There are individuals who occasionally distinguish between a proficient, meticulous Ba’al Keri’ah and an inexperienced, careless one based on one aspect of this week's Parashah. The text states, “VaYechal Moshe Et Penei Hashem Elokav VaYomer Lamah Hashem Yechereh Apecha BeAmecha,” “And Moshe supplicated before Hashem and said: ‘Why should Your wrath wax hot against Your people’” (Shemot 32:11)? In most instances, the word ‘Lamah’ is pronounced Mil’eil, with the first syllable accented. In this case, though, it is stressed Mil’ra, on the last syllable. What is the meaning of this quite uncommon pronunciation of the word Lamah?
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that the word ‘Lamah,’ which is usually translated as ‘why,’ can essentially be broken down into two parts – ‘Le’ and ‘Mah’ – which, when literally translated, mean “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 he perform this action, and 2) What objective did he plan to achieve by his performance of this action? Frequently, both aspects are intended. When stressing the first syllable of Lamah, the ‘La,’ ‘to,’ one is questioning the pertinence of the entire matter - both the reason and objective. However, when stressing the second syllable, ‘Mah,’ ‘what,’ 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 is not challenging Hashem’s anger when he says the word Lamah. The Jews had been warned by the Torah's command to refrain from idol worship, but they had chosen to disobey by worshipping the Eigel HaZahav. Moshe is inquiring whether Hashem’s proposal to annihilate the Jews would really achieve anything. He therefore declares: “Lamah 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 Lamah, when Moshe asks, “Lamah Yomeru Mitzrayim Leimor BeRa’ah Hotzi’am 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 standard Lamah form.
Similarly, in Parashat Shemot, when Moshe asks, “Hashem Lamah Harei’otah LaAm HaZeh Lamah Zeh Shelachtani,” “Hashem, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why have You sent me?” (5:22), 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 Par’oh'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.