Editors’ note: The following article was originally published in Volume 15 of Kol Torah in 2006/5766. To read more Parashah and Halachah articles from previous editions of Kol Torah, please visit koltorah.org.
Parashat Shemot contains the episode of the burning bush, the pivotal moment in Moshe Rabbeinu’s life when he is appointed as the leader of Kelal Yisrael. However, we know that he exhibits great resistance to the idea – Rashi states that Moshe Rabbeinu argues with Hashem against his appointment for a full week! At the end of this week, Moshe has exhausted his arguments against accepting the task, finally pleading (4:13), “Bi Hashem, Shelach Na BeYad Tishlach,” “Please, Hashem, send [the Redemption] in the hand of one whom You will send [i.e. anyone else]!” At this outburst, Hashem becomes enraged and tells Moshe unequivocally that he has no choice in the matter – He is giving Moshe an order, and Moshe must fulfill it. Hashem also mentions that Aharon will speak on Moshe’s behalf and will fulfill this role happily.
According to Rashi, when Moshe says “Shelach Na BeYad Tishlach,” he is asking Hashem to use the person whom he would normally use – Aharon, the leader of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt at the time. Moshe is afraid that Aharon will be upset to have his younger brother become the leader instead of him. Support for Rashi may be drawn from Hashem’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu, in which He says that Aharon will be happy that Moshe has become a leader of Bnei Yisrael. This statement is relevant only if Moshe feared that Aharon will react negatively. However, we must ask: if Moshe has a valid reason for not wanting to become a leader – concern for the honor of his older brother – why does Hashem react so angrily?
Another question emerges from Rashi’s comment on the next Pasuk (s.v. Vayichar Af). He quotes the Gemara (Zevachim 102) where Rabi Yehoshua ben Karchah states that every time the Torah tells us that Hashem became angry, the anger had some impact, except for the instance of Hashem’s anger at the burning bush. Rabi Yose responds that even this case had some impact, as Moshe was supposed to receive the Kehunah, but instead it was bestowed upon Aharon. This seems difficult, though: if Moshe was so concerned about taking away privileges from his brother, wouldn’t he view Aharon’s receiving the privilege of Kehunah as a reward, not a punishment?
The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh adds that Moshe receives one other punishment. In Pasuk 12, Hashem implies that He will cure Moshe Rabbeinu’s speech impediment for the sake of the mission. However, Hashem now states that Moshe must speak through Aharon. Hence, the Or HaChaim believes that the punishment is that Moshe will not be cured. However, he notes that this interpretation does not contradict the opinion of Rabi Yose, as the Torah (v. 14) uses the phrase “Vayichar Af Hashem,” as opposed to the simpler phrase “Vayichar Hashem.” The extra word Af implies that there are two punishments, the one listed by Rabi Yose and the one mentioned by Ohr HaChaim himself. How do these two punishments fit the “crime”?
We may answer all of our questions based on a careful analysis of Moshe’s request, “Shelach Na BeYad Tishlach.” The only reason that Moshe gives Aharon precedence is that Aharon is the “Yad Tishlach,” the one whom Hashem normally sends. Moshe does not ask Hashem to send a bigger Tzaddik, or a superior Yerei Shamayim, but simply the one whom He would normally send. Clearly, Moshe places great emphasis on a person’s history. Hence, although he is concerned about the honor of his brother, his main motivation is preserving Aharon’s status as the established leader. We can now answer our second question – Moshe’s objection to being elevated over his brother applies only to leadership, which Aharon already possesses. Kehunah, an institution not yet established, could go to anyone, and Moshe would certainly want it. Thus, losing the Kehunah is in fact a punishment for him.
We can also view Moshe’s emphasis on personal history as reflecting a much more fundamental flaw: he lacks an appreciation for the fact that people can change over time, meaning that one who was not fit to become a leader yesterday may be fit today. Moshe seems to feel that he is unfit to be a leader because he has never been a leader and has little experience with Bnei Yisrael. Hashem becomes angry because Moshe refuses to accept that people in general, and Moshe himself in particular, can improve and grow. To answer our first question, then, Hashem is upset not that Moshe is concerned for others, but that he fails to acknowledge that he can change and rise to the challenge.
We see this idea reflected, Midah Keneged Midah, in the punishments that Moshe receives (which answers our third question). The link to Hashem’s refusal to fix Moshe’s speech impediment is fairly clear. Moshe has a problem that Hashem intends to fix, but since Moshe thinks people cannot be fixed, Hashem refuses to fix Moshe. However, the link to the loss of the Kehunah is slightly less clear.
Perhaps we can link Kehunah to the idea that people can change based on the fact that much of a Kohen’s job was to bring Korbanot aimed at atoning for various sins. The Korban was meant to give its owner a fresh start, a chance to put the mistakes of the past behind him and move ahead in his personal growth. The Kohen Gadol also possessed a second vehicle of atonement – the Tzitz, which could achieve forgiveness for certain sins when the sinner simply looked at it. Both the Tzitz and the sin-related Korbanot could only reach Bnei Yisrael through the hands of someone who understood that people can change and improve themselves. As we have seen, Moshe was certainly not the man for the job. However, Aharon, who was happy for Moshe, certainly appreciated this concept, and he was therefore granted the Kehunah.
Based on this interpretation of the story, we can learn two very important concepts. We must accept both that we ourselves can change and that others can change as well. The former is important because it imposes upon us an obligation to constantly try to better ourselves. We might think that a bad habit is so ingrained into ourselves that it can never be removed, but the truth is that we can change and rise above our current faults. Additionally, when a new role, especially one of leadership, presents itself, we should not shy away based on fear of something new; instead, we should embrace it with all our hearts and give our best efforts. Recognizing others’ ability to change, meanwhile, is also important because it means that we have to forgive them for past mistakes and “allow” them to change, as well. It is only through constant self-improvement and encouragement of others that we will all reach the highest levels of spirituality.