Sunday, October 12, 2008

1:4:19 - Baby Moses, Hot Coals, and Eight Types of Power

At a simple level, many midrashim are simply an elaboration of some minor statement in the Torah. These types of midrashim are minimally interesting at best. After all, no one really cares about a made-up story elaborating on some minor textual statement or anomaly. But sometimes these midrashim can be read on multiple levels. They make some broader statement, they reflect a philosophy or world view of the rabbis who created them, or they simply provide a rich a multi-layered jumping off point for us to read meaning into the text. The amazing thing about midrashim in general is that so many of them, even the simple and sometimes silly stories, provide such interesting results.

The midrash here is no exception. It is the well-known midrash about baby Moses putting a hot coal into his mouth and thereby becoming "slow of speech". (See Exod. 4:10.) But the story is interesting because of many things, including its implicit views on the nature of power.

Here's the midrash. Pharaoh's daughter "loved" baby Moses as if he were her own. Because he was "so handsome" everyone liked to see him and could not turn away from him. Pharaoh himself kissed and hugged Moses, and Moses would put Pharaoh's crown on his head. Pharaoh's magicians, worried about this behavior, thought Moses would eventually take Pharaoh's crown, and so suggested that Moses be killed. But Jethro (Moses's future Midianite father-in-law) argued that Moses did not yet have any understanding, and so suggested a test: place a gold piece and a hot coal before Moses. If he reaches for the gold, he has understanding and should be killed, but if he reaches for the coal, he has no understanding and there is no need to kill him. The gold and coal were placed in front of Moses, and he started to grab for the gold. However, the angel Gabriel intervened, shoved the gold to the side, and Moses not only grabbed the hot coal, but then put the coal into his mouth. As a result, he became "slow of speech and slow of tongue."

This seems straightforward. But it raises several questions, none of which I want to discuss here. Wouldn't a baby instinctively grab a shiny gold piece, not a dull lump of coal, and if so, was test was stacked against baby Moses from the beginning? Was Jethro acting as a "good guy" knowing that Moses would pass the test or a "bad guy" trying to set Moses up. How did Moses get the hot coal into his mouth; wouldn't he have immediately dropped it if it was that hot?

Instead of these (and other) important questions, I would like to discuss the ideas about power running through the story.

Power is the ability to get something done, or to impose one's will on the world and other people. It is not a bad thing. To the contrary: it can be exercised wisely and responsibly, and thereby improve the world, or of course unwisely and irresponsibly, and thereby make things worse. Ideas about power run through the story.

1. Love: Pharaoh's daughter loved Moses, and she cares for him. Being loved, and in many ways loving others, is a form of power.

2. Physical Attractiveness: Moses was so handsome that others liked him. Importantly, this was not because of his actions or behavior or personality, but simply because he was a good looking baby. People sometimes use their physical beauty to influence others.

3. Political power. Pharaoh's crown represents his role as the political leader of Egypt.

4. Logos. Pharaoh's magicians are concerned about Moses, and so they try to persuade Pharaoh to kill him. In response, Jethro proposes a test. These suggestions are adopted because they are reasonable. Aristotle included logos, or an argument from reason, as one of the three modes of argument in his Rhetoric.

5. Wealth. The gold represents wealth, and important source of power.

6. Natural forces. A hot coal has tremendous physical power. It can heat stoves, cook food, generate electricity, start huge fires, and (as Moses finds out) injure people.

7. Supernatural intervention. Gabriel intervenes and causes Moses to do something other than what he had intended.

8. Pathos. The hot coal injures Moses's mouth and he is less able to speak. One can speak reasonably without speaking clearly, but speaking less clearly diminishes the emotional aspect of speech, or its pathos.

So in this short story, we see eight types of power mentioned. Focusing on how these modes of power interact in the story (rather than the characters themselves) produces some interesting conclusions.

- People jealously guard their power. Pharaoh (and his magicians) feel their political power threatened, and so they are willing to kill a baby to protect it.

- Love does not conquer all. Pharaoh's daughter loves Moses, yet she drops out of the story very early. Her love for Moses cannot prevent him from being subjected to this test.

- Power can be dangerous. Moses hurts himself because he does not know how to handle the hot coal. This is understandable; he is only a baby. But nonetheless, power is dangerous, and a person's attempt to control physical power may end up harming the person. Even with the protection of an angel.

- An individual must often make choices between having or developing different types of power. Moses was attempting to take the gold, or material wealth, but Gabriel pushed his hand towards the coal, or physical power. And this physical power diminished Moses's rhetorical skill.

Note how this last factor plays out in Moses's life. He is a physical man, not a gifted orator. He uses his physical powers to kill the Egyptian. He physically protects Jethro's daughters at the well; he does not reason with the threatening shepherds. He repeatedly asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, all to no avail. Pharaoh is not persuaded by Moses's (or Aaron's) words, but only by the physical acts of the ten plagues. The Hebrews are saved at the Red Sea by the physical acts of it parting for them and drowning the pursuing Egyptians. And Moses resorts to a very physical civil war after the Golden Calf incident, not to speech. Moses physically strikes the rock to get water, even the second time when God tells him to speak to the rock. Moses does not respond to the spies' pessimism about invading Israel; he "falls on his face" and Joshua and Caleb speak to the Children of Israel. He does not answer Korach's argument, but instead suggests a physical test between Aaron on the one hand and Korach and his followers on the other.

Moses's speech works in only three situations: when he is speaking to God (e.g., after the Golden Calf incident, after the spies incident), when he is transmitting God's laws to the people, and then finally --- at the very end of his life --- when he gives his speeches in Deuteronomy. The rest of the time he uses physical power, not rhetorical skill.

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Hag sameach everyone. Have a happy sukkot.

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