Eighteen years ago, I wrote a Sh’mot musing called “Free Association” (with apologies to Debbie Friedman z”l for stealing the title from a little known early song of hers that I found quite inspirational in my Jewish journey.) That first Free Association musing consisted of three light and short musings to brighten Shabbat. Then a few years later, I added three new thoughts for that year to the previous ones. I did so yet again in another few years. Then another time, three more, plus and extra. Now, this year, four more free associations for you. I hope you find them all equally thought-provoking.
“Ok, wise guys. Now make your bricks without any straw!” (to paraphrase Sh’mot 5:10-11.)
Pharaoh and his court must not have been very experienced parents (or else things were really different back then.) As any parent knows, when your child is being troublesome and rebellious, piling on the punishment is more likely to draw out the rebellious spirit rather than control it.
Obviously, I’m not that experienced a parent. For I am learning the same lesson as Pharaoh. Tightening the screws often yields greater resentment, and is rarely a win-win solution.
“I yam what I yam.” (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 3:14)
Those simple Hebrew words, “eh’yeh asher eh’yeh” are, for me, an overlooked commandment. Perhaps no other words could better make the plain statement “don’t try and figure G”d out. G”d is what G”d is.” Is that what these words say to us? As a theologian, they are also some of the most frustrating words in all of Hebrew scripture. If we are not supposed to try and figure out who/what G”d is, then what’s the point of it all? Maybe this overlooked commandment is not what it appears to be on the surface. Rather than being a command (suggestion?) that we not try to figure out G”d because G”d is beyond our comprehension, it is, instead, a challenge, a mystery, a puzzle that, while we may not be able to solve it, we are nevertheless obligated to explore. Whew! For just a moment there I was about to give up on theology forever!
Cheap theatrics. A burning bush? With all the miraculous things at G”d’s disposal, G”d uses a burning bush? Oh, I suppose I might be intrigued enough by a bush burning, but unconsumed, that I might stop to take a look. Had I been in a hurry, I’m not so sure. Perhaps G”d hadn’t figured out just how much G”d was at the mercy of this free will thing G”d had bestowed on humans. Though by this point in the narrative, G”d had ample opportunity to catch on to that. Perhaps G”d was emboldened by the absolute success of that little teleological puppetry with Yosef and his brothers?
We’ve had that nice little apologetic from our sages that explains that G”d chose the bush to show that G”d is concerned with even the lowliest of G”ds creations. (Not very nice from the bush’s perspective, is it?)
Yet there’s another little connection, albeit it’s a bit of an orthographical stretch. It’s this little bit of wordplay with the word used for bush, s’neh. Just this slight aural connection with Sinai (especially if you say Sinai in Hebrew and not its Americanized pronunciation.) Though the geography is a little confused, and it’s not clear that Horeb and Sinai are the same place, our tradition would like it to be. So scholars have speculated that horev, meaning dry, desolate, may have referred to a region, in which happened to be located a mountain named Sinai. Perhaps it wasn’t just a bush that was burning, but the whole mountain top, or perhaps even the whole mountain range. Awash with aish haKodesh, holy fire. Now that’s a sight bound to attract Moshe’s attention, no matter how preoccupied he might have been at the time. (And he must have been preoccupied. Why else would he have driven his flock into the wilderness? Now, we can’t assume that midbar, or wilderness, designates an arid area-in fact most scholars believe it just refers to unsettled land, which could easily be good pasture land. But horeb, in Hebrew horev, we are reasonably certain designates an arid place. Makes little sense to drive your flock to more arid land where food for them in scarcer. What thoughts were occupying Moshe’s mind before he encountered G”d’s little attention-getting burning bush?
Yeah, we have this Yeter/Yitro thing. We also have “melekh mitzrayim” (king of Egypt) and “Paraoh” (Pharaoh.) (Later on in this book of the Torah we find “Horeb” and “Sinai” to refer to the same mountain. So this dual naming thing has me thinking – is there some connection to the dual naming convention found in Bereshit/Genesis with Avram/Avraham and Yaakov/Yisrael (Jacob/Israel.) We also have the Ad”nai/El”him pattern as well. Scholars have looked carefully at these patterns to determine their significance, and claim to have found some. So I find myself asking what the significance of these other dual namings might be. Is the “Yeter” a simple scribal error, or does it harken back to an earlier (or later) name of Yitro, father-in-law to Moses, priest of Midian and of El? Might Yeter have been his original name, and Yitro the one he took upon himself when he became a priest of El? Or perhaps when he took on Moses as a son-in-law?
The King of Egypt/Pharaoh duality may be simpler to explain in terms of highlighting the mortal nature of the King of Egypt and the haughtiness and conceit with which these rulers of Egypt, who called themselves Pharaoh, considered themselves as gods. Note that the Torah doesn’t say ” a new Pharaoh arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” It says “a new King.” (And, by the way, this is NOT the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Look at Ex. 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph dies! In fact, Moses’ ability to go back to Egypt is predicated on that!)
Maybe it’s something akin to “The President” and “The Presidency?” Pharaoh represents the idea, the concept. The word “Paraoh” (Pharaoh) appears many more times than the phrase King of Egypt. Occasionally it appears as the combination “Pharaoh, King of Egypt” (see for example, Gen. 41:46)
Considering all the name dualities in Torah, let’s be grateful we don’t generally think of Joseph as having dual names. Zaphenath-paneah doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.
As a follow-up – later research confirmed for me that the word “Pharaoh” actually is the ancient equivalent of referring to the seat of power, as we might use the words “The White House” these days.
Now, to another topic. The deception that Moshe uses to initiate the series of events that is to befall Pharaoh and Egypt, the lie that “we just wanna go out three days journey into the wilderness to worship our G”d” is not the deception of Moshe. It is G”d’s idea! The fix is in from the start. Talk about your situational ethics. G”d effectively tells Moshe to lie to Pharaoh, while also telling him that G”d will dispose Pharaoh against this lie, allowing G”d to resort to the use of strong-arm tactics. Moshe, the ethical man (and more on that later in this musing) unquestioningly accepts G”d’s order to lie to Pharaoh. Talk about your situational ethics. So oppose earthly rulers when they give unethical orders, but follow G”d when G”d gives unethical orders? This is something that will continuing to trouble me.
“You dumb idiots. You should have kept your mouth shut. Now look at the trouble you have caused. Quit rocking the boat.” (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 6:20.)
This is what you Moshe and Aharon get for their trouble-for being, like the Blues Brothers, on a “mission from G”d” ? It’s always easy in many situations-home, work, elsewhere to just keep your mouth shut, and let oppressive or unfair conditions persist. The attitude is pervasive. Why, even recently, the head of a major Jewish organization suggested we stop making so much noise about Holocaust reparations, lest we draw more ire and negative attention.
It’s never easy to be gadfly, the troublemaker, the rabble-rouser, or, for that matter, to be G”d’s agent and instrument. But something tells me, if you’re not getting a lot of resistance even from the people you are trying to help, you’re probably not doing it right. No pain, no gain.
It’s my nature to often find myself in situations where I feel like a minority of one, railing for the cause I think is just and right. The day comes when I find that a comfortable place to be is the day I stop doing it. (Does that make me a masochist?)
Was this what Moshe really feared when he tried to wangle his way out of G”d’s charge to him? Was Pharaoh or Moshe’s own people the greatest obstacle? (After all, how big an obstacle could Pharaoh have really been, if, later on in the story, G”d has to deliberately harden Pharaoh’s heart?)
[nothing] (to paraphrase what comes between Sh’mot 2:10 and 2:11.
How could it not be salient-the record of what happened in Moshe’s life between the time Pharaoh’s daughter drew him from the water and the time when the (apparently) adult Moshe sees an Egyptian overseer strike an Israelite and then strikes the overseer dead and hid the body. Such notables as Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg have, along with the midrashic rabbis, have attempted to fill the gap with fanciful tales and best guesses. In today’s world, we’re fond of looking for root causes of behavior. Pop psychology abounds with concepts like “toxic parents” and “toxic childhood.” We try to ascribe blame for adult behaviors to our experiences growing up. While I won’t suggest there’s no truth to those concepts, I do wonder if the lesson found here in the Torah’s omission of those details (which, one must admit, is somewhat odd, considering that the first adult act of Moshe’s that we learn about is his murdering a fellow human being) is that, as adults, we are who we are and do what we do, and we needn’t dwell on details of adolescence. What made Moshe a murderer? Whatever the root causes that may have stemmed from Moshe’s childhood, they don’t seem to have any impact on G”d’s decision to choose Moshe to be the one to bring Israel out of Egypt, do they? So let’s give Pharaoh’s daughter, and indeed, all parents, a break.
You call that humble?
In looking for a reading from the prophets that could remind us of parashat Sh’mot, the Sephardi did not choose Isaiah as did the Ashkenazim, Rather, they chose Jeremiah for their haftarah. The connection is fairly plain when we reach 1:6 in which Jeremiah, demonstrating a humility not unlike that of Moshe rabbeinu, says “I do not know how to speak, for I am still a boy” when G”d calls him to be a spokesperson. Apparently, Jeremiah got over this little bit of humility rather quickly, for the remainder of the opening of Jeremiah’s prophetic book is the usual litany serving as proof that G”d did indeed chose this person to be a prophet. G”d replies to Jeremiah (to put it in modern colloquial terms) “just go where I send you and say what I tell you to say.”
Moshe, too, it seems, gets past the humble part fairly quickly. Moshe practically begs G”d to tell him what name he should call G”d. G”d gives this lovely “ehyeh-asher-ehyeh” thing, and what does Moshe do with it? Nothing.
Every vigilant for loopholes, students look for them ardently. I remember an interesting discussion with a student based around the fact that “do not lie” is not a commandment. The discussion was actually happening before we got to the 10 commandments in the Torah-it happened to be when we were reading Sh’mot. The student was quick to point out to me that Shiphrah and Puah lied, and were then favored by G”d. Guess it is OK to lie to the King of Egypt/Pharaoh when you are defying him because of your fear/awe of G”d. (Now here’s an interesting connection to the previous thoughts-it is the King of Egypt who asks Shiphrah and Puah why they allowed the male babies to live. Yet the midwives address their answer to Pharaoh. (see Ex. 1:18-19.)
The student says that this text is a proof text for a number of loopholes – that it is permissible to lie for G”d’s sake, permissible to lie to an evildoer. He (and I) found that very problematic. Don’t you?
How do we work with this? The commentary in Etz Chayim (presumably by Sarna) posits that in v. 19 the midwives were evasive out of a desire both the protect themselves, but also to allow them to continue their good work in saving the lives of more Hebrew boys. That’s a brave piece of eisegesis (reading meaning back into the text) that’s not wholly supported by the p’shat but it seems sufficient to at least redeem Shiphrah and Puah for their lie. Yet it’s very teleological, with the ends justifying the means (apropos, I suppose, to continuing on from the Joseph saga which is teleological at its very core.)
The lie of Shiphrah and Puah isn’t even a very good one. Pharaoh doesn’t explicitly see through it – if anything, he reacts as if he believes it by ordering a solution that seems logical – to enlist all people in the effort and not rely solely on the midwives. Is there another lie that Shiphrah and Puah could have told that might have led to a less drastic response from Pharaoh? In hindsight of course we need Pharaoh to act this drastically, because it sets up the rest of the story. So teleology prevails. And a lie becomes acceptable.
Shiphrah and Puah are heroes, no doubt. They have become proud symbols of modern Jewish feminism as well, and rightfully so. Let’s not forget, however, they were also practiced in the art of dissembling. Is that a good trait or not?
[An aside about a lie. Thank goodness G”d is not beholden to a chronological timeline. Otherwise we might have caught G”d in a bit of a lie when he told Moses that Aharon was on his way to meet him. After all, just a few verses later we read of G”d instructing Aharon to go meet Moses. Of course, we must assume this happened out of literary sequence, right? Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. And even if G”d hadn’t actually yet told Aharon to go meet Moses, we was planning on it. So it’s OK, right? Oh what a tangled web…]
The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah had to choose between their ethical beliefs and the orders of Pharaoh. They chose civil disobedience. As I write these words, in the background are the sounds of the ceremonies marking the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. I and many others fear we may soon find ourselves in a position similar to that of Shiphrah and Puah. I know that my choice will be to follow their example.
Confronted with the civil disobedience of the midwives, Pharaoh makes one last, desperate move. He asks all Egyptians to be the instruments of his plan to rid Egypt of the potentially threatening Hebrews. The Torah, however, is silent on whether or not the people of Egypt did as Pharaoh commanded. One wonders why. Perhaps, even despite their hatred and fear of the now numerous Hebrews, even the Egyptians knew when a ruler had asked them to go too far, and were not disposed to follow. Was there an Egyptian equivalent of Der Weisse Rose?
[apology from 5777 – when I wrote this, quoting Cosby wasn’t problematic.]
“You want me to go challenge Pharaoh, and I don’t even know your name!” (very loosely paraphrasing Sh’mot 3:13
Bill Cosby never did the “Moses” routine. But somehow, I can hear Moshe using that same word the Cosby put in Noah’s mouth…..”riiiight.” How the heck are we supposed to know that it’s G”d talking to us and not some dehydration-induced hallucination? A burning bush? Gimme a break. Cheap theatrics. C’mon, G”d, couldn’t you do better than that? A voice calls your name from a burning bush and you answer “here I am” ? You gotta be nuts-it could just be some psycho in the wilderness.
And what answer does Moshe get for his trouble in asking “um, er, excuse me, er, sir, but, what’s your name?” “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” “Huh, G”d, what was that, your name is Asher Eyeh? What kind of name is that? Chaldean, Ugaritic, what?” “Well, actually, my family came from…hey, Moshe, quit distracting me! Just tell the good folks that my name is I-will-be, that’ll just have to be good enough. After all, I’m going to free them from their slavery and take them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
“Milk and Honey, Mr. fancy-pants I-will-be? How about just some nice grazing land for the sheep and some easy access to water, ok, that’ll be quite enough, thank you.”
And so on. Someday, perhaps, someone will write this routine and perform it. After all, it’s just midrash….riiight?
(If you don’t know the reference to the Cosby routine, find someone older who does!)
What’s the big deal here? Couldn’t G”d just have made up some name to keep Moshe happy. He could have said call me El, (or Al?-apologies to Paul Simon) or Mr. Shaddai, or something like that. But G”d knows the power of a name. G”d knew that whatever name c”hosen, it would be the name G”d “was known by for the rest of eternity. Better make it a good one. But names give people power over others. Give people G”d’s name and they could summon, distract and generally be a nuisance to G”d around the clock for millennia.
Hey, when you get a call from a stranger on the phone, do you give them your name up front? (Of course, are any of us truly strangers to G”d? Oy, now I’m imaging a Bob Newhart phone call routine…)
“Moshe! It’s for you! Some guy named Asher something or other…..”
Anyway, I for one an glad the G”d did not tell Moshe G”d’s name at this time. Makes me realize that, as great a man as Moshe was, when it comes to G”d, none of us are on a first name basis. Let’s keep it that way. That’s true equality for humankind, and a nice distinction for the one who creates.
Have a marvelous and joyful Shabbat. Read Sh’mot -and maybe Va’era. And (after Shabbat) go see Prince of Egypt. And then imagine Cosby or Newhart telling the exodus story! Nice entertainment, yes. But for my money, no midrash has it over the original screenplay.
“Who, me?” (to loosely paraphrase Sh’mot 3:11)
Moshe sure does his best to talk his way out of the limelight that G”d seems intent on thrusting him into. Five times he seeks to extricate himself from the predicament which he fears is about to befall him. Did Moshe really think he could talk G”d out of it? Or was Moshe just playing gadfly? One wonders.
Is it too much to ask, little consistency from a divine document?
Who is this Yeter, father-in-law to Moshe, in verse 4:18? And why, later in that same verse, is he named Yitro?
If we’re gonna claim divine authorship, or even just divine inspiration, can’t we at least have some darned consistency?
But wait. Why must writings of divine origin be any less flawed than documents of human origin? Who made that a rule? (Well, I guess we did, when we started making perfection an attribute of G”d. What a bad move on our part. Notice that G”d never claims to be perfect. And with good reason, too.)
Many times I have written in these musings (and elsewhere) that these seeming imperfections, inconsistencies, etc. are what make Torah the brilliant thing it is. They get us thinking. They make us stop and pause and consider.
OK. Let’s stop and pause and consider.
Now who the heck was this Yeter fellow again?
This “new King” who arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph wasn’t particularly bright. If he truly meant to deal “shrewdly” with the Israelites because he feared their success and numbers, what made him think that enforced and harsh slavery would be a more effective tactic. Did he not understand that you catch more flies with honey? Why didn’t this Pharaoh attempt to co-opt the Israelites, seek a way to make them beholden to Pharaoh for his kindness and benevolence?
Taking the question even further back, why was this new King worried at all? (Yes, we’ve all heard the scholarly theories about the Hyksos invasion and all that, but can we really be certain that this was at the root of this Pharaoh’s fears?) Did this Pharaoh have any reason to believe the Israelites would be disloyal, and side with potential enemies? What’s the unwritten underlying subtext here? (Now, if we take the teleological approach, we can just ignore this entire discussion. As you know, I’m not prone to do that.)
The text is strangely silent about the worship practices of the Israelites in Egypt. If most of them had assimilated as much as Joseph, what had Pharaoh to fear? It all gets curiouser and curiouser.
The “new King arose” bit has been getting a lot of play lately, considering what’s going in in the United States today. Rabbis, bloggers, and pundits are all drawing upon this image to speak about the 45th President of the United States (and as I write these words, that has just become reality.)
How can one grow up in a place and not know of its history? Yes, Egypt was a society in which the rulers were known to erase the histories of those who came before if they did not like them. Nevertheless, those histories persisted, for how else would we know that they had been erased?
I just overhead a commentator say that the new President’s inaugural speech made no references whatsoever to history, and the history of this nation. A new Pharaoh arose who did not know…
Yeah, I know in past years it was only a trio. However, I thought I’d add an extra thought this year. In each successive remaking of this musing, I’ve gotten more long-winded. When you’re on a roll, might as well stay on a roll.
I alluded to it earlier, but now I want to take it up again. Go back and read from Ex. 1:8 and then 2:23. This new King who did not know Joseph, and who was an adopted Grandfather of Moses, dies. Things only get worse under the next Pharaoh. Now, fancifully, “Prince of Egypt” midrashically fills in the missing story between Moses’ adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’s coming of age (in which he kills and Egyptian overseer and hides his body!) The premise that the one who becomes Pharaoh and the nemesis of Moses was like a brother to him while Moses lived in Pharaoh’s court doesn’t make sense. An adoptive uncle maybe, but a brother? The successor to the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph would be a brother of the daughter who adopted Moses.
I also think it is ironic that it is in the same sentence as the one where we learn that the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, the one who ordered all the first born Israelite males killed, dies, that we first learn of the groaning of the Israelites in their bondage. And in the next sentence, of G”d hearing their cries. Maybe they were just wailing, in good old Egyptian fashion, for 70 days over the death of their Pharaoh?
I think there is a popular misconception, among many, that the final plague is retribution against the then Pharaoh for the slaying of Israel’s first born, But as the text makes clear, it was not that Pharaoh, but his predecessor, who had issued that stern decree. We all seem to gloss over verse 2:23, when that Pharaoh dies. Not surprising that we would conflate the story this way. It becomes even more conflated when we examine it from the point of view of the Haggadah and Pesakh. Hmmm. Guess this all supports my idea that the Torah uses King of Egypt to refer to a specific person, but Pharaoh to refer to a more generic concept, and one that we can conflate to make entirely evil. That’s certainly a warning to us to be more careful in making such associations, is it not?
Spurred, again, by what is currently happening around me on inauguration day 2017, I turn to the often overlooked story of Moshe in Midian. As is typical, the Torah presents us with a huge chronological ellipsis in the words of 2:15. Pharaoh learns that Moshe killed the overseer and sought to kill Moshe, who fled. Moshe arrives in Midian, and sits beside a well. All this in one verse.
The daughters of the priest of Midian appear at the well to water their father’s flock but are chased off by shepherds. Commentators have hinted that this “chasing off” may have involved misogyny and even sexual overtones. They also note that given their father’s surprise at their early return from the well, this was likely a regular, if not daily, occurrence. The presence of Moshe changed that. In yet another act of social conscience, Moshe drives off the shepherds and helped the daughters water the flock. (I’ve taken Moshe to task for killing the overseer, so I’m glad to see that here he keeps himself in check. Oddly, it was Moshe’s own sense of justice that led him to discover that his killing of the overseer was known. He finds out from the retort of the Israelite that he chastised for fighting with another. So maybe given he got two of three, I should go a little easier on Moshe? It’s hard to get it right all the time.)
Wishing you all a Shabbat filled with questions and discussions.
©2017 (portions ©1997, 2002, 2006, 2010) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Sh’mot 5776 – [SPOILER ALERT]
Sh’mot 5775 – Why Us (Redux 5765)
Sh’mot 5774 – Pas De Deux
Sh’mot 5773 – Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities
Sh’mot 5772 – Is Might Ever Right?
Sh’mot 5771 – Free Association IV
Sh’mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 – Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5763 – Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol’ Me?