Parashat Shemot 5766
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
May Not Speak
Prof. Moshe Zippor
Maimonides writes: “When he [the prophet] is dispatched, he is given a sign to perform so that the people will know that the Lord has in truth sent him.”  In actual fact there are almost no instances in Scripture of the prophets performing signs to support their veracity, with the following exceptions: A) In response to Moses saying, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The Lord did not appear to you?” (Ex. 4:1), the Lord gives him three signs (Ex. 4:2-9). B) The man of G-d from Judah, upon coming to Beth El to proclaim that the altar which Jeroboam had erected was destined to be desecrated and destroyed, gives a portent on that day: “This altar shall break apart, and the ashes on it shall be spilled” (I Kings 13:3). C) A somewhat similar case is that of Gideon, who was sent to deliver the Israelites but was hesitant, wondering if indeed the Lord was with him, and requested an omen as proof of such (Judges 6:36-40).
When we read of the signs that Moses was given (Ex. 4:2-9), we sense that they were not chosen accidentally: in addition to serving as formal proof of the emissary’s mission, in their capacity as miraculous feats they have a certain symbolic significance. This is in contrast to the omen associated with shearing the sheep, suggested by Gideon (C above), for which any other impressive omen could have been substituted. 
What symbolic significance did the signs given to Moses
have? The waters of the Nile
turning to blood surely relate to the enslavement of the Israelites by the
Egyptians and can be ascribed a variety of meanings:
either this sign symbolizes what the
Egyptians did to the Israelites, or it symbolizes the plagues that are destined
Signs of Reprimand
Now the Midrash makes a surprising comment (Exodus Rabbah , as cited in Rashi’s commentary on this passage). In G-d’s question to Moses, “What is that in your hand” (Ex.4:2), the two words for “what is that” (Heb. mah zeh) are written as one word, “mazzeh.” According to the midrash, this is a clue that we can understand our verse as saying, mizzeh she-be-yadha, “from that which is in your hand – your staff – you are destined to be stricken for having spoken ill of Israel, saying, ‘But they do not believe me and do not listen to me.’” 
In precisely the same spirit the Sages interpreted the
significance of the staff turning into a serpent, and the third sign of leprosy:
both of them immediately call to mind
associations of misusing the mouth, be it by speaking ill of others, for which Miriam
was afflicted with leprosy (Numbers 12), or by inciting others to sin--the
snake (Genesis 3). They also allude
to Moses, who, in the words of the midrash, “seized upon the guile of a snake” to
speak ill of
Measure for Measure
The same sort of ideological stand is revealed in the
Sages’ interpretations of other passages in Scripture, of which we mention
two: regarding the death of the
prophet Isaiah, the midrash
recounts (Yevamot 49b) that he was killed by King Manasseh; although
Isaiah was miraculously swallowed up into a cedar, by the king’s command the
cedar was cut down, and the moment the saw reached his mouth, he expired.
This happened because he had said, “For
I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa.
6:5). Saying that about himself was
one thing, but how could he have allowed himself to utter such slander about
The Sages viewed in a similar light the response to Isaiah’s words, “Then one of the seraphs flew over to me with a live coal ... He touched it to my lips and declared: Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt shall depart and your sin be purged away” (Isa. 6:6-7). The midrash notes that it does not use the word gahelet for coal, rather ritzpah, as if to say: “rutz peh – loose mouth, for he spoke slanderously of My sons” (Song of Songs Rabbah ).
A similar allusion is seen in the cake baked on hot stones (Heb. uggat retzafim) that the angel fed Elijah when the latter was fleeing to the wilderness (I Kings 19:5-7); see Song of Songs Rabbah, loc. sit., and Yalkut Shimoni, par. 406).
It is perfectly clear that Isaiah meant to convey that he
was a man of flesh and blood, a sinner, living in a society of other human
beings like him, and that he was seized by fear upon finding himself face to
face with sacred heavenly realms, in the company of the seraphim surrounding
the Lord. Indeed, when one of the
seraphim cleansed and purified him by scorching with a hot coal, his guilt
departed and his sin was purged, making him fit for the company of angels.
midrash also pays heed to the words that were uttered and
responds to them: Who gave you
leave to speak that way of
The same sort of criticism appears in the writings of the
Sages regarding the exchange of words between Elijah and the Lord on
This subject was raised by the Sages with respect to other parts of this week’s reading, as well. The wise writer of Proverbs teaches us what lies in store for someone who intervenes in a quarrel that does not concern him (Prov. 26:17). Nevertheless, some people are so disturbed by wrongdoing that they cannot stand aside or pretend not to see. That was the case with Moses upon seeing an Israelite striking his fellow; but he received a scathing response to his intervention: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Ex. 2:14). Moses became alarmed and said, “Then the matter is known.” What was this “matter” that had become “known”? According to the plain sense of the text, there were witnesses to Moses having killed an Egyptian. The midrash, however, finds another, hidden level of significance in Moses’ response: he was deeply troubled by the question, what sin had the Israelites committed that they had become enslaved to another people, but when he heard the comment of that wicked person, he said: now it is known – it is because of the tale-bearers and informers amidst them (Exodus Rabbah, loc. sit. 30). Little wonder that Pharoah heard of it. How? Again, according to the same midrash, the very same “two Hebrews who were arguing” had informed on him to the authorities.
In contrast, we have the depiction by Rabbi Samuel bar
Nahmani: “The people in the time of
Ahab were idolaters; yet they used to go to war and win.
Because there were no informers among
them” (Deut. Rabbah 5:8 and parallel texts).
midrash identifies the two people who were “arguing (Heb. nitzim)”
with the people who attacked Moses and Aaron, and who came upon Moses and
Aaron “standing (Heb. nitzavim)” in their path after their mission to
Pharoah had failed (Ex. -21).
They are also identified with Dathan and
Abiram, who “came out and stood (Heb. yatz’u nitzavim)” against Moses
and Aaron in the dispute of Korah and his followers (Num. 16:27); and with the
people who kept over manna until the next day (Ex. 16:20), as well as those who
went out to gather it on the Sabbath (loc. sit., v. 27; of course, for
were they living by what Moses said?).
This midrash appears to
have a literary slant, described by Prof. Y. Heineman as a concentration or
reduction of characters.
However there is undoubtedly another
factor operating here, namely the didactic message the Sages wished to
convey: there may be evil
individuals among the people of
 Mishne Torah, Sefer ha-Mada’, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7, 6.
further details, see U. Simon, Reading Prophetic Narratives (Hebrew),
 In Canaanite poetry these names, nahash and tannin, refer to mythological creatures. They appear in Scripture in various places, perhaps used metaphorically. For example, cf. Isaiah 27:1, Psalms 74:13-15.
 Cf. M. Bar-Ilan, “Al ha-Mahalot ha-Kedoshot,” Korot, 15 (2001-2002), pp. 20-62.
 The Hebrew verse is introduced with the word ve-hen, which is often used in Scripture with the meaning of “if,” as in Jer. 3:1. This is the sense in which it was construed in the New JPS translation. It may, however, also mean “behold”, “but,” and it is in this sense that the homilist understood it.
 Exodus Rabbah, loc. sit., 12-13; the midrash differentiates between the sign of water turning to blood and these other two signs.
 See Mekhilta, Bo, Tractate de-Pishah, proem, Ish-Shalom ed., p. 2.
Heineman, Darkhei ha-Aggadah,