Opening the sidra, God tells Moses,
“I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Almighty God, but by My Name ‘HaShem’ I did not make Myself known to them” (Ex. 6:2).
The first thing we learn from these words is that God does not appear to anyone in a physical form since by
definition He is not physical and has no shape or form, a point which is made abundantly clear in Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith. When God appears, He appears by means of His name, His character.
Note that there are two names in this passage – “E-l Shaddai”, “Almighty God”, and “Y-H-V-H”, “HaShem”. The first name signifies His power, the second His Being.
To the Patriarchs, His revelation was more in terms of the created world. He was the One who, from outside the system, created the system. From outside the sun, moon and stars, He created these phenomena. This is why Abraham, followed by Isaac and Jacob, saw the evidence of finite Creation and reasoned that the world had to have had a Creator.
Moses, on the other hand, knew Him as “HaShem”, the One who is pure Being, the One who is Presence, whose name derives from the Hebrew verb “to be”. Moses knew Him not merely for what He does but for what He is.
MINOR TO MAJOR
God sends Moses to the Children of Israel but they will not listen. They are suffering too much. Then he sends him to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go. Moses responds,
“If the Israelites do not listen to me, how should Pharaoh listen, especially since I am a poor speaker?” (Ex. 6:9-12).
Rashi says this is an example of a “kal-va’chomer”, an argument from minor to major: “If A (the minor case), surely all the more B (the major case).”
One might have thought that this was quite inapplicable to this passage and what we have is no minor-to-major but a major-to-minor. In the eyes of God, the people of Israel surely count for more than the jumped-up, puffed-up autocrat who is ruler of Egypt! Surely Israel are the “chomer” and Pharaoh is the “kal”!
But if we look at the cast of the story from God’s ethical point of view we can defend Rashi and the “kal-va’chomer”. Both sides are sinners. The difference is that the Israelites are sinning because they are suffering so greatly. They can’t think straight. They are under too much pressure. But their sins have a cause, the bitter circumstances of their current experience.
Pharaoh on the other hand cannot point to any oppression or suffering to leaven his guilt; his sinfulness is wilful and arrogant. The Israelites recognise God: Pharaoh thinks he is God.
God can understand and forgive the Israelites; He regards Pharaoh, the defiant egotist, the one who thinks he is the greatest, as a much more dangerous threat.
In terms of sinfulness, Israel truly are the “kal” and Pharaoh is the “chomer”.
“Let My people go!” is the constant refrain of the sidra. The Hebrews have been slaves for too long and enough is enough. The time has come to let them go. The call to Pharaoh to release the Hebrews is paralleled throughout history whenever a people has been oppressed.
In the case of the Hebrews, however, it goes through stages, first somewhat polite, then tough and insistent. At first Moses and Aaron come to the king and talk to him quite nicely: “Please let us go three days’ journey in the wilderness” (Ex. 3:18, 5:3). Then comes something adamant: “Let My people go to serve Me in the wilderness; behold, you have not listened until now” (Ex. 7:16).
Why the change in tone? It is not only because of Pharaoh’s intransigence, but because something has changed in Moses and Aaron themselves. Earlier they let themselves hint to Pharaoh that once they had completed their three-day act of worship, they would return to Egypt and be slaves once more. Now they recognise that once a people has gained its freedom, there can be no turning back.
The Hebrews have a new destiny awaiting them, to be a free people worshipping their God, first in the wilderness and then in their own land. The years of enslavement are over, once and for all.
How is this implied in the actual words addressed to Pharaoh? In the phrase,
“Behold, you have not listened until now”. This could mean, “Until now, you have chosen to take no notice”. But it can also mean, “What you have heard from us until now, that we will come back after three days, is finished; now we have a new message which you have not heard from us previously, that we have no intention of returning.”
Of course there were moments in the wilderness when the people began to feel they had done the wrong thing and even hankered after the cucumbers and fish they ate in Egypt (Num. 11:5). In any journey the way can appear too long and too hard. But in life there can be no going back to the past. The future must have its day.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.