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Vaera: The Reluctant Redeemer

A commentary on this weeks Torah reading, Vaera

The most important quality of a prophet, explains Rabbeinu Nissim, after being of perfect mind and moral character, is that of speech.  How could it be, he asks, that Moses lacked this most essential trait?  Moses, as it were, is in full agreement with Rabbeinu Nissim, using his very argument to decline the position: “I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10); “I am of uncircumcised lips” (6:12,30).

Curiously, Moses’ speech impediment surfaces only in his communications with God regarding his role as redeemer.  God appears to Moses at the burning bush with the great message of redemption saying, “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (3:10).  This is the first time that God seeks man to carry out His will, yet Moses responds, “Who am I?”  Now, while this could be a reflection of Moses’ great modesty, Rabbi Keidar notes that it is also an expression of “a lack of faith in his own ability to act.”  That Moses had no desire in the role of redeemer is made abundantly clear through his five-fold refusal that culminated with the halting petition: “Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send” (4:13).

What motivated Moses’ reluctance to accept the mission?  What motivated God’s persistence to demand the services of an individual who could neither speak nor wanted to?  The answer to both these questions, I suggest, lies in the speech that God made to Moses at the opening of parshat Vaera (6:2-8):

I am the Lord (Hashem);

and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Hashem I made Me not known to them. And I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings, wherein they sojourned. And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom Egypt causes to serve; and I have remembered My covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel:

I am the Lord (Hashem),

and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you out of their service, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land, concerning which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage:

I am the Lord (Hashem).

The speech – opening, closing and pivoting on the declaration “I am Hashem” – revolves around the aspect of God’s essence expressed in the name Hashem.  Indeed, by beginning the speech with the declaration that this name was not heretofore made known, Rashi explains that God was in effect saying: “I was not recognized by the patriarchs in My attribute of “keeping faith”, by reason of which My name is called Hashem – faithful to fulfill My word; for I made promises to them, but I did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]” (6:3).  The name Hashem, then, expresses the aspect of God fulfilling His word, His covenant.

The great promise to the patriarchs, the covenant awaiting its fulfillment, refers to “the covenant between the pieces” made with Abraham and subsequently passed on to Isaac and Jacob.  This covenant foretold, on the one hand, of uncountable offspring inheriting the land of Israel, yet on the other hand, of those very offspring being subjugating in a land not theirs.  This covenant, as I have explained in the past, can be understood in terms of Hegel’s dialectic triad, which pits thesis – a great and wondrous ideal – against antithesis – the harsh reality that conspires to negate the achievement of that thesis.  Ultimately synthesis is attained – that is, the thesis enriched by the struggle with the antithesis.

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes, however, that the “Judaic dialectic, unlike the Hegelian, is irreconcilable and hence interminable.  Judaism accepted a dialectic consisting only of thesis and antithesis.  The third Hegelian stage, that of reconciliation, is missing.  The conflict is final, almost absolute. Only God knows how to reconcile; we do not.  Complete reconciliation is an eschatological vision.” God’s speech to Moses expresses precisely this notion.  The speech is broken up into two equal parts, the first part pits the promise of the covenant against the brutal reality preventing its realization; the second part, in chiastic form, promises to redress the reality of the antithesis and make good on the promise of the thesis.  In the end it is Hashem who will fulfill the promise “independently of existing conditions, even completely in spite of, or against, them” (Hirsch, 6:2).  Nevertheless, God seeks man’s agency.

And this brings us back to our questions on Moses, the reluctant redeemer, and God, the demanding divinity.  Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the “voice coming forth from the burning bush and Moses’ resistance symbolize the clash of the thesis with antithesis.”  Moses, as such, was himself part of the antithesis!  Not because he was opposed to redemption, but because he simply could not fathom how redemption was possible.  In the midst of the antithesis, within the iron furnace that was Egypt, “the vision of the great fulfillment recedes into the shadow of absurdity, and concrete historical forces triumph over a prophecy and a testament” (Soloveitchik, p.180).

Moses, the prophet who can’t speak, the redeemer who won’t redeem, represents the absurdity of the thesis in the face of the antithesis.  Yet it is specifically he who God wants as His agent.  For if Moses, doubting and deficient, can join with the divine to effect redemption, then all men have the capacity to join in divine agency and achieve synthesis, achieve redemption.  “God worked through Moses in order to introduce man into the sphere of historical creativeness.  Let man himself attempt to realize the covenant” (Soloveitchik, p.184).

The realization of the covenant, however, is achieved on two levels: the personal and the universal.  On one level, man must strive to overcome the antithesis of his own personal circumstances. “Man acts as divine agent and redeems himself.  … [God] delegates power and responsibility to man in order to raise him to a new level of personalistic existence. In the capacity of a redeemer, man must reconcile both opposing forces and emerge as a harmonious personality” (Soloveitchik, p.185).  On the other level, man must strive to apply his harmonious personality, forged in the struggle with the antithesis, to redeem the world.

And thus Moses realized the covenant.  “Moses, at the outset, was by far not perfect… his personality was shaped and developed through an almost superhuman effort; its path was tortuous” (p.186).  Tellingly, it was in the very redemption of his own personal antithesis, his speech deficiency, that he redeemed the nation.  Moses’ transformation from “a man not of words” to a man of great words, is testimony to the possibility of redemption, to the attainability of the thesis in the face of the antithesis.  And so Rabbi Soloveitchik writes, “The final reformation of Moses embodies the synthesis of redemption.”

Moses, the reluctant redeemer, embodies the ideal that man, no matter how absurd it may seem, can redeem himself, can overcome any obstacle – if only he join as God’s agent in striving for that ultimate thesis – the redemption of creation.


About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at