The Officers of Bnei Yisrael, and Moshe

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT SHEMOT

 

The Officers of Bnei Yisrael, and Moshe

By Rav Yonatan Grossman

Towards the end of parashat Shemot, we read of the encounter between Moshe and Aharon and the Officers of Bnei Yisrael. The latter have just emerged, crestfallen, from their audience with Pharaoh, who has refused their request that his new decree (that the Israelites must now gather straw on their own to make bricks) be annulled. As they exit the palace, they meet Moshe and Aharon, who are "standing facing them" (Shemot 5:20).

Rashi maintains that it was "men of Israel" who met Moshe and Aharon, rather than the Officers,(1) but this interpretation is very difficult to understand. At the end of the verse describing the encounter, we read: "…when they emerged from before Pharaoh," creating the impression that these people are the same ones who previously stood before Pharaoh – i.e., the Officers. Indeed, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Abarbanel and others disagree with Rashi.(2)

This entire situation requires some explanation. What is its significance in the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Why are the claims of the Officers against Moshe and Aharon significant for our understanding of Israel's situation in Egypt, and how does the contribution of this story to our understanding of the general picture find expression? In order to address the meaning of this encounter between the Officers and Moshe and Aharon, I would like first to analyze the meeting itself, and then to discuss its meaning and contribution to the story as a whole.

In the Torah's description of the meeting, we already detect covert criticism of Moshe and Aharon (from the officers' perspective): "And they came upon Moshe and Aharon standing facing them, AS THEY EMERGED FROM BEFORE PHARAOH." In contrast with the usual formulation in the Torah, the indication of time ("as they emerged from before Pharaoh") is mentioned only at the end of the verse, after the description of the meeting itself ("and they came upon Moshe and Aharon"). Usually the text describes events in its "present tense," such that we would expect the formulation here to have been: "And they emerged from before Pharaoh and met Moshe and Aharon," or "And it was, when they emerged from before Pharaoh, that they met Moshe and Aharon." The stylistic change seems to hint at the mood and the psychological state of the Officers at the time of the meeting. The indication of time, postponed until the end of the verse, creates a sense of the meeting taking place in the midst of the audience with Pharaoh, or at least in light of it or against the background of that audience. Of course, we do not mean by this a physical description of the place of the meeting; it is clear that the Officers have already left Pharaoh's presence, as indicated by the end of the verse. But this fact is put off to the end, in order to make the reader party of the feelings of the Officers. Their meeting with Moshe and Aharon is an extension of their preceding audience with Pharaoh, and their words to Moshe and Aharon should be read in light of Pharaoh's words to them.

The above serves to soften the officers' attack on Moshe and Aharon. They had come to Pharaoh with the intention of lightening up on the suffering of Am Yisrael, but because of Moshe and Aharon's previous approach to Pharaoh – that he allow Am Yisrael to leave Egypt – he now refuses their request. Far from making life easier, Pharaoh explains that the reason for his new, stricter edict is the request by Moshe and Aharon, "Let us sacrifice to the Lord our God." The Torah seems to want the reader of the story to understand the mood of the Officers and not to judge them too strictly.

Moreover, the emphasis of the text on the meeting taking place "as they emerged from before Pharaoh" gives rise to a surprising image. It is not Moshe and Aharon who are emerging from an audience with Pharaoh, not they who have come to complain of the injustice of the new decree, but rather the Officers. While the Officers are active here on behalf of Israel, the verse describes Moshe and Aharon in passive terms: "STANDING facing them."(3) Their silence in the face of this new edict is echoed in their lack of response to the officers claims against them. These two silences convey the sense of astonishment, and despair, that gripped Moshe and Aharon as they witnessed these most unexpected developments. We shall return to this matter later on.

A cursory reading of the episode would suggest that the "meeting" mentioned in the introduction is an innocent word that serves merely to introduce the dialogue that is about to take place between the Officers and Moshe and Aharon. But in fact, this term itself already contains a few important hints about the encounter.

The verb employed by the text for the encounter is "they met" – "va-yifge'u." This verb (in simple case) appears in two different contexts in Tanakh.(4) Sometimes it describes a meeting which we could call "neutral," with no accompanying emotion of love or of anger. Such, for example, is the description of Yaakov as he heads for Charan: "He came upon (va-yifga') the place and he lodged there, for the sun was setting" (Bereishit 28:11). Similarly, we read about his return to Canaan: "And Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God met him (va-yifge'u bo)" (Bereishit 32:2).

But, at other times, this verb has negative connotations, even to the point of physical "pegi'a" (assault), as in the law pertaining to a murderer: "when he meets/assaults (be-fig'o) him he shall kill him" (Bamidbar 35:19). Similarly, when Doeg slays the kohanim of Nov, we read: "The king said to Doeg, 'Turn and attack (u-fega) the kohanim,' and Doeg the Edomi turned and attacked (va-yifga) the kohanim" (Shemuel I 22:18).

The meaning of the verb in the introduction to the meeting in our case seems to fall into the first category, for it describes an "incidental" meeting between the Officers and Moshe and Aharon. Indeed, this is how Onkelos understands it. However, it seems that the choice of this specific verb for the meeting is no accident.(5) The same verb has already appeared in our story, seventeen verses ago, in Moshe's request that Pharaoh allow Bnei Yisrael to go:

"And they said: The Lord of the Hebrews has spoken to us; let us then go on a three-day journey in the desert, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He ATTACK US with pestilence or with the sword." (5:3)

Here, the verb clearly is to be interpreted in its more sinister sense ("with pestilence or with the sword"). The Torah, prior to the "meeting" between the Officers and Moshe and Aharon, mentions this request by means of Pharaoh's words ("Idle, you are idle, THEREFORE YOU SAY, LET US GO AND SACRIFICE TO OUR GOD"). Therefore, the text may be hinting, in its repeated use of the same verb, at its meaning as intended by Moshe when speaking to Pharaoh – "lest He attack us" (yifga'enu).

It is not only through the use of the verb "p-g-a" (in the context of a request to go somewhere) that the Torah hints at a link between these two images (Moshe standing before Pharaoh, and Moshe standing before the Officers of Bnei Yisrael). There is also the fear of the "sword" that is directed at the speaker in each instance. Corresponding to Moshe's words, "lest He attack us with pestilence or WITH THE SWORD," the Officers complain to Moshe and Aharon that through their actions they have provided "A SWORD in their hand to kill us." (Also, corresponding to Moshe's words to Pharaoh, "The Lord of the Hebrews has spoken to us," the Officers now demand, "Let God look upon you and judge.")

The connection between the two images seems to be related to the content of the officers' words. We detect a note of irony in relation to Moshe: While you are concerning yourself with the possibility of God's sword, we are actually bearing the brunt of Pharaoh's sword…

In any event, through the connection between the two images the Torah seems to want us to attribute to tverb "va-yifge'u," as it appears in the introduction to the meeting, the negative association as well. Thus, the text prepares the reader for what Officers are going to say, which represents a severe "pegi'a" (affront) to Moshe and Aharon.(6)

The expression that is juxtaposed with the verb – "standing facing them" (nitzavim likratam) – adds to the sense of anger and confrontation that is about to take place in this encounter. This combination is not common in Tanakh, appearing only twice more:

  1. in Moshe's warning to Pharaoh just prior to the plague of blood: "Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he goes out to the river, and STAND BEFORE HIM upon the bank of the river, and the staff which turned into a snake shall you take in your hand" (Shemot 7:15);
  2. when the angel stands before Bil'am and his donkey: "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were STANDING BEFORE ME on the way" (Bamidbar 22:34).(7)

In both of these cases, there is a clear confrontation between the person who is "standing" and the one whom he "faces" (Moshe facing Pharaoh; the angel facing Bil'am). Moreover, in every instance where this expression is used, the person who is "standing" mentions – or is holding – an object used for striking. The Officers of Bnei Yisrael tell Moshe and Aharon that they have given "a sword into the hand" of Pharaoh and his servants to kill them; Moshe presents himself before Pharaoh and warns him, staff in hand (and with this staff he will STRIKE the water); and the angel who stands before Bil'am holds a sword in his hand.(8)

This expression, too, conveys a sense of confrontation between the parties to the encounter. The combination of both expressions – "va-yifge'u" (they met/encountered) and "standing before them" - leaves no room for doubt that the text is seeking to present the meeting between the Officers of Bnei Yisrael and Moshe and Aharon as an emotionally laden one, full of anger and resentment. Further on, we shall address the importance of this definition of the meeting, but let us first examine Moshe's reaction to the harsh words cast at him by the Officers.

The Officers claim that the activities of Moshe and Aharon are an incentive for Pharaoh to increase the burden of work on the nation. Attention should be paid to the fact that, in their anger at Moshe and Aharon, the Officers downplay their anger at Pharaoh, to the point where it almost disappears. From their words, it would appear that it is Moshe and Aharon who have "given the sword" into Pharaoh's hand; it is they who have made Israel "odious" to Pharaoh. In other words, the responsibility for increasing severity of the royal decrees rests with them (and not even with Pharaoh himself, who is simply reacting to the Israelite uprising). After hearing their angry accusations, Moshe addresses God, as follows:

"Lord, why have You DONE EVIL TO THIS NATION, why have You sent me?

For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, HE HAS BEEN EVIL TO THIS NATION; You have not saved Your people at all!"

I mentioned above that the Officers claim that the responsibility for the increasingly restrictive decrees lies with Moshe. Now Moshe seeks to "pass the buck" to his Sender – God. This is noticeable in three emphases in his words:

  1. He speaks two sentences, with each ending in a similar way: evil has been done to this nation. But there is a difference between the two statements concerning the responsibility for the deterioration of the situation. In the second sentence, it is difficult to discern who stands behind the verb "hera" ("evil has been done"). It may be a general description of the situation with no specific identity being defined as its cause. But it seems more likely – as Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand it – that Pharaoh, mentioned in the first part of the verse, is being presented as the cause – for it is he who has done evil to the nation through his decrees. According to this explanation, it is Pharaoh who is responsible for the deterioration of their situation. However, it is not Pharaoh whom Moshe blames – as the Officers do in their words. Prior to this statement, in the first sentence, Moshe says explicitly: "Why have You done evil to this nation?" Here it is clear that Moshe is presenting God as the responsible party. It is, admittedly, a very serious accusation, but – in the context of the story – an entirely reasonable one. God sent Moshe to redeem Israel, and indeed, in the beginning – as God predicted – the nation believes him and the message of redemption that he brings (4:31). However, in contrast to what God promised, Pharaoh intensifies his decrees. Admittedly, God did tell Moshe – at the burning bush – that Pharaoh would agree to free the nation only "with a strong hand" (3:19), but the new decrees are a deviation from the plan as described to him. As Ibn Ezra comments: "Indeed Moshe was grieved that trouble had come upon Israel by his hand, FOR GOD HAD NOT INFORMED HIM." In this sense, Moshe could justifiably stand before God and attribute to Him the responsibility for the bitter situation. Moshe has done as commanded; he went to Pharaoh, but the apparent result is quite different to the one promised to him!
  2. Moshe involves God by emphasizing, "I came to Pharaoh TO SPEAK IN YOUR NAME." He thus clarifies that he is acting as an agent of God; he is not dealing with Pharaoh out of self-interest or on his own initiative.(8) As we remember, one of the most elevated moments at the burning bush was God's revelation of His Name to Moshe. When Moshe asks, "They will say to me, What is HIS NAME, what shall I tell them?" (3:13), God reveals His Name in a most ceremonious fashion: "This is My Name forever, and this is My remembrance for all generations" (3:15). In stressing that he is speaking in God's name, Moshe involves God in the story; he emphasizes that he is God's agent and nothing more, and that he is speaking in God's special name – the Name that makes Him unique in the midst of all pagan beliefs.(9)
  3. The most obvious means through which Moshe transfers responsibility to God pertains to his definition of the nation. Twice he repeats, like a chorus, the expression "this nation." This expression, when referring to people or a congregation, can sometimes convey a certain distance or even estrangement.(10) In Moshe's words, it is clear that this definition expresses a certain distance, in light of the alternative definition that appears at the end of his second sentence. There he says, "You have not saved YOUR NATION at all." Compared to this definition, which connects the nation to God, the previous definition ("this nation") appears antiseptic and distanced. In this way, Moshe emphasizes that it is God Who is responsible for the nation; they are His nation, His flock, and He must take care of their welfare. It is as though Moshe is telling God: From my point of view they are simply "this nation," but for You, they are "Your nation!"

Our parasha concludes with God's response to Moshe, and in the next parasha the wheel of salvation begins to turn. What, then, is the significance of the encounter between Moshe and the Officers of Bnei Yisrael for the rest of the story? We can, of course, conclude that it is this encounter that leads Moshe to pray to God, pleading for salvation for the people, but it is difficult to imagine that were it not for the officers' anger at him – personally! – Moshe would remain indifferent to their suffering. Furthermore, if Moshe had not prayed to God, would not God have saved His people?

It seems to me that the answer lies in the words spoken by the Officers to Moshe and Aharon. Close examination of what they say clarifies the meaning of the encounter, showing its proper place in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and of the molding of Moshe's character.

In their words, the Officers hint at a different episode in his life. They echo the words of the Hebrew man who struck his Hebrew neighbor and who was reprimanded by Moshe many years previously (Shemot 2:13-14). The parallel between the two images is, first and foremost, linguistic:

THE HEBREW MAN says (Shemot 2):

"Who has made you a prince AND JUDGE UPON US;

DO YOU MEAN TO KILLME?

And Moshe fled from before Pharaoh."

 

THE OFFICERS OF BNEI YISRAEL say (Shemot 5):

"May God look UPON YOU AND JUDGE,

… to put a sword in their hand TO KILL US.

And Moshe returned to God…"

The combination of "judging" and "over" or "upon" creates a clear link between the two images – especially in juxtaposition to the uncommon expression "to kill me/us," which appears in both cases.

This linguistic connection serves to hint at the real connection between these two episodes. In both cases, Moshe seeks to help his brethren and to save them from their persecutors. Chapter 2 presents the incident concerning a single Egyptian who strikes a Hebrew, and Moshe comes to his aid. Now the Torah is describing an attempt to come to the aid of the entire nation, suffering at the hands of their Egyptian tormentors. Again, just as in the first incident, Moshe's brethren turn their backs to him: "Do you mean to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?" said the Hebrew many years ago, and now the Officers of Bnei Yisrael tell Moshe that they actually have no desire for his favors or his involvement in their lives.

While the officers' attack him, hurling their accusations, Moshe is surely remembering the previous occasion when he tried to help his Israelite brethren, and he received a similar response. The words of the Officers arouse and old memory of his betrayal at the hands of his people, of their reporting him to the Egyptian ruler.

On the previous occasion, Moshe "fled" to Midian. Against his will, after his own people banished him from their midst, he was forced to leave. Now, Moshe faces a similar reality, and he must decide how to act. The plan for saving the nation does not seem to be working out as planned, and Pharaoh has suddenly intensified his decrees. Now, Moshe could escape once again to Midian, returning to Yitro and to his family and resigning from the assignment. But this is not what Moshe does. It is not to Yitro that he returns, but to God: "And Moshe returned to God," with a prayer and a demand that He save His people.

From this perspective, Moshe himself undergoes an important process in the wake of the harsh accusations of the Officers. He decides here that the option of severing himself from his nation no longer exists. Moshe's "corrective experience" does not take place because of any change in the behavior of the nation. On the contrary, his Israelite brethren still show no desire for his presence or his help. This is the meaning of the Torah's emphasis – in the introduction to the meeting – on the fact that the meeting is characterized by a sense of alienation, with much anger. But Moshe himself has changed: this time he does not escape to Midian; rather, he stands before God and pleads on behalf of the nation.

Moshe's renewed identification with his nation, and his ability to overcome their earlier rejection of him, begins to show its signs at the circumcision of his son, which takes place at the lodge on the way to Egypt (4:24-26). There he declares his identification with the family of Avraham, against his will, because of the threat of the sword that hangs over him. Now, the process of Moshe's identification with his nation is complete. Of his own free will he returns to God and demands that the nation be saved from the yoke of Egyptian servitude.

Just as the officers' words to Moshe and Aharon remind us of an earlier image in Moshe's life, so they also foretell the rest of his life. When Moshe stands before Pharaoh and warns him of the impending plague of blood, we are once again reminded of the officers' words:

ENCOUNTER BETWEEN THE OFFICERS AND MOSHE (CHAPTER 4):

"And they met Moshe and Aharon STANDING FACING THEM AS THEY CAME OUT from Pharaoh…

to give a sword INTO THEIR HAND to kill us…

You HAVE MADE US ODIOUS…"

 

PLAGUE OF BLOOD (CHAPTER 7):

"Behold, he GOES OUT to the water, and YOU SHALL STAND FACING HIM

… Behold, I shall strike with the staff which is IN MY HAND

and the Nile shall BECOME ODIOUS."

The Torah seems to want to teach us that the outcry of the Officers, in their distress over the suffering of the people, is the basis upon which Moshe rests when he comes to speak to Pharaoh. Out of the officers' identification with the suffering of the nation, Moshe also identifies with them, and thereby draws strength to stand before Pharaoh.

From now on it will not be the sword in Pharaoh's hand that threatens Bnei Yisrael, but rather the staff in Moshe's hand that threatens Pharaoh. No longer will Bnei Yisrael be odious before Pharaoh, but rather the Nile will be odious. The real confrontation is not between Moshe and the Officers; it is not before them that Moshe stands, but rather before Pharaoh; he is now the adversary.

NOTES:

  1. Rashi ad loc. See also Talmud Bavli, Nedarim 64a.
  2. This reading also arises from Shemot Rabba 5:24.
  3. Rashi, following Chazal's lead, proposes that "facing" describes those who met Moshe and Aharon, rather than Moshe and Aharon themselves: "Every textual mention of 'facing' (nitzavim) refers to Datan and Aviram, as it is written concerning them, 'They came out facing'" (Rashi ad loc., Shemot Rabba 5:20 [the Midrash actually says that Datan and Aviram 'were with them']). However, the literal reading of the verse gives rise to a contrast between the Officers, who emerge from before Pharaoh, and Moshe and Aharon, who were "facing them." I am unsure whether the text is presenting a deliberate play on words (so as to emphasize the contrast between the two encounters) – "facing/standing" (nitzavim) vs. "as they emerged" (be-tzeitam).
  4. In the causative case, there is an additional meaning: "to cast upon" (Yishayahu 53:6), "to cast a plea" (Yirmiyahu 36:25). See, for example, Y. Steinberg, Dictionary of the Tanakh, Tel Aviv 5721, p. 678 (Hebrew); Tz. Radai, New Dictionary of the Tanakh, Jerusalem 1989, pp. 467-468.
  5. It should be noted that the more common term for the description of an encounter in Tanakh is the root "p-g-sh." This verb is used in two ways. It can refer to a pre-planned meeting, such as that of Moshe and Aharon in our parasha, following the burning bush episode: "And God said to Aharon: Go towards Moshe, to the desert; and he went and MET HIM (va-yifgeshehu) at the mountain of God, and he kissed him" [4:27]. It is also used for a chance encounter, such as that of Avigayil and David, formulated in the text – from David's point of view – as a chance meeting: "And behold, David and his men were coming down towards her, and she met (va-tifgosh) them" (Shemot 25:20), or "Yoav ben Tzeruya and the servants of David went out and met them (va-yifgeshum) at the pool of Givon, together" (Shemuel II 2:13), as well as many other such examples.
  6. In general, the various translations have rightly rendered the verb "va-yifge'u" as "they met" (i.e., like 'va-yifgeshu'). However, the covert implication here finds expression in Durham's translation of the verse: "Thus they hurried to CONFRONT Moses and Aaron" (J.I. Durham, Exodus, World Biblical Commentary, Texas 1987, p. 66).
  7. The expression "hityatzvut" (standing, facing, presenting oneself) in relation to an angel has occurred previously in the story, but not in conjunction with the expression "facing" (likrat).
  8. In God's response to Moshe at the conclusion of this section, we may detect a hint of a reaction to the officers' fear of the sword in Pharaoh's hand. God says, "For with a strong HAND will he send you out, and with a strong HAND will he banish you from his land" (6:1). Thus, Pharaoh's threatening hand, grasping a sword, becomes the hand that will ultimately send Israel out of Egypt.
  9. The expression, "to speak in the name of…" indicates that the speaker is an agent. Thus, for example, when David's men bring word to Naval: "They spoke to Naval all these words in David's name" (Shemuel I 25:9). Hence this is a common expression in Tanakh to describe a prophet who declares his prophecy in God's name (see especially Devarim 18:19-20).
  10. This is especially apparent in light of Moshe's appeal to God: "Lord, why have You done evil to this nation" – not using His special Name. Thus Moshe intimates that specifically when standing before Pharaoh, he does prehimself as God's agent, using His special Name. See Ramban ad loc.
  11. Compare, for example, Moshe's words in the incident of the water at Refidim: "And Moshe cried out to God, saying: What shall I do for this nation; just a little more and they will stone me!" (Shemot 17:4). Similarly, in God's words concerning the golden calf, we read: "God said to Moshe: I have seen this nation, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people" (Shemot 32:9).

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)


 

 

 

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