Culture, Religion

The Vort: Shemot – Moses and the Legacy of Argumentation

Parashat Shemot is packed with action: the old Pharaoh, the new Pharaoh, the persecution of the Jews in Egypt, the killing of the Jewish baby boys, Pharaoh’s daughter’s adoption of Moses, Moses’ attempts at refereeing between warring factions, Moses retreat into the wilderness, the beginning of Moses’ family, Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, and much more.
Instead of attempting to address all of these different strands of narrative, I would like to fast-forward to the end of this week’s portion, in which God speaks to Moses, apparently from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2-4:17). The dialogue here is a bit strange: first God summons Moses by calling out his name twice, and Moses responds, “הנני,” here I am.  This snippet of dialogue recalls an exchange between God and Abraham in Genesis 22:11: ” ויאמר אברהם אברהם ויאמר הנני” God then continues, informing Moses that the earth upon which he stands is holy. God proceeds to instruct Moses to appear before Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt.
Despite witnessing an impressive visual display and briefly even seeing the very face of God (Ex. 3:6), Moses’ seemingly humble response reveals a hidden skepticism. Upon experiencing such an overwhelmingly powerful theophany, how could the young prophet challenge God’s word?
Moses’ skepticism and reluctance persists. He asks God how he is supposed to convince Israel of the legitimacy of his mission.  After uttering a very cryptic “proof” “אהיה אשר אהיה” (I am that I am), God then explicitly spells out the practical mechanics of this Exodus.
Moses, however, remains unconvinced (Ex. 4:1): what if they do not believe me and don’t listen to me?  It is at this point, that God empties the divine magic bag and arms Moses with a few tricks that are sure to dispel any doubts of his legitimacy as a prophet.
Amazingly, even these magical acts were not enough to inspire confidence in the young run-away.  Moses then concedes to his lack of rhetorical finesse (interpreted in multiple ways by the commentators), “I am not a man of words.” God attempts to allay Moses’ fears by reminding Moses that as God’s agent, he will have the strength of full Divine power supporting him. Yet this was not enough. Moses begs for an intermediary to speak on his behalf. At this point, the text describes God as becoming quite angry, but agreeing to send Aaron to speak for him.
ArguingUnlike any prophet or Biblical character before him, Moses stands in dialogue with God and argues aggressively. And even more impressively, God respects him all the more for it.  In this way, we can view the Pentateuch as a developing narrative of active questioning and argumentation.  The first character to be addressed by God is Adam. God asks Adam “where are you,” to which Adam seemingly remains silent (conceivably out of fear) and is summarily punished.  The first major character to “bargain” with God is Abraham, when he cautiously interceded on behalf of the few righteous people of Sodom and Gomorrah—and succeeded!
Moses’ intercessions are more emphatic. Later in this narrative (for example Numbers 14:11-24) God threatens to wipe out the whole of Israel save Moses and his family, and Moses actively objects to this plan. Indeed, according to this narrative, it’s only thanks to Moses that the Jews survived.
In view of this trajectory, one understands why the five books conclude with the death of this dynamic and assertive leader. Never again was there a prophet such as Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10).  Thus, the five books open with Adam (although the etymology of his name is never explained within the text itself, one can safely assume this name is derived from adama, earth)—a passive figure who literally does not answer, and builds to end with Moses (named such by Pharaoh’s daughter because he was drawn from the water (Ex. 2:11))—who, despite his claim that he is not a “man of words” is arguably the most vociferous, outspoken, and unfearing figure in the entire Bible.  Such is the nature of our world: we are all composed of different elements, both material and spiritual. Adam the reticent represents the elements of Earth and Air (the spirit of life was breathed into his nostrils), whereas Moses, the bold debater, represents Water and Fire (the burning bush).  While we cannot exist without this continued balance, the progression of Jewish prophecy seems to suggest that the more elevated the person, the more complicated the questions.

3 thoughts on “The Vort: Shemot – Moses and the Legacy of Argumentation

  1. I loved everything you wrote… save for the last three sentences. it got kind of weird there. but I love how you pointed out that the dichotomy between Adam and Moses. That Adam does not answer is an excellent point. However, I would argue that Moses is The most G-d fearing man in the entire bible.

  2. M, I agree… I do not even think it is possible to be courageous without having fear. But Moses is not standing up to G-d in the same sense that one would rise to defy a commandment from G-d, he is begging from him… or ironing out the details of a bargain.

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