Shabbat Parshat Shemot 5778
Nature of the Redemptive Process
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5770
How much does Moshe know about what is going to happen and how it is going to happen? Does he get a laid out plan of the how the redemption will take place or does he get his information piecemeal as the events unfold?
At the beginning of the third chapter of Shmot we read of the burning bush- Moshe’s first encounter with God. At that time he is informed that God is planning to redeem the Jews and he is commanded to appear before Pharaoh as God’s agent and deliver the most famous of messages- let my people go and worship for 3 days. The end of the chapter and the first half of chapter 4 detail the negotiations between Hashem and Moshe as to whether or not Moshe is the best person for the job. In those conversations Moshe learns that at first Pharaoh will refuse the request and God will have to “hit the Egyptians with wonders” and eventually they will let the Jews go.
That is not a lot for Moshe to go on. It will be a painful and lengthy process. How long? He has no idea. How exactly will it happen? No idea. What will happen to the Jews in the process? No idea.
Then we come to 3 very striking verses. Chapter 4 verse 18-20:
18. And Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, Let me go, I beseech you, and return to my brothers who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive. And Jethro said to Moses, Go in peace.
- And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, Go, return to Egypt; for all the men are dead who sought your life.
- And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
These verse, while seemingly benign, present a number of questions.
- It seems that Moshe is asking his father in law for permission to go. Didn’t he accept God’s command? Why does he need Jethro’s permission?
- It seems that he lies to his father in law. He tells him that the wants to see how his brethren are doing. Why doesn’t he tell him that he is going to deliver a message to Pharaoh on God’s behalf?
- Hashem again instructs Moshe to return to Egypt. Haven’t we been there and done that? Why repeat the command again?
- Why tell him that all of the people who wanted to kill you there are dead? Should that really scare Moshe? Isn’t God sending him? Can’t God take care of that as well?
- Lastly, what is Moshe’s family doing here? It is all Moshe and Hashem. Even if Moshe takes his family- why is it important for us to know that?
These seem to be very strong questions. There are so because we make the following assumptions. We believe that Moshe had a good understanding of what we know is going to happen next and we believe that as Moshe’s agent-nothing should frighten or scare him because God is on his side.
I think that those assumptions are faulty and I believe that the commentators as well did not believe those assumptions to be true.
The Ramban, in 13th century Spain, and the Netziv, in 19th century Volozhyn, explain this scenario as follows: Moshe understands from his dialogue with God that this is going to be a long process and this is the kicker- he believes that he is going to deliver the message to pharaoh and then return to Midyan! When he told Yitro that he was going to see how the Jews were doing with the implication that he would return- that was the truth; that was
what Moshe believed. Maybe it was not the whole truth but it was not a lie. That is why Hashem again instructs Moshe to return to Egypt. This is not a repeat of the previous command. This is God correcting Moshe and telling him- you are not returning to Midyan- return to Egypt and stay there. Thus Moshe takes his family now that he understands that he is not coming back.
The most interesting piece of that commentary is that it is obvious to those two great commentators that Moshe had no idea what the plan was.
The Ramban goes on to explain that bringing his family would also help convince the Jews in Egypt that Moshe really believed in the success of the mission otherwise he would never have brought his family to become slaves.
Eben Ezra argues and says that bringing the family was a mistake because the people would assume that Moshe was coming to settle and did not think that they would not get out that quickly. But he does not blame Moshe, for in his words,
ואל תתמה כי אין הנביא יודע הנסתרות don’t wonder about it- for the prophet does not know that which is hidden. Really? Isn’t that exactly what a prophet knows? Here too we see that Eben Ezra’s assumption was that a prophet means having the ability to communicate with God. It does not mean that you know everything and he did not believe that Moshe was given the plan either.
In the late 19th and 20th century in Dvinsk, Rabbi Meir Simcha, author of the Meshech Chochmah offers that following startling commentary on why God informs Moshe that those seeking to kill him are dead. He says- That if Moshe’s life was still in danger, he would not have had to go. That seems to be crazy! This is God and the redemption- what do you mean not go! He obviously did not believe that Moshe as God’s messenger was now untouchable. That is not how the world works, even during the Exodus.
I want to share with you one last source related to our second question- why not tell Yitro the truth. The Midrash Hagadol, a 13th or 14th century compilation of midrashim out of Yemen, argues that the Exodus was dependent upon the repentance of the Jewish people and if Moshe were to tell Yitro that God was going to redeem the Jews but the Jews did not repent and were not redeemed then Moshe would have made God a liar and so he tells him this half-truth.
That is an extremely complicated argument. I don’t believe this approach represents the majority of Jewish thinkers, nor do I think that it is textually compelling. Still it believes that not only does Moshe not know how the redemption will proceed, he can’t because no one knows how it will proceed. This Midrash I think is more instructive for future redemptions than for the Exodus itself.
Putting it all together it seems that even in the God orchestrated Exodus the people lived in real worlds and faced real dangers and did not have any real idea as to how the events would unfold. Even Moshe, the greatest prophet to walk the face of the earth, was uncertain regarding the details of the redemption.
If it was true in Egypt 3500 years ago, then it should certainly hold true now as well. We as modern orthodox religious Zionist Jews hope and believe that a redemptive process has begun and is underway in the state of Israel. Many argue that this can’t be so because it doesn’t fit with their understanding of what the redemption will look like- clear direction from God etc. They can’t see it clearly as it happens in real time in this world terms.
Our answer to that is – sure it is frustrating. We would love to know exactly how it will unfold and when and exactly what to do- but that is not necessarily the manner of redemption. It wasn’t even that way in Egypt when God’s hand was clearly more evident than it is now. We cannot even be certain that we will be successful this time around. But that does not mean that this is not redemption.
I hope that a proper understanding of the manner and nature of Jewish redemption allows us to continue to actively work towards that goal.