Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5766

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



One May Not Speak Ill of Israel


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.” [1]   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).

Symbolic Signs

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. [2]

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 for Egypt or its gods, and the like.  The water of the Nile stands for the source of life, and blood, the opposite.  Perhaps we should look for similar significance in the other signs, as well:  the words snake (Heb. nahash) and serpent (Heb. tannin) are close in meaning and used interchangeably; the serpent/snake might symbolize Egypt (see Ezek. 29:3 as well as Ex. 7:10). [3]   Leprosy can also be associated with Egypt, perhaps as a parallel to boils, two diseases that are considered a plague from Heaven. [4]

Signs of Reprimand

Now the Midrash makes a surprising comment (Exodus Rabbah 3:12, 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.’” [5]

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 Israel.   “He received what was coming to him (like Miriam) for having tattled.”  In the view of the midrash, both these signs that G-d gave Moses contain an element of punishment or rebuke. [6]

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 Israel?

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 1:39).

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.   But the midrash also pays heed to the words that were uttered and responds to them:  Who gave you leave to speak that way of Israel?   There are more than enough people who do that!  Therefore, according to the story in the midrash, Isaiah was condemned to die a strange death.

The same sort of criticism appears in the writings of the Sages regarding the exchange of words between Elijah and the Lord on Mount Horeb.   The Lord’s question to Elijah, “Why are you here,” is answered by the prophet, “I am moved by zeal for the Lord, the G-d of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword.   I alone am left, and they are out to take my life” (I Kings 19:9-10, repeated in verses 13-14).   The midrash interprets the Lord’s response as sharp condemnation:  “Go back by the way you came ... and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah to succeed you as prophet.”  The midrash interprets this, saying that “to succeed you as prophet” can have “no purport other than:   I am not pleased with your prophesying.” [7]   All this occurred notwithstanding the fact that his accusations against Israel were not voiced publicly, for the entire world to hear, but only between him and the Holy One, blessed be He.

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.   Why so?   Because there were no informers among them” (Deut. Rabbah 5:8 and parallel texts).   The 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. 5:20-21).   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. [8]   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 Israel; there are informers and rebels.  But, in fact, the people involved in all these dastardly acts are only the same small handful of wicked people themselves.   There is a “Shelomith daughter of Dibri” in Israel (see Lev. 24:11, and the midrash cited in Rashi’s commentary), but only one.   One must not speak ill of Israel, and certainly not in sweeping generalizations.

[1] Mishne Torah, Sefer ha-Mada’, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 7, 6.

[2] For further details, see U. Simon, Reading Prophetic Narratives (Hebrew), Jerusalem and Ramat-Gan 1997, pp. 164-170. 

[3] 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.

[4] Cf. M. Bar-Ilan, “Al ha-Mahalot ha-Kedoshot,” Korot, 15 (2001-2002), pp. 20-62.

[5] 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.

[6] Exodus Rabbah, loc. sit., 12-13;  the midrash differentiates between the sign of water turning to blood and these other two signs.

[7] See Mekhilta, Bo, Tractate de-Pishah, proem, Ish-Shalom ed., p. 2.

[8] Y. Heineman, Darkhei ha-Aggadah, Jerusalem 1954, p. 28.