Ari Sacher

‘Logical Flaw’ Parashat Vaera 5784

Moshe, tasked to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt, is having a hard time. He goes to Pharaoh, telling him to “Let my People go”, and Pharaoh responds by eliminating their straw allocation, forcing them to find their own straw and vastly increasing brick production time. The people are livid, accusing Moshe of [Shemot 5:21] “fouling our odour in the eyes of the Egyptians[1]”. Moshe tells G-d that his mission is impossible to carry out. G-d gives Moshe a motivational talk and tells him to go tell the Jewish People that the time for their redemption has arrived. Moshe does as commanded, but the people are uninterested [Shemot 6:9]: “Moshe spoke thusly to the Children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard labour.” When G-d tells Moshe to pick himself up and go speak to Pharaoh again, Moshe explodes, telling G-d [Shemot 6:12] “Behold, the Children of Israel did not listen to me. How, then, will Pharaoh listen to me, seeing that I am tongue-tied?”

Rashi[2] notes that Moshe’s claim is one of ten a fortiori[3] (kal va’chomer) arguments that appear in the Torah. An a fortiori argument is a logical construction: If a is greater than b, and b is greater than c, then a is certainly greater that c. For example, halachically speaking, a holiday (yom tov) has the same laws as shabbat but with one added leniency: preparation of food is permitted on a holiday. It goes to say, then, that if a particular action is permitted on shabbat, then a fortiori, that action is also permitted on a holiday. Moshe’s a fortiori logic goes as follows: If the Jewish People will not listen to me, and seeing as the Jewish People should be a far more receptive audience than Pharaoh, than there is no way that Pharaoh will listen to me. From a hermeneutic standpoint, a fortiori arguments are nearly bullet-proof. It is clear that Moshe’s logic is faulty, because at the end of the day, Pharaoh does as Moshe asks and throws the Jewish People out of Egypt. Where is the fault in Moshe’s logic?

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi[4] points out a seemingly glaring logical flaw. The Torah clearly points out the reason that the Jewish People did not listen to Moshe: “Because of [their] shortness of breath and [their] hard labour”. They were enslaved. They were engaged in back-breaking labour in subhuman conditions from dawn until dusk. They had no patience for flowery concepts like “freedom” and “redemption”. It is entirely unsurprising that they did not listen to Moshe. Pharaoh, on the other hand, was not enslaved. He had all the time in the world. He should have been very interested in what Moshe had to say.

Rabbi Mizrachi’s logical flaw is itself flawed. Moshe tells G-d that if the Jewish People will not listen to him, then neither will Pharaoh, “seeing that I am tongue-tied”. Moshe does not attribute his inability to connect to the Jewish People because of their unwillingness to hear him out. He blames his own inability to speak[5]. If he could not speak clearly or eloquently enough for the Jewish People to listen, then he most definitely could not speak clearly enough to hold Pharaoh’s attention. And so G-d addresses Moshe’s assertion. He tells Moshe [Shemot 7:1-2] “See, I place you in the role of master to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land.” With Aaron as Moshe’s spokesman, Moshe’s a fortiori argument no longer holds water, and he can continue his mission.

Nevertheless, this explanation is also problematic. After Moshe lays out his a fortiori argument, the Torah answers with a cryptic verse [Shemot 6:13]: “So G-d spoke to Moshe and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the Land of Egypt.” According to Rashi, Moshe and Aaron were given subject-dependant tasks: They were to speak to the Jewish People with patience and to Pharaoh with deference. How do these instructions address Moshe’s claim that his mission is futile? The Torah then segues into a deep dive into the genealogy of Moshe and Aaron before returning to the topic at hand – providing a solution to Moshe’s a fortiori. Only afterwards does G-d provide Moshe with the solution that Aaron will serve as his mouthpiece. While the commentators offer an array of solutions as to why it was necessary to review Moshe’s genealogy at this juncture, they do not explain why G-d waited until after reviewing Moshe’s genealogy before addressing his claim. They also do not explain what “speaking with patience and deference” has to do with anything. This verse seems like a complete non sequitur.

To address these questions, we go back in time to Moshe’s birth. When Moshe is born, his mother hides him from the Egyptians, who want to drown him in the Nile River. When he is too big to hide, she places him in a basket and sets it afloat on the river. Pharaoh’s daughter, who has come to bathe in the river, is standing on the riverbank when she sees the basket and [Shemot 2:5] “She sent her maiden (amatah) to fetch it”. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [12b], noting that the word “amatah” can also mean “her arm”, suggests that she reached out her arm to grab the basket. The Talmud further explains that as the basket was out of her reach, her forearm became lengthened “by many cubits” to enable it to reach the basket and to draw it out of the water. Assuming that we are uninterested in double-jointed princesses, what is the Talmud trying to teach us? Further, if the princess was standing so far away from the basket, why did she even reach out? Did she somehow know that her arm would miraculously extend far beyond its reach? The Kotzker Rebbe[6] teaches that if a person’s goal is truly crucial, then he should not deliberate the impossibilities. He must stretch out his arm as far as he can and trust in G-d to bend the rules or at least to bias the odds in his favour. Now we can understand Moshe’s logical flaw. There is nothing more critical than the redemption of the Jewish People. And yet the concept of the Pharaoh agreeing to release his slaves when his entire economy was based on slavery was simply not going to happen. It would have doomed Egypt. Further, the Jewish People after generations of slavery had adopted a slave mentality. They were the lowest of the low. The redemption of the Jewish People defied logic. When G-d instructs Moshe and Aaron to “to deliver the Israelites from the Land of Egypt”, He is telling them to stop overthinking, to stretch out their hands and trust that G-d will deliver them. He may use natural means, substituting a better orator, and He may use supernatural means, turning the river to blood. What is required from man is a combination of maximum effort and faith. The stakes are too high for anything less.

David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, once said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” I suggest that Ben Gurion might have gone to the same school as the Kotzker. After two thousand years of exile, the Jewish People have returned to our homeland. The State of Israel marks the dawn of our deliverance. Its creation defies logic. Its continued existence, with few natural assets and surrounded by enemies, is only slightly less illogical. We innovate, we green the desert, we shoot down bullets with bullets, but our path to success ultimately requires that we reach out our arms to the Infinite.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Rina bat Hassida, and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.

[1] A few days ago, I saw a cartoon in which two Israelis are watching a news story on television about the recent elimination of senior Hamas leader Saleh al Arouri and saying, “That’s just what we need! Now Hamas is going to want to kill us!” Some things never change.

[2] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the 11th century.

[3]A fortiori” means “From the stronger case” in Latin.

[4] Rabbi Mizrachi lived in Italy at the turn of the 15th century. He wrote a supercommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.

[5] As children, we all heard the Midrashic story of how Pharaoh gave Baby Moshe a choice between a hot coal and a gold coin, and an angel pushed Moshe’s hand onto the hot coal, and he burnt his tongue on it. Other commentators suggest that Moshe had a stammer. Interestingly, the Torah never objectively tells us that Moshe had a speech defect. Only Moshe seems to notice, see Shemot [4:10]. Even so, Moshe blames his inability to connect with the Jewish People not on their shortcomings, rather, on his own inability to speak. Taking this kind of extreme ownership is the mark of a true leader.

[6] Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern, known as the “Kotzker” lived in Poland in the 18th century.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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