Shmot: The Redeemer's Reluctance

Why did Moshe protest so much?

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles,

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With Parshat Shemot we begin the historical record of our national enslavement and subsequent redemption through our leader, Moshe Rabbenu. However, Moshe, although specifically called upon by Hashem, was reluctant to take on this mission. He offers a two part objection beginning with mi anochi, who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the children out of Egypt.

Rashi in fact sees Moshe’s response as two separate objections. The first is based on Moshe’s humility – who am I. The second is centered on Bnei Yisroel – do they merit the miracle of redemption. Hashem’s response to Moshe seems to answer each of these objections. First, if you feel unqualified for this mission, it is I Who am going with you, and second, Bnei Yisroel merit redemption, for they already have the potential to serve Me on this mountain only seven weeks after their redemption.

Unlike Rashi, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in 'Tiv Hatorah' sees these two questions as basically one question. Moshe understood that this mission to redeem Bnei Yisroel was a great mission. As such it was fraught with much personal danger. It was not that his love for Bnei Yisroel was not strong enough; on the contrary, Hashem chose Moshe because his love for his brothers was so strong that even as a prince he endangered his own life in his empathy for them. Moshe was, however, afraid for his spiritual life. Being entrusted with such a lofty mission had the potential of inflating his ego and making him arrogant. To this Hashem responded, “Don’t worry. I am with you. You are merely My emissary. You will do My bidding. As such, you will remain the humble human being you are and your soul will not be damaged.”

This reassurance stayed with Moshe throughout his life as he continued to be Hashem’s faithful servant, the leader of a great nation, and yet retained his total humility, much as a shofar takes no pride in the sound it produces through the mouth of the master shofar blower. As the 'Lashon Chasidim' adds, just as the bush was not consumed or damaged by fulfilling Hashem’s command, so neither will Moshe’s character be damaged by fulfilling God’s command.

The 'Ohr Doniel' points to the wording of Moshe’s objection, “Mi anochi – who am I,” as the basis for Hashem’s choosing Moshe for this mission. Because of your humility, Moshe, your concern with your Anochi, Anochi /Iwill be with you. Your humility is the very sign that proves why I have chosen you. Hashem requires that a leader knows his place as a messenger of Hashem rather than as someone great in his own right.

Moshe’s character is in sharp contrast to the character of Jeroboam ben Nevat, the first king of the ten tribes in the divided kingdoms. As Rabbi Dovid Weinberger points out in 'Step by Step', Hashem gave Jeroboam the opportunity to return to Him and enter Paradise, even preceding King David. But Jeroboam wanted Hashem to state explicitly that when they entered Gan Eden, he would be in the forefront. By stoking his ego, Jeroboam lost all connection to the World to Come.

Citing the 'Beis Halevi', the 'Lev Tahor' views Moshe’s reluctance from a different perspective. Hashem had promised Yaakov that He would be with him when Yaakov went down to Egypt and that He personally (so to speak) would bring his descendants out of Egypt. If that is the promise, asks Moshe Rabbenu, who am I to take them out? Hashem’s response, according to the 'Lev Tahor' is twofold. First He is assuring Moshe that He Himself is redeeming Bnei Yisroel and Moshe is just His emissary. In fact, we bear witness to this truth every year at our Seder. But if Hashem Himself took us out of Egypt, that redemption would have been permanent. Yet we have other exiles and oppressions, and Hashem descends with us into each abyss, and Hashem also sends us emissaries to help us and redeem us from each of these.

Here the 'Lev Tahor' offers a profound insight. Just as life consists of two levels, the physical and the spiritual, so too did the exile and our redemption. Moshe was charged with redeeming us physically. As such, it was not a permanent redemption, and we have indeed suffered many meitzorim, narrow, oppressive times since. However, when it came to the spiritual redemption of Bnei Yisroel from the immorality and depravity of Egyptian society, that redemption was by God Himself. The sign is that we stood at that same mountain and accepted the yoke of servitude to Hashem alone. The historical proof of this reasoning is that the Jewish nation remained committed to our Creator and to His service no matter what the circumstances. Our physical bodies were tortured, destroyed, burnt, but our spiritual commitment to Hakodosh Boruch Hu is permanent and has never wavered.

Rav Belsky offers support for this thesis by saying that Moshe’s mission also had a spiritual component. By performing so many miracles in front of Pharaoh and for Bnei Yisroel, he gave Bnei Yisroel the resolve to distance themselves from the culture and servitude of Egypt and to ready themselves for accepting the Torah and servitude to Hashem. How will you know that you have been successful in this mission? This (zeh) will be your sign, that Bnei Yisroel will serve Me on this mountain. Indeed, Bnei Yisroel so clearly recognized their God that they could point and declare, “This (zeh) is my God and I will glorify Him.”

Rabbi Yehudah ben Levi presents an allegory of a king marrying off his daughter. As part of her dowry, the king promises a maid of honor as a servant. After the wedding, however, the king substitutes a Cushite woman in place of the maid of honor, and the son-in-law rightfully complains. Moshe felt that he was an inadequate substitute for God, for God had promised that He Himself would redeem Bnei Yisroel from Egypt. Therefore he used the Divine Anochi when asking, ”Who am I that I should go … and take Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt.”

Rabbi Goldwicht interprets Moshe’s reluctance as his feeling of inadequacy by focusing on Moshe’s argument that he is not a man of words, that he is heavy of mouth and heavy of speech. While traditional commentators interpret this to mean that Moshe was a stutterer, Rabbi Goldwicht interprets this to mean that Moshe was concerned that his power of speech would be inadequate to bring heaven down to earth through Hashem’s presence, for that is the reason mankind was given the power of speech. In this capacity, he would need to know how to speak diplomatically to Pharaoh, and he had been a mere shepherd for these forty years. How would Moshe be able to form a bridge between the spiritual and physical realms as Yaakov Avinu did and to whom these promises were made? To counter this argument, Hashem sent Aharon to speak for Moshe before Pharaoh while Moshe would get the words directly from Hashem. Moshe was afraid not only of being an imperfect messenger but also of corrupting himself and his own speech by being in the Cushite, Egyptian court.

We face similar challenges with our power of speech. Are we using our speech in holy pursuits or for merely physical uses? Is technology corrupting our power to connect with each other and with God through the spoken word? If the great Moshe was afraid his speech could sever him from his Creator, how much more careful and observant of our speech must we be.

The 'Tiv Hatorah' presents one more question on this dialogue. Although Bnei Yisroel had already suffered greatly, how would that qualify as a merit for redeeming them from their servitude to Egypt? For without a commitment toward improvement and resolution for the future, there is no merit for current benevolence. In answer to this concern, Hashem answered that Bnei Yisroel will worship Me on this mountain. In the merit of their future observance, I will redeem them now, just as in the merit of our taking on an addition observance or stricture will Hashem answer our tefillot in whatever hardship we find ourselves that we pray to Him for salvation.

Perhaps the greatest proof of Moshe’s successful mission is in tracing the progression of these Anochi terms from Hashem’s promise to Yaakov Avinu that He Himself would bring us out of Egypt, to Moshe’s questioning his own worthiness for this mission, to Hashem’s reassurance that He would personally accompany Moshe on this mission, to the final result: Bnei Yisroel hearing that Anochi as the first word of the Ten Utterances at Har Sinai. The 'Taam Vodaat' points out that Hashem is with us wherever we are and He guides us through His emissaries until in the future, from the inner essence of His Anochi Hashem will send His final emissary, Eliyahu Hanavi, to redeem us, may it be speedily in our day.

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