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A few years back, I wrote a Shemot musing called "Free Association" (with apologies to Debbie Friedman for stealing the title.) It consisted of three light and short musings to brighten Shabbat. I've added three new thoughts for this year to the previous ones. I hope you find them equally thought-provoking.
"I yam what I yam." (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 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 Gd out. Gd is what Gd 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 Gd 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 Gd because Gd 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!
"Ok, wise guys. Now make your bricks without any straw!" (to paraphrase Shemot 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.
[nothing] (to paraphrase what comes between Shemot 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 Gd'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 dumb idiots. You should have kept your mouth shut. Now look at the trouble you have caused. Quit rocking the boat." (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 6:20.)
This is what you Moshe and Aharon get for their trouble-for being, like the Blues Brothers, on a "mission from Gd" ? 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 Gd'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 Gd'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, Gd has to deliberately harden Pharaoh's heart?)
"Who, me?" (to loosely paraphrase Shemot 3:11)
Moshe sure does his best to talk his way out of the limelight that Gd 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 Gd out of it? Or was Moshe just playing gadfly? One wonders.
"You want me to go challenge Pharaoh, and I don't even know your name!" (very loosely paraphrasing Shemot 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 Gd talking to us and not some dehydration-induced hallucination? A burning bush? Gimme a break. Cheap theatrics. C'mon, Gd, 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, Gd, 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 Gd 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 Gd knows the power of a name. Gd knew that whatever name chosen, it would be the name Gd was known by for the rest of eternity. Better make it a good one. But names give people power over others. Give people Gd's name and they could summon, distract and generally be a nuisance to Gd 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 Gd? 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 Gd did not tell Moshe Gd's name at this time. Makes me realize that, as great a man as Moshe was, when it comes to Gd, 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 Shemot -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.
©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?
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