"Wherefore criest thou unto me?": A point of grammar
2010 S.H. Parker

My comments today turn on a point of grammar. My text is:

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מַה-תִּצְעַק אֵלָי; דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִסָּעוּ. 15 And YHWH said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me?" Speak to the children of Israel that they should move!
  וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת-מַטְּךָ, וּנְטֵה אֶת-יָדְךָ עַל-הַיָּם--וּבְקָעֵהוּ; וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם, בַּיַּבָּשָׁה. 16 And you, lift your staff and reach your hand out over the sea and split it! And the children of Israel will come through the sea on the dry ground.
Shmot 14
This translation follows Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed

I very much like Prof. Friedman's translation. Compared to the more traditional: "'Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward" (1917 JPS, et. al., translation), it conveys a sense of urgency other translations do not.

It is not just here. Moshe constantly exhibits slowness to act in crisis situations, explicitly deferring to God (though he very rarely actually asks God to intervene, he simply announces that God will act -- sounds like there's a d'var in there somewhere). Immediately before the text above, for example, we find:

  יְהוָה, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.

Perhaps Moshe's calling on God in these situations instead of taking action on his own is the source of the "most humble of men" attribution (see "Moses, the Most Humble of Men"). After all, it is God who says this of Moshe.

Even that most traditional of commentators, R. Dr. J.H. Hertz, notes "That moment of anguish called not for prayer but for action."

Rashi comments:

There is no mention that he prayed to God concerning this, but this teaches us that Moses stood in prayer. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, "It is no time now to pray at length, when Israel is placed in trouble." (Silverman Rashi)

In Prof. Friedman's translation, I can sense God's impatience to get the show on the road. God is not willing to wait for the Egyptians to catch up, which surely they will do, if Moshe continues dithering. Most translations make the scene at the sea seem like something out of a Noel Coward play rather than the life and death, indeed, terminally high-tension situation we know it is. In "The Scene at the Sea," I argued that our typical translations fail, indeed fail utterly, to communicate the level of tension at the shore of the Yam Suph.

I also argued in "The Scene at the Sea" that the proper way to read Torah is anthropopathically. That is, on the view that God has (or, at least, exhibits) "human" feelings. Thus, when reading Biblical texts, we need to supply those feelings (Abraham Joshua Heschel makes the case for anthropopathy in his The Prophets). Whether God actually has human emotions is beside the point. What is the point is, is that Torah text makes proper sense only when the reader supplies the feelings of the characters as they speak in each Biblical story ("Torah is written in the language of man," if nothing else).

I want to emphasize here that our commentators get it. Our translators do not. I have to work to get the essence of the story. And the beautiful trope in the layning when we hear the weekly reading does nothing whatever to help.

In this case, however, the Hebrew text also hinders us. The key phrase, מַה-תִּצְעַק אֵלָי ("wherefore criest thou unto me?"), is in an obscure grammatical form. Therefore, the real meaning of God's words at this point become easier to miss.

On the other hand, the passage begins with מַה, "what," not "why (wherefore)." That should alert us that something is afoot here. At the very least, this passage should be rendered "What is this crying out to me?" (אֵלָי, the last word of the passage, means "to me"). Yes, less Coward-esque and more stress expressing.... Given that the next word, דַּבֵּר ("speak"), is in the imperative ("Speak!" -- is an order), the passage begins to read more like what we expect.

It is the next word, תִּצְעַק ("cry out"), where things get really interesting.

תִּצְעַק is in a peculiar grammatical form, a form I have not seen in any European language, indeed, I do not believe it exists in them. This grammatical form is called "the intensive." A verb in the intensive means "to do something very hard," "to do something very much," etc.

So, for example, "to break" in the intensive might be "to destroy" or "to shatter." The intensive of "talk" might be "to yell." "To drive" intensively probably becomes "drive a cab." Got the idea?

Now, for some real insight into the Jewish mind:

Verb Intensive
to call (to call out, to speak up) to read
to learn, to study to teach

Now, then, how would we render the intensive of "to cry out?"

Yul Bryner, in his other signature role, noted "But! Is! a puzzlement."

"What is this (very) intense complaining to me?" seems correct. But it really doesn't read very well, does it?

On consideration, I think the following accurately captures the meaning of the passage:

What are you doing bellyaching to me?

(It is so tempting to supply the "dummy" at the end of this....)

Then, in 20th century vernacular, the rest becomes:

        Get your tuches in gear and move!

As both of my Rabbis observed (charitably), this isn't exactly an orthodox translation. But, and this is the point, my rendering does capture the essence of the moment. Moshe has his back to the sea. He's just put down a rebellion. He has Paro coming up behind in 600 tanks ... uh, chariots. And all through verses 13 and 14, Moshe is speechifying! (The verses may be short but, unless they are a literal and complete transcript, given the style of writing of court histories, these verses are but a small sample of the moment as it is remembered).

No wonder God chastises him for his complaining and expresses such impatience, ordering him as to what to do. Just as Rabbi Hertz notes, the moment calls for action, not prayer. And, indeed, we learn in the Midrash than until there was action, there was no parting of the waters, until the first person stepped forward, took action, the sea remained.

There is a moral to this grammatical exercise ("torah," after all, meaning "teaching" or "instruction"). It is, to borrow from an old commercial, "Flee now, pray later." You may be more familiar with this as "God helps those who help themselves" or, better, "God only helps those who first help themselves."

A minister, a friend and a Dutch Calvinist, once asked me if I prayed before sitting down to work on my dissertation. At first, I didn't quite understand the question. Once his thinking became clear to me, I answered "Of course not; I'm perfectly capable of writing my paper myself." As a Jew, I understand the lesson of this passage: Do first, pray after (as Rabbi Radinsky used to teach: Why do we say a short grace before meals and a long one after?-It is easy to be thankful when you are hungry; but when you are full, your expression of thanks for your food means something) for, indeed, God does expect us to act, on our own account, first.