“The Messenger” Parashat Shemot 5776

The task of a messenger is to relay his message to its intended audience precisely as it was given to him, without making any changes or embellishments. If he modifies the message even slightly he is acting out of order because as a result of his modifications the message becomes his, and not the original sender’s.

Given this definition, Moshe was a lousy messenger. Hashem appears to Moshe and gives him explicit instructions on what to say to Pharaoh [Shemot 3:18]: “Hashem, God of the Hebrews, has revealed Himself to us, and now, let us go for a three-day journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to Hashem, our God.” When Moshe relays this message to Pharaoh, he adds some words and he embellishes others [Shemot 5:1-3]: “So said Hashem, God of Israel, ‘Send out My people and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert…  Hashem, God of the Hebrews, has revealed Himself to us, and now, let us go for a three-day journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to Hashem, our God.’”

Moshe’s addition is clear: Hashem never tells him to tell Pharaoh to let anybody “sacrifice in the desert”. Moshe’s embellishment is much more nuanced – he changes only one letter. Hashem commands Moshe to tell Pharaoh “Hashem has revealed Himself to us” using the phrase “nikra elenu”. Moshe tells the exact same thing to Pharaoh. However, Hashem spells the word nikra ending with the letter heh[1] while Moshe spells it end with the letter aleph[2]. Excuse me, but what’s the big deal, here? Moshe switches only one letter and it’s a silent letter, at that[3]. But this is the Torah and the rules here are strict. Often the Talmud extracts a halacha from a verse because of one seemingly superfluous letter. On the other hand, we’re talking about Moshe Rabbeinu. One of the basic tenets of Judaism is that Moshe transferred the Torah to Am Yisrael precisely as he received it on Sinai. Why, then, does Moshe not relay Hashem’s message to Pharaoh verbatim?

In order to try and understand Moshe’s switcheroo, we turn to the first verse in the Book of Vayikra [1:1]: “Hashem called to Moshe from the Tent of Meeting, saying”. The Hebrew word “Vayikra” – “[He] called” – is written with the last letter – an aleph – in a smaller font than the rest of the word, such that the word appears as if it says “vayikar”. Rashi explains the difference between the two words: The word “vayikra” means “He called [to Moshe]” with affection, the same way close friends call out to each other. On the other hand, the word “vayikar” comes from the word “mikreh” – “unplanned coincidence”. “Vayikar” means that “He appeared to Moshe’. It describes an act that is fleeting and impure and is used when Hashem speaks to non-Jewish prophets such as Balaam[4]. Rashi, in the verse in Parashat Shemot, explains the use of the word “nikra”-with-a-heh similarly: He calls it “an expression of coincidence” and he refers us to the verse in Parashat Vayikra.

Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, probably the most famous commentary on Rashi, is disturbed by Rashi’s words. Rav Mizrachi is troubled that Hashem’s first revelation to Moshe is relegated to the impure type usually reserved for lower prophets. Why doesn’t Moshe warrant a nikra-with-an-aleph?[5] Rav Mizrachi suggests that nikra-with-a-heh doesn’t necessarily mean “on a lower level”, it just means “out of the blue” He brings support for his hypothesis from the mitzvah of shooing away the mother bird, which begins with the words [Devarim 22:6] “If you happen upon a nest…” The problem with Rav Mizrachi’s answer is that it seems to ignore Rashi’s later comment that “vayikar” is by definition a bad thing[6].

Let’s take Rashi at face value and assume for the moment that Hashem’s first appearance to Moshe was on a low level of prophecy. When Hashem appears to Moshe Am Yisrael have been in Egypt for more than two hundred years and they have been subjugated for nearly one hundred years. They have had their dignity beaten out of them. They are forbidden from wearing Egyptian clothing and from speaking the Egyptian language. Jewish slaves are not even second-class citizens – they are subhuman. They are automatons who live only to die. This is the nation that Hashem is coming to redeem. It is not clear that they are even “redeemable”.

I am reminded of a scene from the movie “The Lion King” in which Simba goes into a self-imposed exile, believing that he killed his father, Mufasa. Simba befriends two vagrants and he eventually loses all vestiges of royalty: He eats bugs from logs and he sings “Hakuna matata” – “No worries”. Mufasa appears to Simba in a dream and tells him that he must return to the pride to take his “rightful place as king”. Simba is not interested – he’d rather just run around and sing and dance and eat bugs. His father tells him “You have forgotten who you are. You are more than what you have become.” Am Yisrael had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten that their sojourn in Egypt was only a temporary one and that they would one day leave Egypt for a Land of Milk and Honey, to a place in which they were destined to live as a “Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”. When Hashem “happens upon Moshe” it is an indictment, an accusation. You were supposed to be waiting for Me but I had to go looking for you. And yet, Hashem comes searching for His people. The time has come for them to meet their destiny, and so their redemption must begin with a push from above. But make no mistake, this nation is eminently redeemable.

Now we can understand Moshe’s first words to Pharaoh. Before Moshe can convince Pharaoh to agree to free his slaves, he must lay out the rules of engagement. Pharaoh believes that the Jewish slaves are doomed. Either they will die from their beatings or they will lose their national identity. Either way they are beyond redemption. Even if Pharaoh agrees to let them leave Egypt, what will become of them? They would most likely break off into small groups who would be absorbed into the Bedouins of the desert. They could be freed but they could not be redeemed. Hashem’s words to Moshe refuted this logic. And so Moshe tells Pharaoh that he has been sent by the “God of Israel” who desires that His subjects “sacrifice to him in the desert”. Moshe is making two statements: [1] there exists a “Nation of Israel” with a homeland in the Land of Israel, and [2] this nation has its own God that it desires to worship together. These people are redeemable.

Pharaoh rebuffs Moshe’s opening sentence, telling him [Shemot 5:2] “Who is this “Hashem” that I should listen to Him? I have never heard of “Hashem” and I shall not send Israel”. These people have no God. They can have no God. These people can’t see beyond the ends of their noses. They are not redeemable. Moshe responds by telling Pharaoh that Hashem “nikra-with-an-aleph” to Am Yisrael. Hashem longs for His people. His affection for His people has not diminished by one iota, even in their low state. Only if they are allowed to go free will they be able to reawaken their dormant love for their God. The proof for this is that Hashem has come calling for them.

The messenger must relay his message to his audience in a way that they will understand the message. Sometimes this requires a PowerPoint presentation, sometimes it requires translating the message into another language, and sometimes it requires rewording of the message. Hashem tells Moshe that despite their external appearances Am Yisrael are redeemable, and their time for redemption has arrived. This is the message that Moshe relays to Pharaoh. Moshe remains the messenger par excellence.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya, and Yoav ben Chaya.

[1] נקרה

[2] נקרא

[3] I didn’t even notice the switch until this year.

[4] The size of the font of the aleph in the word “vayikra” is small so as to show Moshe’s humility. Even though Hashem “called” to him, he acted as if Hashem randomly “appeared” to him.

[5] I am bamboozled as to why Rav Mizrachi does not take his question to its logical end and ask why Moshe changes the heh to an aleph when he speaks to Pharaoh.

[6] Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch offers a hypothesis in which nikra-with-an-aleph and nikra-with-a-heh are actually one and the same, and are dependent upon whether the observer is human or Divine. I leave this explanation for the advanced reader like my wife, Tova, who made a similar suggestion.

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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