WHO WAS MOSES?
There is a classical essay by Ahad HaAm which asks the question,
“Who essentially was Moses?”
Ahad HaAm examines a number of theories, e.g. Moses was a general, Moses was a legislator, Moses was a prophet. Another approach comes in the Torah itself. In Ex. 2:19 he is called “ish mitzri”, “an Egyptian man”. In Deut. 33:1 he is called “the man of God”.
The Midrash says that both descriptions are accurate, but they represent two quite different stages in his life. Moses began as an Egyptian, brought up in the royal court and educated in Egyptian culture.
Eventually he was the Man of God. His whole life was a struggle between secular culture and spiritual commitment.
By the end of his life no-one thought of him as an Egyptian any more, but the influence of his childhood culture never left him. It gave him a broad outlook, trained him to deal with people and situations, but also showed him the drawbacks of a milieu in which there was widespread ethical injustice and gross immorality.
WHAT HAPPENED TO MIRIAM?
In the genealogies preserved in Exodus chapter 6, verse 20 tells us that Amram and Yocheved had two sons, Aaron and Moses. We know from elsewhere in the Torah that they also had a daughter whose name was Miriam.
In a whole series of important events, including the rejoicing at the crossing of the Red Sea, Miriam plays a highly important part, so why does the list in Chapter 6 leave her out? The Greek version, the Septuagint, inserts her name. But is there a reason why the Torah as we have it omits her?
It can’t be because of the fact that she was female, because there were other famous females in Biblical history whom nobody wants to brush aside.
It may be a sort of punishment, since in Numbers Chapter 12 she takes the lead in criticising Moses. In that chapter Aaron was her co-conspirator, but it was Miriam who got punished – according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, because she was the instigator of the anti-Moses movement.
That chapter makes it clear that Miriam and Aaron resented Moses’s pre-eminence, and it may be that the Torah wanted to reinforce Moses and prevent any revolt against him, so that Miriam’s place in history was minimised.
KNOWING GOD’S NAMES
Long before the events in today’s sidra unfold God has announced His name to mankind.
Early in B’reshit, for example, He says, “I am ‘HaShem’ (using the four-letter Hebrew name)” (Gen. 15:7). Using the same name, He says a few chapters later, “I am ‘HaShem’” (Gen. 28:13).
Yet now, at the beginning of Va’era, we are surprised to hear, “I am ‘HaShem’: I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as ‘E-l Shaddai’, but by My name ‘HaShem’ I was not known to them” (Ex. 6:2-3).
There has to be an explanation, and Rashi’s view is that it is linked with what happened a few verses before when Moses feels a sense of defeat. Pharaoh has not heeded the Divine call, “Let My people go!” Things have got worse for the Israelite slaves, not better.
Moses cannot hold in his despair: “Why, O Lord,” he says, have you brought misfortune on this people? Why ever did You send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name he has made things worse for this people, and You have done nothing to save Your people!”(Ex. 5:22-23).
God’s answer, says Rashi, comes in the words, “I am ‘HaShem’;… by My name ‘HaShem’ I was not known to them (the patriarchs)”; Rashi explains, “I am ‘HaShem’” means, “I am faithful to pay a good reward; I have not sent you in vain”. In other words, the Divine name ‘HaShem’ implies faithfulness. God promises; God will fulfil. God has undertaken to redeem His people, and redeem them He will. There is no reason for Moses to lose heart.
It is a comforting message, but a problem still remains in the text. How can God say that He was not known as “HaShem” to the patriarchs?
Rashi’s answer is that the verse does not say, “I did not make Myself known by My name ‘HaShem’” but “I was not known” i.e. earlier generations heard the Divine name but its true significance was not yet known to them. They had greater trust in the Almighty and did not need to be specially assured that His promises would be fulfilled.
Moses was presumably comforted by the message, but his original question to God, “Why have You brought misfortune on this people?” has rung a bell for countless later generations.
How many times in history have things gone wrong for Moses’ descendants, and how many times has the most pious and believing Jew wondered aloud why God could allow it all? Despite God’s promises that Israel would be an eternal people, events have so frequently threatened to lead us to despair.
Yet in the long run Rashi has proved to be right: the Divine promise has eventually been fulfilled, though not without massive cost. This is one of the reasons why the post-Holocaust agenda has often been too limited; it has rightly focussed on the monstrous evil of the Sho’ah and the unbelievable suffering it caused, but it has not always or often enough properly celebrated the survival of the Jewish people and of Judaism.
We dare not neglect to weep, but we must also be able to bring ourselves to sing.
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