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. Then a few years later, I added three new thoughts for that year to the previous ones. And this year, three 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 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.
"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!
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?
"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?)
[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 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.
"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.
"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.
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?
© 1997, 2002, 2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on the same parasha:
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?
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