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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Shemos 5768

This week we begin (again) the second book of the Torah, the Book of Exodus (Shemos). The book that describes the first exile, which was in Egypt, the birth and growth of Moses, and the first Exodus from exile which was the historic divine deliverance from Egypt (including the Ten Plagues, the crossing of the Reed sea and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai).

The redemption begins when G-d appears to Moses in the wilderness in the burning bush and enlists him to be the leader of the people. Moses resists.

Exodus 3:11, 12

11) And Moses said to G-d: 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?"

12) And He said: 'For I shall be with you, and this is the sign for you that I have sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain.'


11) Who am I?: Rashi: What is my importance that I might speak before kings?" And that I should take the Children of Israel out: Rashi: And even if I am important, what merit does Israel have that a miracle be done for them that I will bring them out of Egypt? 12) He (G-d) answered the first question first and the last question, last. That which you said 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?' (My answer is) It is not yours rather it is Mine "For I will be with you" and this vision which you saw - the (burning) bush is a sign for you that I have sent you and that you will succeed in My mission. And I (G-d) am capable of saving you as you saw that the bush did My bidding and was not consumed, likewise you will go on My mission and will not be harmed. And regarding what you asked: What merit does Israel have that they should go out of Egypt? A great purpose do I have for this exodus for in the future they will receive the Torah on this mountain, three months after they leave Egypt.


Rashi, in this longish comment, tells us that Moses is asking two questions. Rashi spells out the two questions and tells us that G-d answers each in its place. Do you have any questions of this comment?

Your Questions:


Some Questions: At first glance, Moses seems to be asking just one question - Whom am I that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt? But Rashi makes a point of it that we have two questions here. Why does he?

Another Question: Why does Rashi assume that Moses is asking: "what merit does Israel have" to allow them the miracle of salvation? Why can't we understand his question simply as 'Why should I (Moses) think that I can be so influential with Pharaoh that he will free his slaves?" That would seem his meaning here.

Of course, you may have other questions as well.

What do think is bothering Rashi that lead him to see two questions and emphasize the matter of the merit of Israel?

Hint: Read verse 12 and see if it makes sense to you.

Your Answer:


An Answer: In answer to Moses' questions G-d gives him a sign that "I have sent you". This sign was to convince the people that Moses is G-d's messenger and then they (the People) would follow him or it was to convince Pharaoh and then he would give them permission to leave Egypt. But, here's the rub, how could the fact that the People would serve G-d on that mountain in another three months convince any one today! Maybe in three months they would not serve G-d on the mountain.

Who knows !?

This is what is strange and problematic about this verse.

How does Rashi deal with this question?

Your Answer:


An Answer: First Rashi makes it clear that there are two - not one - questions in verse 11. Moses is asking about his qualifications and also asking about the People's qualifications for redemption. Rashi does this in order to give G-d's answer about the sign a completely different meaning than we might have thought to begin with. The sign was the burning bush (not the far-off fact that they would serve G-d at Mt. Sinai). The sign was in answer to Moses' first question. It was not meant to convince the People, it was to convince and embolden Moses. Now, if the sign was the burning bush and it was for Moses' sake, then what are the words "When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain" all about? What relevance do they have to anything?

Do you see?

Your Answer:


An Answer: Moses had asked (according to Rashi's comment) what merit do the Jews have to warrant the miracle of redemption. This is G-d's answer: I (G-d) want them redeemed for My purposes; I want to give them the Torah and that is why I am redeeming them - worthy or not. We see that Rashi has intentionally interpreted Moses two questions in a way that would make G-d's answers relevant and sensible.


The Ramban also comments on these verses. He says on verse 12:

There have been many comments (of other commentaries). But the correct understanding, according to p'shat, is that the Holy One said to Moses two things: That He (G-d) will go down to save them (Israel). Now it is possible to save them from the Egyptians while still in the land of Goshen (which was part of Egypt where the Jews lived) or somewhere else nearby. But instead, G-d promised to more than that - to bring them up to the place of Canaan (see verse 8 above).

Moses was afraid of both of these. He said: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? I am a lowly person, a mere shepherd while he is a great king. Were I to tell him to free the People he would easily have me killed....And Moses said more: Who am to bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt as You (G-d) have said "to bring them to the land of Canaan" because they are a smart People and I am not important enough for them to go after me to (conquer) nations greater and stronger than they are in Canaan. Now, the salvation from Pharaoh's slavery does not depend on them - if Pharaoh will lighten his yoke on them and save them or if he will throw them out of his land. On the other hand, they would gladly obey any man to escape Egypt, for who would not want to leave such a harsh slavery ? But to go after Moses to Canaan, they wouldn't listen to him. In fact, we see that later (in the wilderness) they did fear the wars with the nations. These were Moses' fears - from Pharaoh and from the People.

On both of these fears G-d responded. He said: "Don't be afraid of Pharaoh for: "I will be with you to save you." And this is your sign for the people that I sent you to them, that when I take the nation out of Egypt you will serve G-d on this mountain (Mt. Sinai) and then they will accept service to Hashem to do His command and the people will also believe in you forever. And they will run after you to any place you tell them. ....

Now Moses had a sign so as not to fear Pharaoh, since G-d promised to save him; and Israel also had a sign that they will not fear the nations (on the way to Canaan) once they come to Mt. Sinai. Because to be willing to leave Egypt they would certainly agree....

Do you see how the Ramban answers the question of the sign? The question was: How could serving G-d at the mountain of Sinai be a convincing sign so the people will follow Moses to leave Egypt? Since Sinai would happen only months later!

Your Answer:


An Answer: The Ramban switches the meaning of Moses' second question to G-d. Moses was not asking: How will the people follow me out of Egypt. That, says the Ramban, is no problem. Anybody would be followed out of that terrible slavery. The fear Moses had was: Why should the people follow me all the way to Canaan? For this G-d had an answer. The trek to Canaan would begin only after the inspiring revelation at Sinai. After the people witness that revelation they will follow Moses anywhere!

Note: Rashi answers the question by switching the answer. It was not a sign of witnessing the revelation rather the sign was the burning bush, which Moses had already witnessed. He also interprets Moses second question as a question of Israel's merit. The Ramban, on the other hand, switches the question!


Ramban certainly knows what Rashi wrote. Why did he not accept Rashi's view? Can you think of an answer?

Your Answer:


A Possible Answer: Rashi said the sign was the burning bush. But several verses separate us from the vision of the burning bush. Perhaps the Ramban thought since the bush was not in center stage at this point the sign could not refer to it. Also since Hashem had to tell Moses' explicitly "I will be with you" it would seem that the bush itself was not sufficient support for Moses. So the sign could not refer to it.

Now let us reverse the question: Why did Rashi not think of the Ramban's interpretation. Rashi, of course, lived 100 years before the Ramban, so he did not know the Ramban's commentary. But he too might have thought of the Ramban's approach, nevertheless he did not accept it. Why not? Can you suggest a reason?

Your Answer:


An Answer: Any answer here is speculation. That having been said, I would suggest (speculate) the following: The Ramban builds his interpretation on the Israelites' fears of following Moses to Canaan. The sign was to calm their fears in this regard. But, and here's the rub, our verse says nothing about bringing the Children of Israel into Canaan. One would think that if that is what G-d is answering Moses, then some mention of Canaan should be made here. But it is not mentioned; maybe that's one reason Rashi did not go that way.


This verse offers us a beautiful example of how two great Torah commentators relate to a difficult question. They both, each in his own way, give us a changed perception on Moses' questions and G-d's answers to him.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."

The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" and the Megillas Esther volume can be purchased thru Feldheim on line at Feldheim.com

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