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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: Redemption by faith
For a while, Moses was very reluctant to take upon himself to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. G’d accepted Moses’ concern and gave him several signs he could use to convince the Jewish people of the authenticity of his mission. G’d punished Abraham by enslaving his descendants for 210 years. The common denominator in Abraham’s three mistakes was a lack of faith in G’d. To rectify these mistakes, Abraham’s descendants had to endure the challenges of the exile and bondage in Egypt. Moses was concerned that due to all their misery the Jewish people would not believe him and would be lacking in their faith in G’d. The Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their faith. As we are going through the final stages of our exile, we also are faced with challenges to test our faith in G’d.
In this week’s Parasha, G’d revealed himself for the first time to Moses. Moses was at the time tending to the sheep of his father-in-law Yisro when G’d appeared in a burning bush. G’d instructed Moses that He wanted to send him back to Egypt to lead the Jewish people out of their bondage. For a while, Moses was very reluctant to take this mission upon himself. First of all, he personally did not feel worthy, and secondly, he was not sure how to present it to the Jewish people. But G’d did not take no for an answer and gave Moses detailed instructions. He told Moses to gather the elders and say to them: “HASHEM, the G’d of your forefathers, has appeared to me … saying, ‘I surely remembered you and what was done to you in Egypt and I have said, ‘I shall bring you up from the affliction in Egypt to the land of the Canaanite … to the land that flows with milk and honey.’’” (Shemos 3:16-17)
G’d told Moses that the Jewish people would listen to him and gave him a description of what would happen. However, Moses seemed not to be convinced. He said to G’d, “They will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘G’d did not appear to you’” (Shemos 4:1). G’d accepted Moses’ concern and gave him several signs he could use to convince the Jewish people of the authenticity of his mission. The first sign G’d gave him was the ability to turn his staff into a snake and afterwards bring it back into its original state as a staff. As a second sign, Moses was told to put his hand into his bosom and it would turn snow white with leprosy, and when he put the hand back, it would return into his normal flesh. After showing Moses these signs G’d said, “And it shall be, if they do not believe you, and they do not listen to the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the second sign. And it shall be that if they do not believe even after these two signs, and they still do not listen to your voice, and you shall take from the waters of the river and pour it on the dry land, and the water that you take from the river will turn into blood on the dry land (Shemos 4:8-9).”
This dialogue raises some serious questions. How could Moses be in doubt, when G’d assured him that the Jewish people would listen to him and believe what he said? And why was it so important that the Jewish people should believe Moses as soon as he comes to tell them about his revelation? Obviously, if Moses would follow G’d’s instructions he would succeed to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, irrelevant of whether they believed him or not. We may find the answers to these questions by analyzing what was the original cause that brought about the exile and bondage in Egypt. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) asks why G’d punished our Patriarch Abraham by enslaving his descendants for 210 years. The Talmud offers three reasons. First of all, when Abraham was informed that his nephew Lot had been captured in the war between the four and five kings, it says (Bereishis 14:14): “And he armed his disciples … and he pursued till Dan.” Says the Talmud, this was a mistake. Abraham should not have taken his Torah disciples along into war. The second mistake for which Abraham was punished was in connection with G’d’s revelation to Abraham, when G’d promised him that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel. Abraham asked G’d (Bereishis 15:8), “How will I know that I will inherit it.” The Talmud explains that Abraham here over-stepped his relationship by asking such a question. The third of Abraham’s mistakes happened after the war where he rescued Lot. The King of Sodom asked Abraham for a favour and said (Bereishis 14:21): “Give me the people and take the spoils for yourself.” Abraham agreed to let the King of Sodom take the people back with him and even declined to take any of the spoils. Says the Talmud, Abraham here had the opportunity to influence a large group of people to believe in G’d and he failed to take advantage of the situation.
The Maharal (Gevuros Hashem Chapter 9) explains that the common denominator in Abraham’s three mistakes was a lack of faith in G’d. Obviously, we are dealing with very minute issues of lack of faith. But since Abraham is the foundation of faith for the Jewish people, the slightest flaw has most serious consequences for future generations, and it must be rectified. This can be compared to a multi-storied building where even the smallest flaw in the foundation will have most serious consequences for the upper stories of the building. If it is not corrected it may cause the whole building to collapse. The Maharal explains that when Abraham went to war he ought to have taken trained warriors along with him. By taking Torah students it shows that he was somewhat in panic when he entered the battle. We may add that he should have taken into consideration that he needed the merit of his Torah students to win the war over his enemies. (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Mattos: The Secret Army). In the second incident, when Abraham asked how he would know that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel, he obviously did not doubt for one moment that G’d could keep His promises. However, he was concerned that maybe his descendants would not be worthy to inherit the Holy Land. But then again he should have put his complete trust in G’d and not ask for a sign. Abraham’s third mistake, when he missed an opportunity to bring people to believe in G’d, says the Maharal, also was connected to a very slight lack of faith. Who better than Abraham knew the importance of bringing people to believe in the Creator of the world? He had made this his life’s mission. As the Rambam (Laws of Idol Worship 1:3) describes how Abraham would go from place to place to teach the masses the basics of monotheism. Every additional person who becomes a believer adds to the honour of G’d in this world. To miss such an opportunity is a sign of a lack in the complete understanding of the importance of making sure that everyone believes in G’d.
To rectify these mistakes, Abraham’s descendants had to endure the challenges of the exile and bondage in Egypt. They would have to go through and withstand the trials and tribulations in order to reach a solid foundation of belief in G’d themselves.
When G’d told Moses to return to Egypt and relate to the Jewish people that he had had a Divine revelation, Moses did not question G’d’s instructions. However, he was concerned that due to all their misery the Jewish people would not believe him and would be lacking in their faith in G’d. If this happened, the whole exile would be a failure as its purpose would not be achieved. G’d was prepared for these concerns. He therefore informed Moses about the various signs he should perform if needed to strengthen the faith of the Jewish people and thereby insure that the exile had served its purpose.
Redeemed by faith
When Moses returned to Egypt and instructed Aaron to inform the Jewish people about his Divine revelation, the Torah relates (Shemos 4:31): “And the people believed and they heard that G’d had remembered the children of Israel …” On this the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Beshalach paragraph 240) comments that the Jewish people were actually redeemed from Egypt in the merit of their faith, and as such it was the first step towards the exodus. However, the exile was not finished yet. They still had to face a major challenge. When Pharaoh’s heard the requests of Moses and Aaron to let the Jewish people out of Egypt, he said (Shemos 5:9): “Let the work be heavier on the men …” The harshness of Pharaoh’s response caused that many found it difficult to follow Moses. As it says (Shemos 6:9): “They did not listen to Moses because of shortness of breath and hard-work.” Only after witnessing G’d’s punishment on the Egyptian nation with the ten plagues, and the miracles at the crossing of the sea, did the Jewish people reach complete faith. As it says (Shemos 14:31): “And they had faith in G’d and in His servant Moses.” With this they became completely free from their bondage to Egypt and they were now ready for the next step in G’d’s masterplan for His chosen nation.
Just like our ancestors were only redeemed from their exile in the merit of their faith in G’d, so our sages teach that we will be redeemed in the merit of our faith. And as we are going through the final stages of our exile, we also are faced with challenges to test our faith in G’d. However, unlike our ancestors in Egypt, we have seen time and again how G’d has saved us throughout our long history. This gives us added strength to overcome our challenges. But to come full circle we must seek to perfect ourselves in the areas where Abraham made his slight mistakes. First of all, we must ensure to dedicate our Torah scholars and students to stay in their study halls and learn with diligence. Secondly, we must strengthen our faith in G’d, whatever He brings our way, even if it is beyond our understanding. And thirdly, we must make an effort to utilize every opportunity to bring our brothers and sisters to believe in G’d and observe His commandments. In this merit, may we soon see our final redemption with the coming of Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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