Chaim Ingram

Va’era. Formative Influences – Micro- and Macrocosmic Dimensions

Judaism, unlike Christianity, emphasises deed over creed.

The opening chapters of Sefer Shemot provide a fascinating insight into the relative pull of formative influences involving deed vis-a-vis those principally confined to creed.

Young Moses is brought up in an Egyptian palace without any contact with his people. However his adoptive mother, the righteous Bitya , Pharaoh’s daughter, raises him to be aware of his origins as a son of Israel. (He would also have had hazy recollections of the vitally-formative infancy years spent with his natural parents.) Unquestionably the impressionable Moses would also have imbibed the native Egyptian ideology with its polytheistic worship, reliance upon magic and necromancy and obsession with the preservation and mummification of the dead. But he would have been sheltered from the sights, sounds and smells of barbaric cruelty suffered by his people. The Egyptian aristocracy like their Nazi counterparts 3,000 years later, would have shown only their most cultured and decorous side around the palace. (In particular they would no doubt have showered the greatest love and compassion on their pet dogs.)

Meanwhile back in the slave-labour camps, the Bnei Yisrael were bound by a shared fate of cruel oppression. The Egyptians had little interest in religious coercion and so the Bnei Yisrael would not have been subjected to much idolatrous ideological influence. However the inhuman brutality to which they were singularly subjected would have seeped into their bones.

Now let us pinpoint a moment when the two narratives depicted above converge. Moses makes his first sorties among his oppressed people. He sees an Egyptian murderously beating “a Hebrew among his brothers” (Ex. 2:11). Not just any Hebrew but an appointed foreman (in his case one could call him a kapo) over his fellow Hebrews. That there had been a much-too-close relationship between the foreman’s family (particularly his wife) and that of his psychopathic Egyptian boss is doubtless very relevant (see Midrash Raba on Lev. 32:4). Moses could have been excused if his first thought would have been to utilise his knowledge of magical incantations from the royal court in order to neutralise the savage Egyptian and thus save his victim. But no.  Instead – again according to the Midrash Rabba (I, 29) – Moses downs the Egyptian in an utterly ‘kosher’ way by uttering one of the secret ineffable Names of G-D.

Next, Moses goes out and sees “two Hebrews fighting” (2:13). The two were Aviram and his older brother Datan, the very individual Moses had saved from the barbarous Egyptian. Moses asks Datan the aggressor, “why are you striking your brother”  Datan viperously turns on Moses and snarls “who made you leader and judge over us?  Perhaps you intend to use your tongue to kill me (halehorgeini ata omeir) like you killed the Egyptian!” (2:14).

Evidently the brutal behaviours and actions of Datan’s oppressors had left their mark on him. (How many perpetrators of domestic abuse were victims of such abuse themselves as children!) Learned behaviours, positive or negative, are not easily unlearned – and, as we know from later episodes in the Torah,  Datan never unlearns the uncouth conduct that he had close quarters

We see something fascinating here.  Moses who, in childhood and adolescence, was isolated from his brothers and exposed to a false belief system emerged morally unscathed. Datan, who was brought up amid the ethical monotheism of Bnei Yisrael but was exposed in his impressionable years to cruelty and barbarity, emerged indelibly scarred.

It would appear, then, that we are more influenced in our formative years by deeds than by ideology. (Similarly we read historical accounts of Jewish children abducted and incarcerated for years in monasteries or convents who, when released, find their rekindled babyhood memories of Shabbat candles or a Pesach Seder sufficient to cancel out all the insidious christological indoctrination and restore them to Judaism.)

All this helps us understand why, centuries earlier, Abraham adjured Eliezer not to search for a wife for Isaac among his native Canaanites but to return to the land and the extended family he had left (Gen. 24:3-4).  As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch succinctly explains: idolatry is an intellectual perversion which can be remedied whereas moral degeneracy and ethical corruption affects a person’s entire nature.

Ideally all negative environments, whether ideologically damaging or morally corruptive, must be eschewed. Abraham is commanded to leave his idolatrous family and home.  Moses cannot assume his mission until he has left the royal palace with all its foreign cultural temptations.

Fortunately, Moses’ world-view was already formulated (despite his young age) by the time he went out among his people and saw the barbarity and corruption of their oppressors. Egypt could no longer influence him. Moses already knew that deed – or what Judaism calls mitsva – is paramount.  And the Talmud (Berachot 32b) can testify that “there was no-one greater in ma’asim tovim (good deeds) than Moses!”

So, to summarise: the positive formative development of Moses in the Egyptian palace, isolated from his people, exposed to foreign ideas but shielded from the excesses of the Egyptian brutality was unhindered. On the other hand, Datan ben Eliav, foreman of the Hebrew slaves, who was at the pointy end of the worst savagery imaginable, was irretrievably scarred, morally and spiritually.  Indications are that a person is more likely to be adversely influenced by nefarious actions than harmful ideology, the corollary being that positive deeds will impact more strongly in one’s formative years than the most compelling ideas conveyed in speech.

This idea can be developed further on the macrocosmic (i.e. wider national) plane. The start of this week’s sidra finds the nascent nation of Israel at its lowest ebb physically, spiritually and emotionally. Moses and Aaron had addressed their first words to Pharaoh in the name of the G-D of Israel and of the cosmos.  Pharaoh’s reaction was to deride G-D (Exodus 5:2) and to intensify the brutal slavery. The Bnei Yisrael in agitation reproach Moses and Aaron for making their situation worse (5:21) whereupon Moses cries out to G-D in despair (5:22-23).

It is at this point that our sidra commences  G-D conveys His promise to redeem G-D in five stages (6:6-8).  Moses conveys these words to the people but they refuse to listen to him  “because of their weak spiritual state and their crushing servitude” (6:9).

G-D again exhorts Moses to “speak to Pharaoh” (6:10). But Moses is at breaking-point. He utilises the kal va-chomer (a fortiori, minor-to-major) argument that if even the Bnei Yisrael won’t listen to him, how will Pharaoh listen! Then comes the clincher “And besides I am aral sefatayim, speech-impaired!” (6:12).

This last cri de coeur is left hanging as the Torah proceeds to open the files of the “senior” tribes of Reuven and Shimon, (eldest sons of Jacob) as well as other members of Levi before alighting on Aaron and Moses – as if to say: Moses and Aaron were “hand-picked” by G-D for a specific mission (6:14-27).  But then the last dialogue between G-D and Moses is recapitulated ending again with Moses’ plaint that he is speech-impaired.  What is going on?

I would suggest that the subsequent narrative clarifies it all. From this point the star of Israel rises.  Moses performs the staff-to-snake sign before Pharaoh (7:8-12) and the ten plagues begin. Pharaoh’s resistance, as well as his stranglehold on Bnei Yisrael, weakens bit by bit.

It should not have escaped our notice that the speechmaking has ceased.  Now it is action all the way!  And Bnei Yisrael move closer and closer to  redemption.

Indeed Moses is resuming the role as action-man that catapulted him into the limelight in his debut appearance as leader among the Bnei Yisrael.  Then he had “performed the signs in the sight of the people and the people believed ….that G-D had remembered the Bnei Yisrael ….and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves!” (4:30-31).

We may surmise that, as far as G-D was concerned, Moses speech defect was his greatest qualification.  Following Moses’ protestation, writ large and reiterated, that he was speech-impaired, G-D determines to graphically demonstrate to Moses that it is not through verbal persuasion that the Bnei Yisrael are destined to be redeemed.  None of the speeches work.  All of the action does.   Even after the plagues and the Exodus, as Moses demonstrates his greatest show of eloquence yet – “Fear not! Stand fast and witness G-D’s salvation ….for whereas you have set eyes on Egypt today you won’t see them ever again!  (14:13) – G-D peremptorily interrupts him saying in effect: don’t just stand and talk, now is not the time for verbal utterances, now is the time for action!  “Lead them forth!” (14:15). And at Rephidim, Moses is to take his rod and strike a rock (not speak to it like forty years later) to extract water.

G-D does not require a silver-tongued, smooth-talking operator to hypnotise the nation with his oratory in its formative development. False messiahs of that ilk have wrought havoc in the world in the centuries that followed, not to mention mesmerising fuehrers and spellbinding despots. Only when Moses has established himself as proven leader in the wake of the theophany at Mount Sinai does he become a verbal communicator supreme. Forty years on, he delivers a 36-day speech recorded for us verbatim in Sefer Devarim, unparalleled for eloquence in world literature. The value of inspirational oratory isn’t to be minimised – but only from a leader who has already proven himself through deed and strength of character.

When synagogue communities interview rabbinical candidates, too often their main focus is: how will the rabbi come over in his sermon.  Judging by the lessons we have learnt from the early history of Moses’ leadership, these communities should take it as warning sign if the d’rasha is the only area in which the potential new rabbi shines – especially if he is a young rabbi interviewing for his first position.  Much better the sermon should be mediocre (he’ll grow into the art) and the new rabbi should come across as a go-getter, a seeker after souls (or bottoms on seats), an organiser, a teacher by example, a doer. Far better his pioneering Torah classes exude warmth and authenticity than polish and charisma.  The polish will come.

In the light of the above, it should not surprise us that the initial criteria by which the greatest of all leaders, Mashiakh (may he come soon), will be judged are, according to Rambam, (Laws of Kings 11:4), his deeds and his character.  “If a king will arise from the house of David who is learned in Torah and observant of the mitsvot of the written and oral law as David his ancestor was and will (by example) make walking in the ways of the Torah compelling for all Israel while reinforcing the breaches in its observance, and if he will fight the wars of G-D, we may presume he is the Messiah. If he does this and succeeds in building the Temple and gathering the dispersed of Israel he is certainly the Messiah.”

No specifying of charismatic rhetoric here, rather actions and deeds.  Only subsequently, when he is established as the true Messiah, will he “improve the whole world, motivating (through his oratory as well as by example) all the nations to serve  G-D together!”

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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