To Cite Midrash or Not

Dear Rabbi

Well here we are at Exodus and how Moses was born; saved by Pharaoh’s daughter from the Nile; grew up as a prince of Egypt; saw an injustice to a Hebrew and killed the Egyptian that did it; was going to be “outed” for his act by another Hebrew; escapes to Midian where he marries and has children; and then is summoned by G-d to go back and take the Hebrews from slavery to freedom.

I tried to encapsulate the beginning events of Exodus for all of the questions that it posed to me. As I have expressed in the past, I am not fond of Midrashim because I don’t see how they are based on fact as presented in the Torah. A great example of this is found in the Second Aliyah. It starts out as follows: “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.”

First off, when last we had any direct communication from the Torah, there were seventy family members of Jacob that made the sojourn to Egypt. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but this grew to approximately 500,000 fighting men and with wives and children the number could have been four times that amount. I realize that this is conjecture, but suffice it to say by the time Moses was born there were hundreds of thousands of Hebrews that had been enslaved.  I know I have gone on a tangent from the quote above, but the statement from the parshah speaks of inbreeding, which is never really dealt with and then leads me to where I want to make a comment as it relates to interpretations of what is in the Torah.

The parshah itself never really gives a name to Moses’ mother. We are told from somewhere other than the Torah that it was Yocheved who was the daughter of LeviJacob’s son. This alone is mindboggling to me. If the crux of the events is correct, I believe when Moses was born, three hundred and fifty years had elapsed from when Jacob and his family first went to Egypt. (I concluded this by taking the age Moses was when he led the Israelites out of Egypt, 80, and subtracting this from 430, which was the number of years the Hebrews remained in Egypt.) If I am correct in what I have read, Yocheved lived for at least 300 years in order to become the mother of Moses, which is tough to believe given the ages of all the others mentioned from Jacob on.

I want to state that the wonders of this parshah as written are not what I am concerned about, but going on with the theme that I have presented as it relates to a midrash, let’s look at the Fifth Aliyah and some of what it has to say specifically:  “Moses said to the Lord, "I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue."

From what I have read, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” had different interpretations ranging from stuttering to a lisp but a midrash that I was told as a child comes to mind and leaves me with the thought that it was more a lisp than a stutter. It is the following:

“Once it happened that Moses was playing on King Pharaoh's lap. He saw the shining crown, studded with jewels, and reached for it and took it off.

Pharaoh, who was superstitious like all his fellow-Egyptians, and who in addition was always afraid of losing his throne, asked his astrologers and counselors the meaning of this action of the infant.

Most of them interpreted it to mean that Moses was a threat to Pharaoh's crown and suggested that the child be put to death before he could do any harm. One of the king's counselors, however, suggested that they should first test the boy and see whether his action was prompted by intelligence, or he was merely grasping for sparkling things as any other child would.

Pharaoh agreed to this, and two bowls were set before young Moses. One contained gold and jewels, and the other held glowing fire coals. Moses reached out for the gold, but an angel directed his hand to the coals.

Moses snatched a glowing coal and put it to his lips.

He burned his tongue, but his life was saved. After that fateful test, Moses suffered from a slight speech defect. He could not become an orator, but his words were to carry weight with all, for it was G‑d's words that were spoken through his lips.”

Again, there is nothing in the Torah that can corroborate this and there are other interpretations such as his Hebrew was limited because of his time within the Egyptian house of Pharaoh where he was highly educated in the “Egyptian way and language” but assuming there is some validity to the theory of a lisp, however it developed, I have a basic question as it relates to how Hebrew is spoken today. The letter “s” in Hebrew is “ת”, which is found in the word שַׁבָּת which more times than not in English is pronounced “Shabbat”. Could this be because of the way Moses spoke? Why is it that it is not pronounced Shabbas, which is the way I heard it as a child? Maybe this could even evolve into a midrash to be studied by future scholars. Before you think about this too much, let me tell you how a “midrash” from another culture evolved. 

If you study Spanish long enough, sooner or later you'll hear a tale about a Spanish king who supposedly spoke with a lisp, causing Spaniards to imitate him in pronouncing the z and sometimes the c to be pronounced with the "th" sound of "thin".

Modern day commentary states that this has been debunked by many as a great story, but it's just that: a story. More precisely, it is  concluded that it's an urban legend, one of those stories that is repeated so often that people come to believe it. Although they indicate that like many other legends, it has enough truth—some Spaniards indeed do speak with something that might call a lisp, the story might be believed but there is no concrete evidence to prove this.

The conclusion drawn is that the reason for difference has nothing to do with a long-ago king; the basic reason is the same as why U.S. residents pronounce many words differently than do their British counterparts. The fact is that all living languages evolve. 

The above might sound logical to those that don’t want believe that the “elite” of Spain are not carrying on the tradition of following their king’s pronunciations of words, which would sound silly if true, but I was always taught that Spanish is a completely phonetic language, so how does z or c that has an s sound to most wind up being pronounced with a th

Is it at all possible that those close to Moses wanted to emulate whatever he did to the point of imitating his lisp? If not why is the letter “s” in Hebrew תsometimes pronounced as a “t”. There are two letters in Hebrew that sound like a “t” the first being “ט” and the second being a letter that looks like a “ת” but has a dot in it and looks like this “תּ”.

Why don’t the Hebrew letters of our Sabbath contain the dot? In reading about how our language has “evolved”, I came across the following as it relates to the two letters:

Note that the final two letters, tav and sav, were differentiated. This is how it is done by Ashkenazi (European) Jews. In Modern Hebrew, however, they are pronounced as tav, even when there is no dagesh (point) within the letter.”

I am from an Ashkenazi background and was taught that the letters were the equivalent of “s” and “t”. What caused the dagesh to become irrelevant?

Maybe the next time you throw a midrash at me as an explanation of why something happened, you can think of what I described above and proceed with caution or at least explain which midrash you are referring to. It seems that we go with the ancient rabbi that we most agree with but how do we evolve as a religion today if we are stuck in what was said more than two thousand years ago?

I will leave you with a question I have from the Seventh Aliyah wherein the following is stated:

“So Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?”

“Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people."

“And the Lord said to Moses, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land."

While I realize the "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?” was stated after Pharaoh made it even tougher for the Hebrews to make their bricks to please Pharaoh, the overall question to me still is why were the Hebrews enslaved for over 400 years in the first place? G-d does not answer that question although you may respond with some midrash. All G-d says to Moses is that he will now see how powerful G-d as it relates to the non believer Pharaoh.

Again, you can proceed with caution with a quote from some midrash or you can give me your own thoughts on the subject.



Dear Mordecai,

You may be surprised to know that I am also not a great admirer of midrashim, but in their defense, they are difficult to read in English. In Hebrew, the intuitive leaps that enjoying Midrash requires are much easier to make.

Calculating dates and the length of the lives of the Torah’s characters can be deeply unsatisfying usually because the chronology does not possess the exactness that we are accustomed to in our own society.
You present a midrash about Moses and his speech. As I tried to convey on Shabbat, the Torah is full of ambiguity, which allows for its interpreters to be extraordinarily creative and derive diametrically opposed conclusions from the same passage. If you find the story about Moses and the burning coal so outlandish, how do you explain the significance of Moses and his speech?
The Ashkenazic way of pronouncing a ת as if it were an “s” has no basis in grammar or speech, which is why the creators of modern Hebrew elected to treat it the same way regardless of whether it has a dot or not. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference between a ת with a dot and one without one. There is. But we no longer possess the ability to differentiate them in speech as was done at an earlier time.
Regarding your last point, which is a question: Why were the Hebrews enslaved for over 400 years in the first place? I don’t think one definitive good answer exists for this. If what you’re pointing to is the length of time, then I would suggest that the time period is as long as it is because that would only make G-d’s act all the more amazing. The likelihood of people being freed after such a long period of enslavement seems remote. I reject, however, that it is punishment for some sin. That is not the theology that I gravitate to.


Dear Rabbi, 

Whether I like or dislike midrashim is not relevant to what I am trying to get across to you. What I am trying to convey is that interpretations of what is in the Torah did not end with our ancient rabbinical ancestors. I am just as interested in your take on one of the ambiguities is, as much as what someone in the third fourth or even twentieth century had to say. It is when your sermons quote what was stated in the past, does not satisfy me as to what might be today. How many of our midrash making rabbis gave any thought as to how they "filled in the blanks" of the Torah related to females? To this day it is almost amusing to me how some of the Hasidim refuse to shake hands or even gaze at a woman. (With Covid, I think the tradition of "shaking hands" is a thing of the past anyway, but that is not the point.) 

For your information, the midrash as it relates to Moses and his speech has always been on my mind since I was a young boy, and might make some sense of what happened. It does give an explanation of what might have occurred. My fascination with the explanation stems from what I also read at a much earlier age as to how different Spaniards pronounce the "s" sound with a lisp and then try to explain it away with anything other than the possibility that because a king spoke with a lisp, the "elite" that might have had contact with royalty thought this was the proper thing to do and imitated it. From that a dialect of Spanish might have been created.
What you stated as it relates to the Hebrew letter ת makes no sense to me. With a dot it takes on the letter "t". Without the dot it is supposed to be the letter "s". Why would two Hebrew letters that look so much alike except for a dot, both be pronounced as if they were the letter "t". Might not my "midrash" of Moses and his lisp have some credibility as to why people today only use the "t" sounds regardless of whether there is a dot in the middle of the letter, because it is carried down from when people heard Moses speak it without a difference. In my own weird way I have cleared up the "ambiguity".  
I only pointed out the 400 year reference as it applies to the "ambiguity" of how can one of Levi's daughters be the mother of Moses. Maybe the answer is that it was not 400 hundred years as we know it. 

I take exception to your rejection of the enslavement being because of some sin our forefathers committed. If this is to be believed, it was because G-d determined that it was going to happen. Everything I have read up to this point of the Torah has a "cause and effect" set of circumstances. Adam and Eve don't obey orders, eat the apple and are banned from Eden. The people are extremely wicked and G-d tells Noah to build an ark so that they can be destroyed. G-d does not want to destroy the world again but for their wicked ways, the people of Sodom are doomed. (Abraham tried to save them and G-d gave him a chance if he could find ten righteous people, but Abraham couldn't and look at the result.)  I don't like to be a "spoiler" but our desert brethren were doomed to walk for forty years and not see the Promised Land because they either started worshiping a golden calf or for not being believers of what was to be theirs because of the spies. 

If you are now advocating that what happened to the Hebrews being thrown into slavery was not caused by someone or a group's set of sins or wrongdoings, then our religion, any religion, is in trouble. If we chose to worship but regardless of what we do, we are at the whim and caprice of who we pray to, then what's the use? I know that victims of the Holocaust prayed to G-d to get them out of the fix they were in, but for the most part this was unanswered. What they did to deserve the fate they received is something that will be debated for a long time. Without knowing for a fact, I am sure the same thing took place in Egypt while they were beaten for not producing fast enough. If your response is that there had to be suffering whether deserved or not to prove G-d's greatness, then there is a problem somewhere in what we are taught to believe.


Dear Mordecai, 

Original interpretations are preferred to those from centuries ago in my eyes, too, but surely some role exists for quoting what Rashi, Nahmanides, Rashbam, or Ibn Ezra had to say. 
That's amazing that this topic of Moses and his speech has been with you that long. For me, Moses' speech problem - whatever its nature - is one of the most startling facts of the entire Torah. Here is a person that has reached the pinnacle of prophecy and whose role it is to speak, and the Torah tells us that he doesn't speak well. I just can't imagine another story from antiquity that is willing to cast as its hero someone whose disability is directly connected to why they are a hero. 

Your explanation is weird but creative. Add in something about the sephardim and their disperson, and you'll have a full blown explanation that touches upon the ebbs and flows of Jewish history, too. The ת with a dot and the ת without a dot do not make the same sound, but the sound that the ת without the dot makes has been lost to us. Oddly, according to Israeli modern grammarians, it is pronounced as a "T" in both cases. 

That everything happens according to G-d's will is not the same as events being determined by G-d. Human freedom plays a role in every instance. Maybe the Israelites were enslaved so long because we never cried out. I believe my reading of why our ancestors were slaves is more appealing because it accounts for slavery as a phenomenon of the ancient world. What's striking is not that we were slaves. Many people were slaves. We were the only ones freed by His outstretched arm and strong hand. I simply don't see Israel's slavery as caused by anything. If that breaks the chain of cause and effect you have seen in Genesis, so be it. 
I believe in the reality of undeserved suffering. This is the message of the Book of Job, and it is one of the Tanakh's most important messages. You appear to be tied to the reward & punishment framework. Aren't we supposed to serve G-d without thinking of our reward? Religion is, therefore, not lost. 

There is no debate. None of the victims of the Shoah did anything to deserve what happened to them. This is precisely why the Nazis did what they did, so they would permanently scar us and leave us to wonder aimlessly, What did we do to deserve this? The first element of antisemitism is mockery. 

Suffering is simply a part of human existence. It did nothave to be. It was! G-d's greatness is proved through theredemption from suffering. Of course, that means that suffering preexists redemption, but we must accept that being human and suffering go together. What is wonderous is when we are redeemed. 


Dear Rabbi,

I have no problem quoting wise people that lived long ago as long as someone like you can make some contemporary sense of the situation. Your defense of your position as it relates to G-d and having to accept certain things that are done without any definitive explanation raises my concept of a "cause" creating an "effect", but it leaves many situations without any adequate explanation, which is maybe how it should be. It probably formed the basis for many a Mishnah. On to the next parshah.