The conclusion of Sefer Bereishit sees the Hebrews firmly established in the fertile land of Goshen. Under Yosef's watchful eye and Pharaoh's gracious patronage, the children of Israel steadily grow in number and influence. Enjoying the privilege vouchsafed by Yosef's position of Viceroy, they do not remain tenders of flocks only, but become landed and prosperous burghers as well.
How quickly their fortunes change with the advent of a 'new Pharaoh!' Quick to exploit the simmering native hostility to the newcomers and to their success, Pharaoh marshals his henchmen and initiates an ever more repressive series of enactments to check the Hebrew's explosive natural growth and to curb their burgeoning commercial, political, and potentially military clout.
When the imposition of a forced levy to build his store cities of Pitom and Raamses fails to achieve results, Pharaoh imposes ever more harsh labor upon the Hebrews. Slowly but surely, they are conscripted to perform heavy construction, back-breaking field work, and a multitude of public projects, all of it carried out under the unforgiving gaze and stinging whips of the taskmasters. Remarkably, however, the Hebrews remain unbowed. Accepting their bizarre and cruel fate, they plod forward, fashioning their quota of bricks and hoping for better days. Never despairing of meriting to see Pharaoh's premature demise, they continue to have children in great number.
Alarmed, Pharaoh hatches a new and sinister plot. Hoping to tilt the demographic scales in his favor, he summons the midwives, and orders them to surreptitiously murder the newborn male children of the Hebrews. Remarkably, they refuse. Fearing God but feigning failure, they claim that the Hebrew women succeed in birthing before their arrival. Pharaoh relents but is not deterred. "Pharaoh commanded his whole people and said: 'Cast every newborn boy into the River Nile, but allow the girls to live!'" (Shemot 1:22).
So concludes the first section of parashat Shemot, and so begins the story of the enslavement in Egypt. With nightmarish imagery, the cruelty of the Pharaoh becomes the paradigm for the repeating tale of Israel's banishment among the nations. Welcome and prosperity, influence and success are inexorably twisted into resentment and enmity, oppression and brutality, and finally bloodshed and exile. But always, even while our gutted dreams still smolder before crumbling to ash, there glows among the cinders the faint flicker of hope.
MOSHE'S BIRTH AND DELIVERANCE
"A man from the House of Levi went and took the daughter of Levi as his wife. The woman became pregnant and bore a son. She saw that he was 'good' and hid him for three months. When she saw that she could no longer hide him, she prepared a box of reeds and smeared it with clay and pitch. Into it she positioned the infant, and then placed it among the rushes at the banks of the Nile…" (Shemot 2:1-3). Soon enough and sure enough, Pharaoh's daughter, who has come down to the Nile to bathe, spies the fragile box. Prying off its insubstantial lid, she finds a crying infant and immediately recognizes his Hebrew origins. Her heart overflowing with maternal pity, she resolves to preserve the child and to raise him as her own. So it is that Moshe, the deliverer and the Lawgiver, is saved from certain death.
But what a long path still stretches out before him, from the august but carefree halls of Pharaoh's magnificent palace to the rock-strewn summit of Sinai. Who can say that the Hebrew foundling will in fact grow to be their savior, rather than their treacherous scourge? The Torah is silent concerning the formative years that Moshe spends in Pharaoh's court, leaving fertile and feverish minds much latitude to concoct all manner of conjectural readings of that intervening period. There is, however, a well-known and beloved account, if not somewhat lengthy, that is preserved in the Midrash Shemot Rabba 1:26, and every Jewish school child knows its main points by heart.
THE ACCOUNT OF THE MIDRASH
"Pharaoh's daughter kissed, hugged and loved that child as her own son, and she never took him out of the King's palace. The child's beauty was legend and everyone desired to see him…Pharaoh himself kissed and hugged him, and the child would playfully seize Pharaoh's crown and place it upon his own head (as an indication of what he would one day do when he was grown. Similarly, God says to Chiram King of Tyre: 'I will bring forth a fire from your own midst that will consume you!' – Yechezkel 28:18. So too, Pharaoh's daughter with her own hands raised the one who would eventually destroy her father…)."
"When the Egyptian Sorcerers saw, they said to Pharaoh: 'We are afraid that this child who takes the crown from upon your head and places it upon his own, will turn out to be the very one that we foresee will one day snatch your dominion from you!' Some of them recommended that Moshe be slain, and some suggested that he be burned. Yitro [Moshe's future father-in-law] was present and said: 'This child has no awareness of his actions. Test him by placing before him two bowls, one containing gold, and the other glowing coals. If he grasps the gold then it is a sign that he is aware and therefore must be killed. If, however, he grasps the coals then we will know that he is unaware, and therefore need not be dispatched."
"Immediately the two bowls were brought before him. Moshe stretched out his hand to grasp the gold, but the Angel Gavriel pushed his hand away so that instead he grasped the coals. He lifted the coal to his mouth and burned his tongue, and as a result he became 'heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue'" (Shemot 4:10).
EXPLAINING MOSHE'S IMPEDIMENT AND GOD'S WAYS
The above account, witty and ironic, purports to explain the source of Moshe's speech deficiency, the very excuse that he will so pathetically wield in the face of God's entreaties and eventual command that he return to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Hebrews (see Shemot 3:11-4:17). According to this Midrashic reading, Moshe's 'heaviness of mouth and tongue' did not signify ineloquence and inadequacy, but rather a genuine physical disability. The relevant Biblical phrase is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for either possibility, however. More to the point, the Midrash ascribes the source of this curious deficiency to a pivotal event in Moshe's childhood. He becomes inarticulate as a direct consequence of childishly reaching for Pharaoh's crown.
Ostensibly, though, the main thrust of the Midrash is to throw open a window on the mysterious workings of Divine Providence. Pharaoh's beloved daughter, stricken with the milk of human kindness, serenely opposes her father's brutal edict and rescues the future deliverer from the depths. The god king himself, a potent tyrant so consumed with fear of the Hebrews and so obsessed with preventing their insurgency, with his own hands tenderly embraces the future instrument of his downfall. The suspicious sorcerers, no doubt genuinely troubled by the unsettling vision of Moshe's growing influence, sense the danger augured by the child's innocent reaching, but are unexpectedly foiled by the convincing counsel of Yitro. Moshe himself, if not for the invisible angel's gentle but firm redirection of his hand, would have portentously seized the gold and sealed his fate for doom.
The implication of all of the above is clear: God's will cannot be thwarted. Even as the Hebrews continue to hopelessly toil, even as the cruel Pharaoh and his minions are busy devising the next outrage, even as a child naively frolics unaware, even as a thousand million small and great calculations, choices, and counter-decisions are unconsciously conceived and imperceptively executed, the relentless redemptive process incrementally and often murkily unfolds.
Considered in this light, the pivotal episode of the Midrash is startlingly recast. The import of the bowl of gold is eminently clear to Yitro, the Sorcerers, the Pharaoh and the reader. It is suggestive of Pharaoh's golden crown. If baby Moshe reaches for the gold, then either he demonstrates an unconscious ambition for the throne or else the 'gods' show a veiled predilection for his ascendancy. But what if he reaches for the coals? What are the onlookers to make of Moshe's preference for the glowing embers? Phrased differently, why does the Midrash offer a bowl of burning coals as the counterpoint to Pharaoh's glitter, rather than any other of innumerable possible objects of fascination for the child's young and wide eyes?
YIRMIYAHU AND YECHEZKEL
Fortunately, we have at our disposal three references that can be furnished as the background Biblical source for this Midrash, and at least one of them offers such a striking parallel that its connection is seemingly incontrovertible. When the First-Temple Prophet Yirmiyahu is charged with his mission, to thanklessly call upon the people of Israel to reject their evil ways and to return to God, he is understandably reluctant and afraid.
"I said: O God Lord, I know not how to speak, for I am but a lad! But God responded: 'Do not say that you are a lad, for concerning everything that I shall send you, you shall go, and all that I command you, you shall speak. Do not fear them, for I am with you to save you,' says God. GOD SENT FORTH HIS HAND AND TOUCHED MY MOUTH, AND GOD SAID TO ME: BEHOLD, I HAVE PUT MY WORDS INTO YOUR MOUTH. Behold, I appoint you this day to the nations and to the kingdoms, to pronounce displacement, demolishment, destruction and ruin, building and planting…'" (Yirmiyahu 1:6-10).
When the Prophet Yechezkel is called upon to address his exiled compatriots by the rivers of Babylon, towards the end of Jeremiah's futile activity, he is first overawed by the terrifying vision of the 'Divine Chariot.' Bowed by the prophecy, he is lifted to his feet by God's 'spirit,' and then the Deity addresses him:
"He said to me: 'son of man, I send you to speak to the people of Israel, to those rebellious tribes, who with their ancestors have defied Me until this very day! I send you to the stubborn and hard-hearted children and you shall say to them: 'Thus says God Lord.' Whether they listen to you or not, for they are rebellious, they will know that a prophet was among them. As for you, son of man, be not afraid of them or their words, for they shall be to you as stubborn thorns…As for you, son of man, hearken to what I say to you, and BE NOT REBELLIOUS AS THAT HOUSE OF REBELLIOUSNESS. RATHER, OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND CONSUME THAT WHICH I GIVE TO YOU.' I THEN SAW A HAND SENT TO ME, AND IN IT WAS A WRITTEN SCROLL. HE OPENED IT BEFORE ME AND IT WAS WRITTEN ON BOTH SIDES WITH LAMENTATIONS, DIRGES AND WEEPING. He said to me: 'son of man, consume it, this scroll, and go and speak to the House of Israel. I opened my mouth, and He fed me this scroll. He said to me: 'son of man, your stomach will consume this scroll and with it your innards shall be filled,' and I ate it, and while in my mouth it tasted as sweet as honey…" (Yechezkel 2:1-3:3).
In both cases, a reluctant prophet is coerced to face the unreceptive people of Israel, steeled by a Divine oath of support, and bidden to be steadfast and brave. In both cases, the taking on of the mission is initiated by God and symbolized by His placement of some sort of concretized communication into the prophet's mouth. The prophet is called upon to verbally convey to the people the Divine message that he has received, God's harsh words that have been placed in his mouth and internalized in his being. As the story of parashat Shemot unfolds, Moshe's extreme reluctance to convey God's words will be met by the Deity's uncompromising insistence that will in the end prevail.
THE STARTLING PARALLEL OF YISHAYAHU
It is, however, the account of Yishayahu, who was active some 100 years before Jeremiah, which offers the most astonishing analog to this Midrash:
"In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw God seated upon His lofty throne, and His train filled the sanctuary. Fiery angels stood at His side…and they called to each other: 'Holy, Holy, Holy is God of Legions, the whole world is filled with His glory!'…I said: 'Woe is me, for I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and now my eyes have seen God, King of Legions!' ONE OF THE FIERY ANGELS FLEW OVER TO ME, AND IN HIS HANDS WAS A GLOWING COAL THAT HE HAD FETCHED WITH TONGS FROM THE ALTAR. HE TOUCHED IT TO MY LIPS AND SAID: THIS HAS TOUCHED YOU LIPS SO THAT YOUR TRANSGRESSION HAS BEEN REMOVED, AND YOUR OFFENSE ATONED. I heard the voice of God saying: 'who shall I send, and who will go for Me?' and I said: 'Here I am, send me!' He said: 'Go and tell this people: 'you hear but do not understand, you see but do not perceive…so shall it be until the cities shall be deserted without inhabitants, the houses bereft of people, and the land utterly desolate…'" (Yishayahu 6:1-13).
Here, the prophetic message is explicitly described as a cleansing, glowing coal, which is touched directly to the prophet's lips, through the agency of an angel that transports it. Recall that in the case of Moshe and the bowl of coals, it was the Angel Gavriel who redirected his hand so that he grasped the fiery ember and brought it to his mouth, becoming, however, tongue-tied as a result.
The implication of our reading is therefore clear: the stark choice confronting young Moshe is not simply the option of usurping Pharaoh's crown or else remaining his privileged but ingenuous adopted son, as if the bowl of glowing coals is nothing more than a childish trinket attractive to his inexperienced eyes. Here, the Divine imperative imposes upon him a more severe selection: to opt for the seeming security of gold and consequently perish, or to choose the burning fire of God's word and yet survive.
And like the other protagonists in the Midrash, who try as they might cannot prevent, hold back or even forestall the process of Israel's redemption, Moshe too will be powerless to reject his pivotal role in its unfolding. In spite of his protests, above his objections, in the face of his paralytic reluctance that will become manifest as the parasha unfolds, he will go to Pharaoh bearing God's fiery demand, and he will prevail.
Oftentimes, like young Moshe, we make the mistake of reaching for the proverbial pot of gold, be it fame, fortune, or simply a pursuit or deed that can secure for us momentary security or satisfaction but carries no intimations of ultimate meaning or eternity. If we are indeed fortunate, an 'angel,' an event, an encounter may redirect our hand and bring us to the realization that to choose the gold may be not only against our best interests, but may actually constitute a betrayal of our real mission and task in this world. God's word beckons to us as well, but it is not offered gratis and without effort. Its warmth and heat, its light and illumination can sustain us and guide our path, but choosing it may entail some difficulties and the seeming grief of giving up its glittering opponent.
When ultimate questions of life's meaning and direction, our role and purpose, are sincerely addressed, real choices must be made, and it is not always possible to 'have it all.' As an archetype, the Prophet represents the notion of each and every person standing addressed by God and called upon to provide intelligible answers to ultimate questions. We are all charged with at least our own personal mission and objective that cannot be forsaken. Like Moshe and the illustrious individuals Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel who followed him some eight centuries later, let us too overcome self-doubt, fear and uncertainty to embrace the word of God that alone can sustain.