Oz Torah: The real Moses – Torah reading Sh’mot.


Now that we have concluded the Book of B’reshit we have moved on from the patriarchs and meet up with Moses, who will be our companion to the very end of D’varim.

Ahad HaAm asks the question, “What, essentially, was Moses?”  Note the question – not “What was Moses?” but “What, essentially, was Moses?”

Without the word “essentially” we would presumably offer a bio, where and when Moses was born, what happened at various points of his career, where and how his life came to an end.

But that’s not what Ahad HaAm wants to know.  He is looking for the essence of Moses, not the events of his life but the type of man he was, and why he matters to history.

He answers his own question by calling Moses a prophet; the rabbinic tradition calls him “chief of the prophets”. But what we need from Ahad HaAm is a definition of what a prophet is.

Is he a mere thinker?  That is tantamount to calling him a philosopher. Is he an orator? That would depend on his vocabulary and rhetoric.

He is a lawyer, a writer, a military figure, an organiser – all aspects of his personality but not the real essence of the man.

What is he? A prophet – a man of righteousness, a man of passion, a man called by God to bring a message to a sometimes non-receptive people.

Does he tell fortunes, does he use a crystal ball, does he predict the future?   Foretelling is not the important thing. What is important is forthtelling.


The Book of Sh’mot (“Names”) opens with the names of the Hebrews who came to Egypt with Jacob.

The book records the events that befell the Hebrew family from Egypt onwards.

More important than one’s first name or surname is whether one has a good name, in the sense of a good reputation.

Kohelet 7:1 says, “A good name is better than precious oil”. Midrash Kohelet says (7:4), “An earned name is worth much more than a given name”.

A relative, AI Bard, was head of the Kashrut Commission in London. At his funeral I said he was known as “Kashrut Bard”, not just because of his communal position but because he was a “kosherer Mensch”, an upright, honest human being.


Pharaoh imposed hard labour on the Israelites, but to what purpose?

The root translated as “store cities” – “samech-chaf-nun” – means, according to the Jewish commentators, “to take care of”. The cities thus designated could have been either storage depots for food, or military equipment bases (cf. I Kings 9:19 where Solomon had cities for storage and depots for his chariots and horsemen).

Hence the Israelites were put to work creating facilities for Egypt’s military system, not merely for its economy.


“The place where you stand,” said God to Moses, “is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).

Since the episode took place outside the Land of Israel, we wonder how there could be holy ground except in the Holy Land.

It depends on what makes a place holy. If it is a matter of maps and borders, we have a right to ask why foreign territory – in this case no-man’s land – can be regarded as holy.

If we adopt the principle that a place becomes holy if sacred things happen there, then the Sinai desert can be holy as can any spot on earth.

This explains the rabbinic concept that a person’s home is a “mikdash m’at”, a miniature sanctuary, with the meal table as an altar.

The actual words of the parashah are “The place where you stand is holy ground”.

If the place where you take your stand is dedicated to holy thoughts, words, deeds and hopes, then geography does not matter. What matters is what you stand for, wherever you happen to be.

It is best in Israel, but the rest of the world has potential for holiness too.


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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