offers no unspoken response. The dialogue must be explicit because G-d's demand once again to speak to Pharaoh carries a frontal force, a hardened quality, coming as it does against the background of the people's refusal to heed Moses. Over against the harshness of this reality, Moses' inner strength collapses (6:12): "And Moses spoke before Hashem saying, Behold the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I am a stutterer!"

Is Moses up to the task? Are his hesitations and uncertainties indicative of true inadequacy, or is the task so daunting that it is only realistic for G-d to expect Moses to utter retreats, protests and doubts?

It is only realistic. That is why G-d supports Moses by commanding his brother Aaron to help him approach Pharaoh. Further, in a seeming digression, Exodus lists the heads of the houses of the 12 tribes. Exodus begins with the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn of Leah, but stops after reaching only the third tribe, Levi, thereby establishing that at this juncture the Biblical narrative need list the heads of the houses only down to Moses and Aaron. This validates the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Once the listing reaches Levi's descendants Moses and Aaron, Exodus states: "This is the Aaron and Moses to whom G-d said, 'Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt'" (6:26).

Moses is fit for the task; he will muster the courage. His hesitations and uncertainties are normal human reservations about the tremendous inner strength expected of him.

G-d works with Moses. Even though Moses will become the "father of the Prophets" -- the single human being to whom G-d speaks "face-to-face" -- he still needs to traverse the human emotions that stand in the way of coming face-to-face with a Stalin, a Hitler -- a Pharaoh -- a man who could have his head with impunity.

Gradually, Moses' self-doubt decreases and, accordingly, G-d's encouragement decreases. Gradually, Moses emerges as the fearless messenger of G-d. He becomes the man who, when commanded by G-d to approach Pharaoh, to demand the Jewish people's liberation, and to warn of the onset of the first of the 10 plagues (blood), offers no protest. Unlike his inner struggles reflected in the initial narratives of this week's Torah portion, he now gives Scripture no reason to record anything but this bald fact: "And Moses and Aaron did so, as G-d had commanded" (7:20).

(This column benefitted from discussion with Zvi Gelt.)


Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg