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Moses as the Opposite of Joseph, Part 2

January 13, 2015

(Part 1 here.)

What is the significance of the Torah’s implicit and detailed contrast of the lives of Moses and Joseph?

The Bible often uses contrasting personalities in order to bring out lessons, most clearly by contrasting all of the kings mentioned in the book of Kings with the model of David, who is the star of the previous book, Samuel. Along the same lines, the contrast here indicates that it was Moses’s purpose to bring about the reversal of all that Joseph did.


I have long felt that if Rashi would have had the time to put out his final edition of his commentary to the Torah, he might have written that the midrash’s interpretation of Exodus 2:14,

Moses became frightened and said, “Indeed, the matter has become known!” – Midrashically, it is interpreted to mean that he was worried because he saw in Israel wicked men [i.e.,] informers. He said, Since this is so, perhaps they [the Israelites] do not deserve to be redeemed [from slavery]. [From Tanchuma, Shemoth 10]… the matter I was wondering about, [i.e.,] why the Israelites are considered more sinful than all the seventy nations [of the world], to be subjugated with back-breaking labor, has become known to me. Indeed, I see that they deserve it. [Exod. Rabbah 1:30]

is actually p’shat. Why? Because it can be used to understand perplexing details of this week’s parasha.

Firstly, Moses had been told that Pharaoh would refuse to let His people go, and then Moses was to threaten him with plagues, and then eventually Pharaoh would relent. However, not only did Moses not perform any wonders in front of Pharaoh when he first stood before him, Pharaoh even had the last laugh and made the Hebrews’ servitude even worse by decreeing that they not receive the raw materials they needed in order to complete their tasks:

So the people scattered throughout the entire land of Egypt, to gather a gleaning for stubble. And the taskmasters were pressing [them], saying, “Finish your work, the requirement of each day in its day, just as when there was stubble.” And the officers of the children of Israel whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had appointed over them were beaten, saying, “Why have you not completed your quota to make bricks like the day before yesterday, neither yesterday nor today?” So the officers of the children of Israel came and cried out to Pharaoh, saying, “Why do you do this to your servants? Stubble is not given to your servants, but they tell us, ‘Make bricks,’ and behold, your servants are beaten, and your people are sinning.”

Why the digression, and why did this have to happen? What was the purpose of putting the Jewish task masters to the test, and then repeating all the same promises (6:2-8) to redeem the people? Why not just skip ahead to Chapter 7 and Pharaoh’s refusal that led to to the onslaught of plagues?

Secondly, what is the purpose of this singular verse which immediately follows Moses’s acceptance to go on his historic mission after his long series of refusals? 

The Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go, return to Egypt, for all the people who sought your life have died.” (4:19)

The previous verse said that Moses informed Jethro that he would be returning to Egypt. Why throw in this particular detail now? Note also what Rashi comments there:

Who are they? Dathan and Abiram. They were [really] alive, but they lost their property, and a pauper is considered dead. — [from Ned. 64b]

That is, Moses’s adversaries were not necessarily dead. Rather, they were no longer a threat.

I believe the answer to all of these questions is along these lines: The Egyptian exile began due to the brothers’ sins, which themselves started with Joseph bringing dibba ra’a, one of the usual Hebrew terms for what the sages termed as lashon hara. It all went down hill from there. Although the brothers eventually showed that they had repented (by sticking their necks out for Benjamin), Joseph had yet to achieve a complete atonement, that is, removal of his sin. The people did not yet demonstrate that they would not snitch on each other, which in classical Jewish law is akin to murder.

Leviticus 26:40 says that when the time comes for the Jewish people to repent after experiencing the full force of the punishments for not keeping the covenant,

They shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, in their treachery which they committed against Me, and also that they have walked contrary unto Me.

Now, how can the current generations confess for the behavior of the fathers who have already left this world? Why is this principle so important to our religious paradigm that our basic confessional texts include the declaration, “but we and our ancestors have sinned?” The answer is that in order to reverse the evil decree, we not only have to abandon that which we ourselves do wrong. We must also repudiate that which brought our ancestors to a state of purgatory.

Sometime after “Joseph died, as well as all his brothers and all that generation,” when Moses first began to consider the plight of the Israelites and the injustice of their bondage, the behavior of the two Jews (Onkelos’s translation of “Hebrews”), who were willing to speak ill of him and play turncoat, proved to him that the Jewish people still held fast to the sins that warranted their subjugation. It was precisely because of this tendency that Pharaoh sought to kill Moses, and he fled to Midian. Then, when Moses was in Midian, he implied this in his arguments for dissuading God from sending him as a redeemer, and God temporarily reminded him of his also speaking lashon hara (4:6 and Rashi ad loc.):

His hand was leprous like snow – It is usual for leprousy to be white [as we find:] “If it be a white blemish.” (Vayikra 13:4) With this sign, too, He hinted to him that he spoke slanderously…

Afterwards, when Moses set on his way, God shared the news with him: Those whom you had feared no longer speak lashon hara, or at least have no more capacity to do harm by doing so. At that very point, the sinning had ceased, and Moses could no longer claim that the Israelites did not deserve to be redeemed! That is why Moses’s first encounter with Pharaoh led to failure: it set the stage for the Jewish kapos, those who surely had it in their power to both whip and beat their charges and to inform on them to Pharaoh, to demonstrate that they would neither pass the hurt on to their downtrodden brothers, nor would they make the claim before Pharaoh that somehow, some other Jews were to blame for the brick quotas not being met. Instead, they begged for mercy for their own failure, and dutifully bore the brunt of their own overseers’ wrath. It was only then that God was able to tell Moses at the end of our parasha, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.” 

Thus, we see why all the personal details the Torah offers about Moses are in contrast to those offered about Joseph.


From → original, parasha

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