Shemot: Who am I to go to the Pharaoh

Shemot: Who am I to go to the Pharaoh

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

Five times did Moses refuse the mission he was charged with at the burning bush. Five times did he present his arguments, only to be overruled each time by the Almighty. Let us briefly survey the five rounds:

  • Then Moses said to God: Who am I to go to Pharaoh, and take the children of Israel out of Egypt? (3:11)
  • Moses said to God: When I actually come to the children of Israel and say to them and they say to me, What is his name?what shall I say to them? (3:13)
  • Moses answered and said: But they will never believe me or listen to me, for they will say: The Lord has not appeared to thee. (4:1)
  • Then Moses said to the Lord I have never been a man of words, neither Yesterday, nor even the day before, nor even since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and tongue.(4:10)
  • Finally he said: Send I pray Thee by the hand of whom Thou wilt send. (5:13)

It may be observed that Moses changed his defense in each answer as if he were seeking shelter each time behind another excuse. In his first two replies his rejection was based on personal inadequacy; this is particularly evident in his second reply: What shall I say to them? On the third occasion he hides behind the people. Th very preamble to it, Moses answered and said indicates that he had taken up a new line of defense. Cassuto in his commentary to Exodus remarks that this form of introduction to a speech does not merely connote an answer, but indicates the introduction of a new idea or fresh initiative on the part of the speaker. This is its connotation introducing the speeches in the book of Job, and here too.

After this argument too had been overruled by the Divine reply, Moses reverted in his fourth plea to himself, this time pleading a specific inadequacy (physical or spiritual. Our sages detected in the drawn-out wording of this verse, its multiplicity of alsos (gam) the full force of Moses hesitations, and the intensity of his misgivings. And Moses said to the Lord, O Lord Thus Moses addressed the Holy one Blessed be He: You are the Lord of the world. Do you want me to be an emissary? Behold I have never been a man of words. The sages stated: For the previous seven days, the Holy One blessed be He had been trying to coax Moses to accept His mission and he had not wanted to go till the incident of the burning bush. To this the text alludes, as it is stated: I have never been a man of words one (day); yesterday two: even three; the day before four; even five; since six; Thou hast spoken seven! (Shemot Rabbah)

After God had overruled even this argument of Moses, there came the fifth plea, different in essence from all its precursors: send I pray Thee, by the hand of whom Thou wilt send. It is completely unmotivated, though our sages have endeavored to detect reasoned argument in it:

R. Hiyya the Great stated: Moses thus addressed the Holy One blessed be He: Lord of the universe! Through me do you wish to redeem the children of Abraham who acknowledged Thee master over all Thy creatures! “Send, I pray Thee by the hand of Him whom Thou wilt send;. He (Moses) continued: Who is dearer to a man, his nephew or his grandchild? Surely his grandchild! When thou didst seek to save Lot, Abraham’s nephew, Thou didst send angels to deliver him; the children of Abraham who are sixty myriads, me dost Thou send to deliver them! Send the angels Thou art accustomed to sending.

But in the text itself we find just blank refusal, a final almost desperate rebuttal, as if all his arguments had been silenced and he was left with a barren, bewildered no.

Let us take a closer look at the first refusal. The message that Moses received at the burning bush read: Come now therefore and I will send thee to Pharaoh And bring forth My people, the children of Israel from Egypt. (3:10)

Since each half of the verse spells out a separate command, we are entitled to infer that two distinct messages are involved. The verse does not read: come I will send you to bring (le-hozi) forth my people. It reads: Come I will send you and bring forth (ve hozi).

Rashi too understands the passage in this way:

Come now let me send you to Pharaoh. And if you ask what good will it do? Bring My people out of Egypt. Your words will have the effect of getting them out of there.

Accordingly the first half unfolds the command to undertake the mission and no more. Whereas the second half imparts both the content of the mission and a promise of its success. To balance this came Moses first refusal, which was similarly composed of two darts:

Who am I to go to Pharaoh?
And take the children of Israel out of Egypt?

Our commentaries disagree on the interpretation of this double-barreled retort. We shall deal with two converse opinions on this text. First Rashi: Who am I? Who am I important enough to speak with kings? and that I should bring forth the children of Israel: And even if I am important, what have the Israelites done to deserve a miracle to be performed for them that I should bring them out of Egypt.

The diametrically opposed view is expressed by Rashbam: Who am I? Moses replied to the two instructions imparted to him by God, to go to Pharaoh and also to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt at the commandment of Pharaoh.

And that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?

Moses replied to each in order. Who am I to go to Pharaoh even to bring him a gift and offering? Am I then of sufficient status, a stranger like me to enter the court of the king?

And that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt? In other words, even if I obtain the privilege of a royal audience and succeed in him giving my words a hearing, what can I say that might have the faintest chance of appealing to Pharaoh? Is Pharaoh then such a fool as to listen to me and send away his slaves such a multitude, free from his country? whoever explains these verses in any other way is completely misled.

Here we have a convincing example of how the so-called rationalist, they adhere to the strict literalness of the text, the eschewer of all homiletic exegesis may be forced into deviating from the plain sense and the underlying meaning. Admittedly, Rashbam may find fault with his grandfather Rashi’s explanation that the wording does not suit it. For, according to Rashi, not Moses should have been the subject of the second half of the verse, but Israel, (as if it says: who is Israel that they should (be brought out)? But this objection is not nearly so strong as that which can be raised against Rashbam’s interpretation.

There is one golden rule of interpretation: the particular can only be explicated in terms of its general context. An application of this rule should serve to convince us how wide of the mark Rashbam was in explaining Moses’ refusal in terms of political considerations.

Let us stand with Moses confronting the burning bush, which is never consumed, observe him hide his face, for he was afraid to look upon God. Now at this supremely sublime moment, Moses puts forward, in Rashbam’s view, prudential calculated considerations, to the effect that the existing political constellation was not appropriate for such a campaign, that the military junta at that moment in power in Egypt was not ready for renegotiations regarding the sending away of the people, and that we should beware of being misled in our appraisal of the enemy, in regarding him as a fool, etc. Is not this just how Rashbam explains Moses words, unaware of the fact that he has transplanted us from the burning bush to the practical, matter-of-fact atmosphere of the council chamber of a military headquarters? Does not the text belie this?

And God called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I. And he said, come no nearer; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place on which thou standest is holy ground.

Moreover He said: I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt (3:4-7)

Against such a background would Moses have answered: Is Pharaoh then a fool to listen to me and send away his slaves free from this country? In the presence of the burning bush that was not consumed would he have expressed doubts of a political diplomatic nature?

How much more appropriate do the words of Rashi, prince of commentators sound than those of Rashbam the literalist? Rashi regards Moses’ words as the only possible reaction in the circumstances. In these first moments of prophecy, in the atmosphere of Divine immanence, he recoils at His transcendence, sensing the nothingness of man, dust and ashes, acutely made aware of human weakness and frailty. What are we? What is our life? What our righteousness? That he should bestow on us His kindness from on high? It would seem that this is the plain sense of the text and this suits the reply of the Almighty who does not deny the unworthiness and insignificantness of the receiver of His message, but counters with the one single assurance: certainly I will be wit thee aptly understood by Rashi in the sense of It is not of yours (i.e. on the basis of your deserts) but of mine (My free gift).

To Moses second argument: What have Israel done to deserve this comes the deeply significant answer:

When thou hast brought the people out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mount (3:12)

Rashi comments:

Regarding your question: What has Israel done to deserve being brought out from Egypt? I have a matter of great importance connected with that bringing out: they are destined to receive the Torah on this mount, three months after they leave Egypt.

Not a privilege but a responsibility awaited them. Not so much as a reward for past good behavior but as a prelude to their future destiny. This release from slavery, this bringing forth was inspired by a purpose and goal rather than a motivating cause.

The text contains a profound message well brought out by the Rashi we have cited. The exodus from Egypt, the liberation from an alien yoke, independence freedom and the like are not ends in themselves. The return to the homeland, the transformation from dependence top sovereignty, slavery to freedom are but instruments, the means for achieving the ultimate goal specified in our text: the service of God (you shall worship God). In other words, the Almighty did not release Israel from the burden of persecution in order to set them free from all burden or responsibility.

He wished them to become free to accept another burden threat of the kingdom of heaven of Torah and Mizvot. This idea is repeatedly formulated in the Torah. Sometimes the end is presented before the means as here:

I shall walk to and for in your midst and be your God
And you will be My people.
I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land
Of Egypt from being slaves.
I shall break to bonds of your yoke and lead you upstanding. (Leviticus 26:12, 14)

At others, the means is delineated before the end:

Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt to be your God (Numbers 15:41)

Questions for Further Study:

Many are the explanations suggested for this text (3:11-12). The right approach is to follow the plain sense. God imparted to Moses two things: that He was going to deliver them (by sending Moses); it was possible for him to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians in the land of Goshen itself or near there, but he further promised to deliver them from that country, altogether to the place of the Canaanite. Moses was afraid on both counts and said, Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, I, the lowliest of men, a mere shepherd and he a mighty king. If I order him to let the people go, he will kill me. He further said, Who am I that I should bring forth the children of Israel from Egypt, in the sense that You implied to bring them to the land of Canaan; for this great nation is a wise and understanding people and will not attach sufficient weight to my pronouncements as to follow me to a land of peoples greater than them…For the deliverance from Pharaoh is not dependent on them, but if Pharaoh will listen, he will lighten their yoke and deliver them to expel from his land. Moreover they themselves will listen to any personage (i.e. Pharaoh). For which man will not be willing to escape for such unprecedented slavery? But they will not be willing to enter the land of Canaan. And so it was. The campaign against those people was difficult for them, from the very beginning, and they feared it, both in Egypt and the wilderness. This constituted Moses fear of Pharaoh and his fear of them (i.e. the people).

To both of these the Lord replied. He said to him: Do not be afraid of Pharaoh for I shall certainly be with you to deliver you. And this shall be the sign to you, to the people, that I have sent you to them: “when you have brought froth the people out of Egypt you shall serve God upon this mount”. Henceforth they will accept the service of God to follow His commandments and they will also believe in you for ever and will run after you to wherever you command them. (Ramban)

This bringing forth will require two categories of Divine intervention, one, in respect of Pharaoh, that Moses should be assured that he would not slay him but would ultimately bow to his request and command , and the second, in respect of the people, that they should accept his leadership. For did it not happen that afterwards they said on many occasions: Better for us to serve Egypt?

Do both these commentators follow Rashi or Rambam or adopt a different approach?

I am not a man of words but am heavy of speech and tongue (4:10).

I speak labouredly stutter.

I am not fluent in the Egyptian tongue because I ran away from the country and I am now eighty. Cf. Ezek. 3, 5 For is it possible that a prophet whom God had known face to face and received the Torah should stutter, especially as there is no mention of this in Talmudic sources. (Rashbam)

He couldn’t speak clearly; certain sounds were difficult for him to pronounce. He who says that he had forgotten Egyptian is incorrect, for he pleaded two disabilities – heavy of speech and tongue. Further God’s answer “Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb” is not referring to linguistic fluency but to some congenital disability. This is the meaning of “I shall be with thy mouth and teach thee” (4, 12) –give you words which are not difficult to pronounce.” (Ibn Ezra)

Let Ibn Ezra point out to us which letters are not to be found in Moses’ message to the people (omitted because he could not pronounce them), apart from the fact it is blasphemy to suggest that God would choose to give the Torah to his people by an emissary who could not pronounce the words written therein. Actually what is meant is that Moses was not a man of words, an eloquent and glib speaker, which fits in with the description “that the man Moses was very meek, more than all men upon the earth.” This is similar to Jeremiah’s plea: ‘Behold I cannot speak’, except that Jeremiah could add: ‘for I am a child’. But Moses was old and it was even more difficult for him, after so many years of shepherding his sheep, to go and argue with a great monarch. (Shadal)

List the different interpretations of the phrase: “heavy of speech” as the emerge from the foregoing commentators.

Summarize the arguments of Rashbam against Rashi, Ibn Ezra against Rashbam, Shdal against Ibn Ezra.

Which of the above explanations best fits the Divine reply (v. 11-12)?