ARE THEY LISTENING? – Va-eyra – Ex. 6 – 9, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week we will follow Moses on his challenging mission, and witness seven of the ten Plagues of Egypt. He does not seek this role, any more than he was seeking leadership in last week’s reading when he stood transfixed at the Burning Bush, heard the voice of G-d, and yet tried to decline the job, saying “Send any one You want to send.” Obviously Not Me. He even went so far as to question the Divine: “Lamah harey-ota –Why did You wrong this people?”
Now he is still protesting. Two sentences highlight the decision that Moses finds thrust on him. First, he brings the message to the Israelite slaves, repeating G-d’s promise to make them His people, taking them out of slavery and bringing them to the Land of their fathers, our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But the people aren’t listening. “Lo shom’u el Moshe – They did not listen to Moses.” Why? The Torah gives two very good reasons: “Because of kotzer ruakh – literally, shortness of breath; and avodah kashah – hard labor.” Shortness of breath can be taken as a synonym for impatience. They couldn’t accept such a dream. It can also signify that they were so tired they were physically unable to speak, therefore they could not answer Moses. And the hard labor they were subjected to is the cause of both these reactions.
Sentence #2 comes just three lines later. When commanded to go to Pharaoh and tell him to send the Israelites out, Moses replies: “Here the people of Israel did not listen to me. How will Pharaoh hear me?” He even brings up his speech impediment to emphasize his point: “I have uncircumcised lips!” We know Moses stuttered, and this is a picturesque description.
Our commentators had a great deal to say about these two p’sukim. Rashi cites a Midrash that states that all this dialogue is in fact punishing Moses for his complaint against G-d (Why did You wrong this people?). And then Rashi rejects the Midrash analysis and writes that it should be considered alongside the literal text, rather than explaining it. Taking both opinions together, we read that the Patriarchs never objected to Divine action. Only Moses did. And here Rashi cites a Midrashic quotation from Jeremiah where G-d says “Is not My word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock? It spreads many sparks.” Each spark contains light, and spreads that light in many directions. So both interpretations are appropriate. He also quotes a teaching of a certain Rabbi Baruch son of Eliezer, citing this passage as evidence of G-d’s power, and mourning the passing of the Patriarchs, who never asked for the Divine Name. Moses did.
The Klee Yokor commentary, by Rav Shlomo Ephraim of Lunchitz, treats Moses’ objection as one of the few Biblical instances of a technique called kal va-khomer, literally “light and heavy,” reasoning from the particular to the general, or from the simple to the powerful. If the weak and downtrodden Israelites don’t listen, how can Moses expect an absolute monarch like Pharaoh to listen?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that the Patriarchs served G-d through emotion, while Moses served through intellect. Therefore, this whole exchange is a Divine call for Moses to add some emotion to his service.
And former Chief Rabbi of England Hertz zeroes in on the phrase “uncircumcised lips.” He points out that the same figure of speech is applied elsewhere to the ear and to the heart, and states that Moses had just one doubt, namely that he failed to convince his people because of his stuttering.
Let’s face facts. We all feel that way sometimes, don’t we? If my own family doesn’t listen to me, can I convince my boss?
Using both intellect and emotion, Moses expressed a universal frustration. Yet he succeeded in his mission. Even if our stuttering is mental rather than physical, we can do our best to follow his example. Accept the challenge!