This week we begin reading ספר שמות, popularly known as the Book of Exodus. 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 and onward the Torah’s focus becomes the establishment of the patriarchs’ and matriarchs’ descendants into that unique and special nation. In the process of building the Nation of Israel, משה רבנו becomes the central figure. His actions as well as those of the people are highlighted and placed under a magnifying glass throughout the remainder of the Chumash for us to study and to learn.
The first task and assignment given to Moses is to mobilize the Jewish people. How is he going to accomplish this task? The best way, indeed God’s original advice to Moshe, is to motivate the people through knowledge. This nation is to be unique in its relationship to God. In this relationship, appeal to the rational mind is key.
Moshe is charged with the task of explaining to the people new ideas about God that extend what they already know. This is 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. The people’s reaction should be to simply follow Moshe much the same way we follow the best knowledge in all of our other pursuits.
Moreover the people will see he 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. They had no need for signs or wonders and their progeny should not need them as well.
Hashem informs Moshe, “They will heed your voice,” but Moshe responds, “But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice…” 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 mass of people, 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 a science teacher. First the instructor will explain a new concept in class and then perform 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, 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 some 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 while punishing harmful behavior. Moshe is afflicted with “tzarat” for speaking לשון הרע against the people and it is removed by תשובה. He demonstrated this when he put his hand to his chest twice, once to receive “tzarat” and one more time to remove it. Finally, 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 it save itself from destruction, but it becomes a source of disgust. The pantheon of sub-deities and idols worshiped by the indigenous 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 extend and expand their understanding. To bring about God’s will, Moshe was to mobilize them through knowledge. God was not going to magically redeem them. The redemption had to occur via knowledge. Only then was God going to fulfill His promise to their forefathers and make from them a great nation. The nation’s greatness, however, resides only in that they stand for the true ideas of God.
Those ideas were then and are today central to the nation’s existence. They are at the core of its philosophy. Today, we are 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 in the Torah. The acquisition and application of knowledge is still the portal to God.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan