Lights on Shemot
by Rabbi Moshe D. Lichtman (https://toratzion.com/about)
This week, we read about the beginning of Moshe Rabbeinu’s career as leader of the
Jewish people. For a moment, though, let us skip to the end of the story. One of the last
verses in the Torah states, Moshe, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by
the mouth of the Lord. And He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite Beit
Pe’or (Devarim 34:5-6). As is well known, Moshe was unhappy about dying and being
buried outside the Land of Israel. He begged God profusely to mitigate his punishment, until
God finally said, It is enough for you; do not speak to Me anymore on this matter (ibid. 3:26).
Why was Moshe not privileged to be buried in Eretz Yisrael? When he hit the rock
(BeMidbar 20:7-13) the Torah says only that he would not lead the Jewish people into the
Land; it says nothing about entering there after death. The Midrash is bothered by this
question and finds an answer in this week’s parashah:
[Moshe] said to [God], “Master of the Universe, Yosef’s bones entered the Land, but I
do not enter the Land?” The Holy One Blessed be He replied, “He who acknowledged
his Land is buried in his Land, and he who did not acknowledge his Land is not
buried in his Land.” How do we know that Yosef acknowledged his Land? His
master’s wife said, Look! He [Potifar] brought us a Hebrew man… (BeReishit 39:14);
and Yosef did not deny it. Rather, [he said], I was stolen away from the Land of the
Hebrews (ibid. 40:15)… “You [Moshe], who did not acknowledge your Land, will not
be buried in your Land.” How so? Yitro’s daughters said, An Egyptian man saved us
from the shepherds (Shemot 2:19); and [Moshe] heard this and remained silent.
Therefore, he was not buried in his Land. (Devarim Rabbah 2:8)
This is seemingly incomprehensible. How can the two cases be compared? Yosef was
born and raised in Eretz Yisrael. He truly was stolen away from the Land of the Hebrews.
Moshe, however, never stepped foot in the Holy Land. Wasn’t the description “an Egyptian
man” befitting him? After all, he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. What was he supposed to
In light of this question, R. Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza asserts that from the moment God
promised the Land to Avraham Avinu, every Jew must see himself as a native of Eretz
Yisrael. And R. Meir Yechiel practiced what he preached. In one of his letters, he describes
how he responds when asked about his place of origin: “I am from Eretz Yisrael;” he
explains, “except that, because of our sins, we were exiled from there, and I find myself in
Ostrovtza. This is how everyone should reply when asked about their origins: ‘I am from
Eretz Yisrael, but for the time being I find myself in a temporary dwelling-place in the
Diaspora’ ” (To Dwell in the Palace, Feldheim Publishers, p. 135).
In other words, HaShem expected Moshe to say something like this: “It is true that I have
lived all my life in the land of Egypt, but my real connection is to the Land of Israel, Land of
the Hebrew people. Like Yosef before me, I have in effect been exiled by circumstance. I am
not really an Egyptian at all” (ibid., p. 116).
R. Chayim Shmuelevitz adds another dimension to this Midrash. He points out that Moshe
also denied his Jewishness by failing to correct Yitro’s daughters. Nonetheless, we do not
find that Chazal reprimand him for that. R. Chayim explains:
Perhaps this is because he would have put himself in danger had he revealed that he was
Jewish. Nevertheless, since he did not acknowledge his land, he was not buried in the
Land. All of the excuses and explanations that he had for not acknowledging the Land
did not help him. This is because [his “punishment”] is not really a punishment.
Rather, it is a fact: he who does not acknowledge the Land is not connected to the
Land. Therefore… excuses cannot help; for, in any event, the Land does not
“want” him. (Sichot Mussar, sec. 3, p. 81)
For thousands of years, the only way we could acknowledge our deep connection to Eretz
Yisrael was through words: words of prayer and words such as R. Meir Yechiel’s. Today,
however, when God has enabled us to acknowledge our Land through concrete actions, I
doubt very highly that mere words will suffice.
THE PRIMARY GOAL
In the opening article of Parashat Lech Lecha, I quoted a very keen observation made by
R. Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza. He pointed out that the first commandment ever given to a Jew
(Avraham Avinu) was to go to Eretz Yisrael. We find a similar idea in this week’s parashah:
The very first “mitzvah” that God mentioned to Moshe Rabbeinu – the greatest prophet of all
time – was aliyah to Eretz Yisrael.
When Moshe approached “the Mountain of God” to see the burning bush, the Almighty
first told him to remove his shoes, כי המקום אשר אתה עומד עליו אדמת-קדש הוא – because the place
upon which you stand is holy soil (3:5). Next, God introduced Himself to Moshe, saying, I
am the God of your forefathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of
Ya’akov (3:6). Then, after all of the preliminaries, HaShem finally told Moshe why He
appeared to him: The Lord said: “I have surely seen the affliction of My nation that is in
Egypt; and I have heard its cry due to its taskmasters, for I know its pains. And I will go
down to save it from the hand of Egypt and bring it up from that land to a good and spacious
Land, a Land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanite…” (3:7-8).
In a pamphlet called Eretz Chemdah, R. Moshe Tzuriel points out an astounding and
perplexing fact: When HaShem revealed Himself to Moshe, urging him to redeem the Jewish
people from Egypt, the only thing He mentioned was His intention to bring the Jews to Eretz
Yisrael. No mention whatsoever was made of Matan Torah. However, when He gave Moshe
a sign concerning this, He said, And this is your sign that I have sent you: when you take the
people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain (3:12). Seemingly, the Torah put
the emphasis in the wrong place. The verses imply that the Sinai Revelation is merely a sign
for, and therefore secondary to, entering Eretz Yisrael! How can that be?
R. Tzuriel answers this question based on a concept we have seen many times before.
Chazal, followed by numerous Rishonim and Acharonim (not to mention at least four verses
in the Chumash) state clearly that all of God’s commandments are meant to be kept in Eretz
Yisrael (see Rashi et al on Devarim 11:18). Many mitzvot cannot be fulfilled at all outside the
Land, and the rest are more complete in the Holy Land. Therefore, when HaShem promised
to bring the Jews out of Egypt to a Land flowing with milk and honey, He promised, in
essence, to enable the Jews to keep the entire Torah. Now we understand why Matan Torah
is considered merely a preliminary sign to entering the Land, for without the Land, the Torah
R. Ya’akov Emden uses this idea to explain a similar query. In the second blessing of
Birkat HaMazone (Grace After Meals), we say: “We thank You, Lord our God, for
bequeathing to our forefathers a desirable, good, and spacious Land; and for taking us out of
the land of Egypt…; and for Your Torah that You taught us…” Seemingly, this blessing is
out of chronological order. After all, we received the Torah before entering the Land! Here,
too, the answer is that the entire purpose of the Exodus was to enter the Land and observe the
Torah there to its fullest. Therefore, we thank God for the ultimate goal first, and only
afterwards we thank Him for the means which enabled us to reach that goal.
May we all be zocheh to benefit from both the physical and spiritual “milk and honey” of
God’s special Land, in the very near future. Amen.
She [Tziporah] gave birth to a son, and he [Moshe] named him Gershom, for he said, “I
have been a stranger in a strange land” (2:22).
[The phrase] I HAVE BEEN A STRANGER (גר) IN A STRANGE LAND is not very clear. Where else
is one a גר but in a strange land? Moreover, “I was”? When he gave the name, he still
was! It seems to imply that one can be a גר anywhere, but after a short time one
becomes at home there; the land is no longer strange. In the name of his firstborn,
Moshe expresses that he does not yet belong to Midyan. Although he is free and without
worries… his heart is still with his people in Egypt. But as this is somewhat
uncomplimentary to his surroundings, we can understand why he says, “I was a
stranger” and not “I am a stranger.” In truth, he still felt it, but out of his delicate
consideration, he puts it in the past tense. (R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch; see also Or
HaChayim and HaKetav VeHaKaballah)
In short, even though Moshe Rabbeinu felt safer in his place of exile, he yearned to be with
his brethren and share in their suffering. Now, if Moshe felt this way when his brethren were
in Egypt, a foreign land, we should certainly feel this way when a large number of Jews reside
in our ancestral Homeland. Even if our lives in exile seem quite safe and comfortable, we
should yearn to be with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, despite the suffering we
might have to endure for the privilege.
God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Avraham, with
Yitzchak, and with Ya’akov (2:24).
AND GOD REMEMBERED HIS COVENANT: [I.e., He remembered] that He had promised the
three [Patriarchs] that He would give them the Land of Canaan, and now [the end of]
the four hundred years, about which He spoke to Avraham, was drawing near.
He [God] said, “Do not come close to here, remove your shoes from your feet, because the
place upon which you stand is holy soil” (3:5).
Rashi comments on this verse, “אדמת-קדש הוא – [i.e.] the place (המקום).” All of the
commentators explain that Rashi is bothered by an apparent incongruity in the verse. The
pronoun הוא, which is masculine, does not concur with the feminine noun,אדמת-קדש , which it
comes to substitute. Therefore, Rashi explains that the pronoun הוא is referring to the noun
המקום, which is also masculine. The only question is, why didn’t the Torah state, "כי
האדמה…אדמת-קדש היא", or "כי המקום…מקום-קדש הוא", to avoid confusion? I believe that the
Torah (and Rashi) want to emphasize that only this specific place was holy, because God
revealed Himself there. The actual soil, however, had no intrinsic holiness, for it was in
Chutz LaAretz. Only the soil of Eretz Yisrael is holy, even in places where God’s presence is
not outwardly revealed. We also find this idea with regard to Mt. Sinai. It was holy only as
long as God’s presence rested there, but the moment the great revelation ended, so did the
sanctity of the place (see Shemot 19:13).
And I will go down to save it [Israel] from the hand of Egypt and bring it up from that land
to a good and spacious Land, a Land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the
And I have said, “I will bring you up from the affliction of Egypt to the Land of the
Canaanite… to a Land flowing with milk and honey” (3:17).
The meaning of FLOWING WITH MILK AND HONEY is [as follows]: [The Torah] first praises
the Land, [calling] it good, to say that its air is good and pleasant for human beings, and
it contains all manner of goodness. [It then says] that it is spacious, [meaning] that all of
Israel can dwell there comfortably… Then it goes on to praise the Land [by saying] that
it is [suitable] for livestock, for it has good pasture and fine water, [which help] animals
develop milk. For animals grow healthy and good, and have an abundance of milk, only
where the air is good, the grass is plentiful, and the water is good. But since these things
are [usually] found in marshes and on high mountains, where the fruits are not very fat
and good, it says that the Land is fertile; meaning, its fruits are so fat and sweet that the
entire Land will flow with their honey… This is the meaning of It is a splendor for all
the lands (Yechezkel 20:6). (Ramban 3:8)
See also Parashat Kedoshim, “Additional References” 20:22-24.
Moshe returned to the Lord and said, “My Lord, why have You oppressed this people?
Why have You sent me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has
oppressed this people, and You have not rescued Your people.” The Lord said to Moshe,
“Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh…” (5:22-6:1)
NOW YOU SHALL SEE… You questioned My ways, unlike Avraham. I said to him,
“Through Yitzchak will your offspring be called” (BeReishit 21:12), after which I said to
him, “Bring him up as a burnt offering” (ibid. 22:2). Nevertheless, he did not question
My ways. Therefore, Now you shall see: You will see what happens to Pharaoh, but
you will not see what happens to the kings of the Seven Nations, when I bring [the Jews]
into the Land. (Rashi)
This source has great relevance for our generation. When God dispatched Moshe Rabbeinu
to redeem the Jewish people, the latter expected the process to progress quickly and smoothly.
Much to his chagrin, however, things didn’t go exactly according to plan, and he began to
doubt whether the redemption was truly underway (as our verses indicate). HaShem’s
reaction was quick and harsh, vowing not to let Moshe enter the Holy Land, because of his
lack of faith.
We, too, have witnessed clear signs that the final redemption has begun (the ingathering of
the exiles, the rejuvenation of the Land, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over the Land,
etc.). After the Six Day War, many people expected the redemption to reach its completion
within a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Thirty-five years later,
we are still at war, waiting for our redeemer to get us out of this mess. We learn from Moshe
Rabbeinu that we must not lose faith. Just because we encounter setbacks, that does not mean
that the redemption is on hold. God has His ways and reasons. We must simply fulfill our
obligations towards Him, do everything in our power to expedite the redemption, and wait
patiently. Most importantly, we must realize that setbacks are part of the process, as the
following Midrash demonstrates:
My Beloved is like a deer (Shir HaShirim 2:9): Just as a deer is visible and then
becomes hidden, is visible and then becomes hidden; so too, the first redeemer was
visible and hidden, and then became visible again… Similarly, the final redeemer will
be revealed to them and then become hidden… Anyone who believes him, follows him,
and waits [for him] will live. Anyone who does not believe him, however, going
[instead] to the nations of the world, will eventually be killed by them. (Shir HaShirim