January 21, 2023 | 28 Tevet 5783
Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35 Triennial: Exodus 6:2-7:7
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn
Voices and Lips
Smack in the middle of an otherwise very exciting parashah, we get a long list of names. Before God continues telling Moses what to say to Pharaoh, the parashah presents us with something that looks like a genealogy, taking us for a 14-verse detour down the generations. The story would still make sense, perhaps even more sense if the genealogy were not there.
Without the intervening genealogy, the story would read like this: God tells Moses to tell Pharaoh to send away the Israelites. Moses demurs saying, “Look, the Israelites did not heed me, and how will Pharaoh heed me, and I am uncircumcised of lips?” And God doubles down, commanding Moses and Aaron about getting Pharoah to let the people go. We skip the genealogy and continue: “And it happened on the day the LORD spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, that the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘I am the LORD. Speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I speak to you.’ And Moses said before the LORD, “Look, I am uncircumcised of lips, and how will Pharaoh heed me?”
Both before and after the genealogy, Moses protests, saying he has uncircumcised lips. The genealogy seems to have no effect on him. His fear is the same after as it was before. It is strikingly similar to another story of a prophet having second thoughts. In the story of Elijah, in 1 Kings 19, God commands Elijah to appear before kings and to step outside his comfort zone. Elijah defines himself to God, saying, “kanno kaneti l’haShem, I have been zealously zealous to God.” God then causes a number of miracles to occur, a great wind, an earthquake, a fire. These are followed finally by a “kol demama daka a still small voice” which Elijah seems to recognize as the presence of God. Yet still, even having encountered God, Elijah is unchanged. Once again, Elijah defines himself, using identical language, saying “ I have been zealously zealous to God.” God’s response to Elijah is to have Elijah anoint someone to succeed him, to prepare to take his place.
Reading our parashah in light of the Elijah story, we find Moses also not changing his mind, not deviating from his declaration that he is unfit to lead. We find God providing a successor or helpmate to Moses, just as God will do for Elijah. If Moses and Elijah are too stuck in their ways to succeed in God’s mission, God finds other human agents to assist them, to unstick them.
Reading these stories together also brings an interesting comparison of the genealogy with the display of miracles in front of Elijah. The genealogy does not follow the usual format of genealogies in the Tanakh. We trace only Reuben, Shimon, and Levi out of all of Jacob’s sons. Furthermore, most of the expected names are excluded – only Levi has his grandchildren named and not all of them are mentioned. We detail Aarons’s children, and Korach and his brothers, but no mention is made of the children of Moses. Maimonides suggests that the names mentioned are to set up the stories to come. These names belong to the big stories of the Torah – the rebellion of Korach, swallowed by the earth, and the killing of Aaron’s sons, consumed by fire. These are the moments of God displaying awesome and terrible power. These moments correspond precisely to Elijah’s earthquake and his fire. And perhaps, they invite Moses to listen for a still, small voice instead. Perhaps, that still, small voice is Moses’s own voice, coming even from uncircumcised lips.
But for the moment, just as Elijah was unable to change, Moses too doubles down on his stuckness after the genealogy. He says once again that he has uncircumcised lips, that he is unfit. The idea of being stuck, of being fixed in outlook and unable to change one’s mind, features most prominently in our parashah in the character of Pharaoh and his heavy, hardened heart. Even as he seems to approach a change of heart, even when he can temporarily entertain the idea of changing his mind, Pharaoh always comes back to his initial position of refusal to let the Israelites go. The story told by the plagues is the story of how that fixedness breaks Pharaoh and Egypt with him. The story told by the Exodus is how Moses will learn to change, and will learn to find his own still, small voice.