David Curwin
David Curwin

Between Shemot and Va’era

Parashat Va’era starts with Shemot 6:2, while the preceding verse, Shemot 6:1 concludes Parashat Shemot. The division by chapters makes sense because both the first and second verses are connected, with God speaking to Moshe:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”  (Shemot 6:1)

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD.” (Shemot 6:2)

On the other hand, the division by parasha also makes sense, since if Parashat Shemot had ended one verse earlier, it would have ended on a bad note, which is not the custom for public readings:

Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”  (Shemot 5:22-23)

The tension between the bitterness of Moshe’s complaint and the positive message of God’s response is reflected in the midrashim and commentaries. Some say that God’s response was meant to comfort Moshe; others find signs in God’s words of reproach to Moshe’s audacity.

For example, Rashi (on Shemot 6:2) points out that the use of the words “spoke” (vayidaber) and the divine name Elokim, indicate a harsh tone. But others, like HaKetav V’Hakabalah, show that the verb daber can be found in more soothing contexts.

Adding to the confusion is having one divine speech immediately follow another. While some, like Cassuto, say that an unspecified period of time passed between Shemot 6:1 and Shemot 6:2, there is no evidence of this in the text. It is as if God has one response to Moshe, and then had to follow it up with a second one. What is happening here?

I think it’s best captured by a midrash. In response to Moshe’s complaint against God, it writes:

For this, the Attribute of Justice was about to punish Moses, as our text says: Elokim spoke to Moses. Yet, as He realized that Moses spoke thus because of Israel’s suffering, He treated him with Mercy, and the text continues “and said to him, ‘I am the Lord’ “ (Shemot Rabba 6:1)

This midrash is capturing the paradox in the personality of Moshe. On the one hand, he was exceedingly humble (Bamidbar 12:3). But on the other hand, when it came to defending the people of Israel, he was fearless. Over and over, we find him arguing with God in order to protect them.

This audacity on the part of Moshe, certainly when speaking to God, should have disqualified him from being the one to represent God on earth. But God also knew that this same courage would ensure that Moshe would be able to stand up to Pharaoh – who would certainly have scared off almost anyone else.

Considering that Israel is a “stiff-necked people,” it was certainly to their benefit that their leader was Moshe, who could defend them like no one else.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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