Posted on December 26, 2010 by Tamara Frankel
It’s hard to believe how the winter months are passing and in particular, that the ‘holiday season’ is upon us. In Israel, you don’t really feel that it’s almost Christmas — there are no colourfully decorated trees in front yards, no “Jingle Bells” playing in the mall. Being in a dominantly Jewish society makes me wonder about how I express my Jewish identity positively (i.e., by what I believe, do and say), as opposed to defining my Jewish identity negatively (i.e., based on what I do not believe, do or say). And I think that it is fitting that we read Parshat Shmot yesterday, as the parsha marks the beginning of a new era, the transformation of a family with strong ideologies and spiritual/ethical missions into a nation that aspires to express those ideologies and missions.
The book of Exodus (Shmot) and specifically Parshat Shmot begin by recounting Jacob’s descendants who went down to Egypt and settled there. But very quickly we are thrown into a new setting: a new Pharaoh has risen to power, one that “did not know Joseph,” and who fears the increase in Jewish numbers in Egypt. Jacob’s family has grown into a people, an עם (a nation), and Pharaoh notices the changing demographics and fears that the Jews may become the majority, or at least attempt to rebel against Pharaoh’s authority. This sets the stage for the Passover story of the Jewish enslavement and suffering in Egypt and their subsequent exodus enabled by God and with the help of Moses (Aaron, Miriam, Yocheved and many others) from Pharaoh’s persecution.
What I found most striking as I read through the parsha was that a few words which kept repeating themselves in the text, namely הִנֵּה (now, here, present, behold) and אָנֹכִי (I am, selfish). These words are mentioned a number of times in the parsha, specifically when Moses and God are negotiating and discussing Moses’ mission to save the Jewish People from oppression and delivering them to the Promised Land.
Why are these words repeated in the exchanges between Moses and God?
Now, it must be said before investigating the answer to this question, that this method of reading the Torah with a literary sensitivity to linguistic parallels and thematic connections is not my own approach. I have been fortunate to study the works of many scholars such as Robert Alter and Nechama Leibowitz z”l; and in particular with my Chumash teacher at Pardes, Judy Klitsner, and my partner in crime, my chevruta (learning partner) Phil Keisman. Both Judy and Phil have empowered me to read the Torah in this way and draw my own substantiated (I hope!) readings of the text.
Thank you Judy and Phil for guiding and enabling this personal and textually-based meaning-making!
Now, getting back to the text….
הִנֵּה can mean many things in the Bible: “now”, “here”, or “behold”. And in some cases it is adapted to become the verb “to be here” or “to be present”. For example, the word הִנֵּנִי is Hebrew means “I am ready” or “present” and appears frequently in the Bible. When God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham responds to God in one word, הִנֵּנִי (Gen. 22:1). In this one word, Abraham is telling God that he is fully “present” and “ready” to fulfill God’s commandment. As such, the word הִנֵּה and its connected roots connotes a sense of immediacy, immanence and even urgency.
אָנֹכִי is used in the Bible to mean “I am” and in Modern Hebrew also means “selfish”. It often implies an element of force and intention; it describes an individual who is very self-aware, present and intentional. The most famous example of this word is in the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am [אָנֹכִי] the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2).
Getting back to our parsha, the first mention of the word הִנֵּה is the following:
ט) וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-עַמּוֹ: הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–רַב וְעָצוּם, מִמֶּנּוּ
9) And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; (Ex. 1:9)
Pharaoh speaks to his people and points to Jacob and his family, not just as a clan but an identifiably different group: a people, a nation. But later in the parsha, הִנֵּה, is used by the narrator to identify distinct characters or objects: Moses crying in his basket in the river (Ex. 2:6), the two Hebrew slaves who are fighting with one another (Ex. 2:13), the burning bush (Ex. 3:2). In short, this term is used to highlight something or someone noteworthy.
Following that, Moses encounters God in the midst of herding his flock in the desert, after having fled Egypt to Midian. In this section of the parsha, another word is repeated: “אָנֹכִי” in addition to the already apparent word “הִנֵּה“.
א) וּמֹשֶׁה, הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ–כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן; וַיִּנְהַג אֶת-הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר, וַיָּבֹא אֶל-הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה
1) Now Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, unto Horeb.
ב) וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת-אֵשׁ–מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל
2) And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.
ג) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה–אָסֻרָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶת-הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה: מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה
3) And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’
ד) וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה–וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי
4) And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’
ה) וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם; שַׁל-נְעָלֶיךָ, מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ–כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו, אַדְמַת-קֹדֶשׁ הוּא
5) And He said: ‘Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’
ו) וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב; וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה, פָּנָיו, כִּי יָרֵא, מֵהַבִּיט אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים
6) Moreover He said: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
ז) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְאֶת-צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו, כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-מַכְאֹבָיו
7) And the LORD said: ‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains;
ח) וָאֵרֵד לְהַצִּילוֹ מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם, וּלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַהִוא, אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה וּרְחָבָה, אֶל-אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ–אֶל-מְקוֹם הַכְּנַעֲנִי, וְהַחִתִּי, וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי
8 ) and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
ט) וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי; וְגַם-רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הַלַּחַץ, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם
9) And now, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto Me; moreover I have seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.
י) וְעַתָּה לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְהוֹצֵא אֶת-עַמִּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם
10) Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that you may bring forth My people the children of Israel out of Egypt.’
What are we to make of these references to הִנֵּה and אָנֹכִי in the parsha?
I don’t want to list the verses at length, but there are other places in the Bible where the words אָנֹכִי and הִנֵּה appear. Many times these words do not have any omnisignificance, but are used simply as synonyms or are part of the literary style of the text. In other words, the word הִנֵּה may be used in its simplest meaning, “behold” or “here”, as much as any other word in the biblical text. And the same is true of אָנֹכִי — sometimes it is used as a synonym for the Hebrew word אני which also means “I am”.
But when any word appears multiple times within one narrative, we start to become a little suspicious that it is not simply a word like any other in the text. And we ask: why would the Torah choose to emphasize this word? What bearing might it have on the themes or messages of the narrative? In a word: WHY? Why is this word so prevalent?
In this case, I’d like to suggest the following explanation: Moses has recently fled his hometown in Egypt, a life of luxury and privilege. He is confused about his origins and unsure as to which communities he does (or does not) belong. But once Moses encounters the bush and it is not consumed, he realizes that something peculiar is going on. The angel forces him to notice this bizarre phenomenon and seek an explanation. A la Frankl, Moses is “a man searching for meaning”. And so the word הִנֵּה points to Moses’ noticing something extraordinary. But let us recall that there is a dual meaning to the word הִנֵּה – it can also mean “to be ready“. Consequently, once Moses notices the unique nature of the bush and God’s calling to him, Moses responds “I am ready“. You might ask, “Ready for what?”
Well, the following verses records God’s introduction to Moses: “I am [אָנֹכִי] the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob… and now, behold, the cry of the People of Israel has come to me”. (Ex. 3:6) That is to say that since God has a clear sense of who God is, God can easily identify others and be sensitive to their needs and God’s responsibility to them. So too with Moses.
Moses was deeply distraught, a wandering Jew in many senses of the term: he was not sure if Egypt was his home, nor did he know where else to go. His identity was in shambles after his encounter with and murder of an Egyptian taskmaster abusing a Hebrew slave and later trying to make peace between two Hebrew slaves. But the Torah wanted to call Moses’ attention to these things. Hence the repetition of the word הִנֵּה (“behold”) is employed as an emphatic noticing. Once Moses takes note and integrates these ‘bolded’ experiences, of the Egyptian taskmaster, the fighting Hebrew slaves and the burning bush, Moses is ready to begin exploring and defining himself, and especially his Jewish identity.
Consequently, when God calls out “Moses, Moses”, Moses replies “הִנֵּנִי” — “I am here. I am present. I am ready”. And so, God responds to Moses’ readiness to explore his Jewish self and become a servant of God. And yet, as Moses begins to understand who he might be and recognize what or who God is, Moses is intimidated by God’s beckoning to deliver the Jewish People from Pharaoh’s rule. Later in the parsha, Moses asks God “Who am I to go to Pharaoh that I will deliver the Jewish People from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11)
In some sense, the noticing and understanding of self that Moses experiences, especially in contrast to God’s clear ‘sense of self’ and God’s purposes and roles in the universe, is in flux. The more Moses notices his surroundings, he understands himself. And with this self-awareness he becomes sensitive to others. Paradoxically, though, his newly developed sensitivity to others simultaneously causes him to re-examine himself.
I imagine Moses’ internal monologue as follows:
Moses is constantly negotiating who he is and how his identity translates into actions.
I think this is a great lesson for each of us, especially during ‘the holiday season’. Being aware of our surroundings enables our knowing and owning who we are. We ask ourselves: “How does my environment inform who I am?” Once we start to know who we are, our sensitivity to those around us is enabled; and more than that, with this understanding of self, we have a clear sense of what contributions we can and must make in the world. “If this is who I am, I must do…. in the world”. Yet, as we make those contributions, we (paradoxically) re-enter the process of self-examination and self-definition. “What does this say about me that I behave in X or Y ways?”
Moses was one of the greatest teachers of the Jewish People. And throughout his life, certainly in this parsha, he struggles to understand who he is and what his role should be in the world. So, let us draw strength from this model of honesty and integrity that Moses embodies. And on a larger scale, the book of Exodus calls on us to examine not only our individual self but also our collective identity. We must not let others define who we are. Rather, we must gather as a group and explore what values we represent collectively.
So, let us take a moment on this week – which also falls between Christmas and New Years – to begin the process of self-reflection and self-actualization as described below.
May we notice (הִנֵּה) so we can be present and intentional (אָנֹכִי) in the world.
May we be present (אָנֹכִי) in the world, so we can be attentive (הִנֵּה).
P.S. My family asked me to correct that my great-grandfather who taught my mother and uncle “המלאך הגואל” was my Zaidy (Yechezkel) Wolynetz, not Zaidy (Samuel) Lieberman. My apologies for the confusion. I stand corrected.