Why? by Rabbi Ezra Weiner

(2001/5761)

There are individuals who occasionally distinguish between a proficient, meticulous Baal Korei and an inexperienced, careless one based on one aspect of this week’s Parsha.  ויחל משה את פני ה' אלוקיו ויאמר למה ה' יחרה אפך בעמך..., “And Moshe supplicated before Hashem and said: ‘Why should Your wrath wax hot against Your people…?’”  (32:11)

There are only a few occasions in Tanach when the stress and accent of the word למה is מלרע (on the last syllable).  In most instances למה is pronounced מלעיל, with the emphasis on the ל.  What is the meaning of this quite uncommon pronunciation of the word למה? 

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests as follows: The word למה, which is usually translated as “why,” can essentially be broken down into two parts — ל and מה — which when literally translated means “to what,” i.e., to what purpose.  When one asks “why” in response to an individual’s action, he is essentially questioning two aspects of the action: 1) For what reason did you perform this action, and 2) What objective did you plan to achieve by your performance of this action?  Frequently, both aspects are intended.  When stressing the ל, one is questioning the pertinence of the entire matter — both the reason and objective.  However, when stressing the מה, one accepts that there is good reason for an action or response but questions whether that action will truly accomplish anything.  For example, if a father sees his son hit a friend, and asks, “Why did you hit your friend?” the father is interested in ascertaining if his son’s friend did something that even warranted a response.  However, if the father sees his son’s friend teasing him and asks, “Why did you hit your friend,” the father understands that there was a reason for a response but is questioning whether hitting is really going to accomplish anything.

Moshe was not challenging Hashem’s anger when he declared למה.  The Jews had been warned by the Torah’s command to refrain from idol worship, but they chose to disobey by worshipping the עגל הזהב.  Moshe, however, was inquiring whether Hashem’s proposal to annihilate the Jews would really achieve anything.  Moshe therefore declared: למה ה' יחרה אפך.  For what purpose are You so angry?  What will You achieve by maintaining such an excessive degree of anger?

The Pasuk is immediately followed by the common למה in למה יאמרו מצרים לאמר ברעה הוציאם להרג אותם בערים.  Moshe asks: “Hashem, You certainly have the right to be infuriated with Your people, but there is no rhyme or reason to generate a Chillul Hashem.”  This question therefore uses the למה form. 

Similarly, in Parshat Shemot (5:22) when Moshe proclaims: למה הרעתה לעם הזה למה זה שלחני, Moshe is implying the following:  I understand that You have some reason for making the lives of the Jews more difficult in Egypt before You redeem them.  However, as is evident from Paroh’s most recent decree ofתכבד העבודה (let heavier work be laid upon them), my incompetence as a leader has been confirmed.  I have only made matters worse and I question your very reasoning for specifically selecting me in the first place.

Avraham – The Knight of Faith by Rabbi Joel Grossman

שילוח הקן by Rabbi Avi Rosenfeld