Moshe's Test

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Moshe's Test


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





            Our parasha begins in the middle of a heated exchange between Moshe and God.  While God's rejoinder opens our weekly reading, Moshe fired the first blast:


Then Moshe returned unto Hashem and said, "Hashem – why did You bring harm upon these people?  Why did you send me?

Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still you have not delivered Your people!" (5:22-23)

Do You even care about the poor people who were crushed under these buildings? (Medrash Shemot Rabba 5:22)


God's retort to Moshe is divided into two:


Then Hashem said to Moshe, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land."

And God spoke to Moshe and said to him, "I am Hashem."  I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as El Shakkai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Hashem. (6:1, 6:2-3)


Rashi explains the harshness of Hashem's barbed rejoinder:


'Now you shall see' – You questioned My attributes, unlike Avraham to whom I said, "For through Yitzchak will your seed be called," and afterwards I said to him, "Offer him as a burnt offering,"; yet he did not question My attributes.  Therefore, "NOW you will see" – you will see what will be done to Pharaoh, but you will not see what which will be done to the seven Canaanite kings when I bring [Israel] into the land.

'And God spoke to Moshe' – He spoke with him [words of] rebuke for speaking harshly and saying, "why did You bring harm upon these people?"  (Rashi)


Rashi's comment notes both the switch in Divine names and the verbs used to communicate.  His super-commentator, the Gur Aryeh (written by the Maharal of Prague), notes that while the word to speak (D.B.R.) can connote either harsh or face-to-face communication; it is the rare juxtaposition with the name Elokim (understood as referring to the Attribute of Justice) that provokes Rashi's comment.  Recognition of the Divine anger that underlies these words first appears in the Talmud:


'I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov' – what a pity that they are gone – and are irreplaceable! Many were the times that I appeared to them, and despite all that they went through, they never distrusted Me – and yet you accuse Me: "You have done nothing to help Your people!" (Talmud Sanhedrin 111a)




            To appreciate how Rabbinic tradition attributed such bitterness and ire to this conversation, we must understand Moshe's motivations for questioning Hashem.  Factually, Moshe's description of the situation was entirely correct.  Not only had Pharaoh refused to release the people from bondage, but he also charged his officers to supply the necessary straw and raw materials to make the bricks no longer.  When the Jewish people were incapable of manufacturing their previous prescribed quota of bricks, Pharaoh ordered their supervisors beaten.  When they complained, he dismissed them with "You are shirkers, shirkers!  That is why you say, 'Let us go and sacrifice to Hashem.'  Be off now to your work.  No straw shall be issued to you, but you must produce your quota of bricks."  At first glance, it is small wonder that Moshe complained so angrily.


Upon further examination, however, we see justification for Hashem's rebuke as well.  Returning to Hashem's initial command to Moshe, we discover the following:


"Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them:  Hashem, the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, has appeared to me and said, 'I have taken note of you and of what is being done to you in Egypt, and I have declared: I will take you out of the misery of Egypt …to a land flowing with milk and honey.'

They will listen to you; then you shall go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and you shall say to him, 'Hashem, the God of the Hebrews, manifested Himself to us.  Now, therefore, let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to Hashem our God.'  Yet, I know that the king of Egypt with let you go only because of a greater might.  So I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt …" (3:16-20)


At the beginning of the mission, Hashem informed Moshe that his first entreaty would fail.  Only the appearance of the Divine attribute of strength and justice, as expressed through the plagues, would free the Jewish people from slavery.  Suddenly, Moshe's complaints appear less justified, and Hashem's frustration and discontent with His messenger understandable.


The Ramban brings two suggestions to explain what motivated Moshe's behavior despite his prior knowledge that Pharaoh would initially refuse to release the Jewish people:


After Hashem made known to Moshe several times that the king of Egypt would not release them immediately, why did he protest?  Rabbi Avraham (the Ibn Ezra) suggested that Moshe thought from the time he spoke to Pharaoh, Hashem would [while not redeem the Jews] ease their burdens and begin the process of redemption.  Instead, Pharaoh increased their burdens and sufferings … and this is not correct in my eyes, for the word 'save' [in 'why did You not save your people] only means the removal of the people from exile[1].

In my opinion, Moshe was aware of the fact that Pharaoh would not release the Jewish people from slavery instantly, without the intervention of miracles and plagues and wonders.  However, he assumed that Hashem would bring this miracles and signs quickly upon Pharaoh's refusal.  When Pharaoh said 'I do not know Hashem', Moshe expected to perform the sign of the staff turning to a crocodile immediately.  When several days had passed without any communication from Hashem, and the situation worsened, he turned to Hashem to complain.




Fascinating, while most commentators noted the shift in Divine names as a hint reflecting Divine displeasure with Moshe, very few note the reversal back to "And He said, 'I am Hashem' as reflecting a return to favor.  Instead, there is much discussion to the significance of the Divine Tetregrammaton YHVH, especially since the following verse states that the forefathers were unaware of this name's true meaning.  The Noam Elimelekh (Rabbi Elimelekh of Dvinsk, the grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov) suggests that Moshe spoke insolently towards Hashem out of love for the Jewish people.  By virtue of this love, Moshe was able to transform Hashem's strict justice to mercy.   This duality is noted by the Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz):

After Moshe Rabbeinu spoke words against the blessed God, God rebuked him, and this is why the Torah says, "And Elokim spoke to Moshe", which is a form denoting harshness … immediately afterwards, though, it says, "And He said to him."  This is like one who became angry with his friend, yet he loves him; so when he sees his friend astonished and frightened, he then hints to him that all his anger was only momentary and outward.  Thus it is here, saying, "and He said to him, 'I am Hashem,'" for saying denotes gentleness, meaning that he whispered to him that He is not really angry, God forbid.  This is also why it says, "I am Hashem for the name YHVH, blessed be He, is filled with compassion, and the strong rebuke was only outward and temporary, so do not be afraid.


If the Mei Shiloach is correct, what purpose does the duality serve?  Why pretend anger, and yet whisper that in fact, it isn't real?  Given the nature of the ensuing revelation to Moshe, which contained a level of intimacy with Hashem previously yet unattained, we can conclude that it was precisely the nature of Moshe's original indignant response that merited this intimacy.  Upon witnessing the suffering of his brothers, Moshe could have remained indifferent.  The possessor of the previous Divine communication, he could intellectually explain the anguish his brothers felt.  However, he did not allow his sense of empathy to become dulled.  Rather than offer theological justifications, he chose to challenge Hashem instead. In doing so, he proved a worthy heir to our father Avraham, who stood before God long before, knowing the corrupt and evil nature of the Sodomites, yet declared, "Will the Judge of all the earth not perform Justice!" (Genesis 18:23).  This willingness to stand proudly before God on behalf of one's fellow man, states the Zohar, is precisely the quality that God searches for in appointing a leader:


"And Avraham drew near and said, "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?" – Rabbi Yehuda said: Who has seen a father as compassionate as Avraham?  Come and see, regarding Noach it sates, "And God said to Noach, the end of all flesh is come before me…" yet Noach held his peace and did not intercede.  Whereas Avraham, as soon as the Holy One, Blessed be he said to him: "Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very grievous …" immediately, "And Avraham drew near and said, "Will You also destroy the righteous with the wicked?"


Based on the Mei Shiloach's approach, instead of castigating Moshe's apparent lack of faith, we must internalize the Torah's message never to repress our sense of empathy and caring towards others – even when confronted by the Divine.  


[1] The Ramban's assumption that 'save' means complete redemption is not universally shared among the commentators.  The Nachshoni brings an unnamed commentator who suggests, paradoxically, that this is the source of Hashem's displeasure towards Moshe:

Chazal state that the word 'save' does not connote full redemption, but rather a nullification of a decree.  As such, Hashem is asking Moshe, "If Pharaoh's decree that the Children of Israel must gather their own straw was abolished, and the previous status quo restored, would that have satisfied you?  Would you and the Jewish people then adjust comfortably to a life of Egyptian servitude?"  In other words – why are you not pressing Me for a full redemption?