Moses’ Special Nature

What is it about Moses that makes him the one able to lead the Israelites out of slavery? Certainly he does not think that he did anything worthy of this honor. After all, Moses asserts, מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בני ישראל ממצרים; “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”[1] Moses denies G-d’s demand that he go not one, not twice, not thrice but four times, until G-d, aggrieved, says gezunta heyt געזונט הייט– GO ALREADY!

However, when Moses first goes before Pharaoh with his brother Aaron serving as intermediary, not only does Pharaoh not listen to him but he also makes the Israelites do the same work without receiving straw, The Israelite foremen say to Moses and Aaron, “May G-d punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers לתת חרב בהרגנו; putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”[2] Moses, dejected, cries out to Hashem “Why did you bring harm upon this people? למה זה שלחתני; why did you send me?”[3] In other words he’s saying ‘I was right to have misgivings; I’m not cut out for this job.’

Like every parsha, ours needs to end on a positive note, and it does with G-d telling Moses ‘wait and see what I will do to punish Pharaoh.’ However, it does not answer our question of the day: why was Moses chosen? What makes him the one worthy of being our greatest prophet ever?

The best answer I have seen to this comes from the Toldot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Karo,[4] the uncle of Rabbi Joseph Karo of Shulchan Arukh fame. Rabbi Karo points out that in Moses asked G-d “When I come to Israel and say to them ‘The G-d of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask ‘What is his name?’ what shall I tell them.”[5] Unlike any Jewish leader before him, Moses asks G-d what his name is. At the time he gets a cryptic answer, אהיה אשר אהיה, “I will be what I will be.”[6] However, G-d was impressed that Moses asked about His identity, so much so that at the beginning of Parshat VaEra, which we read next week, he tells Moses that he is the only one who received knowledge of G-d’s great name Adonai; the other patriarchs only received direct knowledge of the name El Shaddai (אל שדי)[7].

Toledot Yitzhak comments that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all took for granted that G-d created the world. As such, they only merited getting to know G-d as El Shaddai, as that name means that G-d (אל) is the one who said to the world “Dai!” (די) “Enough!” resulting in the world’s creation. In contrast, the name Adonai is connected to the language of being, that G-d caused the world to come into being through creation. G-d wanted to show the children of Israel that He created the world, and he used Moses as his intermediary, turning a staff into a snake, turning water into blood and engaging in all of the ten plagues.[8]

How does all this relate to us? The central נפקא מינא, or practical application, that I would draw from this text is the importance of asking questions. Pirkei Avot, the Mishnaic text referred to as Ethics of the Fathers, teaches us אין הבישן לומד, that one who is embarrassed to ask a question does not learn.[9] On one hand we can look at Moses as having great chutzpah, as he is not accepting G-d’s demand that he lead Israel at the first moment but rather asking questions and saying he is unworthy of such a task. Rabbenu Bahya’s interpretation goes in accordance with that, asserting that Moses should know better than to question G-d.[10] However, I prefer the view that we should follow Moses’ example and have the audacity to ask questions, even to G-d Himself! I strive to follow the maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question; that we always need to inquire as to the deeper truths and meanings of life. Moses went one step beyond Abraham, not just uprooting his life in going to a new land but asking questions and challenging until he recognized that this was the proper path for him to take. May we do the same thing when we face challenges and potentially life altering decisions; may we never be afraid to ask the questions that we need in order to arrive at the correct answers.

[1] Exodus 3:11

[2] Exodus 5:21

[3] Exodus 5:22

[4] Rabbi Isaac Karo lived from 1458-1535 in Toledo, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal; and Israel.

[5] Exodus 3:13

[6] Exodus 3:14

[7] Exodus 6:3

[8] Toledot Yitzhak on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

[9] Pirkei Avot 2:5

[10] Rabbenu Bahya on Exodus 6:3 ד”ה וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב באל שדי ושמי ה לא נודעתי בהם

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