This week we begin reading ספר שמות, popularly known as the Book of Exodus. While the exodus from Egypt is the central focus of the next three and a half weekly portions, our sages, however, refer to this 2nd book of the Torah as the “ספר הגאולה” the “Book of Redemption.” This book of the Torah marks a transition. The focus of ספר בראשית is God’s relationship with individuals who become the progenitors of the nation of Israel. However, from פרשת שמות until the Torah’s conclusion, the focus becomes the reestablishment of the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ descendants. They were redeemed to their former status and relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
Their unique standing had been eroded due to centuries of assimilation and then servitude within the Egyptian society and culture. Those surviving descendants of the house of Jacob finally emerge from Egypt primed to become the special nation in the world they were originally selected to become. In the process of building the Nation of Israel, משה רבנו becomes the central figure. His actions, as are those of the people, are highlighted and placed under a magnifying glass for us to study and to learn from as we proceed to the Torah’s final chapters.
The first task and seemingly impossible mission given to Moses is to mobilize these disparate and broken people. How is he going to accomplish this task? Moshe himself presents this question to God in many ways. Moshe knows one thing about the Jewish people. They are not simpletons. They are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Those men made the important philosophical breakthroughs into the source of reality. This one idea, that the world has one, non-physical Creator, who relates to man via intellect is still the guiding principle of this people. Knowing this, Moshe asks God, “When the people will ask me what is the name of this God who you claim has sent you to redeem us, what will I tell them?” (Shemot 3:13)
The best way, indeed God’s original advice to Moshe, is to motivate the people through knowledge. This nation is to be unique. Its relationship with God, to the reality behind all reality, can only be based on truth. Truth requires an absolute commitment to living a life of knowledge. To establish a real and true relationship with the Creator, appeal to the rational mind is the sole key.
Moshe, then, is charged with the task of explaining to the people new ideas about God that extend what they already know. This task, albeit of greater significance, is the same objective of every teacher. Extend and build on what the student already knows. Moshe would employ the same technique used by every good teacher. Assess for the student’s prior knowledge base first, then, logically build on what the student knows. Moshe is instructed to first tell the children of Israel ideas of God they learned from their forefathers; then he is to introduce them to new and more abstract ideas of God, God the redeemer. Moshe is to show the people that this new insight stems directly from the ideas they already have. Having then internalized and integrated these new concepts into their knowledge base, the people’s reaction should be to follow these ideas much the same way we follow the best knowledge in all of our other pursuits.
Moreover, the people will see Moshe is a man of extraordinary knowledge, knowledge that is unattainable without access to the prior knowledge they had from their ancestors. As a young boy and under the threat of the death penalty, Moshe had run away from Egypt. He never had the opportunity to receive from his brethren the specific chain of knowledge, the מסורה , upon which he was now extending. The only conclusion to be drawn is that Moshe must be a true prophet of God. It makes sense, then, to follow him. That was God’s original plan. The entire nation would be acting the same way their forefathers did. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had no need for signs or wonders and their progeny should not need them as well.
Yet Moshe responds, “But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice. They will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.” (Shemot 4:1) At that point Hashem arms Moshe with 3 signs. Was Moshe right or was God right? Furthermore, what are these signs and what good will they do?
In truth both God and Moshe were right. When Moshe returns to Egypt, he first gathers the elders of the Children of Israel. “Elder” in Torah doesn’t refer to chronological age; rather, it is a term for someone with high intellectual achievement even if young in age. The Torah uses the term “elder” when referring to its scholars. Why? A person “up in years” would have had many life experiences from which to learn. So the word is a synonym for wisdom. The Torah records at the end of our פרשה, that after listening to Moshe’s lecture, the elders were convinced of his veracity as a true prophet of God and his message of God’s readiness to redeem them.
The general populace, however, were not so inclined. In fact it was of them that Moshe originally said, “But they will not believe.” True, it turns out he is right about the general population, but he was wrong to prejudge them. To help the people comprehend Moshe’s message of the coming redemption by God, God also equips Moshe with 3 demonstrations.
Again the process employed is an appeal to the mind similar to that used by every science teacher. First the instructor explains a new concept in class and then performs an experiment to demonstrate the concept. Since some or many students don’t just follow the idea in abstract, a concrete and sensory demonstration is performed to clarify and reinforce what their minds tell them is true. For Moshe to assume, a priori, that they would not function on the purely abstract level was a serious mistake on his part. His punishment itself becomes one of the signs used to solidify an idea of God in the minds of the people.
The 3 signs that Moshe performs for the people are designed to satisfy any remaining doubts. First, the God that sent me is the same Creator of the universe that the forefathers spoke of. He created the laws of physics and so He alone can change the nature of any existence. In this demonstration inanimate cells of wood become animate cells of a snake. Second, this God of the universe relates to man, rewarding proper behavior or correcting man by punishing his harmful behavior. Moshe is afflicted with “tzarat” for speaking לשון הרע against the people and it is removed when Moshe does תשובה. God demonstrated this process when Moshe puts his hand to his chest twice, once to receive “tzarat” and one more time to remove it. The third sign, turning the Nile River’s water into blood, served as a breakdown to any notion of idol worship. The Nile was worshiped by the Egyptians and was their source of sustenance. Now, not only can’t the Nile save itself from destruction, but it becomes a source of disgust. The pantheon of sub-deities and idols worshiped by the indigenous Egyptian people has no power. There is only one force and power over the universe, the God of your forefathers.
Once the people embraced and internalized these concepts, then Moshe could serve as the instrument of God, “an angel of God” to restore the Jewish people’s relationship with God. Central to bringing about God’s will was for Moshe to mobilize them but only through knowledge. God was not going to magically redeem them. The redemption had to occur via knowledge. That is the only link between them and their ancestors. Only then was God going to fulfill His promise to their forefathers and make from them a great nation. The nation’s greatness, as was true of their forefathers, resides only in that they stand for and live according to the true ideas of God.
As was true then, these same ideas are forever central to the nation’s existence. There is no Jewish nation without these ideas and the means by which to access them. We are today that nation with the same mission as those redeemed from Egypt centuries ago. A true relationship with God demands that we understand the wisdom behind every mitzvah and word in the Torah. The acquisition and application of knowledge is still the only portal to God.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan