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It all begins when the Almighty appears to Moshe (Moses) in a burning bush asking him to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. Shockingly, Moshe says no. The Almighty asks again and Moshe continues to argue. He has a speech impediment. They won’t listen to him. He wasn’t cut out for this:
“Moshe responded and said, ‘But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice…’” (Shmos-Exodus 4:1)
Finally, after multiple divine attempts to placate Moshe’s concerns, including the attachment of his brother Aharon (Aaron) to the project for PR, Moshe finally gets out there and takes his first volley. He and Aharon walk into Pharaoh’s palace and demands the emancipation of their people:
“’So said Hashem, the God of Israel, ‘Send out My people…’” (ibid 5:1)
It’s a bold move for the humblest of men, a giant first in our story. Moshe has accepted his mission. He has stood to the task. Our hero has risen up to take on the yoke of leadership. This should have been the beginning of the good part, right? Cue the violins.
Except that real life doesn’t work that way. In real life, things get worse before they get worse.
No More Kidding Around
There were no violins. What really happened was that Pharaoh snorted, retorted, and went on to just make the Jewish enslavement even harder. Conditions got worse. Demands got higher. They killed more babies. Jewish suffering increased exponentially.
Furthermore, as Moshe and Aharon walked out of the palace, several men met them there. Jewish men. Angry men:
“They said to him [Moshe], ‘May Hashem look upon you and judge, for you have made our very scent abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and the eyes of his servants, to place a sword in their hands to murder us!’”
Strong words. Moshe turns to G-d and bursts out helplessly, “My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.”
The Almighty reassures him, “Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh…” (ibid 5:21-23, 6:1) Moshe is sent on his merry way. He is supposed to speak to the Jews, he is supposed to speak to Pharaoh, and everything is going to be alright. Right?
Just one small problem, nobody is listening.
“Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have sealed lips!” (ibid 6:12)
Poor Moshe. Things are really not going well for him. He didn’t campaign for this job. He didn’t even want this job. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Yet just as everything looks like it can’t get any worse for our hero, things begin to turn around. In the very next line G-d, quite literally, lays down the law. That’s it. No more discussion. No more arguments. No more attempts to convince anybody:
“Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” (ibid 13)
You can almost hear the text clearing it’s throat and asking sternly, “Have I made myself clear?”
And that is where the narrative truly peaks. This is the moment where Moshe really rises to greatness. He no longer has a choice. There are no longer any arguments. Things don’t even make sense. Now it’s just about listening to and trusting the Boss. Great things are about to happen, you can feel it. The stage is set for miracles. This is game, set, match.
On your marks, get set, GO.
Of gods and Men
We’re on the edge of our seats! We’re all ready! Time for some sticks turning into snakes, for the plague of blood, for some serious spiritual wheeling and dealing…right? Well, almost. False start. It’s all about to happen, but first a note from our sponsor…
The Torah pulls odd moves in order to make us ask questions. This spot is no exception. Suddenly, just as the violins really do seem to get cued, the narrative jolts like a bucking horse to take the strangest of pauses. It’s almost like a commercial break, but segmented very poorly. Why is it that just at this point, the moment after we watched Moshe undergo such an integral change to his sense of self and his role as the leader of the Jewish People, does the Torah plunge us into a detailed description of…Moshe and Aharon’s family history?
“These were the heads of their fathers’ houses…Hanoch and Pallu, Hezron and Carmi…Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, and Zohar…”
It’s really a very long paragraph.
Finally, “This was the Aharon and Moshe to whom Hashem said: ‘Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt…’ They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh…This was the Moshe and Aharon.” (ibid 14-28)
Just, you know, in case there was any mistake. Huh??!?!
This strange and dramatic shift is the Torah’s no-holds-barred tactic to reveal a powerful secret. Why does the Torah interrupt the dramatic narrative of the redemption from Egypt with family history? Because it was the key to the success of the entire mission. Moshe’s “mere” humanity was one of the key truths that the redemption was all about.
To appreciate this, you have to understand Egypt. Pharaoh wasn’t just a great man in the eyes of his people. Pharaoh was a god. According to his self-generated mythology, Pharaoh was Divine Master of the Nile River. The Nile was the source of all agricultural life in Egypt. In a word, it gave them food. Pharaoh claimed that power as his own. He would go to the river so early in the morning that no one would even know that he ever had to use the bathroom.
Pathetic as it was, the ruse meant everything to Pharaoh, and not only him. The entirety of the Egyptian culture was addicted to lies like these because these were the lies that provided the faulty foundation of their caste system, their sadistic religions, and their cruelly opulent lifestyle. The concept of all men equal under a fair and loving G-d didn’t exactly allow for the callous enslavement of an entire people. Pharaoh did.
Torah interrupts Moshe’s dramatic ascent to leadership in order to pull back the reins on this confusion. Moshe was not a god. Torah does not ascribe god-status to any human being, not even Moshe. Not even when G-d Himself, in all His Glory, appears to Moshe one more time to finally declare, “Guess what, buddy? The jig is up. No more arguments. You are going to be the redeemer of the Jewish People whether you like it or not. You know why? Because I said so. Period.”
That’s a pretty powerful message. It ascribes an unbelievably high status to our hero Moshe, a status he deserved. But it only goes so far – and no further. No matter how great a man may be, and human beings may be extraordinarily great, they will still remain only human.
They say that you have to become the change that you seek. The greatness of human beings is that we are not gods or angels. Even Moshe was only human. He went on to be the greatest man to ever live, and also to make several mistakes. These facts are not in contradiction. We are not perfect, and we all have the chance to continue striving. This is our humility and this is our greatness.
The redemption from Egypt gave us back our humanity. It began the slow process of stripping civilization of the caste-system mentality and inviting every human being, regardless of appearance or background, to believe in his or her own godly potential. It began the wondrous process of slowly, over the course of centuries, uniting all peoples in the service of their Creator through the wisdom of His Torah. It takes all kinds to make a world and the Torah allows every one of us to step up to bat in our own unique way.
No one is superior in an inherent sense, in the sense that Pharaoh pretended to be. We all make mistakes, including the greatest of men, Moshe. However, no one is inherently inferior either. Each one of us is given twenty-four hours of opportunity every single day to stand up, dust ourselves off, and keep growing.
This message, that only G-d Himself is G-d, was what the redemption was all about. And the corollary message, that even Moshe was only human? That means that we can all aspire to be as great as Moshe, and that aspiration was why we were redeemed at all.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender