Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ignoring Moshe

Last week’s parsha left us hanging with a troubling, unanswered question. Let’s review.

At the Burning Bush, G-d told Moshe to go to Pharaoh and demand that he free the Jews. Moshe is reluctant at first, but ultimately accepts the job. He returns to Egypt and tells his brethren of his divine mission to bring them all back to Israel. The Jews embrace Moshe as their savior and rejoice at their imminent redemption.
The people believed. They accepted the message that G-d had remembered the Israelites and that He had seen their misery. They bowed and prostrated themselves. (Shemot 4:31)
The people wait outside as Moshe enters the palace to speak to the king.

Pharaoh is not cooperative. Instead of freeing the Jews, he dismisses their nationalistic aspirations and accuses them of laziness. To put a quick end to their subversive ideas, Pharaoh dramatically increases the workload of the Jewish slaves.

The Jews work as hard as they can, but are routinely beaten by their taskmasters for failing to meet production quotas. Life becomes unbearable. Instead of redemption, the Jews face tyranny. And instead of being a hero, Moshe has become a pariah.

“You have placed a sword in their hands to kill us!” (Shemot 5:21). Moshe must live with this horrible indictment by his own people. Counterarguments about his good intentions wouldn’t help much, so Moshe confronts G-d.
Master [of the World], why do you mistreat Your people? Why did You send me? As soon as I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he made things worse for these people. You have not saved Your nation! (Shemot 5:22-23)
It’s a good question. Divine plans should not backfire. Here is G-d’s response:
Now you will begin to see what I will do to Pharaoh. With a strong hand he will send them and with a strong hand he will drive them out from his land. (Shemot 6:1)
With these words last week’s parsha came to an end, but we are left wondering. While it is nice to know that Pharaoh will eventually release the Jews, why did G-d send Moshe into Pharaoh’s office if all it accomplished was to make things worse? This was Moshe’s question and it remains unanswered.

This week’s parsha continues where we left off. G-d is still speaking with Moshe and He now presents him with a prophecy of profound significance. G-d lays out a point-by-point description of the redemption process and He instructs Moshe to deliver this speech to the Jewish people:
I will take you away from your forced labor in Egypt.

I will save you from their enslavement.

I will liberate you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.

I will take you to Myself as a nation and I will be to you as a G-d. You will know that it is I, G-d your Lord, who is taking you out from under the subjugation of Egypt.

I will bring you to the land about which I raised My hand, [swearing] that I would give it to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. I will give it to you as an inheritance. I am G-d. (Shemot 6:6-8)
Moshe did as he was told and relates this prophecy to the people, but it was no use. “Because of shortness of breath and hard labor, they didn’t listen to him” (Shemot 6:9). G-d’s great vision for the future fell on deaf ears.

Amazing! For the second time in a row we have the apparent failure of a divine plan. Moshe’s original mission to speak to Pharaoh had disastrous consequences and now the new directive to speak to the people falls flat. By this point, Moshe’s reputation is shot.

In an apparent attempt to salvage some momentum, G-d tells Moshe to show Pharaoh the miraculous sign of transforming a staff into a snake (Shemot 7:8). But Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick and Moshe is reduced to a laughingstock. With their leader’s last vestige of credibility gone, the Jewish liberation movement is officially over.

How are we to understand this story? Is G-d playing some kind of cruel trick? What is going on here?

For the answer to our question, we must go back to the Burning Bush. After G-d instructs Moshe to go to Egypt and redeem the Jews, Moshe raises a reasonable objection. “But they won’t believe me, and they won’t listen to me!” (Shemot 4:1) Moshe is concerned that the Jews simply won’t believe that He is G-d’s agent. In response, G-d gives Moshe several miraculous “signs” which he uses to great effect (Shemot 4:30).

Our problem is this: If, as time would tell, Moshe needed these signs to prove that he wasn’t a charlatan, why didn’t G-d give them to him right away? The signs are absent from the initial prophecy and it is only after Moshe expresses his concerns that G-d agrees to give them to him. Why?

The answer is that G-d would prefer not to give Moshe signs. At this point in the game, G-d does not want the Jews to have faith in Moshe. He wants them to have faith in G-d.

When Moshe arrives in Egypt, proves his credentials and marches into Pharaoh’s office, the Jews are confident that he can pull it off. But instead of freedom, the Jews get a renewed bout of oppression. The next time Moshe speaks to them, his worst fears are realized – the Jews aren’t listening. He tries to impress Pharaoh and that fails too. Moshe’s signs and reputation have been neutralized – and then G-d steps in with the Ten Plagues.

G-d will arrive on the scene only after all hope is shattered. As long as people think that salvation can occur naturally, as long as they put their faith in charismatic leadership, liberation movements, diplomatic pressures, peace dialogues and magic tricks, enslaved they will remain. But when the Jews lose faith in the natural course and realize that it is G-d and G-d alone who can take them out of Egypt, then the miracles can begin.


  1. From Noam Gordon:
    Excellent thought! Moshe had to fail as a leader for G-d to be the exclusive redeemer.

  2. I wrote a series of questions and then got disconnected without signing in!! Is this designed by HaShem or just a quirk of the software?

  3. Actually, my comment had to do with my questions:
    1. Does HaShem have exact knowledge of the future, or does HaShem know the characteristic of the individual and is able to predict what will eventually happen to him. For example, did HaShem know that there would be 10 plagues? For what purpose did HaShem "harden" the Pharoah's heart? Was one purpose to awaken faith in HaShem in the Hebrew slaves due to the miracles performed? Why was it necessary to have 10 miracles? Why didn't HaShem give the opportunity to believe in HaShem and repent, to Pharoah?

  4. There is a strange story in the Zohar, Pritzker Edition pages 41 and 42 volume 1 - (Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar, 1:6b, 283 to 293)

    "He slew an Egyptian, a man of good appearance (mareh)" (2 Samuel, 21). It means a man who had the presence of YHVH, as "mareh" also means Shekhinah, our human perception of the Divine.

    The Egyptian had a Spear on his Hand that God has handed to him. Moses, as written in Numbers 20:11, sinned as "he struck the rock with his staff twice."

    The Blessed Holy One said: "Moses, I did not give you My staff for this. By your life! from now on, I will no longer be in your hand.

    And YHVH "killed him (Moses) with with his own spear". "Because of the sin of striking with that staff, he dies and did not enter the Holy Land, and this light was witheld from Israel."

    Note 293 on page 42 of Daniel Matt exquisite translation of the Zohar in English says:

    Benayahu - an israelite- killed Moses with Moses' own staff, i.e. because of Moses' misuse of the staff. The notion that Moses was an Egyptian who was killed by an Israelite foreshadows Freud's thesis, see Amado Levy-Valensi, "Le Moise de Freud"

  5. my-inner-voice1/19/2007 4:12 PM

    Rabbi Yisroel writes:

    "G-d will arrive on the scene only after all hope is shattered."

    "Moshe’s signs and reputation have been neutralized – and then G-d steps in with the Ten Plagues."

    According to the Zohar, Moshe's signs have been finally withdrawn from him, before he was killed as an Egyptian, not as a Jew.

    Does it mean Moses abused his Power? Does it mean The Egyptian side (the Evil side) survived in Moses, as does a little in all of us?

    Does it mean sometimes, Gd will never turn to us, if we sin and we do not repent?

    You say no Kabbalah in this blog. Yet here is a clearly disturbing question in Kabbalah's fundamental reference, The Zohar

    Did Moshe died as an Egyptian?

  6. Al-
    I love your questions, but I'm afraid this blog isn't the forum for me to respond to such a wide ranging list. In connection with what I wrote in this post, I will say that it is clear to me that G-d has got everything all mapped out in advance.

  7. Miha-

    I'm not sure I understand. You quote Daniel Matt as saying that Benayahu killed Moshe - did the Zohar say that? Didn't the Zohar say that G-d killed Moshe? As a mystical commentary on the Torah, it is untenable to suggest that the Zohar contradicts the Torah. The Torah is clear that Moshe died a natural death, so if the Zohar says he was killed by "Benayahu" then that must be one of G-d's many names.

  8. Miha-
    Scratch that. If the Zohar says that Benayahu killed Moshe, I have absolutely no idea what it means. Nor do I believe that there is anyone alive who does. The Vilna Gaon used to say that he couldn't figure out a line of Zohar with less than two weeks thought.

  9. In light of your insightful Dvar Torah, how would you explain Moshe's increased stature before the final moments of Geulah have taken place (Shemos 11:3)?

  10. anonymous-
    What I wrote refers only to the situation at the beginning of the process. As you have correctly pointed out, later on the recognition of Moshe as a prophet does become critical. It seems that this belief in Moshe is necessary not so much for the Exodus, but for Sinai.