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Shabbat Parashat Vaeira 5770

Parashat Hashavuah: What Gets Them Believing

As the parasha begins, Moshe was frustrated that his message of the dawning of liberation did not go over well. Par’oh had responded with an increase of pressure on the Hebrew slaves, and the people became disgruntled with Moshe. Hashem told Moshe to go back to tell Par’oh to release the nation, but Moshe responded with a kal vachomer argument: “If Bnei Yisrael did not listen to me, certainly Par’oh will not listen, especially since I have difficulty speaking” (Shemot 6:12).

Several commentaries struggle with the kal vachomer: The Torah says that the people did not listen to Moshe because of “shortness of spirit and hard work” (ibid.:9), matters unrelated to Par’oh, so how did his argument work? When Moshe eventually returned to Par’oh, Par’oh said to him: “Give for yourselves a sign” (Shemot 7:9). Commentaries are troubled by the language of giving a sign to them as it should be “to me” [Par’oh]. I once saw an explanation that Par’oh was actually teasing Moshe, saying that if you are not able to show signs to your own people and get them behind you, then you are not representing anybody. As for himself, Par’oh was difficult to impress with little miracles of the type that Moshe began with, as Egypt was filled with sorcerers who could do impressive things. This approach would cause the “kal vachomer” to work a little differently. It is not merely that it is harder to convince Par’oh than to convince Bnei Yisrael, which might be true, but that having Bnei Yisrael on board could have been a pre-requisite for the mission.

Was Par’oh right that as long as Moshe did not convince his people, he did not represent anybody and was thereby doomed to failure? Let us divide the answer into two. Firstly, he did not initially need to represent anybody because he represented a “non-body,” Hashem. It was Hashem who decided on the time and the means for the Exodus. As a matter of fact, Moshe did not need to impress Par’oh with soaring rhetoric. What he needed to do was authentically represent Hashem in relaying his messages to Par’oh, so that Par’oh would have no choice but to see and understand the context of His increasingly harsh messages.

On the other hand, Moshe did need to galvanize the people of Israel to be ready to embrace Hashem with deep belief, a family legacy from the forefathers, which had to be reawakened for them to merit salvation. The people, who were overall extremely passive in a “would-be revolt,” had to be ready to circumcise their males, sacrifice an Egyptian deity to Hashem, and be ready to leave for the desert most minimally prepared physically (see Yirmiyah 31:1). The miracles Moshe performed helped jump-start their belief in his leadership, feelings that were weakened during the ensuing difficulties, and then grew as Hashem’s miracles took on unseen proportions. Their experience with His trustworthy, humble messenger proved Moshe to be an honest representative of the Lord of their forefathers.

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This week’s Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of
R' Meir ben
Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld

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Yaakov Pushett

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