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"And the People Believed and They Heard"

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur

Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi
Dedicated in memory of my grandmother, Szore bat Simen Leib (Weinberger), whose yahrzeit is on the 18th of Tevet. 
May her soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.  From those who remember her.


Dedicated in memory of 
Rachel bat Shlomo z"l





The phenomenon of prophets who appointed by God to lead the nation who try to refuse or leave that position is familiar to students of Tanakh, recurring in the stories of the inauguration of Eliyahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, and Yona. Their refusal arises from the difficulty of carrying out the thankless task of rebuking the people and warning of punishment and from the fear that their prophecy will be of no benefit; instead of bringing about desired change in the defiant people, it will merely make the prophet a laughingstock and object of ridicule among them.[1]


The episode of the burning bush in our parasha appears at first to be the original model of an argument between God and a leader whom He seeks to appoint that was adopted by later prophets when they were called upon to fulfill a Divine mission. However, closer study of the episode shows it to be a unique argument between God and His emissary, whose subject is not the prophet's concern for his personal status, nor the anticipated stubbornness of the people, but rather the strategy and effectiveness of the mission itself.


We will present here an exegetical proposal for understanding the argument between God and Moshe at the burning bush. In some of the following shiurim, we will argue that the echo of this argument continues to resound throughout the sefer, concluding only in Sefer Bamidbar, when God notifies Moshe of the conclusion of his mission following the sin of Mei Meriva.


The Vision of the Burning Bush


The description of the vision of the burning bush maintains a tension between two key verbs: "r-a-h" (to see) and its semantic field (h-b-t), and "a-m-r" (to say) and its semantic field (d-b-r, tz-a-k, kol). Let us examine the verses and explain the contribution of these verbs to an understanding of the deeper idea.


The text begins with a description of Moshe's experience while shepherding his father-in-law's flocks in the wilderness:


(1)          And Moshe would shepherd the flock of Yitro, his father-in-law, kohen of Midian; and he led the flock far into the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God, to Chorev. (2) And there appeared (va-yera) to him an angel of God in a flame of fire, from the midst of a bush; and he looked (va-yar), and behold – the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. (3) And Moshe said, “Let me turn aside and see (ve-ereh) this great sight (ha-mareh) – why the bush is not burned.” (4) And God saw (va-yar) that he had turned aside to see (li-rot), and God called to him from the midst of the bush, and He said, “Moshe, Moshe;” and he said, “Here I am.” (5) And He said, “Do not come near; remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground." (Shemot 3)


Moshe's experience is described as arising from an unusual sight against the backdrop of the desert scenery, which draws his attention. God is depicted as watching Moshe, as it were, to see whether the visual stimulation that He has placed in his way has the intended effect. God uses Moshe's emotional turmoil at this astonishing sight to convey the idea of his mission.


The text notes that Moshe's act of seeing ceases because he covers his face. Thus, he hears God's voice while his eyes are covered:


(6) And He said, “I am the Lord God of your fathers – the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov.” And Moshe hid his face, for he feared to look (me-habit) upon God. (7) And God said, “I have surely seen (ra'oh ra'iti) the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. (8) And I have come down to deliver them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land, to a good and expansive land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Cana'ani and the Chitti and the Emori and the Perizzi and the Chivvi and the Yevusi. (9) And now, behold, the cry of Bnei Yisrael has reached Me, and I have also seen (ra'iti) the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them. (10) Come now, therefore, and I shall send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring My people, Bnei Yisrael, out of Egypt."


Moshe hears in God's words the reasons that have accelerated the planning of the process of redemption. God's message, repeated three times,[2] notes the sound of the cry and the sight of the subjugation as the decisive elements in bringing the period of subjugation to its end. Chizkuni explains the experiential need, as it were, for both senses:


"The cry of Bnei Yisrael has reached Me” – And lest you say that they are crying for no reason, the text adds, “And I have also seen the oppression” – their cry is justified.


The experience of the revelation at the burning bush therefore imbued Moshe with two insights. First, the sight that he sees makes a strong impression, so powerful that it is almost impossible to contain; at the same time, the auditory impression assumes a dimension of reliability only insofar as it is accompanied by a visual picture. Armed with these insights, Moshe rejects the mission with which God seeks to entrust him.


The Argument Over the Mission


(11) And Moshe said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?” (12) And He said, “But I will be with you, and this will be the sign that I have sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will serve God upon this mountain."


The formulation of Moshe's refusal to assume leadership – "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh" – has been understood by many of the commentators as an expression of his modesty.[3] However, if we accept this interpretation, then what are we to make of the second part of his question – "and that I should bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt," which does not appear to follow from the first part of the question, but rather stands on its own? In what way does God's response address Moshe's modesty?[4] And why does God's response not satisfy Moshe, such that he continues to try to evade his mission?


In order to answer these questions and others, we propose that the argument between God and Moshe should be viewed as a disagreement over the manner in which the nation should be led in the process of their liberation from Egypt.


God wants to send Moshe to Egypt, arming him with a description of their suffering and His wish to redeem them. Moshe feels that this information – as shocking as it may be – in no way advances the process of liberating the people from Egypt. In his protestation, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh," Moshe is arguing that in order to be granted an audience before the ruler of Egypt, he needs some reinforcement of his status.[5] In his subsequent words, "and that I should bring Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt," he is expressing doubt as to the people's faith in his mission when they discover that he bears nothing more than God's words about their suffering. God reinforces Moshe's status by promising to accompany him all the way – "for I shall be with you" –  and instructs him to build up the people's faith by means of a prophecy of the future that he should declare to them.


Moshe's response to God expresses profound skepticism as to the power of the spoken word to have any influence:


(13) And Moshe said to God, “Behold, I shall come to Bnei Yisrael, and I shall tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they shall say to me, ‘What is His Name?’ What shall I say to them?"


God does not address Moshe's skepticism; He provides him with extensive verbal content. After declaring all of this, He promises, "they will listen to your voice:"


(14) And God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.” And He said, “So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael: ‘Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” (15) And God said further to Moshe, “So shall you say to Bnei Yisrael: ‘The Lord God of your forefathers – the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov – has sent me to you; this is My Name forever, and this is My memorial for all generations.’ (16) Go and gather the elders of Israel, and say to them: ‘The Lord God of your forefathers appeared (nira) to me – the God of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov – saying, ‘I have surely remembered you, and that which is done to you in Egypt.’ (17) And I have said, ‘I shall bring you up from the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Cana'ani, and the Chitti, and the Emori, and the Perizzi, and the Chivvi, and the Yevusi, to a land flowing with milk and honey.’ (18) And they shall listen to you, and you will come – you and the elders of Israel – to the king of Egypt, and you will say to him: ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has happened upon us, and now, let us go on a journey of three days into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’"


Moshe remains convinced that a mission based on a verbal statement will not lead the people to believe; he even speculates a possible response by the people to the message that he is supposed to deliver – "Say to them: ‘The Lord God of your fathers appeared to me:’"


(Shemot 4) (1) And Moshe answered and he said, ‘But behold, they will not listen to me, nor will they listen to my voice, for they will say: ‘God did not appear (lo nira) to you.’"


The argument between God and Moshe concerns the manner of leadership of the people. Moshe believes that the years of servitude have destroyed their faith in the power to change. Therefore, talk about future salvation will not inspire hope among them; on the contrary, they will scorn and mock anyone who offers such a message. Moshe believes in a different form of leadership, which focuses as a first stage on the sense of sight – an unusual visual stimulant – as he himself experienced at the burning bush, where a phenomenon that deviated from the natural caught his attention. Moshe believes that the people similarly need signs that show a deviation from nature in order to ignite an initial spark of faith within them.


God accedes to Moshe's request, arming him with signs:


(2)          And God said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” (3) And He said, “Cast it to the ground.” So he cast it to the ground, and it became a snake, and Moshe fled from it. (4) And God said to Moshe, “Put forth your hand and grasp its tail.” So he put forth his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand. (5) “In order that they will believe that the Lord God of their forefathers has appeared to you (nira elekha) – the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov.” (6) And God said to him further, “Put your hand into your bosom.” So he put his hand into his bosom, and he took it out, and behold – his hand was leprous, like snow. (7) And He said, “Put your hand back into your bosom.” So he put his hand back into his bosom, and he brought it out of his bosom, and behold – it had become again like the rest of his flesh. (8) “And it shall be, if they do not believe you and do not listen to the message of the first sign, then they will listen to the message of the latter sign. (9) And it shall be, if they will not listen even to both of these signs, nor listen to your voice, then you shall take some of the water of the Nile, and pour it upon the dry ground, and the water which you take from the Nile shall become blood upon the dry ground."


Seemingly, Moshe's protestations should end here; he should now embark on his mission. However, if we look carefully at what God says in the midst of the description of the signs, we see that He does not retract the idea of announcing His message to Bnei Yisrael. God instructs Moshe to deliver his speech to the people while showing the signs, and only "if they will not listen to your voice" should he move on to demonstrating the signs to come.


Moshe's response is not long in coming:


(10) And Moshe said to God, “O my Lord, I am not a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before, nor since You have spoken to Your servant, for I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue.” (11) And God said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Or whom makes him dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (12) Therefore go now, and I will be with your mouth, and will instruct you what to say.” (13) And he said, “O my Lord, send, I pray You, at the hand of whomever You will send."


Most of the commentators explain Moshe's argument here as a claim that he lacks the proper rhetorical tools to stand before Pharaoh and before Bnei Yisrael. However, in light of the lengthy speeches that he gives in Sefer Devarim, as well as other speeches that we find in the Torah, this is a difficult interpretation to accept.[6] It seems more reasonable to interpret Moshe's words here as a continuation of the argument about the manner of leadership that is required. Moshe expresses his absolute opposition to a leadership of words; he believes that speaking to a nation that has endured such a long period of slavery will have no effect, and may undermine the impact of the signs.


Moshe's resistance to the idea of Divine aid in speaking and in the power of his influence leads to the inclusion of Aharon and a division of roles between the two brothers: Aharon will take care of speaking, while Moshe will perform the signs in the sight of the people:


(14) And God's anger burned against Moshe, and He said, “Is Aharon, the Levite, not your brother? I know that he can certainly speak; also, behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you he will rejoice in his heart. (15) Speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I shall be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you what you should do. (16) And he shall speak in your name to the people, and it shall be that he will be your mouthpiece, and you will be for him as a guide. (17) And you shall take this staff in your hand, that you may perform the signs with it."


At the Lodge on the Way


The continuity of the story is broken, between the preparations for the mission and its actual fulfillment, by an episode that raises many difficult exegetical questions. The verses describe some mortal danger that hovers over Moshe while he stays over at the lodge, and Tzippora's act, which removes this threat. What is it that invites such a terrible punishment for Moshe? He seems, on the face of it, to have won the argument that he waged with God; the mission will proceed as he wants it to. However, in some hints that the text plants in the description of Moshe taking leave of Yitro, we see that Moshe is still not enthusiastic about going:


(18) So Moshe went and returned to Yeter, his father-in-law, and he said to him, “Let me go, I pray you, and return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive.” And Yitro said to Moshe, “Go in peace.” (19) And God said to Moshe in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt, for all the people who sought your life are dead.” (20) So Moshe took his wife and his sons, and he set them upon a donkey, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moshe took the staff of God in his hand.


Moshe does not tell Yitro the real purpose of his return to Egypt. He receives another message and command from God, with the text emphasizing that this occurs while he is still in Midian. God repeats, once again, the aim of the mission:[7]


(21) And God said to Moshe, “When you journey back to Egypt, see that you perform all the signs which I have put into your hand before Pharaoh, and I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go. (22) And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘So says the Lord: Yisrael is my firstborn son.’"


How is the episode at the lodge connected to Moshe's reluctance to carry out his mission? What message does God seek to convey to him through the threat of his son's death?


The boundaries of the story of the lodge are the subject of much debate. Most of the commentators confine this episode to verses 24-26, finding no real connection between it and the preceding narrative. On the other hand, there are other commentators who regard verse 23 as introducing the story of the lodge and as providing an explanation for God's desire to cause harm to Moshe.[8] Verse 23, to their view, returns to the description of the argument between God and Moshe concerning the mission and represents a rebuke to Moshe, along with a threat to kill his firstborn son if he is negligent in carrying out the mission which God has placed upon him.


(23) “And I say to you: ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me. And if you refuse to let him go, behold – I shall kill your firstborn son.’” (24) And it was, on the way, in the lodge, that God met him and sought to kill him. (25) And Tzippora took a sharp stone and cut off her son's foreskin, and cast it at his feet, and she said, “For you are a bloody bridegroom to me.” (26) So He let him be. Then she said, “A bloody bridegroom in the matter of circumcision."


Ra'avad explains:


And the aim of this was to include the prophet as well, because of his procrastination in going, and his offering excuse after excuse.  So that part of the aim [of this prophecy] reflects on him regarding his firstborn son, just as the ultimate aim [of the prophecy] concerning the plague of the firstborn for the Egyptians. (Ra'avad, Ha-Emuna Ha-Rama, ma'amar 3, p. 103)


Ra'avad explains that the threat of killing Moshe's son arises from Moshe's recalcitrance in carrying out his mission. Through the threat to kill his son, God tries to cause Moshe to understand the unbreakable connection between God and His people, thereby strengthening Moshe's identification with and commitment to his mission and the redemption of "God's firstborn son.”


Tzippora's act in performing the circumcision binds the fate of their son to the fate of the nation, making them God's firstborn son.


Moshe's powerful love for Am Yisrael is kindled upon encountering them in Egypt, and his efforts to carry out his mission are set out in detail in the text. However, the argument concerning the mode of leadership continues to accompany the descriptions of what happens to Bnei Yisrael throughout their journeying in the desert.


A covert hint supporting Moshe's insistence on "leadership by the staff" is to be found in the nation's reaction to the encounter with their leaders:


(30) And Aharon spoke all the words which God had spoken to Moshe and performed the signs in the sight of the people. (31) And the people believed, and they heard that God had remembered Bnei Yisrael and that He had seen their affliction, and they bowed and prostrated themselves.


The mission proceeds according to the order set forth in the Divine command: Aharon announces God's words, and thereafter Moshe performs the signs. But the response of the nation is presented in the inverse order: the people believe (apparently, the evidence of the signs), and only afterwards do they demonstrate readiness to hear God's words.


In contrast, in next week's parasha, when Moshe conveys God's words concerning the future redemption (Shemot 6:6-8), a different response is recorded on the part of the people:


And Moshe spoke thus to Bnei Yisrael, but they did not listen to Moshe, for anguish of spirit and for hard labor. (6:9)


The verbal message, as promising as it may be, falls on deaf ears and on a national soul that is exhausted from servitude.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Yirmiyahu laments: "You have persuaded me, God, and I was persuaded; You are stronger than I, and You prevailed: I am derided all day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out aloud and shout of violence and ruin; therefore the word of God has become a reproach for me and a derision all the day" (Yirmiyahu 20:7-8).

[2]  The text repeats the description of God seeing the suffering and hearing the cries three times (Shemot 2:24-25; 3:7,9). The significance of the repetition is addressed by various commentators, who explain it as depicting a cry or prayer that grows increasingly urgent (see especially the Or Ha-Chayim). Some explain that the repetition emphasizes the length of the period of suffering, which fulfilled the decree, “And they shall serve them, and they shall afflict them” (Malbim).

[3]  See Rashi, Malbim, Kli Yakar, Cassuto (Commentary on Sefer Shemot [Jerusalem, 5748], p. 21), and others.

[4]  These questions are addressed at length by the commentators, who are troubled by both the connection between the two parts of the question and the relevance of God's response. Rashi, following Chazal's lead, divides Moshe's words into two questions and then shows how God's response addresses each of them. Rashbam opposes the division of the question; he argues that the second part amplifies the first, and that the two parts of God's response address the full power of the question.

[5] See Ibn Ezra: "He [Moshe] answers, ‘Behold, I am a shepherd, while he [Pharaoh] is a great king.’" Or ha-Chayim: "Meaning, ‘[Who am I] - even for a mission that does not go against his [Pharaoh's] will, for I am considered as nothing before a king.’"

[6]  Similarly, we may note that God proposes that Aharon be entrusted with the role of speaking. Does Aharon then possess better rhetorical skills than Moshe? The Torah does not record speeches attributed to Aharon.

[7]  Concerning Moshe's reluctance to carry out his mission even after God parts from him following the revelation at the burning bush, see Rashbam and Ibn Ezra. See also the literary analysis proposed by D. Algavish, Parashat Shemot, Daf Shevu'i 686 (Bar Ilan, 5767):

[8]  Yosef Kimchi, Sefer Ha-Galuy (Berlin, 5647), writes: "'And if you refuse to let them go' – but you are refusing to go on My mission, to let them out of Egypt; you are procrastinating. [Therefore,] behold, I will kill Gershom, who is your firstborn. This is the meaning of, ‘And it was, on the way, at the lodge, that God met him and sought to kill him.’" Rashbam and Ibn Ezra similarly explain God's desire to kill Moshe as arising from his recalcitrance with regard to his mission, but they do not interpret verse 23 as referring to Moshe. Cassuto points to the literary connection between the desire to kill Moshe's son and verse 23, but he, too, does not regard it as a threat to Moshe.