"Impatience and Hard Labor"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Matan Glidai

Translated by Kaeren Fish


Parashat Vaera is part of a unit of five parashot (Shemot-Yitro) describing the beginnings of Am Yisrael, the Exodus from Egypt, and the receiving of the Torah. What sets our parasha aside from the other four is not what it contains, but rather what it lacks.


Each of the other four parashot describes a major event with historical significance: in parashat Shemot we read about the subjugation in Egypt and Moshe's appearance on the stage of history; parashat Bo records the exodus; in Beshalach there is the splitting of the Red Sea; and parashat Yitro recounts the giving of the Torah. In parashat Vaera, in contrast, there is no special climactic moment, just a series of events that will ultimately lead to the exodus. It is specifically for this reason that our parasha has special significance in the context of the two parallel processes that are taking place in the first part of Sefer Shemot: the consolidation of Bnei Yisrael as a nation, and the development of Moshe as a leader.


At the beginning of the parasha, God promises Moshe that He will deliver Am Yisrael from their suffering. This long and detailed promise contains five different expressions of redemption. Moshe conveys God's words to Am Yisrael, but his message falls on deaf ears and cold hearts:


"…but they did not listen to Moshe because of impatience (kotzer ruach) and hard labor (avoda kasha)." (6:9)


    Many different interpretations have been offered for the expressions "kotzer ruach" and "avoda kasha" and the connection between them. Rashbam comments (ad loc.):


"'But they did not listen to Moshe' – at this stage, even though they originally had faith, as it is written, 'And the people believed' (5:31), for they had thought that they would have rest from their hard labor, but now it had only become worse for them."


In other words, the reason for the lack of faith on the part of Bnei Yisrael was their disillusionment. In parashat Shemot, Moshe came to Am Yisrael and conveyed God's message of redemption. They heard the words "pakod pakadeti,” which had been passed down among them as the code and signal of redemption, and believed in Moshe, rejoicing and looking forward to an alleviation of their suffering (4:31):


"And the people believed; and when they heard that God had visited (pakad) Bnei Yisrael, and had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped."


The nation was now inspired with hope. They believed that within a short time their enslavement would be over; they began "packing their bags" and getting ready to leave. It came as a great disappointment that days and weeks went by, yet they were not redeemed. Their enslavement continued, its conditions growing even more difficult.


The nation, lacking any historical perspective, was impatient. The people did not understand that redemption is a long, slow process; they expected it to happen all at once. Since there was no visible progress, they were disappointed, and started to complain. This is the meaning of "impatience" (kotzer ruach).


What of the "avoda kasha"?


If a person is told that he is about to be redeemed, then even if he has some historical perspective and understands that redemption doesn't happen in a day, he will nevertheless expect, at the very least, an improvement in his conditions. If his enslavement continues and even intensifies, then of what use is the message of redemption? How does the message of redemption help an infant who is slaughtered so that Pharaoh might bathe in his blood?


Am Yisrael sees that the decrees are becoming even more unbearable, and therefore the people complain:


"They said to them, May God look upon you and judge, for you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, placing a sword in their hand to slay us." (5:21)


Concerning the verse, "But they did not listen to Moshe,” Seforno comments:


"[The Divine promise] 'I shall give it [the land] to you' (6:8) was not fulfilled in them; it was given to their children."


But for Bnei Yisrael it is not enough that their children will be redeemed; they want the redemption to benefit themselves, too.


To some degree the "impatience" and "hard labor" are mirrored in Moshe himself. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 111a) teaches:


"'Since I came to Pharaoh, to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people' (Shemot 5:23) – The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Alas for those who are gone, the likes of whom will not be seen again. For I appeared several times to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov with the Name 'El Sha-dai,’ and they did not question My ways or ask Me, 'What is Your Name?'


I said to Avraham, 'Arise, walk about in the land, the length and breadth of it, for I have given it to you' (Bereishit 13:17). Yet, when he sought a place to bury Sara, and could not find [a burial place] until he bought one for four hundred shekels of silver, He did not question My ways. [Similarly,] I said to Yitzchak, 'Dwell in this land and I shall be with you and bless you' (26:3). When his servants sought water to drink and could find none until they disputed… he did not question My ways. [In the same way,] I said to Yaakov, 'The land upon which you lie – I have given it to you and to your descendants' (28:13). When he sought a place to pitch his tent and had to buy [a plot] for a hundred kesita, he did not question My ways. Nor did any of them ask Me, 'What is Your Name?’


But as for you [Moshe] – you first said to Me, 'What is Your Name?' (Shemot 3:13), and now you say to Me, 'nor have You saved Your people' (5:23)…"


The midrash (Shemot Rabba 3:13) adds:


"The Holy One, blessed be He, foresaw that Pharaoh was going to intensify the subjugation of the people from the time that [Moshe] set off on his mission. In order that he would not be misled in this regard, God told him: 'Pharaoh will do such-and-such when you go on My mission' – so that he would not accuse God afterwards. Nevertheless, Moshe still accused God, and concerning him it is said, 'Oppression drives a wise man wild' (Kohelet 7:7)."


    According to the midrash, in addition to a certain questioning of God's ways, we also catch a glimpse of Moshe's own "impatience.” God had informed him in advance that Pharaoh would refuse to free Bnei Yisrael – "And I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go" (3:19). Nevertheless, Moshe had believed that the redemption would come in an instant, and therefore he "complains,” as it were, when this does not transpire.


Thus, Moshe himself displays a certain deficiency of historical consciousness, failing to understand fully the meaning of the process. Chazal teach in the midrash (Shemot Rabba 3:1) that Moshe was a "novice prophet.” It seems that the same expression might also be applied to his leadership, for we find on two occasions that Moshe fails to anticipate with accuracy the response of Am Yisrael.


The first time he argues, "But behold, they will not believe me" (4:1), but in reality the opposite happens: "The people believed" (4:31). The second time he rushes off immediately to share God's message (in our parasha), convinced that everyone will be encouraged by it – but the response on the part of the people is, "but they did not listen to Moshe" (6:9).


It would appear that Moshe's leadership develops with time, and he gradually learns to "feel" the spirit of the nation.


The problem of "hard labor" amongst Bnei Yisrael is also manifest – on a completely different level, obviously – in Moshe. The Gemara cited above from Sanhedrin continues and recounts the following:


"R. Elazar, son of R. Yossi, said: Once I arrived in Alexandria, in Egypt. I found an old man who said to me, Come and I will show you what my forefathers did to your forefathers: they drowned some of them in the sea; others they killed by the sword; and there were those whom they crushed in construction. And Moshe was punished for this, as it is written, 'And since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people' (Shemot 5:23)."


Moshe sees that the situation has only become worse; Bnei Yisrael are still being slaughtered, and he brings his complaint before God. In Moshe's eyes it makes no sense that God is talking about redemption while Jews are continuing to die. It seems as though God is perpetrating an injustice: these are righteous people who are experiencing undeserved suffering. Of what use is the message of redemption for the infants who, according to the midrash, were used by the Egyptians as construction filler? To borrow the language of the midrash, we might also suggest that at this stage Moshe is a "novice in faith.”


The importance of parashat Vaera lies in the fact that it provides an answer to the problem of "impatience.” A reading of the parasha in its entirety shows how the process plays itself out and how God thinks of everything. Our parasha offers a sense of historical consciousness, and has much to teach us about the redemption that we have experienced in our own era.


However, our parasha provides no answer to the second problem – the suffering of the righteous. This question has been raised many times over the course of history, and it has yet to receive a satisfactory response. Moshe, too, continues to ask this question even after he develops as a leader and is no longer a "novice": "Show me, I pray You, Your ways" (Shemot 33:13). The transformation and development that he undergoes is expressed in the fact that early on, this question causes him to cast "accusations" at God, while in parashat Ki Tisa he merely asks God for an answer. In any event, the question will seemingly remain unanswered until the coming of the Mashiach.


(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Vaera 5753 [1992].)