The World Is Not What We Think It Is

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Shemot: Four Commentators

A New Meaning for Lamah

When Moshe and Aharon first come to Par’oh with the request/demand to let the people serve Hashem in the desert, Par’oh questions lamah they seek to interrupt the people’s labors, 5;4. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah quotes Shemot Rabbah (I only found it in Tanchuma VaEra 6), where the Midrash asks what lamah is, and answers “you lamah, and your words lamah.”

That’s all he quotes, but the Midrash continues that it is as if to say, enough, go back to work. To clarify the clearly unclear, R. Mecklenburg distinguishes between lamah and madu’a. Although we translate both as why, he contends lamah usually means “to what end,” where madu’a is “based on what cause?”

As is his way, he supports his claim with examples: when Par’oh realizes Sarah must be Avraham’s wife, Bereshit 12;19, he asks lamah Avraham said she was his sister, and the Psalmist, 10;1, wonders lamah Hashem stays distant in a time of trouble. [In both cases, I could imagine reading it the way he said was indicated by madu’a, what caused you to do this.] He thinks the mem in a word indicates a search for cause, where a lamed looks for an essential purpose.

Neither explains Par’oh’s lamah, because there is no need to question either the cause or the purpose of slaves’ desire to be freed from backbreaking labor. He therefore thinks the Midrash reads this lamah along the lines of how the word is used in Aramaic, to mean something tohu va-vohu, jumbled and poorly formed. Tanach twice writes va-yelechu acharei ha-hevel va-yehbaluII Melachim 17;15, where the verse tells us why the Northern Kingdom was exiled, and Yirmiyahu 2;5, among a list of reasons God is unhappy, as it were, with the Jewish people.

Each time, Targum Yonatan translates the last word as they were li-lema (R. Mecklenburg ignores the Aramaic word’s ending with an aleph, I assume because he thought they were the same. He also quotes Bereshit Rabbah 2;3, the Torah’s description of the earth as tohu va-vohu refers to Adam, the first human, who was le-lamah (here with a hey ending!) velo kelum, to nothingness.

Armed with this new version of lamah, he offers other places where it works better than reading it to mean “why.” When Hashem asks Kayin why he is upset and his face has fallen, Hashem clearly knows the answer. R. Mecklenburg thinks Hashem was saying, there is no value in wallowing in your upset, if you change your ways, life will go better. Similarly for Lavan’s asking Ya’akov lamah he ran away, Rivkah’s telling Yitzchak that if Ya’akov marries a Canaanite lamah does she have life.

Including Par’oh’s current challenge to Moshe, lamah declares the futility of a certain course of action. He is telling them there is no point to their attempt to free the Jews.

Upending Nature

To assuage Moshe’s worry about how the people will respond to his claims, Hashem arms him with the convert staff to serpent and back demonstration. Leading into it, 4;2, Hashem asks what is in Moshe’s hand, with the two words “what is,” usually mah zeh, combined into one, mazeh. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch spots two strata to the ot, sign, Hashem is giving him.

At a basic level, the sign upends the usual course of nature, demonstrating Hashem’s control of what we often consider “laws.” It ideally reminds people to obey Hashem, not to think any power can contravene Hashem’s Will.

With the Symbol of Humanity’s Control of Nature

The word mazeh niggles at R. Hirsch, the Torah’s choice to blur the mah, what, into the word zeh, that, to him a signal to pay attention to the item of this particular sign, Moshe’s staff. A staff serves two purposes, to extend a person’s hand, make it as if s/he is leaning on the ground. The staff also symbolizes man’s rule over the world [not his example, but think of the scepter Ahashverosh extends to save Ester’s life].

Then the staff becomes a nachash, among the animals least open to cooperation with people (as opposed to cows, sheep, horses, dogs, etc., I think he means), still caught up in the drama of the Garden of Eden. As are humans, who flee snakes when they see them.

Besides God’s overall power, the staff sign speaks of God’s ability to convert what human beings consider their safety zone to its exact opposite, something that threatens them continually (and vice verse). Properly heeded, the sign removes all sense of independent human power, reminds us we accomplish any mastery only because Hashem allows it, and can completely overturn it, at will, at any moment.

The Burning Bush: Hard Labor, Psychological Abuse

After Hashem has introduced himself as the God of Moshe’s forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov (verses Malbim takes as an excuse to remind us of the special qualities of Moshe’s prophecy, a topic too long for this venue), in verse seven Hashem tells Moshe He has “seen” the impoverished state of the Jewish people, heard their cries, and knows their pains.

It relates to the burning bush, because it conveys the message that although the Egyptians are troubling the Jews, burning them with intent to destroy, the bush is not consumed, because an angel of God is there to protect them.  Hashem’s more direct message tells Moshe what aspects of the Jews’ cries were and were not heard.

He analogizes the Jewish people’s situation to a king who needed to educate his son away from a dissolute life, so he set him to hard labor [note the implication the Jews needed this slavery for some reason; if the analogy is to be trusted, because already soon after Yosef’s passing, they were not living properly].

The king assigns a servant the task of supervising the prince closely. Unused to the work, the prince writes his father daily to complain, but the king pays no attention, since the whole purpose of the endeavor was to unmoor the prince, bring him to a new experience of life.

The prince did catch his father’s attention when he reported the taskmaster was overdoing it, beating him unnecessarily and cruelly. As it did with the King of Kings, Who saw the Egyptians trying to wipe out the Jews. More, in both the analogy and in Egypt, the king/King saw the psychological abuse of the taskmaster (says Malbim), who made a point of stressing the prince/Jews’ lowly status.

From there, Hashem also paid attention to the physical labor, as he says to Moshe, I head their cries (about the work, which did not themselves deserve a response) because of their taskmasters (who overdid it, physically and psychologically).

Moshe’s Preparations for Leadership

To introduce this chapter about Moshe’s rise to prophecy and leadership, R. David Zvi Hoffmann calls our attention to how little we know of what he assumes were a rich eighty years before Moshe received this call. He must have somehow acquired the physical and psychological strength to face down the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, to free slaves who had been enslaved for generations.

Yet all we hear is his having been miraculously saved as a baby, raised in the palace, endangered himself when he went out to see his brethren, leading him to need to flee to a foreign land. There, by virtue of his efforts to save the oppressed, he is given the daughter of the priest of Midian for a wife. A simple if noble life.

These qualities, the humility to go to his brethren although he could have stayed in the opulence of the palace, the courage to stand by the oppressed in the face of their oppressors, the willingness to live quietly in a place far from major world events, not to need power or its trappings, all qualified him to be Moshe Rabbenu.

For R. Hoffmann, the story we get here contrasts with the story historians would have inferred had Moshe written it himself. They would have suspected Moshe of seeking power for its own sake, or that he secured the overall freedom of the Jews through his personal influence with his adopted mother and grandfather.

Hashem wants us to realize how little of the story we see, how we think we move events, when we only do so as Hashem wants and wills. A realization that started at the bush in a distant desert, a fugitive being told it was time to upend history.

Four ways we can easily misread the world: taking lamah to always be why, and no different than madu’a, as HaKetav VeHaKabbalah said; thinking people have any power independent of God, an error corrected by the staff turning into a serpent for R. Hirsch; realizing it was the Egyptians’ excessive abuse that brought the redemption, for Malbim; and that Moshe’s life story is presented with a specific eye to freeing us of thinking he brought about the redemption with his personal influence.

We need to watch carefully, alert to how Hashem runs the world, not what we do.

About Gidon Rothstein

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