And This Shall Be The Sign That I Have Sent You: An Analysis Of The Inauguration Of Mosheh
"AND MOSHEH WAS TENDING THE FLOCK…"
Mosheh Rabbenu, to whom we are introduced in this week's Parashah, is the
first Navi, properly speaking. Even though God had previously spoken with
various individuals (Adam, Havah, Kayin, Noach, Avraham, Hagar, Avimelekh,
Yitzhak, Ya'akov and Lavan) as documented in Sefer B'resheet, these were
all "personal" communications. In other words, every one of these people
received God's word (in some cases in a vision or via an angel) but they
were never instructed to transmit that Divine communiqué further. N'vu'ah
in the sense of Divine Agency, which continues to be the purpose of
N'vu'ah throughout the rest of the T'nakh, begins with Mosheh. Mosheh is
thus termed "Av laN'vi'im" - the father of prophets (Midrash T'hillim
Mosheh's inauguration does not take place in his early years; rather,
Mosheh is nearly 80 when God first speaks with him. The passage that
includes the setting (three verses) and dialogue between God and Mosheh
comprises one parashah, consisting of 39 verses (3:1-4:17). The scene
takes place on Har Horev/Sinai, resulting from Mosheh's tending of Yitro's
flock. He sees the wondrous vision of the enflamed bush that is not
consumed – and turns to attend to this sight. At that point, God calls to
him and he is inaugurated into N'vuah.
An in-depth analysis of the text demands significantly more space than
this forum allows for. We will, instead, attend to the structural nuances
of this inaugural passage, identifying patterns and utilizing that
analysis to explain several macro-questions relating to the agency of
Mosheh and his career. The essay will span two issues; this first one will
delineate the outline of the dialogue, observing the local use of those
rhetorical tools that are commonly found in T'nakh. We will also point out
several themes which course through the dialogue and identify the
development and unfolding of those ideas. One of the central issues which
we will address is the unique position of Mosheh among all N'vi'im, as
elucidated in Bamidbar 12 (and as codified by Maimonides as faith-
principle #7) - and his development to that unequalled stature.
Although we will quote the relevant passages in full, it will be helpful
to peruse this study with Humash in hand.
Before even attending to the structure of the dialogue, a curious textual
feature (which repeats in one other passage in T'nakh) appears here.
We are accustomed to thinking about this dialogue as geared towards the
redemption of the B'nei Yisra'el from Egypt - and the confrontational
nature of the process which will ultimately bring them home to Eretz
Yisra'el. It is instructive to note that most of the dialogue is not
directed towards Mosheh's task (i.e. the actual "Sh'lichut"), rather to
various aspects of God's reassurance, support and assistance in the
performance and success of that agency. There is a rhetorical device
that, once we are familiar with its use, will help us identify the main
theme of this critical selection.
The word that shows up most frequently in these 39 verses appears 14
times, which (as a multiple of 7) marks it as a leitwort or "key word"
(Milah Manhah). We have observed, analyzed and commented on the use of
leitworten in earlier essays and have consistently stressed that there is
nothing "magical" or "numerological" about isolating the repeated word to
identify its role as a guide to grasping the overall message or theme of
the passage. The sevenfold repetition of words is an easily identifiable
and recognizable rhetorical device - it demands no sophisticated machinery
unavailable to Biblical man nor does it contain any secret messages.
It may be surprising, given the expectation that this prophecy focus on
the redemption of the B'nei Yisra'el, to find that the leitwort is none
other than "Mosheh". In other words, much as we anticipate (and assume)
that the prophecy is about redemption - it is really about Mosheh - this
is his inauguration into N'vuah, into leadership. I hope to support this
claim with much more than the observation of 7 x 2 occurrences of "Mosheh"
in this passage.
There is one other selection in T'nakh which mirrors this phenomenon. In I
Sh'mu'el 3, a chapter made up of 21 verses, we read about the inauguration
of Sh'mu'el into N'vuah. There are several elegant rhetorical devices at
play in that chapter which the sensitive reader will notice; nonetheless,
the text seems to be focusing on the prophecy of the downfall of the house
of Eli. A simple perusal of the text - keeping the notion of the leitwort
in mind - leaves us with a very different impression. In this rather short
chapter, the most common word (appearing 21 - 7 x 3 times) is "Sh'mu'el."
Again, as the text hints at the beginning of the chapter (prophecy was
rare in those days) and again at the beginning of Chapter 4 (the B'nei
Yisra'el knew that Sh'mu'el was trusted by God), his inauguration into
prophecy was really the key event of that chapter. The density of the use
of his name bears this out - the sum total of occurrences of "Sh'mu'el" is
just, as it were, icing on the cake.
Parenthetically, this may be the textual source for a mysterious Midrash
about God's initial address to Mosheh, in which God speaks to Mosheh using
the voice of Mosheh's own father (Sh'mot Rabbah 3:1). . From the text in
Sh'mu'el, it seems that God was speaking to Sh'mu'el in the voice of Eli,
his mentor and, in a manner of speaking, father. In spite of the many
differences between the scenes, there is an underlying parallel between
the inauguration of these two giants (the text in T'hillim even ties them
together: "Mosheh and Aharon were among His ministers, and Sh'mu'el was
among those who call His Name" - 99:6). A full analysis of these two
parallel selections must wait for another opportunity, but it may be the
key, among other things, to understanding the aforementioned Midrash.
The second observation involves a careful look at the fragmented nature of
the dialogue. The first fragmentation is normal – even expected. God
speaks and Mosheh responds, asks, refuses etc. That is what makes this a
prophetic dialogue as opposed to a Divine monologue.
There is, however, a pattern found in most of the Divine utterances here
which is initially jarring without a proper understanding of the
rhetorical device at work.
THE "VAYOMER" PROBLEM
If we were to divide God's words into separate speech-units, using
Mosheh's interjections and responses as dividers, we would arrive at a
total of 8 speeches. Some of these would be short as two words
(#1: "Mosheh, Mosheh", #5: "MahZeh b'Yadekha") while others would
encompass a significant amount of text (#4 includes verses 14-22). The
speeches would be divided as follows:
# (VV) Theme 1 (3:4) "Moshe, Moshe" 2 (3:5-10) Purpose of agency 3 (3:12) Goal of exodus 4 (3:14-22) Interaction with Pharaoh 5 (4:2) "What is in your hand?" 6 (4:3-9) The signs 7 (4:11-12) God's power over speech 8 (4:14-17) Assignment of Aharon
This division is all well and good except, as noted, for a "linguistic
disturbance" which appears in speeches #2, 4 and 6 - which we will refer
to as the "Vayomer problem."
In conventional dialogue, each side speaks and then ceases while the other
responds. In narrative writing (as opposed to a play), the text
states "and he said", "and he asked" etc. to indicate that the previously
silent party is now speaking. There is never a need to repeat "and he
said" if the first party is going to add to his previous words - it
clutters the text and leads to possible confusion as to whom is being
addressed by who.
Nonetheless, there are countless times when this "clutter" appears in
dialogues in T'nakh. One striking example is found in Bamidbar 32. When
the members of Re'uven and Gad approached Mosheh to request land in
Gil'ad, they began as follows:
And the sons of Re'uven and the sons of Gad had a very great multitude
of cattle; and when they saw the land of Ya'azer, and the land of Gil'ad,
that, behold, the place was a place for cattle; The sons of Gad and the
sons of Re'uven came and spoke to Mosheh, and to El'azar the Kohen, and to
the princes of the congregation, saying, Ataroth, and Divon, and Ya'azer,
and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and El'aleh, and Shevam, and N'vo, and B'on, The
country which Hashem struck before the congregation of Yisra'el, is a land
for cattle, and your servants have cattle; (32:1-4)
At this point, there is a parashah petuchah (new paragraph), which begins
Vayom'ru - (and they said): If we have found grace in your sight, let
this land be given to your servants for a possession, and bring us not
over the Yarden.
Since the Gadites and Re'uvenites were already speaking, what need was
there for the text to add Vayom'ru?
This phenomenon occurs about a hundred times in the Torah, whereby a
speaker is quoted directly and the narrative interrupts the speech with
the word vayomer. The flow of speech is thus broken without any external
party interfering. What is the point of this textual device?
Meir Shiloach z"l made an almost comprehensive collection of all of such
instances in the Torah (Sefer Korngreen, Tel Aviv 1964), demonstrating
that this technique indicates "a pause in the speaker's words; since
thereafter he starts his words anew, the Torah needs to write again 'and
he said,' as it would in the case of a person who has just started
Shiloach divides all the instances which he collects into seven groups,
the first of which is when the speaker pauses because he "awaits a
response or an action hinted at in the first part of his words." He lists
eleven instances of vayomer…vayomer that occur for this reason, heading
the list with the words of the tribes of Gad and Reuven noted above.
Evidently, they were hoping that Mosheh would respond to their veiled
request - the "parashah space" indicates that there was a silence as
Mosheh waited for them to commit themselves further. As such, the text
begins their next speech with another Vayom'ru to identify this as a
distinct speech, necessitated by the lack of response on the part of their
Shiloach follows this example with a remarkably similar occurrence: the
words of Yoseph's brothers to Pharaoh when they request permission to
settle in the land of Goshen (Bereishit 47:3-4). In both instances, the
speakers expect that the listener will fulfill their request without their
having to make it explicit, and when their hints receive no response, they
go on to make their request explicit.
Here is the third instance from that list:
And they said: Stand back. And they said: This person came [only] to
sojourn; will he then judge? Now we will deal worse with you than with
them (Bereishit 19:9).
The men of Sodom hint to Lot that he should move aside and allow them a
free hand to 'deal with' his guests. It is only after Lot displays
unwillingness to desert his guests, and they realize after a certain pause
that he truly means to protect the people who have come under his roof,
that they burst out: And they said: This person came to sojourn; will he
then judge? And they approached to break the door
One other example of this phenomenon has been utilized to clarify an
otherwise abstruse statement. In the presence of the Egyptian grainmaster,
(Yoseph) at the onset of their "troubles", Re'uven turns to his brothers
Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you
would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required. (42:22)
The Rishonim are bothered by this statement, as we never find Re'uven
warning them in this manner. A careful look at the referent interaction
between Re'uven and his brothers in Dotan, along with an appreciation of
the rhetorical tool of Vayomer…Vayomer will help us:
And Reuven heard it, and he saved him from their hands; and said, Let
us not kill him. And Reuven said to them, Shed no blood, but throw him
into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he
might rid him from their hands, to deliver him to his father again.
Note that v. 22 begins again Vayomer Re'uven, to indicate that he waited
for a response which would have saved Yoseph from any harsh treatment.
After their silence, Re'uven steps back to a less confrontational
position, which the brothers accept - throwing Yoseph in the pit,
ostensibly to let him perish on his own.
Now we are ready to reevaluate the division of speech-units in our passage.
This "linguistic disturbance" appears several times in God's speeches in
this inaugural scene. During speeches #2, 4 and 6, God continues speaking
without interruption, yet the disruptive "Vayomer" further divides His
words into more speech-units.
By utilizing the Vayomer marker, we can discern 15 separate speech units
in God's words to Mosheh. Once we have made this division, some
interesting and curious developments come to light which broaden and
deepen our understanding of the development of Mosheh's role throughout
this scene, as well as the impact and significance of the entire "first
stand at Sinai".
Here are the fifteen speech-units found in this passage. Mosheh's
responses are in [brackets], narrative notes are in (parentheses).
1) (And when Hashem saw that he turned aside to see, God
called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said) Mosheh, Mosheh. (And
he said) [Here am I]. 2) (And He said), Do not come any closer; take off your shoes
from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. 3) (And He said), I am the God of your father, the God of
Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya'akov. (And Mosheh hid his
face; for he was afraid to look upon God.) 4) (And Hashem said,) I have surely seen the affliction of my
people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their
taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; And I have come down to save them
from the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a
good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey; to the place
of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites,
and the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And therefore, behold, the cry of the
people of Yisra'el has come to me; and I have also seen the oppression
with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come now therefore, and I will send
you to Pharaoh, that you may bring forth my people the children of
Yisra'el out of Egypt. (And Mosheh said to God,) [Who am I, that I should
go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the people of Yisra'el out of
Egypt?] 5) (And He said), Certainly I will be with you; and this
shall be a sign to you, that I have sent you; When you have brought forth
the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain. (And
Mosheh said to God,) [Behold, when I come to the people of Israel, and
shall say to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they
shall say to me, What is His name, what shall I say to them?] 6) (And God said to Mosheh,) Eh-yeh asher Eh-yeh; 7) (and He said,) Thus shall you say to the people of Israel,
Eh-yeh has sent me to you.
8) (And God said moreover to Mosheh,) Thus shall you say to the people
of Yisra'el, Hashem God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of
Yitzhak, and the God of Ya'akov, has sent me to you; this is My name
forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.Go, and gather the
elders of Yisra'el together, and say to them, Hashem God of your fathers,
the God of Avraham, of Yitzhak, and of Ya'akov, appeared to me, saying, I
have surely visited you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt;And I
have said, I will bring you out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of
the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites,
and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and
honey.And they shall listen to your voice; and you shall come, you and the
elders of Yisra'el, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him, Hashem
God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now let us go, we beseech you,
three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to Hashem
our God.And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, if not
by a mighty hand.And I will stretch out my hand, and strike Egypt with all
my wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you
go.And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it
shall come to pass, that, when you go, you shall not go empty;But every
woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her
house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments; and you shall
put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and you shall plunder
the Egyptians. (And Mosheh answered and said,) [But, behold, they will not
believe me, nor listen to my voice; for they will say, Hashem has not
appeared to you.] 9) (And Hashem said to him,) What is that in your hand? (And
he said,) [A rod.] 10) (And He said,) Throw it to the ground. (And he threw it to
the ground, and it became a serpent; and Mosheh fled from it.) 11) (And Hashem said to Mosheh,) Put forth your hand, and take
it by the tail. (And he put forth his hand, and caught it, and it became a
rod in his hand;) That they may believe that Hashem God of their fathers,
the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak, and the God of Ya'akov, has
appeared to you. 12) (And Hashem said furthermore to him,) Put now your hand
into your bosom. (And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it
out, behold, his hand was diseased, white as snow.) 13) (And He said,) Put your hand into your bosom again. (And
he put his hand into his bosom again; and plucked it from his bosom, and,
behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.) And it shall come to
pass, if they will not believe you, nor listen to the voice of the first
sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign. And it shall
come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, nor listen to
your voice, that you shall take of the water of the river, and pour it
upon the dry land; and the water that you take from the river shall become
blood upon the dry land. (And Mosheh said to Hashem,) [O my Lord, I am not
eloquent, neither yesterday nor the day before, nor since you have spoken
to your servant; but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.] 14) (And Hashem said to him,) Who has made man's mouth? Who
makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? Is it not I Hashem?
Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you
shall say. (And he said,) [O my Lord, send, I beseech you, by the hand of
whom you will send.] 15) (And the anger of Hashem was kindled against Mosheh, and
He said,) Is not Aharon the Levi your brother? I know that he can speak
well. And also, behold, he comes forth to meet you; and when he sees you,
he will be glad in his heart. And you shall speak to him, and put words in
his mouth; and I will be with your mouth, and with his mouth, and will
teach you what you shall do. And he shall be your spokesman to the people;
and he shall be to you instead of a mouth, and you shall be to him instead
as a master. And you shall take this rod in your hand, with which you
shall do signs.
As outlined in the previous section, Mosheh speaks seven times during this
selection. His responses are symmetrically placed within the entire
scheme - 3 within the first 7 speech-units of God, 3 within the final 7
and one in response to the central speech (#8). There is a further
elegance to the schema of his responses, which can more easily be
discerned by charting them out:
a) Hineni (Here am I) b) Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should
bring forth the people of Yisra'el out of Egypt? c) Behold, when I come to the people of Israel, and shall say
to them, The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to
me, What is His name, what shall I say to them? d) But, behold, they will not believe me, nor listen to my
voice; for they will say, Hashem has not appeared to you. e) A rod f) O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither yesterday nor the
day before, nor since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of
speech, and of a slow tongue. g) O my Lord, send, I beseech you, by the hand of him whom
you will send.
The first response is one of complete readiness and servitude. The final
response is its direct opposite - what is referred to as "opposite
parallelism"; Mosheh simply refuses to accept the mission, without even
trying to support his (courteous) refusal with a reason.
The second and sixth responses are similarly linked. The second statement
is phrased as a question, implying a request for support and help (see
Rashbam ad loc.). The sixth (second to last) is an assertion, defining
Mosheh's inability to complete the mission due to his poor oratory skills.
Mosheh's third and fifth speeches are also associated by apposition. In
the third, Mosheh requests (again asking, not stating) to know God's Name,
the most abstract and inaccessible knowledge which exists. . Indeed, God's
answer may reflect that philosophic inaccessibility. He desires this
knowledge in order to convince the people that he is truly a messenger of
the one true God. In the fifth response - a one word answer to God's two
word question - Mosheh defines (again no question here, although we would
certainly not expect one) that which is obvious to anyone - he is holding
a staff. As opposed to the third speech which motivates a response by God,
this one is itself an answer to God's query.
As we have seen several times in this forum, the purpose of this type of
literary structure - known as a "chiasmus" - is to highlight the middle
occurrence. When the parallel steps are synonymous in theme and message,
the "fulcrum" may serve as the apex or crescendo of the entire literary
unit. When, as in our case, the parallels represent opposite themes that
move away from each other, the middle occurrence usually represents the
turning point. This point will clarify the reason for the turn from the
earlier movement (in our case, towards acceptance of the agency) towards
the latter movement (refusal - and, as we will see further down, a new
formulation of that agency).
Several examples of this type of inverted chiasmus with a "turnabout
fulcrum" can be adduced in T'nakh - the seven visions of Zekharyah
(Zekharyah 1:7-6:8), the entire book of Esther (which turns at 6:10), and
the entire "travelogue" from Egypt to Sinai (Sh'mot 13-18). This last
example has been presented, using the "inverted chiasmus", in V'shinantam
Now we can look, with more sensitive eyes, at Mosheh's fourth response to
God - the one which represents the turning point (turning from what
towards what has yet to be defined).
Note that all other statements are self-referential - Mosheh's statement
of readiness, questioning his own stature, a request for proof of God
speaking with him, the simple declaration that he was holding a staff, his
claim of poor oratory skills and his final refusal. Here is where the
middle statement represents a significant departure from the rest: It
focuses not on Mosheh but on the lack of faith of the B'nei Yisra'el. (How
Mosheh knew this after decades of exile from his family and Egypt is
unclear. Nonetheless, those are his words.)
Once we complete our analysis of the lion's share of these passages (i.e.
God's speeches), we will return to this middle statement of Mosheh's and
endeavor to identify its role as the turning point in the entire dialogue.
This analysis and the conclusions we draw from it will be covered in the