(Note: I found the following idea difficult to translate, as it requires some knowledge of Hebrew grammar. Nonetheless, it provides a fascinating example of how a Talmudic disagreement over a single letter may reveal a profound philosophical discussion.)
It was definitely the low point in Moses’ mission to free the Hebrew slaves. Pharaoh responded to the demand for freedom by adding more oppressive measures, and the Israelites began to wish that Moses had never come. Even Moses had his doubts. In response, God commanded Moses to relay the following message to the Israelites:
“You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out (ha-motzi) from under the Egyptian subjugation.” (Ex. 6:7)
The tense of the verb ha-motzi (המוציא) here is unclear. The Israelites have not yet been freed. Why say, “who brings you out”? The future tense — “who will bring you out” — would make more sense.
The word ha-motzi brings to mind the blessing recited before eating bread. The Talmud (Berachot 38a) records a debate regarding this blessing. Rabbi Nehemiah felt the blessing should read, “Blessed are You ... Who brought forth (motzi) bread from the earth.” But the other sages argued that the blessing should be “the One Who brings forth (ha-motzi) bread from the earth” — as in our verse.
What is the difference between motzi and ha-motzi?
The Talmud explains that this disagreement in based on how the verse in Exodus should be understood. According to Rabbi Nehemiah, the word ha-motzi implies the future. The Jews were still slaves in Egypt, and God assured them that He would take them out in the future. The future tense, however, is not appropriate for the blessing over bread. We recite this blessing in recognition of the wheat that has already come out of the earth. The word motzi, on the other hand, refers to the past, and is therefore more suitable.
Rabbi Nehemiah’s colleagues felt that the word ha-motzi implies both the past and the future. They understood the verse as follows: the Israelites will be freed (in the future), after which they will recognize God as their Liberator (in the past). Since ha-motzi also includes past events, it is also appropriate for the blessing over bread.
What is the essence of this disagreement? Is it simply an argument over Hebrew grammar? What is the significance of the blessing over bread being in the past or the future?
There are two basic ways to attain love and awe of Heaven. The first approach is to contemplate God’s greatness by examining His works. Reflecting on His amazing creations allows one to appreciate God’s infinite wisdom and justice, and instills a tremendous longing to know God’s great Name (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:1).
The second approach maintains that intellectual reflection alone is insufficient. There must also be an emotional element. We need to awaken within ourselves love and awe for the Essence that creates these spectacular works.
Rabbi Nehemiah, by preferring the word motzi, concurred with the first approach. Before eating bread, we need to raise our intellectual awareness of the event that occurred: this bread was baked from wheat that God brought forth from the earth. The word motzi is a verb, referring to an event that has taken place. Rabbi Nehemiah stressed the importance of the past tense, since appreciation of God’s greatness is achieved by objectively analyzing God’s hand in history and past events.
The other scholars disagreed. The blessing should be ha-Motzi, “the One Who brings forth.” Ha-Motzi is not a verb but a descriptive phrase. We do not only observe the event itself, but we attempt to look beyond it to the Cause of the action. This is a supra-scientific, intuitive approach, relating to God according to His actions. The scholars held that the blessing over bread is not just a way of contemplating the process of wheat growing out of the earth. We must concentrate on the Source of this process, and form a corresponding mental image of God.
Since this opinion stresses not the event but the Cause of the event, the framework of time becomes irrelevant. Ha-motzi thus implies both past and future. This changes our understanding of God’s promise to the Israelites, “You will know that I am the Lord your God, the One who brings you out from under the Egyptian subjugation.” We now understand that the present tense is just as accurate as the past and the future. For all time, we will recognize God’s attribute of Ha-Motzi, the One who liberates us from slavery.
(Gold from the Land of Israel pp. 110-112. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 176-177)
Illustration image: ‘Harvest in Provence’ (Vincent van Gogh, 1888)