PARASHAT SHEMOT - BIRKAT HAHODESH
January 13, 2007 – 23 Tevet 5767
Annual: Exodus 1:1-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 317; Hertz p. 206)
Triennial Cycle: Exodus 4:18-6:1 (Etz Hayim, p. 335; Hertz p. 220)
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13; 29:22-23 (Etz Hayim, p. 343, 347; Hertz p. 225, 228)
Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen
Summary of the Parashah
As we begin Sefer Shemot, the second book of the Torah, we take a moment to recall a verse from Beresheit. Joseph and his brothers have died; but before Joseph’s death he exhorts his brothers, saying:
God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Genesis 50:24)
The Israelites still living in Egypt, now more numerous than before, encounter a changed reality – a new Pharaoh clearly feels threatened by their burgeoning population in the midst of Egypt. To complicate matters, the Israelites no longer have Joseph as viceroy, able to put in a good word for them with the ruler. The new Pharaoh attempts to initiate measures to control the demographic explosion of the Israelites.
In the midst of this turbulent period, Moses is born. Through a fortuitous series of events, he comes to be adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter. In early adulthood, apparently aware of his Israelite ancestry, he exhibits compassion for an oppressed Israelite. Very soon he finds himself fleeing Egypt and settling in Midian, where he meets his wife-to-be.
Working as a shepherd, Moses encounters a vision of God in a burning bush. God informs Moses that He has observed the suffering of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians, and that He is ready to redeem them from their enslavement. Echoing the above-cited verse (and expanding upon its theme), God says to Moses:
Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: the Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said, “I have taken notice of you and what is being done to you in Egypt, and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:16-17)
God arms Moses with signs and wonders, which will be discussed below.
Issue #1: Convincing Moses
The encounter with God at the burning bush should have been enough to convince Moses of the importance of his mission. However, Moses expresses concern over the people’s possible reaction to his unusual message. We are not entirely certain whether Moses really meant that the people would have doubts, or whether this was his indirect way of telling God that Moses himself still had doubts.
In the opening section of Chapter 4 (verses 1-9), God provides Moses with some signs that would be hard to ignore. Commenting on this section, W. Gunther Plaut, a Reform rabbi who was born in 1912, offers the following analysis:
The signs, then, were of secondary importance in convincing Israel and of no significance in convincing Pharaoh. Perhaps the primary impact was on Moses himself. It is he who in a moment of great anxiety and upheaval needs some reassurance. The signs help him to gain confidence and to overcome his latest objection. They are a temporary device, of psychological import for him, and of ceremonial meaning to the people. In neither case are they of the essence. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 404)
Do you agree with Plaut’s analysis? Is Moses indeed strengthened by the repertoire of signs that God supplies for him? Do the signs appear to allay his concerns? If not, how do you suppose he felt when his rod turned into a snake, or when his hand became encrusted? Might there have been some other purpose to these signs, besides convincing Moses?
Issue #2: Convincing the Israelites
At the close of Chapter 4, we read the following:
Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people were convinced; they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, and they bowed low in homage. (Exodus 4:29-31)
Moses’ apprehensions seem to have been exaggerated. The people, evidently inspired by his mission, embrace it wholeheartedly. What convinced the Israelites to support Moses and Aaron in their endeavor?
Later on, we see that the Israelites wavered in their support of Moses’ campaign. Why do you suppose that they could be shaken so easily from supporting Moses and Aaron? Could it be that the easily convinced are also the easily unconvinced?
In what ways can Moses’ experience speak to us in our lives? When we approach a new task, what tricks do we need to increase our comfort level? As we plan for presentations, how do we prepare ourselves to help make our case to our audience? Are there ways (leaving aside God’s active presence in the situation) that parallel Moses’ arguments to God?