Shabbat candles: 4:22 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 10:1-13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28
Havdalah: 5:26 p.m.
Throughout the protracted negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh, punctuated by plague after plague, the narrator in Exodus stays true to form: biblical storytellers are like cameras, not therapists; the narrator refrains from exploring anyone’s inner thoughts or emotions. Refrains, that is, until the middle of this week’s reading. As the negotiations end in yet another impasse, Moses once again turns on his heels and leaves the royal court for what he expects to be the last time. But now, for the first time, we are told something about his emotional state: “And he went out from Pharaoh’s presence in a flare of anger” [Exodus 11:8].
What impels our narrator now, after all the previous scenes, to afford us a glimpse of Moses’ inner experience, his feelings about the latest twist in the long and painful story of Pharaoh’s intransigence and both peoples’ suffering? And what is Moses so angry about all of a sudden? He surely could not have been devoid of emotion as he called down blood, frogs, lice … and as Pharaoh repeatedly refused Moses’ insistent demand to send him and the Hebrew slaves out from Egypt. Why, then, are we told now about Moses’ anger?
Two of the great medieval Jewish commentators, Rashi and Avraham ibn Ezra, who so often clash over the meaning of a word or a verse, both declare here that Moses’ anger is a response to Pharaoh’s command [Ex. 10:28], “Do not again see my face.” Moses, they seem to think, took his expulsion from the royal chamber as a personal affront.
A prominent Bible scholar of more recent vintage, the late Nahum Sarna, notes in the JPS Torah Commentary that Moses’ anger is a response to Pharaoh’s death threat in the continuation of the same verse: “for on the day you see my face, you shall die.” Not being rejected but being menaced is what provokes Moses to anger.
Robert Alter, the astute literary scholar now producing the most intelligent and sensitive Bible translations yet seen in English, attributes Moses’ anger not to something Pharaoh said but to what he has not said: “Since Pharaoh has offered no response to Moses’s terrifying announcement of the death of the firstborn, he clearly remains implacable, and hence Moses’s anger.”
Whatever the precise trigger they discern in the story, all these interpreters see the confrontation, which has until now been largely political, taking on the tone of a personal vendetta.
Another careful, trained reader, Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman, in his Commentary on the Torah, suggests that something more — and, I suggest, more exalted — is happening here. He points out that Moses’ speech [Ex. 11:4-8] in response to Pharaoh’s dismissal has to be read carefully. “At the beginning, when Moses uses the first person he is quoting God: ‘I am going out through Egypt…’ But at the end, the first person refers to himself: ‘[Your servants] will come down to me, and they’ll bow to me. … And after that I’ll go out!’ It is hard to say where in the text he stops quoting God and starts referring to himself.”
This literary insight reveals a psychological truth about Moses. In Friedman’s words, “[H]is fear of Pharaoh and his lack of confidence are gone. And he has shifted Pharaoh’s attention from God to himself,” but not as an egotistical act. Rather, Moses has for the first time begun to openly embody the passion of God’s own anger at Pharaoh. “This moment in Pharaoh’s court,” notes Friedman, “is thus a step in the long process of Moses’ evolving relationship with his God and his people.” Indeed, he has become a prophet of the highest order, not merely technically a prophet, a mouthpiece for God’s words. Now he fits the description of prophecy given us by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his essay, “What Manner of Man is the Prophet?” Moses has become someone who feels what God feels. He cannot hide his indignation and anger.
Far from having lowered the confrontation to a personal, “Let’s take this outside” tone, Moses has elevated his role from that of spokesman to that of leader. He is enraged at Pharaoh’s behavior because he is outraged by Pharaoh’s behavior. His goal is not to get even, but to free his people — and to teach Pharaoh the lesson that God has all along said is the point of this exercise: “So that you [Pharaoh] may know that there is none like Me in all the earth” [Ex. 9:14].
Moses’ anger shows us, as perhaps it showed his followers, that Moses was a leader who felt deeply the rectitude of their cause and the importance of their struggle. No leader who wishes to be effective can afford to do less.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a writer, editor, translator and head of the Bet Din of the Masorti (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.