July 22, 2024
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Good Question, Wrong Addressee

What did Moshe do so terribly wrong? Parshat Va’era begins by telling us that Hashem spoke to Moshe. It does so in a single verse that nonetheless uses two different names for Hashem. The verse uses the term Elokim, denoting the attribute of justice, and the term YKVK, denoting the attribute of mercy. Commentaries explain that the term Elokim reflects Hashem’s criticism of Moshe for asking at the end of last week’s parsha: “Why have you harmed this people?” The term YKVK is used because Moshe only asked this question out of love for Bnei Yisrael.

Nevertheless, the midrashim are critical of Moshe and offer an unflattering comparison between him and the Avot.

Rashi brings down a midrash from Shemot Rabbah (VI:4) in which HaShem laments the passing of the Avot. In that midrash, as well as in the Midrash Tanchuma, Hashem notes that He only made Himself known to the Avot as “Keil Shakai” and they did not question his attributes. In contrast, Moshe seemingly does question Hashem’s attributes by insisting on knowing Hashem’s name. Moreover, says Hashem in the midrash, although He promised the Avot the Land of Israel, in their times of need the land was not available to them absent exertion. Nonetheless, the Avot were stoic and accepted Hashem’s actions. In contrast, Moshe seemingly makes demands or poses questions for which he is criticized.

What is Moshe doing wrong? The problem is timing. Moshe refuses to accept that Hashem’s plan may need to unfold over a period of time. Moshe wants redemption now. Indeed, when Moshe refused initially to go to Egypt he requested that Hashem “send who You will send.” We are taught that by this Moshe was requesting that Hashem send Eliyahu and bring about the ultimate redemption. Moshe did not want any intermediate steps. (Thus, Moshe was the first to demand: “I want Mashiach now!”) So also at this stage, upon arrival in Egypt, Moshe does not want any intermediate steps. He wants the people to be released now. Hashem’s lament is that Moshe failed to realize that matters cannot be rushed. Rushing things, bad timing, the lack of patience, is the original sin.

Ultimately, we would have been allowed to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Indeed, we are taught that if Adam had only waited a few more hours permission to eat of the fruit would have been granted. Humanity’s first hours on Earth was not the time to eat of that fruit. Mankind was not ready for it. The fruit accelerated human development and did so too quickly. Technically, the first sin was disobeying Hashem’s command not to eat the fruit. Practically, the first sin was being impatient. The midrash speaks of the Avot’s immediate needs and their willingness to accept that Hashem may not immediately satisfy those needs. The Avot understood that “[t]o everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Kohelet 3:1.

The name “Shakai” denotes the setting of limitations (Chagigah 12a). The Avot understood that in this realm there were limitations based on the natural laws by which Hashem bound the universe. Things need to unfold in a natural way in this lower terrestrial realm. That is an aspect of Shakai. The name YKVK is beyond limitations. It is the embodiment of Hashem’s transcendent nature, in that He is superior to time itself. It can embody mercy because mercy can transcend law. (“It is an attribute to God Himself;/ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice.” Merchant IV:i). As Hashem explained to Moshe at their first encounter: “I will be that which I will be.”

Moshe was comfortable existing in the higher realm, of experiencing YKVK and transcending nature. As we see in Ha’Azinu, Moshe is closer to Heaven than to Earth. The difficulty is that Hashem needed Moshe to exist in this realm. Moshe needed to comprehend that not everyone could grasp concepts, or advance as quickly, as he was able to do. The people needed more time to grow into being Hashem’s people. Moshe will presume too much concerning the people’s advancement. We will see this with the Egel HaZahav and again with the sin of the spies. Moshe will misperceive the spiritual station the people were occupying. This was Hashem’s lament.

In Shemot Rabbah (1:34) we are told that the people were not worthy of redemption. Moshe should not have been urging Hashem to speed up the redemption. Rather, he should have been urging the people to speed up their repentance, which, of necessity, would have sped up the redemption. Although we should all pray for mercy, we should be worthy of that mercy.

There was nothing wrong with Moshe’s question. The problem was to whom Moshe addressed the question. “Why have you done this to this people?” is a question that does not need to be addressed to Hashem. It needs to be addressed to the people. Moshe at this point was in his infancy as a leader. Hashem wanted Moshe to understand that his obligation was not to try to change the Divine plan, but to change people’s character. When people change, when they do teshuva, their spiritual character changes, thus rendering the pre-existing Divine plan no longer applicable. Teshuva enables us to transcend the physical world’s limitations, in which Shakai is manifested, and move into that higher realm of YKVK that was most familiar and comfortable to Moshe. This we can do by greater adherence to the Torah given to us by Moshe.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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