SALT - Thursday, 19 Tevet 5779 - December 27, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Upon hearing God’s command at the burning bush to return to Egypt and approach Pharaoh to demand that he allow Benei Yisrael to leave Egypt, Moshe initially refused, saying, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (3:11).
            God then responded, “For I shall be with you; and this is the sign that I have sent you – when you bring the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (3:12). 
This verse is very difficult to understand, and indeed has been explained in many different ways by the various commentators.  The first segment of God’s response – “For I shall be with you” – appears to be the answer to Moshe’s question.  Moshe understandably wondered how he – a fugitive who was forced to run for his life after killing an Egyptian – could possibly confront Pharaoh and lead Benei Yisrael out of the country, and God assured him that he would receive special divine assistance to fulfill this task.  The rest of God’s response, however, seems hard to explain.  God speaks of a “sign that I sent you” – as though Moshe required or had asked for a “sign” to prove that God was sending him.  And, God seems to identify as this “sign” the future event of Ma’amad Har Sinai – the nation assembling to “serve God” on Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moshe received the prophecy at the burning bush.  To what exactly did this event serve as a “sign”?
            Rashi takes two approaches to explaining this verse, the first of which is based on Rashi’s novel interpretation to the previous verse.  Rashi had explained Moshe’s question as actually consisting of two separate concerns.  Firstly, he felt incapable of approaching the Egyptian monarch to demand the release of Benei Yisrael, and, secondly, he felt that Benei Yisrael were not worthy of the miracles that would be needed for them to leave Egypt.  In response to Moshe’s first concern, God assured him that He would grant him his assistance – “I shall be with you” – and then added, “and this is the sign that I have sent you.”  According to Rashi, this refers to the remarkable sight which Moshe had witnessed – the sight of a bush that was ablaze yet was not consumed.  This supernatural phenomenon served as a symbol of God’s guarantee to Moshe that no harm would befall him by approaching Pharaoh, just as the bush was not harmed by the flames which engulfed it.  And as for Moshe’s concern that Benei Yisrael were unworthy of redemption, God informed Moshe of Ma’amad Har Sinai, that Benei Yisrael were destined to forge a special covenant with God at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, and this alone rendered them worthy of being rescued from bondage.
            This interpretation of the verse appears to stem from an understanding of the word “zeh” (“this”) mentioned by Rashi in several different contexts (most famously, perhaps, Shemot 15:2, commenting to this phrase “zeh Keili ve-anveihu”).  Rashi asserts that this word denotes something which is visibly identifiable, as opposed to something abstract or that needs to be imagined.  Thus, when God said to Moshe, “zeh lekha ha-ot” (“this is the sign”), it refers to the burning bush, which Moshe saw with his own eyes.
            In his second approach, Rashi explains the verse to mean that the success of Moshe’s mission would serve as a “sign” confirming the fulfillment of a second promise – that Benei Yisrael would then serve God at Mount Sinai.  Meaning, in response to Moshe’s question, God promised that He would assure the success of his mission, and He then added that this success would indicate the fulfillment of the separate promise of the Revelation at Sinai.
            The difficulty with this interpretation is that it requires a strained reading of the word “zeh” – “this,” as meaning, “the success of your mission.”  Rashi implicitly acknowledges the difficulty in this reading, and therefore suggests drawing a prooftext supporting his explanation, citing a similar construction used by Yeshayahu in his prophecy during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.  After prophesying the miraculous defeat of Assyria, Yeshayahu then pronounced to King Chizkiyahu, “Ve-zeh lekha ha-ot akhol ha-shana safi’ach…” – “This is the sign for you: eat this year what grows wildly…” (Melakhim II 19:29, Yeshayahu 37:30).  Rashi explains this to mean that the fulfillment of the promise of Assyria’s defeat will serve as a sign of the fulfillment of another promise – the promise of material prosperity during the coming years, despite the colossal damage inflicted by the Assyrian assault.  The word “ve-zeh” in that verse refers to the fulfillment of the preceding promise, which will then serve to confirm a separate promise which is now being made.  Thus, at the burning bush, too, Rashi explains the phrase “ve-zeh lekha ha-ot” to mean that the fulfillment of the preceding promise – to assure Moshe’s success in leading Benei Yisrael out of Egypt – would serve to confirm the subsequent promise of the nation’s arrival at Sinai to receive the Torah and forge an eternal covenant with God.