This Week's Torah Portion: Moses's Campaign to Liberate the Sons of Israel (Part 14)

These essays follow the annual cycle of Torah readings in synagogues the world over, and provide a taste of rabbinical exposition of each such reading in the week it occurs. For a fuller appreciation of the background and underlying premises, please click here.

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Va’Era (Exodus VI,2-IX,35)

In last week’s parasha, Moshe (Moses) was sent back to Egypt by Ha-Shem to begin his historic campaign to liberate the bënei Yisra’él from the cruel oppression which was Egypt’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” in the last phase of the Egyptian exile. Moshe met his brother, Aharon (who would be his spokesman), on the way back to Egypt from Midyan, and the two of them made their way to Goshen, where they first gathered “all the elders of the bënei Yisra’él” (V,29), the spiritual leadership of the day, to inform them of the coming redemption. After this, Aharon addressed the assembled people and they were shown signs which Ha-Shem had given Moshe. “And the people believed, and heard that Ha-Shem had remembered the bënei Yisra’él, and that He had seen their poverty, and they bowed and prostrated themselves;” (ibid., 31).

Whereupon Moshe and Aharon approached Pharaoh with G-d’s demand: “Thus said Ha-Shem, G-d of Israel, send forth My people and they will sacrifice to Me in the desert” (V, 1). But they were turned down flat: “Who is Ha-Shem that I should listen to His voice and send forth Israel? I do not know Ha-Shem, and I will also not send forth Israel” (ibid., 2). The brothers’ continued pleading resulted in nothing but the famous decree that straw to temper the bricks, previously supplied to the slaves, be withheld from them, though the daily production quota would remain the same. Understandably, Moshe cried out in anguish: “My L-rd, why have You done evil to this people? Why did you send me?” (ibid., 22).

Ha-Shem’s answer begins our parasha. He first reassures Moshe that the covenant made separately with each of Israel’s Patriarchs was still in effect. Furthermore: “I have also heard the cry of the bënei Yisra’él whom the Egyptians are overworking, and I will remember My covenant” (VI,5). Therefore, G-d instructs Moshe to comfort the people of Israel, to tell them that He will indeed extricate them from their sufferings in Egypt, rescue them from the Egyptians’ service, redeem them with spectacular acts of judgment, take them to be His unique people, and bring them to the Holy Land. “And Moshe spoke this to the bënei Yisra’él, and they did not listen to Moshe from shortness of spirit and from hard work” (ibid., 9).

Both Moshe’s reaction and that of the bënei Yisra’él have their own uniquely problematic aspects. Moshe’s histrionic outburst is difficult to understand because (as the great 12th century commentator Avraham ibn Ezra [Even ‘Ezra] points out) Moshe had been told by G-d in advance (cf. III,19ff.) that his approach to Pharaoh would be ineffective, that Ha-Shem would have to strike him “with all of My wonders which I will do in his midst” (ibid., 20) before Pharaoh would let the people of Israel go. If so, what reason did Moshe have to ask “why did You send me” after the event? He knew what would be required!

We can ask a similar question about the bënei Yisra’él. The Talmud (Shabbath 97a) adduces from Israel’s initial reaction to Moshe “’and the people believed,’ from here we learn that Israel are believers, sons of believers.” Even the ‘a, the lowest, simplest element in Israel, believed Moshe’s claim when he first appeared among them; now, after this setback, even the bënei Yisra’él, the greatest and most noble element, did not listen to what Moshe had to say! What “believers sons of believers!” What sort of faith will not withstand adversity?

The Even ‘Ezra answers his own question as follows: When Ha-Shem was recruiting Moshe, G-d told him: “I truly see the poverty of My people, and I hear their outcry because of their oppressors, for I know their pains” (III,7). Moshe understood from this that even if the additional “signs and wonders” might be needed to over-awe Pharaoh and effect Israel’s deliverance from Egypt, their suffering would at least be alleviated at once, on Moshe’s approach to Pharaoh.

Rabbi Shemu’el ben Me’ir (Rashbam) and Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno independently suggest another element in Moshe’s lament: If Israel’s sins had been such that they deserved this additional disaster on top of everything that they had endured till now, why did Moshe have to be the agent through whom they were afflicted? From the slaves’ point of view (not to say our own), there seems more than a grain of justice in their furious complaint to Moshe and Aharon: “May Ha-Shem appear to you and judge, for you have made our odor foul in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants, giving a sword into their hands to kill us!” (V,21). Their reluctance to listen further to Moshe seems a bit more understandable, since this first attempt had not only not alleviated their condition, but had in fact made it worse.

Why, indeed, had Ha-Shem chosen this occasion to worsen Israel’s condition? If He, as told to Moshe, had already noted Israel’s “poverty, outcry, and pains” and as a result recruited Moshe to deliver them, why should He subsequently sabotage Moshe’s mission?

In Sanhedrin 97a, we find an astonishing assertion: “The son of David [i.e., the anointed king] does not come until Israel have despaired of the redemption.” The assertion seems incredible — after all, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam) counts among his famous thirteen fundamental principles of Judaism, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the anointed one, and even though he tarry, I shall await him on whatever day he may come.” That the advent of Israel’s anointed king and the climax of history could be dependent upon Israel’s forgetting the very principle of “anticipating the redemption” is simply mind-boggling! Whatever can they mean?

The great 20th century scholar, Rabbi Ya‘aqpv Kaminetsky (Emeth lëYa‘aqov), commenting on Deuteronomy XXXII,36, discusses the above passage and explains: “The intent in this is that so long as Israel anticipates a redemption to come in a natural fashion, i.e., that the nations of the world will have mercy on us and grant us some land on which to build a homeland and the like, the redemption will surely not come…only if we completely despair of such illusions and understand that we have no-one one whom to rely save our Father Who is in heaven, then ben David will come and redeem us with a true redemption.”

With this, in my humble opinion, we can understand something of Moshe’s misapprehension. We must remember that Moshe knew Pharaoh personally, that he had grown up in the Egyptian court as a protégé of the king’s daughter. When Ha-Shem told Moshe that he was to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh with Israel’s imminent release from bondage, it was Moshe who simply could not believe that the Egyptian ruler would be so stubborn as not to lighten the slaves’ burdens, if only as a “bargaining chip” to argue against their release since their condition had improved. The counter-rational nature of Pharaoh’s very imposition of the bondage upon Israel — when he argued that the bënei Yisra’él were already more numerous than the Egyptians, had yet to be outwitted lest they become numerous, or lest they become a “fifth column” within Egypt in time of war and leave the country (which presumably would obviate the threat) — escaped even Moshe, who retained a scintilla of belief in the essential reasonableness of the Pharaoh whom he had known since his earliest memories.

If this was true of Moshe, how much more was it true of the bënei Yisra’él? Although, as the problem emphasizes they believed that Moshe was Ha-Shem’s emissary come to rescue them, they then trusted that the efforts of Moshe and Aharon would make the Egyptians, who had been friendly and reasonable throughout most of the exile, once again see reason and lighten up on them. It’s this belief that had to be countered, and so it was in this that they came to be disappointed in Moshe and Aharon. Only then could true faith in Ha-Shem’s promises to their forefathers, which had sustained them until now, actually shine through. Only then did they come to understand that they had no one else on whom they could rely. Thus, the verse tells us that specifically the bënei Yisra’él, the most spiritual element in Israel, got the message from the “shortness of spirit” and “hard servitude” which resulted from Moshe’s efforts — the redemption would not be accomplished in a natural manner.

The great rosh yeshiva of Baranovitch, Rabbi Elchanan Bunim Wasserman, in his classic work Bë‘iqvetha diMshicha (“In the Path of the Anointed One”), which was first published on the eve of the Second World War, points out that faith in any such agency or ideology — be it nationalism, socialism, communism, or any other “ism” — to improve the human condition or in particular the position or condition of the Jewish nation in the world, falls under the Talmud’s classic definition of ‘avoda zara (literally, “strange service,” usually translated “idolatry”): the notion that anything other than Ha-Shem alone can be the source of benefit or harm.

The message for our generation — which has seen the downfall of fascism, Communism and the discrediting of socialism, and is even now witnessing the last gasps of nationalism — lies precisely in the disillusionment to which the bënei Yisra’él were brought on the very eve of their redemption from exile and bondage.