“Moses, the Reluctant Prophet”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Tradition maintains that the 53 Hebrew prophets and prophetesses were generally a reluctant group of Divine servants, who were extremely hesitant to assume the immense responsibility of conveying G-d’s messages to His people. Even the great prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah, tried to avoid having to fulfill the assignments of reproving the Jewish people and warning of the imminent destruction of the Temple.

Moses, of course, is no exception, and begs G-d to find a replacement to fulfill the Divine calling. In fact, Moses was the first “reluctant prophet,” and probably serves as the paradigm for all future reluctant prophets.

In last week’s parasha, we learn that Moses’ initial appeal to Pharaoh, to relieve the Jewish peoples’ burden of slavery, was a monumental failure. Not only was Pharaoh furious at Moses, accusing him of distracting the people from their work, but the Hebrews themselves, were enraged by Moses’ meddling that resulted in Pharaoh assigning them additional work.

Although new to the task, Moses is already beaten down, and pleads with G-d, Exodus 5:22-23, “My L-rd, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he did evil to this people. But You did not rescue Your people.”

The Al-mighty rebukes Moses for complaining, and assures him that redemption will come soon. He promises Moses (Exodus 6:6-8) that He will take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, that He will save them, redeem them, take them to Him as a nation, and bring them to the Promised Land.

When Moses relates G-d’s promises to the People of Israel, they refuse to listen to him, because of the peoples’ shortness of breath and hard work.

G-d urges Moses to go to Pharaoh once again and to ask him to release the Children of Israel from his land. Moses responds mordantly, Exodus 6:12, הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם Behold the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I have uncircumcised lips!

Rabbi Nissen Telushkin, in his book, HaTorah V’ha’Oh’lam, The Torah and the World, raises questions concerning Moses’ hesitation, and his outright refusal to fulfill G-d’s request. Rabbi Telushkin wonders how any mortal could possibly refuse a mission from on high, especially when the Al-mighty is sending Moses to redeem His people, whom Moses loves so dearly.

Rabbi Telushkin suggests that the proper response would have been for Moses to immediately gird his loins and happily run to fulfill the will of G-d, to thank the Al-mighty for the historic opportunity that was given him to serve as an agent to help redeem Israel from its slavery.

Rabbi Telushkin also questions the apparent transformation of Moses. How could this speech-challenged prophet who said about himself, Exodus 4:10, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי I am not a man of words, and reiterated, in Exodus 6:12, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם I am a man of uncircumcised lips, how could this man evolve into an extraordinary and unequaled spokesman? After all, the book of Deuteronomy 1:1 opens with, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel” and the entire book of Deuteronomy, consists of the spoken words of “the man of no words,” Moses.

Rabbi Telushkin maintains that the matter is not simple, and offers the following explanation. It was G-d’s will that Moses, His servant, the shepherd of Israel, would be raised and educated in the house of Pharaoh, in the most luxuriant environment in antiquity. The princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, cared for Moses with great love, as if caring for her own son. At the same time that Moses’ Hebrew brothers were being beaten cruelly and brutally, little Moses was enjoying every moment in the royal palace. Pharaoh and his daughter certainly knew that Moses was of Hebrew origin, but they were quite certain that the child that they were raising in the palace would emerge from their home as a loyal Egyptian citizen.

Once he matured, they assumed that Moses would pay no attention to his “brethren,” the Hebrew slaves. They saw in Moses a blessed and gifted child, with many natural talents, and believed that he would devote all these unusual abilities to the benefit of the Egyptian people and the Egyptian homeland. The Hebrews, as well, paid no heed to Moses, whom they viewed as a coddled and spoiled child in the royal palace.

But, both the King of Egypt and the People of Israel, were greatly in error.

Somehow, Moses never grew accustomed to living as an Egyptian. Clearly, his mother’s milk, the songs she sang to him, the wondrous stories that his mother related to him about the Jewish people, about the holy forefathers of Israel and the G-d of Israel, had a greater impact on the young Moses than all the beauty and treasures of the palace. Despite their wealth, their wisdom and their education, Moses saw the many moral failings and the frequent cruelty of the Egyptian people. And, once he matured, he longed for his brothers, hoping to join them and to be with them.

Moses desperately wanted to get to know his brothers, to see the inner beauty of the traditions that they had acquired from their holy forefathers, and about which his mother had spoken. He also sought to understand why the Hebrew slaves never rebelled. How could a people, endowed with such an exalted spiritual background, not long for freedom?

The Midrash Rabbah 1:32 states that when Moses grew older, and went out to his brothers, he cried with great bitterness when he beheld their suffering, and determined at that moment to devote his entire life to save them. At every opportunity, he would lend his shoulder to help the desperate Hebrew slaves.

When he first goes out to see his brothers’ sufferings, Moses encounters an Egyptian man striking a Jew. Looking around, Moses could find not one Egyptian and not even one of his own Jewish brothers, willing to defend the badly beaten man. Although Moses himself did not suffer slavery, he could not bear the suffering of others, so when he saw that there was no person to help his wounded Jewish brother, he himself rose to defend the Hebrew and save his life. Ironically, not only did the Hebrews not see Moses’ deed as noble and courageous, the very next day, Moses was mocked by the Jews, who said to him (Exodus 2:14): “Are you coming to kill me, like you killed the Egyptian?”

Says Rabbi Telushkin, when Moses saw and heard the people’s reaction, he was terribly disturbed by the peoples’ moral deterioration. Rabbi Telushkin offers a novel interpretation of the words of Moses’ response, Exodus 2:14, אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר Surely the thing is known. This response, argues Rabbi Telushkin, refers not to the fact that news that Moses had killed an Egyptian was known and now Moses must flee to Midian, but what is known is that the servitude had deeply damaged the souls of the Hebrews. Not only do the Israelites make no effort to save themselves, they actually resent anyone who tries to help them. They have reached the point where they prefer servitude and slavery to freedom. As a result, Moses himself becomes deeply depressed, and despairs of hope that the people would ever be freed from their exile. It is for that reason that Moses flees to Midian.

After many years in Midian, G-d appears to Moses in Horeb, at the burning bush, to tell Moses that He will send him to Pharaoh to take the people out of Egypt. Moses replies (Exodus 3:11), “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, that I should take the Children out of Egypt?” After all, Moses’ experiences in Egypt had clearly convinced him that the People of Israel obviously prefer exile and slavery in Egypt to freedom. Moses was absolutely certain that there was no way that the people would want to be released.

That is why, says Rabbi Telushkin, Moses describes himself, in Exodus 4:10 and 6:12 as “not being a man of words,” and of having “uncircumcised lips.” This, Rabbi Telushkin suggests, does not mean that Moses cannot speak, but rather that Moses chooses not to speak. Moses cannot bring himself to tell the Al-mighty G-d what he really thinks is wrong with the Jewish people, that they have entirely lost their hope.

Clearly, Moses was never really at a loss for words. For when the time came for him to speak up to the Jewish people and tell them that they had angered him, he spoke boldly and forcefully. Similarly, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses spoke, as if to reprove G-d, saying (Exodus 32:11), “Why are You angry at the Jewish people?”

It was not because Moses could not speak. Rather, Moses was at a loss for words because he did not feel that telling G-d what he truly felt about the Jewish people, that they had lost hope and were unredeemable, would be at all productive. Moses therefore preferred to claim that he was of uncircumcised lips–that he could not speak. To speak evil of the people, to tell G-d the truth, and inform G-d of his true perceptions of the Jewish people, was pointless, because there was no benefit in relating that information.

In effect, Rabbi Telushkin says that Moses was not really a “reluctant prophet.” If he was reluctant in any way, it was in his preparedness to speak evil about the Jewish people. Moses was certain that G-d knew what was in His people’s hearts, so there was no point in Moses speaking evil about them.

While Moses has been chosen to act as G-d’s agent, redemption is beyond Moses’ mortal powers. It is now entirely in the Al-mighty’s hands. Like it or not, Moses now becomes G-d’s willing instrument to bring about that redemption.

May you be blessed.