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Parshat Shemot: Found in Translation

“But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?’” (Shemot 3: 11).

While grazing his father in law’s flocks in the desert, Moshe unknowingly stumbles upon Mt. Chorev, which the text calls “God’s Mountain.” Suddenly he sees the impossible: a burning bush that is not consumed by the fire inside it. As he approaches with hesitancy, he hears a voice call his name twice. Hineni, I am here, he responds. 

“Remove your shoes,” continues the voice; “You are standing on holy ground.” 

And who is this speaking to him?  

“I am the God not only of your father, but of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.” Out of fear and awe, Moshe hides his face. 

God continues: “I am aware of the suffering of Am Yisrael, and I have come to take them out of Egypt and bring them home, to the Land of Milk and Honey.”

And what is God’s plan for freeing these slaves? “Moshe, I’m sending you to free my people from Pharaoh.”

Moshe’s response is, well, less than enthusiastic: 

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

As the text continues, Moshe will bring up several specific points of contention. And even though he doesn’t state it outright, there is an implicit objection throughout: Wouldn’t it be better if you just did it yourself? Why do you need me to bring Am Yisrael out of Egypt?

This question deserves contemplation. Just to clarify, I’m not asking why Moshe was chosen to be the emissary, though that question deserves attention as well. This is the question I’m asking: why does God need any emissary at all in order to bring Am Yisrael out of Egypt? Can’t God just do it without help?

The answer is yes….and no. God doesn’t need anything or anyone else per se; God is not lacking. But God does have a problem, so to speak, and Moshe can help. It’s a problem of translation.

We can see this in Moshe’s third objection: “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”  This task requires a great communicator, and I am impaired. 

Hashem insists that Moshe is the right person for the job; God encourages him and offers help: his older brother Aharon, who is an effective communicator, will work with him to complete the task. 

But God adds one more point, and it is with these words that Moshe finally accepts his mission:

“and he (Aharon) shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, you will be like God for him,” (Shemot 4:16).

What does it mean that Moshe will be like God for him? It means that Moshe will say the words to Aharon, but Aharon will communicate the message. Aharon will be Moshe’s translator.

Through this suggestion, God now shows Moshe why he is essential to the plan. Just as Moshe needs help in clearly communicating his message, God has a translation problem as well, so to speak. God wants to be known, but there is a problem: God cannot be wholly known, because if we were to know God, then we would be God. But we can know something of the Divine, and here Moshe senses his ability to help.

So just as Aharon will take Moshe’s words and articulate a clear message, so too Moshe will translate God’s infinite existence into a clear, finite, and knowable form. God needs Moshe, so to speak, so the world will know God; not God’s essence, as we mentioned, but the way in which God interacts with us and with our world.  And upon understanding this, Moshe informs his father in law that he is returning to Egypt to fulfill his Divine mission. 

Though Moshe was chosen to lead this mission, we can all act as vehicles through which God can be known to the world. The Talmud calls our forebears “chariots;” through their righteous actions they were vehicles which allowed God to be known in the world. This is a calling not only for those holy men and women; it is a calling for each of us as well. Since God is infinite, all of us can express an aspect of the Divine through our unique gifts and talents. We are all emissaries of the Divine.

So here’s a question: Do you feel that you have a task that you’ve been put in the world to fulfill? Do you feel that your life has a mission? What is it, and are you achieving it? 

For the complete healing of Daniel Mordechai ben Naomi Tamar, and in memory of Zissel bas Shlomo Zalman v’ Sheina Ruchel.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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