I was recently in England, participating in the Limmud Conference and on the Shabbat of Shemot, I presented this Dvar Torah at a Kiddush in Golders Green:
In Chapter 4 of Exodus, in charging Moses with his mission to redeem the Children of Israel and to take them out of slavery and bring them to the Land of Promise, God instructs Moses in verses 22-23:
And thou shall say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me…
The Hebrew verb employed for “serve” is vayavduni (ויַעַבְדֵנִי) and yet, in the next chapter, when Moses appears before Pharoah for the first time to make his demand face-to-face, the message, in verse 1, is different:
'Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness.'
And the Hebrew verb is וְיָחֹגּוּ , vayachogu, which is more indicative of a celebration. Of course, Jewish holidays were marked by sacrificial worship but nevertheless, Moses was not quoting God but, perhaps, interpreting Him for Pharoah. Hasbara.
Rashi’s commentary, quoting from the Midrash Rabbah, highlights that when Moses set off for the palace with Aharon, he was accompanied by the 70 Elders with whom he had shared the charge he had been tasked with by God but that they began dropping off and slipping away and by the time he arrived at his destination, Moses was alone, with his brother.
Leaders can be outstanding personalities. Intelligent, energetic and fearless, feeling the sense of public responsibility, they are the right person at the right place at the right time. They can formulate a vision for the public and explain to foreign powers why the country needs to do what it does.
But if they begin to feel a sense of a lack of full backing from those they are to represent, even they may feel a necessity to alter what was the original purpose, even if only out of a momentary lack of confidence and even they think what they are expressing is just a “different way of saying things”.
Moses heard God’s words, and, as we read in 4:30, Aharon spoke to the Elders
all the words which the LORD had spoken unto Moses.
Did he? All? Without the Elders with him, when the moment came to inform Pharaoh what God wanted, the content was altered, if only but slightly.
Perhaps Moses felt that Pharoah could not grasp the full import of Judaism’s monotheism in that God was to be “served” in a form or worship that created a unique bond between the human and the Divine. He changed the term to something that Pharoah could more easily understand to one in which what was understood by Pharoah was that the Children of Israel were to have a festival but not that their allegiance was to be reserved for someone other than Pharoah. The two terms were not exclusive for a Jewish understanding but for the non-Jewish ear, there is a difference. God was demanding that His authority was to override that of a temporal ruler. The point of the festival was not an enjoyment for the slaves, of a simple ‘good time’, but a reordering of their commitment, from one “god” to another God.
Is there a political lesson here?
Perhaps. Even two.
In the first instance, Hasbara does have its limits. You can alter the format of the message, its formulation, its presentation, even its impact. But if you get caught up with word-play, you just may lose the message entirely.
And in the second instance, even the most talented leaders can fail if the people are not behind them. In a democracy, even after electing a leader, the people still continue to have a task which is to back their leaders and assure thereby that they are doing what they should and what was agreed upon.
At this first moment in history of someone "speaking truth to power", there was a faltering.
Let us hope this lesson has been learned.