A mere day after killing the Egyptian taskmaster whom he had seen beating a Jew, Moshe encountered trouble again. Datan and Aviram, two of the titanic troublemakers in the Torah, got into a nasty argument, and Moshe attempted to break up the fight. He was rebuffed, whereupon Datan and Aviram slandered Moshe to Paroh, necessitating Moshe’s flight to Midyan. Moshe came to a well, saved Yitro’s seven daughters from the aggressive shepherds, and then married one of the seven, Tzipporah. Rashi (Shemot 2:15 s.v. VaYeishev Al HaBe’eir) explains that Moshe went to the well because he learned from Yaakov that the place to find a wife is by a well. Several questions can be raised on this comment of Rashi. First, why did Moshe want to marry a non-Jew? Second, even if Moshe did not mind marrying outside his people, why was it the first thing on his mind after his narrow escape from Paroh? Finally, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:32) from which Rashi’s comment is culled mentions that there was in fact another character who had found his wife by a well: Yitzchak. Why doesn’t Rashi cite this precedent as well?
To answer these difficulties, we must address why Yaakov went to the well. The Ramban (Bereishit 29:2) explains that Yaakov did not go to the well intentionally. Rather, Hashem arranged for him to meet his future wife there because the water represented the Torah (see Bava Kamma 17a) and the Beit HaMikdash that Yaakov’s descendents would establish. Hashem wanted Yaakov to know, as he was about to begin building the Jewish nation, that the nation’s ultimate purpose was to grow spiritually through the Torah and the Beit HaMikdash. Yitzchak, on the other hand found his wife at the well by happenstance; there was nothing significant about the well other than that it happened to be where Eliezer found Rivkah.
Rav Dovid Orlofsky explains that Moshe went to the well because he wanted to start things over. Once he saw that there were slanderers amongst Bnei Yisrael, he felt that they deserved their slavery in Mitzrayim (Rashi to Shemot 2:14) and no longer deserved to be redeemed (ibid. 3:11). Accordingly, he went to the well intending to find a wife through which he would start Bnei Yisrael anew. He did not want to marry someone from the Jewish people – he turned his back on them. The first thing on his mind when he fled Mitzrayim was to find a way to restart Bnei Yisrael from scratch. This choice does not resemble Yitzchak finding a wife by a well, so Rashi does not mention that precedent. But it is exactly why Yaakov ended up at the well in Aram. This also explains why Moshe chose to go to Midyan. Just like Yaakov, who went to Avraham’s family in Aram in order to start the Jewish nation the first time, Moshe went to a member of Avraham’s family, Midyan (see Bereishit 25:2), to start over.
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein (in his Sefer entitled Tzir VaTzon) takes this idea one step further. The Torah tells us that Moshe ran away from Midyan while he was yet young. When he returned to Mitzrayim to begin the process of redemption, he was eighty years old. Why don’t we know anything about the intervening sixty years? The answer is that Moshe cut himself off from Bnei Yisrael. He had no interest in maintaining any connection to the Jews, so the Torah does not tell us anything about him during that time.
How did Hashem give Moshe the message that he was to return to be part of the Jewish nation? He appeared to him in a Sneh, a thorn bush. There were two subtle messages in this choice of venue for revelation. First, a thorn bush also has flowers. Hashem wanted Moshe to realize that while Bnei Yisrael might have some flaws, they also had positive potential that made them worthy of redemption. Second, Rashi notes that Hashem wanted Moshe to understand that “Imo Anochi VeTzarah,” “I am with them during hard times” (Tehillim 91:15), made apparent by Hashem’s choice of the sharp thorn bush rather than some nicer tree. Moshe was supposed to understand that if Hashem still was with the Jews, he should rejoin the Jews as well.
Finally, events come full circle. Moshe left Mitzrayim intending to become the new progenitor of Bnei Yisrael. Yet he learned his lesson. When offered that exact option after the Cheit HaEigel, Moshe refused, going as far as to argue that if Hashem wanted to destroy the Jews, He would have to wipe out Moshe’s name from the Torah. Moshe had become a true leader of Bnei Yisrael, able to see past the faults of the people and prepared to defend them to the utmost.
We can learn a potent lesson from Moshe. He was willing to condemn and reject Bnei Yisrael because he saw Lashon HaRa amongst them. Though Hashem obviously felt that this was not sufficient reason to discard the nation outright, Rashi (3:12) makes it clear that this decision was based on Bnei Yisrael’s future acceptance of the Torah at Har Sinai. At their present level, Bnei Yisrael in fact were unworthy of being redeemed. The Chafetz Chaim goes to great lengths to demonstrate the terrible destructive power of Lashon HaRa, devoting a lengthy introduction to the seventeen negative Mitzvot, the fourteen positive Mitzvot, and the four curses that one potentially can violate by speaking disparagingly of others. He also makes reference to the Yerushalmi (Peiah 1:1) that declares Lashon HaRa to be equivalent to violation of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, immorality, and murder. It would behoove us to learn from Moshe, mistaken though he was, that negative speech must eradicated in order for redemption to come.