Unsteady belief?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

Towards the end of the Torah portion of Shemot, the Jewish people are “re-introduced” to God through Moshe’s revelation to them of the future exodus. After listening to the philosophical presentation, as well as witnessing various miraculous acts, the Torah succinctly records the unified reaction of the nation (Shemot 4:30-31):

“And Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs before the eyes of the people. And the people believed, and they heard that the Lord had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.”

As we read further, Pharaoh reacts in the harshest of manners to the meddling of Moshe and Aharon. He increases the workload, forces the Jewish people to gather the basic supplies, and creates an even more miserable life than what they had been experiencing.

In the beginning of the portion of Vaera, God relays a similar message as in Shemot to be delivered to the Jewish people (ibid 6:6-8):

“Therefore, say to the children of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.' "”

Moshe delivers this communication, but the response is quite different (ibid 6:9):

“Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath (kotzer ruach) and because of [their] hard labor (avoda kasha).”

As we can clearly see, the reaction was not a positive one.

The inconsistency in their “beliefs” is hard to avoid. In Shemot, they seem like they are all in. In Vaera, there is an apparent disconnect. The simple interpretation would be that they were overwhelmed by the change in circumstance, and this prevented them from “listening” to Moshe. When we turn to the words of the Sages, though, we see a troubling interpretation. One Midrash explains that the Jewish people were of little faith, and therefore would not listen to Moshe. Another claims that they became attached to idolatry. They shed poor light on God as Savior. These inflammatory descriptions cast the Jewish people in the greatest possible negative light. How could they be considered “believers” to begin with, if all along they were lacking?

Ramban rejects this entire line of thinking. He explains that there was never a question of their faith in God. Rather, he writes that they were unable to pay heed to the words of Moshe due to their shortness of spirit:

“like a person whose suffering has become unbearable, and does not want to live even for a moment in the his pain because he knows that he will have relief afterwards”.

He continues by explaining the two descriptions in the verse:

“…shortness of spirit was their fear that Pharaoh should not kill them by the sword, as their officers had told Moses. Hard work was the pressure with which the taskmasters pressed them, not allowing them to hear any idea or to reflect upon it”

While the above interpretation is creative, we must understand why Ramban chooses this path when attempting to elucidate the verse. Why not stick to the simple meaning, rather than create such elaborate explanations?

The overall issue, though, remains the clear argument in approach between the various Midrashim and Ramban (among others). They seem diametrically opposed to each other. Can we understand each perspective?

The debate would clearly center around the nature of the acceptance of God by the Jewish people after the initial demonstration by Moshe. According to the explanations offered by the Sages, there was a clear defect in the initial forging of relationship between God and the Jewish people. What was the issue? One Midrash notes their acerbic attitude after Pharaoh increased the workload. The “hand of God” had shortened (a play on the term of kotzer ruach) in so far as saving them was concerned. In other words, the Jewish people were not seeking to accept God fully.

They were not invested in understanding and accepting God as Creator, God as omniscient, God as King. They were seeking something, anything, to help them escape their current dire situation. Moshe said God was offering them a way out. Yes, there were philosophical ideals concerning this Deity, and there were some impressive miracles performed by Moshe. Ultimately, they were only ready to relate to God as Savior. Thus, when the results of the first meeting with Moshe produced a drastic change for the worse in their workload, they had no reason to continue their belief in God.

We do not necessarily need to consider that they accepted upon themselves a competing ideology. The emphasis is on their desire to seek out some type of escape from their predicament. In their current state, they could not see God in totality. Such an acceptance would mean when the conditions changed, they would seek out some other avenue to provide them with a solution.  

Ramban would appear to maintain that the initial acceptance by the Jewish people was complete, rather then possessing a defect. What was the change? It is possible he is highlighting the evil of Pharaoh and the potential complete destruction of the nation. Ramban notes that Pharaoh was able to instill in the Jewish people a fear of death. Prior to this change, the Jews understood there was a degree of subservience they had to Pharaoh. However, with the threat of death looming over them, their very survival as humans was now dependent on the whims of Pharaoh.

Taking away any opportunity to engage their minds meant removing the essence of what it means to be a human. Without being able to think, to be creative, to imagine or deduce, would be to reduce man to a base form. Thus, a threat to their physical survival, combined with removing access to the essence what defines us as human, produced a total breakdown. The Jewish people saw no reason to exist, as every ounce of humanity was being extracted from them. Yes, they had the correct idea of God. Sadly, they saw no mechanism to ever express that relationship in any meaningful way.

Each of the above opinions is highlighting the serious danger that the Jewish nation was in at this juncture. Per the Midrash, they were unable to relate to God in the appropriate manner. The beginning of the plagues would provide them a new opportunity to review the relationship. And Ramban understands that their existence hung by a thread. An easing of labor, along with opportunities to think and reflect, would mean a new opportunity to re-engage the relationship. The upcoming plagues would cause harm to the Egyptian populace, a small window opening for them to embrace God. Either way, we see an important turning point in the unfolding of the Divine plan.

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