In the beginning of this week’s Parashah, Hashem commands Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael that He will redeem the nation from the slavery of Egypt and bring them to the land of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Moshe heeds the command without any objection, but he is subsequently surprised by the refusal of the nation to listen to him. The Torah, in anticipation of the obvious question of why the nation did not listen to Moshe, explains (Shemot 6:9), “VeLo Shame`u El Moshe MiKotzer Ruach UMeiAvodah Kashah,” “They did not listen to Moshe because of shortness of breath and hard work.” Moshe seemingly does not understand this cause, as he complains to Hashem (6:12), “Hein Bnei Yisrael Lo Shame’u Eilai VeEich Yishma’eini Pharoh,” “Bnei Yisrael did not listen to me, so how will Paroh listen to me?” If Moshe had understood the reason, he would not have suspected that Paroh would not listen for the same reason. This begs the following question: why does Moshe not understand that the reason the nation does not heed his promise is their abundance of work?
It is possible to suggest that since Moshe does not engage in backbreaking labor, he does not understand the mindset of Bnei Yisrael. However, this is not the only time that Moshe doubts the people. In last week’s Parashah, Moshe tells Hashem, “VeHein Lo Ya’aminu Li VeLo Yishme’u BeKoli,” “They will not believe me, and they will not listen to my voice” (Shemot 4:1). In that instance, Moshe has no apparent reason to doubt the people, yet he boldly claims to Hashem that they will not listen to him. Rashi (4:6 s.v. MeTzora’at KaSheleg) comments that Hashem hints to Moshe that he spoke Lashon HaRa by afflicting him with Tzara’at after his remark. Once again, why does Moshe doubt the nation?
Perhaps the answer to this question can explain another phenomenon found in Parashiyot VaEira and Bo. Hashem repeatedly commands Moshe to tell Paroh that he should send Bnei Yisrael out for three days so that the nation can serve Hashem. However, Hashem and Moshe both know that Bnei Yisrael are not going for merely three days. Why does Hashem seemingly lie to Paroh, especially considering that Hashem knows that Paroh will not consent even to this lesser demand? Why isn’t Hashem blunt and straightforward with Paroh from the outset?
A possible answer to this question can be found in the opening encounter between Moshe and the Jewish people. Imagine going out of your sheltered palace for the first time and seeing an Egyptian striking a Jewish man. Then you go out the next day, and you see a Jewish man raising his hand to strike a fellow Jew. That is precisely Moshe’s first encounter with his brethren! Moreover, when Moshe rebukes the fighting Jews, they respond by threatening to inform Paroh of Moshe’s murder of the Mitzri. What could Moshe possibly think of his nation when his first encounter suggests that its people are just as bad as the people who are subjugating them? Would he not be disgusted? In fact, Rashi quotes an opinion that this is exactly what Moshe feels when the Torah states, “VaYira Moshe VaYomar Achein Noda HaDavar,” “Moshe feared and said, ‘Therefore, the matter is known’” (Shemot 2:14). Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Achein Noda HaDavar) explains that Moshe fears because he sees wicked informers who do not deserve to be redeemed, and he realizes that it is because of people like them that Bnei Yisrael, out of all the seventy nations, deserve to be enslaved.
With this explanation of Rashi in mind, maybe we can explain that Moshe has some sort of negative predisposition toward his own people. He thinks of them as barbaric people who quarrel and tattle. What else could Moshe possibly know about a nation with which he has almost no association?
This explains why Moshe originally assumes that the people would not believe him when he claims that Hashem appeared to him. However, after Bnei Yisrael do listen to him, why does Moshe continue to question the stature of the nation in this week’s Parashah and in many Parashiyot to come? Perhaps Rashi (Shemot 5:1 s.v. VeAchar Ba’u Moshe Ve’Aharon) subtly provides an answer to such a question when he comments that Moshe and Aharon come in front of Paroh, but the seventy Zekeinim, who are also supposed to come along, abandon Moshe and Aharon one by one. Moshe already has very little confidence in the people, so when the best of the nation, the Zekeinim, do the wrong thing, Moshe reverts back to his original attitude toward Bnei Yisrael.
Paroh understands Moshe’s attitude toward Bnei Yisrael and actually plays into his concerns. Paroh asks Moshe (Shemot 5:2), “Mi Hashem Asher Eshma BeKolo,” “Who is Hashem that I should listen to his voice?” Does Paroh actually not know who the God of Bnei Yisrael is? While it is a possibility, it’s more likely that he does know and nonetheless pretends to be oblivious. Perhaps he does so to show Moshe that Bnei Yisrael are so assimilated and removed from Hashem that even Paroh doesn’t know who their God is. Paroh knows that Moshe lacks faith in his people; therefore, he feeds Moshe’s concern by pretending not to know who Hashem is.
This can explain why Hashem commands Moshe repeatedly to tell Paroh to let the nation serve Hashem for three days. It is not because Paroh will let the nation out sooner due to the milder request but because Hashem needs to show Moshe that the people deserve redemption, as they will serve Hashem when they are taken out. This idea is reflected in Rashi’s approach to Shemot 3:11-12. According to Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. VaYomer Ki Ehyeh Imach), Moshe asks Hashem, “Why are Bnei Yisrael worthy that a miracle be done for them and that I should take them from Egypt?” Hashem then responds, “You will worship me on this mountain [Har Sinai]…this is the merit that exists on behalf of Israel.” According to Rashi, Hashem already tells Moshe, during the episode of the burning bush, that Bnei Yisrael are worthy of being taken out because of their future.
With this understanding of Moshe, we can explain why he does not qualify as the leader to bring the nation into Israel. In Parashat Chukat, the Torah relates the famous episode of Moshe’s hitting the rock despite being commanded to speak to the rock. It is at this point that Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon, “Lo Tavi’u Et HaKahal HaZeh El HaAretz Asher Natati Lahem,” “You will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them” (BeMidbar 20:12). What was so bad about this sin that warranted such a harsh punishment for Moshe? Perhaps it was not so much that the sin itself was so terrible, but that the punishment reflects a fault in Moshe which disqualifies him to lead the young nation into the land. In this episode, Bnei Yisrael make a fair request, namely, for water, and Hashem never expresses anger toward the people for their request. Therefore, Moshe’s reaction is uncalled for and indicative of his negative inclination toward the nation. Such a person cannot bring the nation of God into the Promised Land. Hashem needs someone new, someone who has faith in the people, someone who is more willing to cope with and bend toward the needs and wants of the people. Moshe is an unbelievable teacher and a fantastic role model, but he is not the right person to lead the new nation.
What makes Moshe’s reaction in Parashat Chukat different from his reaction in the beginning of this week’s Parashah is that here, he is somewhat justified. The people who were slaves in Egypt do deserve some skepticism directed at them, and that is why Hashem cannot take these people into Eretz Yisrael. He needs to wait for a new generation, one that did not go through slavery and assimilation for 210 years. Sadly, Moshe gets caught up in the old, and cannot make the transition into leading the young generation.
Every day in Davening we say, “Lo Kam BeYisrael KeMoshe Od,” “There hasn’t arisen in Bnei Yisrael someone like Moshe.” Nonetheless, Hashem chooses Yehoshua, the Talmid of Moshe, to lead the nation. Why does Hashem “downgrade” the level of the leader? Possibly, Hashem is teaching us an extremely important lesson. While Moshe is certainly an incredible person, he has a particular persona that is not conducive to doing everything. Everyone in this world has certain aspects that are stronger than others, and even someone as great as Moshe cannot fulfill roles that are contrary to his personality. We too must learn to focus on strong aspects, and although we should not ignore our negative aspects, we should aim to accomplish much, as Moshe did as the greatest teacher of Am Yisrael, with those positive attributes.
Editor’s Note: Rav Moshe Lichtenstein develops this theme at length in his work “Tzir VaTzon.” An early version of this book may be accessed at Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash.