Parashat Shemot

Exodus 1:1–6:1

January 14, 2012 / 19 Tevet 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

Dan Shonka was a professional football recruiter for over 30 years, during which he evaluated thousands of potential NFL stars. The number of games, hours of recording, and extensive evaluations he did made him one of the best in the game. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, profiles him and his method of choosing players:

"I like to see that the quarterback can hit a receiver in stride so he doesn't have to slow for the ball," Shonka began. He had a stack of evaluation forms next to him, and as he watched the game, he was charting and grading every throw . . . " Then judgment. Hey, if it's not there, throw it away and play another day. Will he stand in there and take a hit, with a guy breathing down his face? Will he be able to step right in there, throw, and still take that hit?" (315)

But with all his charting, observing, intelligence tracking, and countless hours of experience, when it comes down to it, Shonka admits that you just don't know how a quarterback will perform in the National Football League. Gladwell writes, "This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired" (316).

The Children of Israel have a quarterback problem.

Having concluded the saga of the matriarchs and patriarchs, we encounter a pharaoh who does not know Joseph—or chooses not to remember the good things he did for Egypt. The tide quickly turns, and the Children of Israel face a harsh new reality. As if enslavement were not enough to break the spirits of the descendants of Jacob, the pharaoh codifies cruelty into law and seeks to exterminate the Israelite population. The harsh decrees of the pharaoh actually end up setting the scene for the birth of Moses.

As the narrative unfolds, a picture is painted of Moses, who casts aside royal privilege in an act of empathy and anger and flees the palace to live a life of anonymity. God sees something in the character of Moses—so we are led to believe—that singles him out and makes him the obvious choice for redeemer of Israel. Surely his name is an indication, as the Bible itself hints, and scholars have written on the prophetic nature of the name. My rabbi and teacher Professor Stephen Garfinkel, in his exegesis "Moses: Man of Israel, Man of God" in the Etz Hayim Humash, writes:

Exodus interprets the name "Moses" to mean that he is "drawn out" of the water (2:10); but a more precise grammatical analysis of the Hebrew term mosheh confers a richer, predictive message. Moses is destined to be the one who draws out the people of Israel.

It is not only his prophetic naming and early life experience that identify Moses as the redeemer; his entire personal narrative defines his unique role. Professor Garfinkel sees the greater parallel and writes, "The life of the Israelite people from national birth to possession of a permanent territory is coterminous with the life of Moses. He is in effect the national alter ego."

But Moses himself is not as convinced of his destiny. Seemingly unwilling to take the position of quarterback for the Children of Israel, Moses questions his worthiness for the role of redeemer. In an enigmatic passage in the book of Exodus, Moses responds to God's call to free the People of Israel:

But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" And He said, "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." (Ex. 3:11–12)

Nahum Sarna's JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus wrestles with these two verses and how to understand not only Moses's question, but God's answer as well.

This difficult verse has occasioned much exegesis. The first clause is clear enough. God's "being with" someone is an assurance of protection. This is usually given at critical moments of human fear and indecision . . .

The next clause is unclear. Hebrew 'ot, "a sign," is largely something that functions to corroborate either a promise or an appointment to office. But to what does the Hebrew demonstrative zeh, "this, that," refer?

Sarna suggests a few possible options. Identifying the burning bush as zeh, Sarna proposes that the miracle itself should have been enough to convince Moses that his calling was divine—and that God would be there with him to help him accomplish his task. Alternatively, his unique experience with and relationship with God could be identified as the zeh, and that should be enough to know that he would be successful. Both interpretations leave the last phrase ("And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain") as dangling and independent, as Sarna admits. He suggests an interpretation to include the phrase in God's reasoning, but reassuring Moses that his eventual success will be proof of his worthiness isn't the most compelling way to motivate a timid leader.

The interpretation that resonated for me this year (and incorporates the dangling phrase) is from the Mei ha'Shiloah by Rabbi Mordecai Yosef Leiner, the Izbitzer Rebbe. In reading Moses's challenge to God, he sees not one, but two questions. The first he identifies is "Who am I?" What is Moses's worthiness to this task? We can read it as humility or hesitancy, but the Izbitzer hears Moses's humility as almost surprise: "Why me, and not any other person from the Children of Israel?" The second question is a more direct challenge to God. Moses is asking: "There is no doubt that they are worthy to be redeemed from slavery, but why would You take them out now? There is no guarantee that there will be sanctuary for them when they are taken out of Egypt."

The Izbitzer Rebbe's answers put not only Moses, but the entire Exodus narrative into a new context. First, God's answer and promise of "being with" Moses becomes more of a statement about God than Moses. For the Mei ha'Shiloah, Moses is not the catalyst for redemption, but rather God is (although the Izbitzer Rebbe would agree with Professor Garfinkel's designation of Moses as the alter ego). In Sarna's reading, the people will be redeemed by Moses because God is "with" Moses. For the Mei ha'Shiloah, the people will be redeemed because God is redeeming them through Moses.

To answer Moses's second question of "Why now," the Izbitzer responds that God is interested not only in the present situation of the Children of Israel, but in their future as well. "I will bring you under the yolk of my Torah, and I will be engaged with your life and existence forever." The people are being redeemed to secure their future relationship with God. The exodus from Egypt is an investment in Israel, not only a direct response to their current condition.

The opening narratives of the book of Exodus seem to be setting the scene and describing the training of the perfect quarterback for the burgeoning nation of Israel. Moses steps onto the field of Jewish history, and everything about him seems to indicate that he will be leading the people out of slavery into freedom. His question of his ability is ours today. How can we be sure that he will be successful in his task? As the Mei ha'Shiloah teaches us, Moses is not taking the ball alone. It is God's promise and, more importantly, presence that enables him to lead the people to freedom for generations to come.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.