Shemot: Keep the Faith

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In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, the first in the Book of Exodus, G-d appears to Moses from within the burning bush and instructs him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites to freedom.  But Moses responds,  וְהֵן֙ לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י 

The modern Jewish Publication Society translation of this is: “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me?”  And Moses’ subsequent long experience with the quarrelsome and sometimes rebellious Israelites shows that his doubts about the people he was to lead for forty years were well justified.  

As great as Moses was, though, and despite his being correct in his assessment of the people, our tradition takes him to task for his doubt that they will believe or listen to him.  Our sages comment that he lacked faith in his people; he spoke ill of them; and he was hypocritical.  

Regarding his lack of faith and his lashon hara, evil speech, as I have indicated, our modern translation of Moses’s reply to G-d is “What if they do not believe me?”  But traditional translations do not translate וְהֵן֙ as “what if” but as “indeed.” Moses was flatly predicting that they would not believe or listen to him.  Whereas, in fact, with the signs and wonders that G-d provided, they did. 

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin reminds us that the Chofetz Chayim wrote in the name of Rabbi Eliyahu Shick that Moshe's error was in saying, "They will not believe me," which is an absolute announcement. Moshe should have said, "Perhaps they will not believe me," which would show that their skepticism was but a possibility. He had no right to assume that they positively would not believe him.[1]

As for being hypocritical, the Midrash, stated in the Talmud at Shabbat 97a, teaches that G-d replied to Moses, "They are believers and the children of believers [referring to the patriarchs], but you [Moses] will ultimately not believe." And we know that for his lack of faith in G-d Moses displayed before the people, he was prevented from entering Canaan. 

Despite these criticisms, despite the outrageous actions and character flaws that the Israelites later exhibited in the desert, and despite the many severe trials that the people caused Moses, he would defend them, even at the risk of his own life, as when G-d threatened to kill them all and begin a new nation with him.   

What, then, can we learn from this?  That although people are flawed, it is nevertheless our obligation to think well of them, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to encourage them, to believe them and in them, and to preserve and protect their dignity and self-respect.  When it is necessary to criticize the conduct of others, we must be strictly factual, never exaggerating their mis-behavior.  Keeping our own faults in mind will also help to temper our judgment.  And, even when people test and try us, and others criticize them in our presence, we should usually speak up to defend who they are even while not defending what they have done.

In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ (of blessed memory) description, we must strive to meet that most difficult of moral challenges: to combine prescription and compassion.  These lessons can perhaps be aptly summarized by the rallying cry of the 1960s civil rights movement that sought to expand and protect human dignity.  When we judge and characterize others, we must “Keep the Faith.”  Moses needed to ramp up his faith in his people, and so too, often, must we.  The Divine exists within everyone, even when they falter.  

All this we can learn from a few words of Torah!  

For much more information on the many ethical teachings in this week’s Torah portion, and throughout Torah, please visit TheEthicalTorah.com website.  

May you have a peaceful and blessed Shabbat. 

[1] Shmiras Haloshon 2:13. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb