Of Kings and Prophets

  • Rav Yair Kahn

 

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In memory of our parents, Helen and Benjamin Pearlman z”l and Jack Stone z”l
and in honor of my mother, Esther Stone, Yibadel L’chayim Tovim
by Gary and Ilene Stone

 

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I. The lineage of Moshe and Aharon

 

Parashat Vaera is rich with topics that are profound as well as fascinating. Beginning with the issue of the Divine attributes and culminating with the age-old problem of free choice and foreknowledge, we are confronted by an array of basic problems in Jewish philosophy. Nevertheless, in this shiur I chose what at first glance appears as a mere textual problem as my point of departure.

 

Behold, Bnei Yisrael have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen, and I am of uncircumcised lips? (Shemot 6:12)

 

This statement is repeated almost verbatim in pasuk 30, at which point the narrative resumes. In between, we find what appears to be an artificial insert, dealing with the lineage of the Jewish people. Rashi, in fact, comments: "This statement [pasuk 30], is the same statement mentioned above [pasuk 12]...  it was repeated at this point because of the interruption..."

 

This "interruption" is troubling. Why was it necessary to insert the lineage of the Jewish people at this point? Are there no locations more fitting for this survey? For instance, chapter 4, wherein Moshe returns to Bnei Yisrael, would seem to be a suitable choice. Alternatively, it could have been placed in chapter 7, following Moshe's dialogue with God.

 

Rashi (6:14) already noted that the survey is incomplete. Apparently, the Torah was interested not in the lineage of the entire Jewish people, but basically in the family background of Moshe and Aharon. Although it begins with a brief account of Reuven and Shimon’s families, there is a detailed discussion of the household of Levi, with a comprehensive account of Moshe and Aharon. (The absence of Moshe's children from this account is quite revealing within the context of last week's shiur). 

 

This observation however, does not solve our problem - it merely redirects it. Why was it crucial to trace the yichus (lineage) of Moshe and Aharon at this specific point? Why not inform us of Moshe's yichus at the beginning of chapter 2? Why is Moshe first introduced to us anonymously as the child of a mysterious "ish mi-beit Levi" (2:1)? Why was Moshe's full identity revealed to us only in mid-dialogue with God?

 

The interruption in mid-discussion, which forced the Torah to repeat Moshe's statement in order to pick up the story thread, is so odd and out of place that it bears witness to the absolute necessity of noting Moshe's family background at this particular juncture. The Torah is transmitting a subtle message to us. We, for our part, are obligated to attempt to decipher this message.

 

I believe that a close examination of the verses in question will reveal a sharp difference regarding the role of Moshe Rabbeinu as described at the beginning and the end of the chapter. Furthermore, I will try to show that Moshe's lineage is critical specifically for the role described at the end.

 

II. I Am Hashem

 

Let us take a closer look at the God-Moshe dialogue that precedes the lineage of Moshe and Aharon and contrast it with the how the dialogue is worded following that section.

 

10) And Hashem spoke unto                     29) And Hashem spoke unto

Moshe saying:                                              Moshe, saying:

11) “Go in, speak unto Pharaoh,               “I am Hashem; speak unto

king of Egypt, to allow Bnei                      Pharaoh, king of Egypt, all that I

Yisrael to leave his land.”                        say to you.

 

 

12) And Moshe spoke before                    30) And Moshe said before

Hashem, saying, “Behold, the                 Hashem: “Behold, I am of

children of Israel have not                      uncircumcised lips, and how

listened to me; how then shall              shall Pharaoh hearken unto

Pharaoh hear me, who am of                   me?”

uncircumcised lips?’

 

The first account of God's command to Moshe (pasuk 11), differs slightly from the demand that precedes the repetition. Initially, God orders Moshe to speak to Pharaoh "to allow Bnei Yisrael to leave his land". However, in pasuk 29, Moshe is commanded to "speak to Pharaoh all that I say to you." While in pasuk 11, the content of Moshe's assignment is explicitly emphasized - to free Bnei Yisrael - in pasuk 29, the purpose is entirely absent. All that is mentioned is the general demand to speak whatever God will command.

 

At first glance, this might be taken as support for the thesis that pasuk 30 is merely a repetition of pasuk 12, so that an abridged version of the command suffices. However, a sensitive reading of pasuk 29 clearly reveals that not only brevity is at work here - there are additions that were introduced that are not found in pasuk 11. The demand of Hashem, as described in pasuk 29, is followed by the superfluous clause, "all that I say to you." More strikingly, it is preceded by the declaration "I am Hashem." These elaborations seem to indicate a basic difference between the two versions. The initial command is pragmatic in nature. Moshe, functioning as a political leader of Bnei Yisrael, is charged with a defined task - freeing the people from bondage. In contrast, the significance of the second command is unrelated to any practical outcome vis-a-vis Bnei Yisrael.  "I am Hashem! Speak to Pharaoh in My name. Tell him all that I say to you." Moshe is ordered to be the mouthpiece of Hashem, to deliver to Pharaoh a divine message, to represent, as it were, Hashem Himself. To “speak in the name of God” is not merely a hollow abbreviation of the previously noted task. Rather, it is the essence of a distinctly different role that was thrust upon Moshe Rabbeinu.  The disregard of the pragmatic agenda highlights the religious nature of his mission.

 

The twofold response of Moshe Rabbeinu corresponds to his dual role.  Pasuk 12 is comprised of a logical argument: Just as Bnei Yisrael didn't listen to me, so will Pharaoh ignore me. This should be contrasted with pasuk 30, where the proof is absent. Within the pragmatic context, the issue is one of results. Will Moshe be successful in his political assignment or not? However, the demand placed upon Moshe in pasuk 29 raises an entirely different issue.  How can a frail finite human being possibly be a representative of Hashem? How can one with uncircumcised lips possibly speak in the name of Pure Holiness? The issue is not whether or not Pharaoh will agree to free Bnei Yisrael.  The problem is the absurdity inherent in the role itself.

 

As a matter of fact, the second account of Moshe's argument is followed by an explicit description of the Divine nature of Moshe's task.  "Behold I have made you a "God" to Pharaoh, and your brother Aharon shall be your prophet" (7:1).  Furthermore, it should be noted that up until this point, Moshe and Aharon have not performed any signs or miracles in Pharaoh's presence; they merely demanded the temporary release of Bnei Yisrael.  It is only from this point on that they begin to perform miracles (see 7:8-13).

 

For the task with which Moshe was initially charged there was no necessity to delve into his family background. Even the son of the anonymous "ish mi-beit Levi" is capable, due to his extraordinary personal abilities, of assuming a role of political leadership. His unique qualities coupled with the singular circumstances he experienced as a child were sufficient reason to choose him to lead Bnei Yisrael out of bondage.

 

However, the role of Divine representation cannot be accomplished by any human being, no matter how great. It is impossible for any finite individual to fulfill such a role. The mandate to represent Hashem was not and could not be given to anyone on the personal level. Rather, this Divine role was reserved for an entire nation, chosen to be a "kingdom of priests and a sanctified nation." Therefore, prior to introducing the second aspect of his argument, there is a prerequisite of rooting Moshe Rabbeinu firmly within the context of Knesset Yisrael.  Moshe, the talented son of the anonymous "ish mi-beit Levi" is charged with the task of leading Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim.  However, it is only Moshe the son of Amram, the grandson of Levi, who is appointed by Hashem as a Divine representative to speak to Pharaoh in the name of Hashem.

 

At the end of the genealogical listing, Moshe and Aharon are introduced twice. "These are Aharon and Moshe, who were told by Hashem, 'Take Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim..." (6:26). This pasuk refers to their political role as leaders charged with the task of practically freeing Benei Yisrael.  At this level, Aharon and Moshe are equals, and Aharon the elder is mentioned first. "They are the ones who SPOKE to Pharaoh, the king of Mitzrayim...  they are Moshe and Aharon" (6:27). When referring to the representative role of speaking to Pharaoh, Moshe is primary. "Behold, I have made you a god to Pharaoh, and your brother Aharon shall be your prophet" (7:1).

 

Moshe Rabbeinu was chosen both as political leader of Bnei Yisrael and also as messenger of Hashem. His leadership expresses itself in clearly defined political categories; together with Aharon, he is charged with leading Bnei Yisrael out of bondage.  He is unsure how he can possibly convince Pharaoh and fulfill this task, since even Benei Yisrael ignore him.  Furthermore, Moshe, as a manifestation of Knesset Yisrael, is the messenger of Hashem, charged to speak to Pharaoh in His holy name. He alone is given the impossible role of Divine representation. Hence, he questions the paradoxical nature of this task thrust upon him.

 

Nevertheless, the inscrutable will of Hashem prevails. Moshe as leader, rooted in his unique individual qualities, successfully leads Bnei Yisrael to freedom, while Moshe as a manifestation of Knesset Yisrael speaks to Pharaoh in the name of Hashem.

 

III. The Ten Plagues

 

This understanding of the complex role with which Moshe was charged casts an illuminating light on the purpose of the ten plagues. From the pragmatic perspective, which fulfills itself in achieving the result of freedom, the comprehensive constellation of the ten makot seems superfluous, if not absurd. Was it really necessary for the Almighty to batter Pharaoh with ten separate makot in order to emerge victorious? Was the Omnipotent unable to overpower Mitzrayim immediately? "For now, if I would stretch out my hand, I could smite you and your people with pestilence, and you would perish from the earth" (9:15). Evidently, the makot had an additional purpose: "However for this have I sustained you, in order to show you my power, and so that my name shall be proclaimed throughout the earth" (9:16).

 

The dramatic battle between Pharaoh and Moshe was waged on two fronts. One front concerned itself with political sovereignty over Bnei Yisrael.  The issue of freedom or slavery hung in the balance. On the second front, Bnei Yisrael were only incidentally involved. The subject was of a cosmic-religious nature - who controlled the fate of Bnei Yisrael?  In the haftara we read, "And the land of Mitzrayim shall be desolate and waste, and they shall know that I am Hashem, because he [Pharaoh) has said: The river is mine and I have made it" (Yechezkel 29:9).  Pharaoh deified himself. He considered himself not only master of the Israeli slaves, but their lord as well.  He demanded their worship along with their labor. The phrase, "Thus says Pharaoh” (5:10) in response to "Thus says Hashem," is both striking and instructive.

 

Until chapter 6, the main focus was the issue of slavery. Moshe and Aharon, the political leaders of the people, demand a limited form of freedom.  They are met with scorn and abuse, both by Pharaoh as well as by Bnei Yisrael. In the following chapter, a new front is opened in the Moshe-Pharaoh confrontation. Bnei Yisrael are demoted to a secondary role, as Hashem begins to smite Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. Moshe is charged with speaking to Pharaoh in HIS name.

 

At this point, the makot begin. They were not meant to overpower Pharaoh or to conquer Mitzrayim.  Rather, the purpose was to prove beyond doubt the absolute existence, omnipotence, and omniscience of Hashem Elokei Yisrael.  "Thus says Hashem: with this you will know that I am the Lord" (7:17);  "So that you should know that I am Hashem in the midst of the earth" (8:18);  "So that you should know that there is none like me in all the earth" (9:14).  (See Ramban 13:16.)

 

Moshe's subsequent career should be viewed from this dual perspective as well. We find that Korach's attack on the authority of Moshe is automatically translated as a rejection of Hashem: "Therefore you and your company are gathered against Hashem" (Bamidbar 16:11). Moshe did not serve only as the political leader - "And he was a king in Yeshurun" (Devarim 33:5, see Ibn Ezra) - Moshe was a prophet as well, who delivered the infinite word of Hashem to Bnei Yisrael.  His unique level of prophecy was rooted in his special status as divine representative.

 

And there never arose in Yisrael a prophet like Moshe, whom Hashem knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders, which Hashem sent him to do in the land of Mitzrayim, to Pharaoh and to all his servants, and in all the mighty hand and great awe that Moshe performed in the sight of all Yisrael.