Living Mouth To Hand


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:32 p.m.
Torah reading: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23 (Ashkenaz);
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:36 p.m.

One dramatic moment in the pageant that is the public reading from the Torah comes when a member of the congregation lifts the Torah scroll, opening and displaying it to the assembled worshippers. That act is accompanied by the singing of the verse: “Ve-zot ha-Torah… (“And this is the teaching [torah] that Moses set before the Israelites” [Deuteronomy 4:44].

To that is added, with barely a pause, a phrase that appears four times in Numbers and once in Joshua: “…according to the God’s mouth, through the hand of Moses.” We augment one biblical verse with another to clarify: yes, the Torah was promulgated by Moses, but its origin is Divine.

The reference to God’s mouth means, of course, “at God’s instruction,” or “by God’s command.” Hands are a significant feature of the Exodus, as we are reminded by one of the verses of Torah that we spend much of the Passover seder explicating: “And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm…” [Deut. 26:8]. We should not be surprised, then, to find that the language of parshat Shemot is replete with references to hands, and mouths, as well, that are worthy of some attention in order for us to hear and grasp their full effect.

In Chapter 3 of Exodus, Moses receives from God the detailed instructions about how to approach Pharaoh, including what will happen when Pharaoh rejects his initial appeal: “And I, on My part, know that the king of Egypt will not let you go except through a strong hand” [Exodus 3:20]. That “strong hand,” we quickly learn, will be the Divine hand: “And I will send forth My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders that I shall do in his midst.” Even in the two additional verses of God’s speech, Moses receives no further directive to take action. Moses’ own hand is first engaged in the action only a few verses later, though, when God responds to his request for some way to demonstrate to others that he has been delegated to represent God’s interests and convey the God’s commands. After flinging down his staff and watching it become a snake, Moses is told, “Send forth your hand and grasp its tail” [Ex. 4:4]. He does just that: “And he sent forth his hand and held it and it became a staff in his grip.” Has power been transferred from the Divine hand to Moses’ hand? Or is Moses’ hand only a symbol, a reflection, of the hand that is truly powerful even if unseen? Moses’ hand next becomes an instrument for another miracle. Immediately following the staff/snake demonstration, that hand is “brought in” — the opposite of “sent forth” — to within Moses’ clothing and found to be struck with skin disease, then “brought in” in again and now emerges whole and healthy [Ex. 4:6-7].

Moses is still concerned that, despite the miracles he can effect, his words will not be heard and heeded. God reassures him that he will be heard, adding, “I Myself will be with your mouth and will instruct you what to say” [Ex. 4:12]. Moses’ continued demurral is phrased in terms that return to the hand image: “Please, my Lord, send, pray, by the hand of him You would send,” implying “anyone but me!”

Angry at Moses’ petulance but focused on the operational goal, God suggests that Moses deputize his brother Aaron: “You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I Myself will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you both what you should do. … He will be a mouth for you and you will be for him in God’s stead. And this staff you shall take in your hand, with which you will do the signs” [Ex. 4:16-17].

To play “god” to someone else, then, is to make the other your mouthpiece. Just as Moses’ hand is the instrument of the Divine hand, his mouth — and now, by extension, his brother’s — are the instrument through which the Divine voice will be heard.

When Moses, or Moses and Aaron, are later repeatedly instructed to “stretch out [their] hand” against Egypt to bring forth plagues, it has been made clear to us that these leaders are mere instruments. They resemble broadcast towers transmitting a Divine message from a distant studio or robotic hands controlled by a faraway operator.

The Torah is careful to avoid creating any illusion about Moses and Aaron, portraying them as serving a far greater purpose than their own interests, as leaders should. When they retreat into near invisibility in our Passover seder retelling of the story, no radical undermining of the Exodus tale is entailed. The Exodus, like what we proclaim in synagogue about the Torah that tells the story, may have come “through the hand of Moses” but ultimately it derives from “God’s mouth.”

Rabbi Peretz Rodman teaches online for Hebrew College and coordinates its Rabbinical School’s program of study in Israel. He wishes to acknowledge textual insights of Dov Rabinowitz as the kernel of this column.