Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va'era 5767/ January 20, 2007

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,



Public Works and Study of Torah


Dr. Yair Barkai




"G-d [Elohim] spoke to Moses and said to him, 'I am the Lord [Adonai]'" (Ex. 6:2).

Two names of G-d appear in the above verse; the first is associated with the attribute of justice, the second with mercy.   The presence of both names in one verse, and the order in which they appear are puzzling.

Midrash Exodus Rabbah suggests three ways of resolving this puzzlement, and Rashi's commentary cites the first of them:

G-d spoke to Moses (ibid.)– He spoke to him harshly, for having challenged Him by saying (Ex 5:22, above), "Why did You bring harm upon this people?"   and said to him, "I am the Lord" – who will faithfully reward those who walk before Me.   I did not send you for naught, rather to fulfill My promise to your earliest ancestors.

Both halves of the verse are addressed to Moses.   In the first half, the Holy One, blessed be He, calls Moses to task in response to his complaint; in the second, He gives him encouragement in carrying out his mission.   For He who is in charge of the course of events in the universe faithfully rewards those who believe in Him, and He who made a promise to the patriarchs (in the Covenant of the Pieces) will uphold His promise.

The troubles of Moses

A different solution is presented in the following homily, which comes to the defense of Moses differently from the previous interpretation (Exodus Rabbah, chapter 6): [1]

"G-d spoke to Moses (Ex. 6:2)."   This is explained by the verse in Writings, "For cheating [Heb. oshek] may rob [Heb. yeholel] the wise man of reason and cause the heart to lose a gift" (Eccl. 7:7).   When a wise man occupies himself [reading oshek as if with a sin, from mit'asek ‘to be occupied’] with many things, it mixes him up, diluting [taking yeholel from mahul = diluted] his wisdom.  It also causes the heart to lose a gift, namely the Torah, which was a gift conferred on the hearts of men. 

Another interpretation: “For cheating may rob the wise man.”  Occupying oneself with public affairs [an askan is one who deals with public affairs] makes a person forget his learning of Torah.  R. Joshua b. Levi said:  Rabbi Judah ben Padah taught me sixty [thousand] rules of halakhah concerning a grave that was plowed over and I forgot all of them because I was busy with public affairs. 

Rabbi Judah bar Simon said:  “For oshek may rob the wise man” – the wise man refers to Moses.   And what does oshek refer to?  To Dathan and Abiram, who tried to rob him [of his position].  “May rob a wise man” – unsettling him, “causing the heart to lose [Heb. ye-abbed] its restraint [Heb. mattanah, from the same root as matun, restrained].  Now, is it conceivable that Moses could have lost his mind, as it were?   It was only that they (the Midrash locates Dathan and Abiram in Egypt) prodded him by saying, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you” (Ex. 5:21).   As a result, even he spoke harshly to [the Lord], saying, “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people” (Ex. 5:23).   The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  I had it written that you are humble, and yet you dare stand before Me and be severe with Me?   By your life, you had better know: “The end of a matter is better than the beginning of it” (Eccl. 7:8); the fate of the Israelites in the end will be better than in the beginning in Egypt, as it is written, “Then G-d said to Moses, ‘You shall soon see [what I will do to Pharaoh]’” (Ex. 6:1).  At that moment, the attribute of justice sought to harm him, as it is written, “G-d (Elohim) spoke to Moses.”  What did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to him?  Are My attributes like those of flesh and blood, that I not show mercy?   That is why it is written, “and said to him, ‘I am the Lord (Adonai).’”

The above homily has three parts, each of them giving a different interpretation.

The first homily plays on the words in the verse from Ecclesiastes, oshek (cheating) and osek (occupying oneself), and focuses on the wise man who occupies himself with many things, ultimately becoming diluted (mahul, a play on the word yeholel in the verse from Ecclesiastes), like a beverage which after being diluted with water loses its original flavor.  In other words, the wise man loses his unique qualities as a talmid hakham, an expert in Jewish learning, if he does not focus on studying Torah alone, but dilutes his studies by busying himself in many other pursuits.

The second interpretation is more biting and focuses on the expression askan, a pejorative expression for someone who busies himself with matters other than studying the Torah, including someone who is active in public affairs.  According to this interpretation, severe punishment awaits the askan, namely that it will cause him to forget his Jewish learning.  Loss of Jewish learning comes as retribution for busying oneself in secular affairs, not as the natural result of activity which is not sharply focused, as in the previous interpretation.

Relating the homilies to Moses

The first two interpretations do not relate directly to Moses, nor do they solve the difficulty presented by the verse at hand in our parasha; rather, they are interpretations that seek to explain the verse in Ecclesiastes.  Nevertheless, these interpretations can be related to Moses if we view them in the light of yet another homily (Numbers Rabbah [Vilna ed.], ch. 21):

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, “Let the Lord, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone” (Num. 27:16) –[the Midrash sensed in Moses’ words a command to the Almighty: Appoint!] Anyone who makes a request for the public welfare is as if coming by force. “Let the Lord … appoint” – why did he see fit to make this request after the passage on inheritance?   Since the daughters of Zelophehad had been granted inheritance from their father, Moses said to himself that the time had come for him to make his own demands; if these daughters could inherit, then my own sons should inherit my lofty position.   The Holy One, blessed be He, responded to him (Prov. 27:18), “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit” – your sons sat by and did not busy themselves with the Torah.   Joshua served you extensively and paid you great respect, morning and evening arranging the benches and laying out the mats at the Tent of Meeting.  Since he served you with all his might, it is fitting that he serve the Israelites and not lose his reward.  “Single out Joshua son of Nun” (Num.27:18), to fulfill the words of Scripture, “He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit.”

Public and private life

Extensive public work does not enable a leader to tend to his own home and does not leave him time to see to the education of his children in the manner that he might like.   Therefore this had consequences even for Moses and his own sons, since his loyalty to his people and their needs prevented the faithful shepherd from “tending to his own fig tree” (his sons) properly, and in any case he did not have the satisfaction of “eating its fruit.”  His faithful servant Joshua, rather than his sons, inherited his lofty position.

This homily, like the one that precedes it, lends expression to the perpetual tension that exists with respect to dividing one’s time between the obligation to study Torah and the desire or need to occupy oneself with other matters, no matter how great their value and importance, such as public affairs.  All Torah study, after all, serves no other purpose than to be able to put it into practice, and this can be done most completely precisely outside, and not within, the walls of the Beit Midrash. [2]

The third interpretation understands the verse in Ecclesiastes with reference to the figure of Moses, and thus relates to the verse at hand.  This is technique typical of many homiletic interpretations. [3] The homilist identifies those who complained against Moses and Aaron in the previous chapter, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you” (Ex. 5:21) with Dathan and Abiram. Quite possibly, the homilist interprets the word “esek” as coming from the root meaning quarrel (as in Genesis 26:20).   Their complaint led Moses to be filled with ire (taking mitabbed as mitabber, reminiscent of Heb. Mit’abber with ‘ayyin), i.e., to become angry and hence severe and exacting with them.  Because he was so exacting, the trait of justice sought to punish him; therefore, the beginning of the verse uses the word Elohim – “G-d [Elohim] spoke to Moses” – however the Holy One, blessed be He, commuted the harsh judgment and forgave him, therefore the latter part of the verse uses the tetragrammaton – “‘and said to him, ‘I am the Lord [Adonai].’”

[1] See the parallel texts in Tanhuma Va’Era 5; Tanhuma, Buber ed., 2; Eccles. Rabbah 7:7.

[2] For further elaboration, see E.E. Auerbach, Hazal: Emunot ve-De’ot, pp. 539-557; J. Frankel, Iyyunim be-Olamo ha-Ruhani shel Sippur ha-Aggadah, pp. 83-93.

[3] Such as the “proems.”  Cf. I.Heineman, “Petihtaot shel Tannaim u-Tekhunotehen ha-Tzuraniyot,” Proceedings of the Fifth International Congress on Jewish Studies, III, Jerusalem 1972, pp. 121-134.