Sunday, December 30, 2012

Exodus, Plan B

In his very first prophecy,  Moses sets himself apart — as the Torah later describes his unique experience (Ex. 33:11): “And God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow." The term "And he said" is repeated 23 times in 39 verses, but the Torah adds a verb at the beginning of Chapter Four: "And Moses responded and he said." This seems to indicate a tonal shift, and the Midrash (Shemot Rabba ad loc.) indeed notes:

“And Moses responded and he said, ‘But they will not believe me nor listen to my voice’” — at this point,  Moses spoke improperly; God told him, “And they will listen to your voice,” but he said, “But they will not believe me.” God immediately reacted accordingly, giving him signs as he asked.

If so, there is a transition here between Chapters Three and Four, although of course the chapter divisions in the Torah are a later invention (and Christian). In Chapter Three, Moses is to gather the elders, give them the password "I have certainly taken account" and lead them to Pharaoh's palace. Pharaoh will not agree initially to let the people go, but God’s “wonders” will force him to do so. There is only one “sign”:  “And this is the sign that I have sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God upon this mountain.” In other words, Moses will present his bona fides as a fait accompli.   

In Chapter Four, on the other hand, the elders are not mentioned; instead, Aaron is appointed as Moses’ mouthpiece.  There are numerous “signs” to convince the people, and there are “miracles” to sway Pharaoh, but the “wonders” vanish. Moreover, we hear for the first time of Pharaoh's heart issues: "And I will strengthen his heart, and he will not let the people go." The implication seems to be that if the Israelites can be persuaded verbally, then Pharaoh can be moved by God’s wonders. However, if the people require legerdemain, then the persuasion of Pharaoh must be far more elaborate and grand, with miracles shattering his stone heart. Everything has changed because of the crucial words of Moses (Midrash Sekhel Tov ad loc.), “‘But they will not believe me nor listen to my voice’ — verily they are believers born of believers in You, but they will not believe me.”

In this light, we can understand the bizarre happening at the end of Chapter Four, "And it was along the way, at the inn, that God encountered him and sought to kill him.” Moses’ hesitation ultimately delays and complicates the Exodus, and God’s fury is understandable. It is only when Zipporah circumcises their son, symbolizing what is at stake for the next generation, that God releases Moses. However, this is merely temporary, a stay of execution, for forty years. As the Talmud (Shabbat 97a) notes, Moses’ ultimate death sentence for lack of faith (Num. 20:12) is predicated on his statement here: “But they will not believe me.”

These days, as we reexamine the role of government in our lives, we must remember how important it is to have bold and decisive leaders. “Believers born of believers” require their political representatives to believe in themselves above all. A society cannot change if its leaders do not have the faith and the courage to lead.

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