I. The Challenge

Whereas the stories within the book of Genesis fall into atomizable story units, when encountering the book of Shemot (Exodus) it is clearly organized with a longer arc of narrative, with the episodes being more syncytial and interwoven. The themes I wish to deal with in these pieces do not find their closure in one verse or one commentatory, one might say they are “deterritorialised” across the arbitrary perasha divisions. One major theme encompassing a large portion of the book can be summarized as “how can one change the world for the better even in the face of a powerful evil empire?”

Insight into how one individual, like Moshe (Moses, as he is known in English) was capable of standing up to the dominant world power, and changing the course of human history, is not limited to one episode alone. “Speaking truth to Power” can serve as a subtext for virtually every narrative in the text from the book of Shemot (Exodus). How can one learn this skill, become a Moshe in the continuing fight against injustice?

Michael Walzer’s approach towards the book of Exodus as a blueprint for liberation is a very satisfying approach; here I would like to show how the prelude to political emancipation is more deeply rooted in a spiritual and epistemological ability to transcend the given reality, beyond the positive Marxist approach of Walzer. Furthermore, this ability is not only valid for political struggle, rather, following the approach of the Sefat Emet in perashat Va’era, the story of the Exodus illuminates the path to freedom for the individual trapped in their existential despair and darkness. So the goal is, not only to hear about, or venerate the biblical hero Moshe, but to learn how to “be” him, to actualize him in our own lives. With this in mind, we will try to undestand the route by which Moshe, the Hebrew slaves, all individuals who are exposed to this narrative, come to free themselves from the injustice of political, historical, and personal bondage.

II. The Gaze of Freedom

I would like to begin with the first action told of Moshe as an adult. In verse 2:11 we are told :

..Moshe matured; he went out to his brethren vayar b’sivlotam, “and he saw their suffering” …

The Midrash is not satisfied to leave this first act as merely “seeing”, and transforms it into a praxis: The midrash claims that Moses infiltrated the work teams, pretending to be Pharoah’s foreman, and reallocated the work so that the stronger Hebrews would do the more laborious work, and to the weaker ones assigned easier tasks. Another midrash suggests that Moshe went to Pharoah, under the guise of attempting to increase productivity, and convinced Pharoah that it would be expedient to give the slaves a day off each week, to which Pharoah concurred. The Midrash concludes, “So Moshe went and instituted for them the Sabbath, to rest”. The Midrash does not say that he instituted a ‘day of rest’, rather that he gave them the Sabbath, insinuating that he paralleled the Creation story by providing the Shabbat alternating with six days of work. How does the Midrash make this jump from “seeing” to “doing”?

Rav Zadok in his Pri Zadik explains that there is a kind of seeing that is active, already described in the text. In the first chapter of Genesis, it says that “God saw and it was good” on certain days. The Midrash states that there are days of which it is not said that it was good, and those are the days in which darkness, Gehennom, the evil inclination – things which reflect an absence of good, were created.

However, on the sixth day, it says that God saw all that he created and it was very good. Rav Zadok explains, this summary gaze at the end of creation, implanted in all that appears to be “evil” the capacity for redemption, teshuva m’ahava, repentance resulting from love, which as the Talmud states, transforms even sin into a positive moment. This gaze is a totalizing gaze, one that sees the role of every element of history as part of a complete process, a process which leads to a recognition of the unity of God. This then, is a transformative gaze, not the way we conceive of vision as passive and reflective, but as active and rectifying, an intentional gaze. This is why the day of menucha, rest, follows this gaze, menucha being translated by R. Zadok as derived not only from the word for rest, but from the words naycha, chen, meaning goodness, grace, benevolence. So Shabbat is the day in which the world has experienced the transformative gaze of God that introduces the or ki tov, the light of totalized goodness. This light, R. Zadok proceeds, is like a mahadeva, a gift given to the righteous, as it says in Tehillim 34:16, eyney Hashem el zaddikim, which he reads as “the eyes (or gaze) of God is given over to the righteous”. In other words, the zadik, in this case, the paradigmatic righteous individual, Moshe, is given this active praxis-effecting gaze, so that on that day, what he saw resulted in an act of benevolent creation parallel to that of God, the institution by his own vision, not just of a day of rest, but of Shabbat, even prior to Sinai. In short, the vision of a great spiritual leader itself creates that new reality.

III. Rejection of the Exploitative Hegemony

We now understand “how” Moshe “saw”. But the deeper question is how did an individual equally trapped within the paralyzing hegemony of a powerful empire achieve that level of vision, how did he break out of the dominant paradigm (how can we break out of the paradigms in which we are trapped) at a level where he could change history?. To begin, I would like to present a reading of our text by the Be’er Mayim Hayim (BMH), R. Hayim of Chernovitz.

Our book of Shemot begins with an accounting of those who left Canaan and went down to Egypt: Jacob, the tribes, and the seventy members of the original clan. In verse 6 it states that the original voyagers had passed away, and then verse 7 reads:

…and the children of Israel were fruitful and multiplied (or swarmed) and they multiplied a whole lot (b’meod meod) and the land was full of them (vatimale haaretz otam)…

BMH picks up on the negative sounding tone of this verse and says that these verses point to a ‘devolution’, a descent from the great status of the forefathers. This is supported by the use of the term meod, very, which as we saw in R. Zadok’s teaching above, is used by the Midrash as referring to the evil inclination (during creation). He reads the phrase, v’yatzmu b’meod meod as “they became strong in the very bad ways”, and the rest of the verse vatimale haaretz otam as nitmal’u b’divrei haartziut – they were filled, or overcome, by the coarse material ‘earthy’ aspect of the surrounding land”. This is why Pharoah can say, in plotting to enslave the entire community, “bnei yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu” literally, that the Israelites were more numersous and strong, but here read as insinuating that the Israelites are “deeply mired in the culture learned from us”, so it will be that much easier to overwhelm and trap them.

According to the Degel Mahane Ephraim, this is in fact the meaning behind the pasuk in Vaera 7:5, “and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord”. According to the Ktav Vkabbala, it was important to God to glorify his name among the nations; the Egyptians, global masters of the time, were the major nation of the time and thus the best target. The Degel Mahane Ephraim does not believe that God altered nature miraculously in order to impress the Egyptians. Rather, the “Egyptians” of the verse refers to the Israelites who were so deeply enmeshed in Egyptian society that they were more Egyptian than Hebrew culturally, and the only way to extricate them from the Egyptian consciousness was with blunt and obvious miracles. According to the Degel, the cry of the people referred to in 6:5 is the cry that the Egyptians are “working them over”, in other words, blinding them to their own personal identity and messing with their consciousness, turning them into slaves in their own mentality. Redemption then begins with hearing one’s own truth over the din of the enslaving society.

(I would just add briefly that according to the Sefat Emet this false ideology, this being deaf to their true identity, was in part a result of the use of inappropriate labor forced upon the people to break them, creating a vicious circle of demoralizing exploitation, hence the need for progression through four movements towards liberation as enumerated in verse 6:6. )

IV. Total Refusal

If the entire people could not liberate themselves from the dehumanizing cultural exploitation and dehumanization without divine intervention leading to the shock of the ten plagues, how is it that Moshe, as an individual could see that his society was wrong? How did he attain the transformative vision that could liberate a whole nation?

Two complementary forms of consciousness necessary for achieving liberation are enunciated in these early sections of the book of Exodus.

One: Sensitivity to injustice, a sense that things are not as they ought to be. Back in the first chapter of Shemot, we are told of the progressive descent of the people into slavery and all the horrible attempts at extermination that Pharoah initiates. We are then told of the birth of Moshe, his killing of the overseer, and his subsequent flight into Midian. But nowhere in this section are we told of any struggle, reaction or pain from within the progressively enslaved tribal people. The enslaved people are mute with regards to their own destiny, as in the eloquent depiction by R. Soloveitchik in his article “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah” as people without a voice.

What brings an end to this silence? An act of naming. In verse 2:22, Moshe names his son Gershom, the name explained as proclaiming “I was a stranger in a strange land”. This naming is a crying out that the situation is wrong, that society is wrong, that the slaves must be freed in order to pursue their own destiny in their own land under their own agency. This is, as it were, Moshe’s act of grand refusal or negation (a la Marcuse and Habermas). Once this bubble of taking reality for granted was burst, suddenly, right there in the next verse, we have the people crying out from the midst of their suffering, with their cries reaching to God. Simply stating that something was wrong was enough to topple the repressive Egyptian hegemony.

Perhaps this is congruent with Maharal‘s explanation of the name Moshe. The Midrash tells us that Moshe, as was apparently traditional in Biblical times, had many names, yet the one retained by the text is specifically the name given to him by his adoptive Egyptian mother, a name of Egyptian etymology. Maharal states that this name was the most symbolic of the ‘concept’ of Moshe- it means, according to the text, “from the water was he drawn”. Maharal explains that Moshe was NOT water, he was removed from the concept of water- water is passive, water takes the shape of whatever container it is in. If the bottle is round, the water is round, if the bottle is square then water “fits in”.

However, Moshe was not a passive recipient of structure, and he was able to extricate himself from the world of preconceptions anyone born into a society tends to appropriate as a given. In other words, most people are born into language, society, culture, and assimilate the axioms of reality without question, much as we don’t continuously re-evaluate grammar or syntax. Moshe refused to take the given situation for granted. (cf. Likutei Moharan 64). Moshe was an outsider from birth, both to his biological people and to his adopted people, and as such, refused simply to fall in line with the dominant paradigm, and as such could be an agent of change.

V. Total commitment, emphasizing personal sacrifice

Two: The second quality of Moshe, that enabled him to achieve liberation, noted by the text and commentators, was Moshe’s absolute concern for the people’s freedom and happiness, over and above his own. Moshe’s ability to be an agent of change is manifest in his repeated willingness to sacrifice his own life and relationship with Gd for the sake of the people. The Midrash in Devarim Rabba 7:1 has Moshe stating this quite directly: “Moshe and a hundred like me should die, as long as not one fingernail of the people is hurt”.

There are many instances of this valuation of the people over his own personal needs presented in the text and commentators. We see an instance of this at the end of this segment leading into the book of Vaera. Moshe, with a sense of mission, stands before Pharoah and states defiantly the fateful words, “let my people go”. Unfortunately, the immediate consequence is a worsening of the Hebrews’ workload in order to prevent further insurrection (much like the famous summary of Soviet policy- if the people are standing in line all day to get potatoes, they won’t have a lot of time to reflect upon their situation). As a result of this disappointment, Moshe dares a dangerous thing, he rails at God (verse 5:22). In 6:1 Gd responds that as a result, Moshe will see the yad hazaka, literally, the strong hand or fist, but translatable as monumental (Isaiah 56:5) which will cause Pharoah to cast out the Israelites. The next verse, 6:2, reads: Vayidaber Elokim el Moshe , And God spoke to Moshe, using two Hebrew terms traditionally associated with harsh, tough talk, ( the verb dibbur and the name Elokim), and concludes with Ani Hashem , I am the Lord, using a divine name traditionally associated with merciful discourse. The text continues with God contrasting Moshe to his forefathers, who despite a more limited and abstract relationship with God, seemed to have more faith than Moshe. R. Zadok Hacohen has a long discourse on what these differences were (these will be discussed in an essay later in relation to the niqrat hazur episode of Ki Tissa). What is important for us is that R. Zadok reads a movement within God’s discourse in this pasuk, similar to one early on in Genesis: initially, God is disappointed in humankind because their “nature is deceitful” and then, after the Flood, takes mercy on humanity for the same reason, recognizing, that this limitation is a part of being human and will be less rashly punished. R. Zadok finds this motion within God as well; God sees that Moshe’s otherwise disrespectful response is motivated entirely out of concern for the enslaved people, and thus God changes tone using a merciful tone to continue the dialogue.
Ohev Yisrael finds further proof of Moshe’s concern for the populace over his own happiness within Rashi‘s commentary on 6:1 (which is a paraphrase of TB Sanhedrin 111.). In the BT Sanhedrin 111., we have the following reading:

God said to Moshe: It’s a pity we don’t have men like those who are gone but not forgotten. Many times have I revealed myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and never did they ask what Divine Attributes are, never did they ask for the Divine Name (“as opposed to you, Moshe”). Thus, (verse 6:1) As a result, now you shall see what I shall bring upon Pharoah, but you won’t see the conquering of land later (that is, you won’t enter the land)…

In other words, God informs Moshe right at the outset of their dialogue, that as a result of his initial doubt, Moshe won’t enter the land of Israel, he will suffer a devastating personal failure despite the success of his overall mission. However, in the very next verse, (6:2), we read:

And Elohim spoke to Moshe, saying to him, I am Adonai.

Rashi points out that the use of the name Elokim, a name traditionally used for sterner messages, was in keeping with the above quoted teaching in Sanhedrin. But why then, asks the Ohev Yisrael, does the same verse suddenly transition to the merciful Adonai form? Rashi explains that this name reminds Moshe that God is loyal and repays debts of gratitude to those that act in God’s name . What then is the message of the mixture of harsh language and merciful language, punishment and reward, all within this one short verse?

The Ohev Yisrael offers a reading based upon the teaching of the Megaleh Amukot (at the end of ofan 87) that Moshe understood that were he to enter the land, he would have merited building the Temple in his time, and that Temple would have been indestructible. But, as the Midrash Eicha Rabba teaches, when the people sinned, God could have justifiably destroyed them, but instead, God “vented his anger on wood and stones rather than on the people”, opting to destroy the Temple rather than the people. Had Moshe entered the land and built the Temple, this option would not have been possible, and there would have been a bloodbath, according to the Midrash. According to the Ohev Yisrael, Moshe understood that there was a very positive long term outcome that was a result of what appeared in the short term to be punishment:

For this is Moshe’s nature- to give of himself for the people of Israel. From this “Now”, from within these words themselves, which seem strange to the average reader, was revealed in Moshe the greatness of the love, mercy and eternal concern for all of Israel.

The ability to recognize injustice, call it by name, even at great personal risk, when motivated out of a position of love for one’s fellow human being, leads to positive short term and long term change in ways that can resonate throughout history.

[As a footnote I would note that exactly this reason is why Moses is held as more central than Abraham by tradition, contra Kierkegaard. In Kierkegaard, the Man of Faith is willing to sacrifice the Ethical for the Religious, even if it involves sacrificing his own son, whereas the centrality of Moses is based on his willingness to challenge even God directly in order to prevent suffering to the Other].

An additional essay on this Torah reading, dealing with the narratives of the midwives disobeying Pharoah, and what it tell us about bio-power and bio-control, issues relevant to the current health care debates, can be found here:



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