Oz Torah – Torah reading: Sh’mot


“Bourdon, Sébastien – Burning bush” by Sébastien Bourdon – www.oceansbridge.com.

By the time we reach the adulthood of Moses we see that this was no ordinary human being but a man with a flaring sense of the Divine Presence. Out in the wilderness the Voice spoke to him from a thorn-bush which burnt but was not consumed.

Three questions confront us: Why was it a thorn-bush, why was it in the wilderness, why was it burnt and not consumed?

The Midrash applies the episode to the Jewish people.

It is small like a thorn-bush, but spiritually great – size matters less than quality.

It is in the wilderness – it functions in the most unlikely places (Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 1:9 says that no place, neither a bush nor a wilderness, is devoid of the “Shechinah”).

It burns but is not consumed – “constantly aflame with suffering”, as Rabbenu Bachya puts it, but indestructible.


The two midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah, were essential aides to the mother.

Rashi (Ex. 1:15) tells us that the name Shifrah is connected with a verb that means to improve. Her role was to facilitate the birth and improve the child’s emergence into the world.

What about the second midwife? Rashi says that Pu’ah is from a root that means to talk. Her task was to make calming sounds and croon to ease the child’s arrival.

The emphasis in this explanation is on the baby. Other commentators stress the well-being of the mother and suggest that it was there where the midwives had a major role – to help the mother through the trauma and difficulty of childbirth.

Between them these two interpretations vividly illustrate how valuable a good midwife is.


When Israel were in Egypt they yearned for redemption. God heard their cries and freed them from their taskmasters.

So God is their Redeemer, but what about Moses? Who redeemed them – God or Moses?

The truth is, “both of them”. If the Israelites wanted to be redeemed by a Divine miracle they got one – their leader Moses.

In 1948 when Israel’s survival was menaced by the surrounding nations, David Ben Gurion asked Chief Rabbi Herzog, “Rabbi, why doesn’t God send a miracle?” Rav Herzog replied, “He did, and it’s you!”


Moses was apprehensive when God wanted to send him to Pharaoh to ask for the Israelite slaves to be released. Representations to a ruler, Moses argued, required powers of speech. “I,” he said, “am not a man of words… I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 4:10).

Rashbam thought Moses was saying that his problem was with the Egyptian language. He had learned it as a child, but now he was 80 and his Egyptian was halting.

Ibn Ezra rejects this explanation as illogical, since what Moses actually said was that he was “slow of speech and slow of tongue”, which cannot be understood in any other way than that Moses had a speech defect. (It should be added that on various occasions Moses says of himself that he is a person of “uncircumcised lips”: e.g. Ex. 6:12, 30).

Ibn Ezra’s view is vindicated by the way the text proceeds: “Then God said to him, ‘Who made man’s mouth? Who makes a man dumb or deaf, clear-sighted or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and will teach you what to say!'” (Ex. 4:11-12).

On these verses Rashi utilises the Midrash Tanchuma to suggest that God gave Moses eloquence so that he could acquit himself properly before Pharaoh. He also made Pharoah temporarily dumb so that he could not insist that Moses be put to death, the courtiers deaf so they could not hear any orders to do away with Moses, and the executioners blind so that Moses could elude them.

The statement that Moses overcame his speech defect is borne out by the rest of Pentateuchal history. Time after time we see him giving speeches without any apparent stammer, making rulings, and even questioning the Divine will. It seems that necessity enables a person to rise above adversity, even in relation to clear speech.

Samson Raphael Hirsch asks why “a man who ordinarily stammers speaks clearly and flowingly in God’s mission”. He bases his explanation on the Hebrew words for the four categories that God refers to, “illem” (dumb), “cheresh” (deaf), “pikke’ach” (clear-sighted) and “ivver” (blind).

He derives “illem” from a root meaning to bind or tie up, implying that with God’s help the stammerer can untie his tongue.

He links “cheresh” with a verb that means to plough, for “the deaf have to ‘plough’ their own fields of thought, for no seeds are planted in the soil of their brains from outside” (note that the “cheresh” who has no hearing at all is unknown today).

Hirsch sees “pikke’ach” as a stronger form of a word that means to split or open out, implying someone who is wide-awake.

“Ivver” he links with “or”, the skin, and thus “a man of touch, a blind man whose perception of the external world depends solely on his sense of Touch”.

Everything thus depends on Divine assistance and personal effort.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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