Why? by Rabbi Ezra Weiner


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 Parashah (Shemot 32:11), “VaYechal Moshe Et Penei Adonai Elokav VaYomer Lama Adnoai Yechereh Apecha BeAmecha,” "And Moshe supplicated before Hashem and said: 'Why should Your wrath wax hot against Your people?'"  Only rarely is the word “Lama” stressed Milra, on the last syllable. In most instances, Lama is pronounced Mileil, with the Lamed accented. What is the meaning of this quite uncommon pronunciation of the word Lama?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the word “Lama,” which is usually translated as "why," can essentially be broken down into two parts - Le and Ma - 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 Lamed, one is questioning the pertinence of the entire matter - both the reason and objective. However, when stressing the Ma, 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 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 will accomplish anything.

Moshe was not challenging Hashem's anger when he declared Lama. The Jews had been warned by the Torah's command to refrain from idol worship, but they chose to disobey by worshipping the Eigel HaZahav. Moshe, however, was inquiring whether Hashem's proposal to annihilate the Jews would really achieve anything. Moshe therefore declared: Lama Hashem Yechereh Apecha. 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 Lama, when Moshe asks “Lama Yomeru Mitzrayim Leimor BeRaah Hotziam LaHarog Otam Beharim,” "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 Lama form.

Similarly, in Parashat Shemot (5:22) when Moshe asks, “Adonai  Lama Hareiota La'am Hazeh Lama Zeh Shelachani,” “Hashem, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why have You sent me,” he implies: 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 of Tichbad HaAvodah (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.

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