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Torah Sparks

Parashat Shemot
January 10, 2015 – 19 Tevet 5775

Annual (Exodus 1:1-6:1): Etz Hayim p. 317; Hertz p. 206
Triennial (Exodus 3:1-4:17): Etz Hayim p. 326; Hertz p. 213
Haftarah (Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23): Etz Hayim p. 343; Hertz p. 225

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

A new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph” takes power in Egypt. Fearing the growing Israelite population, he enslaves them and orders that their newborn males be drowned. The heroic efforts of nurses Shifra and Puah prevent Israel’s demise.

One of the Israelite women places her baby boy in a basket and sends it down the river. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket and adopts the baby inside, naming him Moses. The adult Moses kills a slave master and flees to Midian. There, he starts a family and becomes a shepherd.

Responding to Israel’s cries for freedom, God speaks to Moses in the presence of a burning bush, telling him to return to Egypt and to approach Pharaoh. Moses tries to dissuade God several times, but God is resolute, displaying examples of God’s power, and promising that Aaron, Moses’ older brother, would speak on his behalf. Moses’ initial encounter with Pharaoh is fruitless, as Pharaoh adds to the Israelites’ burden.

Theme #1: Imma Be

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” And He said, "I will be wih you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." Moses said to God, “When I come o the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:11-14)

As Moses struggles to accept his role as messenger of God, God reassures him in ways heretofore unseen by our ancestors.

The Torah was given on a low mountain to teach us humility. But in that case then why wasn’t the Torah just given on a flat field? Perhaps to teach that sometimes even against your will, there is a need for a little bit of self-esteem in serving God. We know already that Moses had mastered the attribute of humility: “Who am I?” God answer implies that he needed a little bit of self-confidence here: “For I will be with you.” -- Joshua Horowitz

The explanation here is that [by paying close attention to the tense, we learn that] the mystery of the redemption is mainly something that is yet to be revealed. Anything good in the present will by comparison, seem like nothing, when set beside the incredible goodness of the redemption [yet to come]. For this reason, our present mind-set is incapable of comprehending it. And thus, all attempts even to describe the form of the redemption must necessarily be limited to our present reality. And this is the real reason that the Name of the God [who speaks to us] of the redemption is “I will be,” as if to say that such a reality cannot exist now, but only in the future yet to come. -- Yaakov Mosheh Hiyyah

Moses, humble man that he was, did not consider himself worthy of being the deliverer of the Jewish people and asked: “Who am I to do all this?” Thereupon the Lord answered him that his very question was proof of his fitness for the task. “And this -- this very question of yours: ‘Who am I to do all this?’ shall be the token for you, that I have chosen you to perform this task.” The Lord calls only on those who do not think highly of themselves. Thus, of all the mountains, He chose lowly Mount Sinai as the place on which to give the Law to the Children of Israel, for while the higher mountains boasted of their height, Mount Sinai remained little in its own eyes. -- Avnei Ezel

Questions for Discussion:

Horowitz postulates that Moses, in spite of his humility, needs to have a healthy self-image, at least to some extent. What defines a healthy self-image? Does Moses exemplify it throughout the Torah? What is the line between a reasonable-sized ego and egomania? How would Israel’s history have been different if its leader lacked self-esteem completely? How would it have been different if Moses were arrogant?

Yaakov Mosheh Hiyyah says that God declines to reveal much about God’s self, choosing to do so in future days. How can we relate to God if we are incapable of fully understanding God’s ways, at least at this point in time? Is it worthwhile trying to relate to God as long as God is not ready to reveal the full meaning of God’s ways?

Avnei Ezel relates that just as Moses is humble, so too is the mountain where Revelation takes place. What are some other vivid examples of ordinary places that are made famous by extraordinary events? What do we need to do to make an ordinary location become one of holiness?

Theme #2: Staff Infection

The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “a rod.” He said, “Cast it on the ground.” He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. ... The Lord said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” He put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, his hand was encrusted with snowy scales! And He said, “Put your hand back into your bosom.” He put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, there it was again like the rest of his body. (Exodus 4:2-3, 6-7)

God gives Moses a sneak preview of the kinds of signs and wonders with which the Egyptians would become intimately familiar.

The Lord asked Moses: “What is that in your hand? What power do you have in your hand to wield as the leader of Israel?” And Moses replied: “A rod,” implying that he would lead Israel with the rod of stern discipline. But then the Lord explained to him the rigid discipline is not the right way. Such a method turns into an insidious serpent, as it were; the people resent it, and eventually revolt against their leader. It was only when Moses “fled from before it,” when he abandoned the stern approach entirely and resolved to lead his people with humility alone. -- Pardes Yosef

Man was made to act and to achieve, to work and to create. He who is negligent and too indolent to do what he should is as if he had wrought actual destruction (“he who is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys”), for indolence bears the seeds of death and destruction. If the hand lies hidden “in the bosom” and does nothing, the result is leprosy, which is tantamount to death. But as soon as the hand is removed from there so that it may work and create, it will be restored to life, “and it was turned again as his other flesh.” -- Malbim

[To convince Moses to lead the Israelites,] God tries the David Blaine method, turning Moses’s rod into a snake and causing white scales to appear and disappear on Moses’s hand. … But here’s the key point: Moses gets what he wants. At Moses’s urging, God appoints Moses’s brother, Aaron, to speak for him. Moses’s back talk actually endears him to the Lord, just as Abraham’s sass about Sodom and Gomorrah impressed Him. The Lord has no use for lumpish yes-men. … At the bush, Moses is incredibly, maddeningly frustrating. But he also asks all the right questions about his mission; he plans for every contingency; and he negotiates a better deal for himself. That’s the kind of prophet I want on my team. -- David Plotz, Good Book

Questions for Discussion:

Unlike other commentaries, Pardes Yosef notes there is harshness in Moses’ personality, which is only subverted as a result of his first encounter with God. Might this be why Moses is denied entry into the Promised Land after hitting a rock to produce water? Is it possible that God fears that Moses’ harshness might be returning? How would Israel’s history have been different if both God and Moses led the people sternly?

Malbim sees leprosy as a sign of laziness and unwillingness to act. This idea is different than the traditional midrashic understanding of tzara'at – a punishment for evil speech. Are these apt understandings of this malady? Are there other traits that this skin disease might symbolize or indicate?

Plotz thinks of Moses’ continual resistance against God’s assignment to lead the people as savvy negotiations, not as complaints of stubbornness or fear. Is Moses as clever as Plotz understands him to be? Are there other times when Moses is particularly clever when speaking with God? Have we been underestimating him?

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