Shemot: The Fragility of our Convictions

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And the nation believed and they heard that Hashem had remembered Bnai Yisrael and that He had seen their suffering. They kneeled and they bowed. (Sefer Shemot 4:31)

The capacity of the Jewish people to believe in Moshe

Parshat Shemot describes Pharaoh’s implementation of a strategy to oppress the Jewish people. This program eventually evolved into a campaign of genocide. Moshe is introduced and the initial stages of our redemption from bondage are recounted. 

In his first prophecy, Moshe is directed by Hashem to convene the elders of the Bnai Yisrael. He is to tell them that Hashem will take them forth from Egypt and bring the nation into the land that He promised to their forefathers. Hashem provides Moshe with wonders that he is to perform for the elders. The performance of these miracles will assure the elders that Moshe is an authentic prophet and that Hashem has indeed determined that the moment of redemption has arrived.

Moshe is joined by his brother Aharon. Together, they address the elders. Aharon acts as Moshe’s spokesman. They communicate to the elders Hashem’s message and perform the wonders that Hashem empowered them to execute. 

What was the reaction of the nation and its elders to this wonderful but unanticipated message?  The above passage explains that they believed Moshe and Aharon. The Talmud comments that through their response to Moshe, the elders and the people demonstrated that they were “believers, descendant of believers”. The intent of this comment is that the people exhibited a capacity to embrace a vision of the future completely inconsistent with their current condition. They were oppressed slaves subjected to wonton cruelty by powerful masters. Moshe and Aharon told them that soon they will emerge from bondage and take possession of a land long-ago promised to their forefathers. Accepting the truth of a message so incongruent with their current miserable condition required enormous courage and trust.

And they said to them: “Hashem should reveal Himself regarding you and execute judgment. For you have made our spirit disgusting in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants – to the extent of placing a sword in their hands to kill us.”  (Sefer Shemot 5:21)

Bnai Yisrael’s abandonment of their belief

Moshe, Aharon, and the elders present Pharaoh with their demands. Pharaoh dismisses them and orders new measures designed to further oppress and break the spirit of the Jews. Moshe and Aharon are confronted by the elders. The elders condemn them for failing them and for exacerbating their suffering. They have not brought closer the redemption of Bnai Yisrael. Instead, they have provoked Pharaoh to inflict further suffering upon his slaves.

How can this response be reconciled with the Torah’s previous description of the people and the elders?  The Torah tells us that they believed in Moshe and Aharon and in their message. The Talmud praises our ancestors for their response to the news of their coming redemption. How can the commendations of the Torah and Talmud be reconciled with the nation’s immediate abandonment of Moshe and Aharon at the first disappointment and set-back?

And I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to leave without a mighty hand. (Sefer Shemot 3:19)

Moshe forewarned the people of setbacks

The response of the elders and the people to this setback is even more disturbing when we consider the above passage. Hashem tells Moshe that Pharaoh will not easily or quickly accede to the demand to free the Jews. Hashem will reveal His might. Only in response to the overwhelming omnipotence of Hashem, will Pharaoh grant the Jews their liberation. Moshe was directed by Hashem to share with the elders his prophecy – including this forewarning that freedom would not be attained quickly or easily. The elders and the people knew from Moshe that there would be setbacks. Why did they abandon Moshe and Aharon when they encountered the first of these obstacles?

We envision our path and its challenges

Rav Israel Chait addresses this issue. The solution that he proposes has two components. The first is an important insight into how our beliefs and convictions function as personal motivators. He explains that we do not act upon abstract assurances or predictions. When a person embarks upon a challenging journey, the person also has a vision of the path and its challenges. He has considered these and is prepared to move forward and encounter these challenges. This vision of the path and its challenge defines the person’s commitment. He is committed to travel the path and endure the challenges he has envisioned.

Let’s consider an illustration. I decide that I need to get into better shape. I have started to diet and to exercise more regularly. The journey to which I have committed is not merely an abstract concept. I have a rather specific vision of the the path I will travel and the obstacles I may encounter.  This vision is integral to my commitment and capacity to move forward. I am not committed to an abstract goal. It is to this vision that I am committed.

The impact of unanticipated setbacks

What happens when a person encounters a major setback?  It depends on the nature of the setback. If the setback was envisioned and anticipated, or even similar to the type anticipated, then the person will accept the disappointment and move forward. But what happens when the setback is of a type completely unanticipated? Then, the person’s commitment will be severely challenged. 

Let’s return to our illustration. I recognize when I embark on my crusade to become fit that I will encounter setbacks. There will be days that I will get onto the scale and it will tell me that I have not lost the pounds I had anticipated shedding. I know that on some days I will go to the gym and have no energy and feel completely exhausted at the end of my workout. I am prepared for these setbacks. When they are encountered my commitment will not waiver. But what happens if I diet diligently, get onto the scale, and discover that after all of my deprivation I have gained two pounds?  What happens if on the way to the gym, I slip and fracture my ankle?  These are not the setbacks that I anticipated and that I am prepared to endure. If I encounter these setbacks, then my commitment may be severely challenged.

Now, let us apply this analysis to the experience of the elders and the people of Bnai Yisrael. Moshe had warned them that Pharaoh would resist their demands. They understood that they would need to strive with Pharaoh, stand up to him, and act with courage. They were prepared for all of this. It was included in their vision of the path they must travel and the challenges that they must endure in order to secure their freedom. But they could not anticipate or be prepared for the actual outcome of their first encounter with Pharaoh. He ridiculed them, dismissed their demands, and instituted additional cruel measures to further oppress them. If Hashem has decided that the moment of their liberation has arisen, sent to them His messenger, and charged them to demand from Pharaoh their freedom, then how can He allow Pharaoh to respond in this manner?  They could not reconcile their vision of the path they must travel and its challenges with the reality before them. 

And the quota of bricks that they produced yesterday and the prior day place upon them. Do not diminish it. For they are lazy. This is why they cry out saying, “Let us go and offer sacrifices to our
God.”  (Sefer Shemot 5:8)

The importance of personal dignity

A second factor contributed to the collapse of the determination of the elders and the people. Dignity and self-respect are important to every person. However, we cannot acquire and sustain our dignity and self-respect without reinforcement from our environment. It is very difficult to be proud of oneself if this pride is not confirmed by the people who are important to us. A child seeks the confirmation of parents. Students require the acknowledgment of their teachers. Employees need to hear from their superiors that they are valued members of the organization. And even a slave seeks the approval of his master. In fact, because of the slave’s psychological over-estimation of his master, this approval or disapproval is very potent.

Pharaoh’s response to the demands of Bnai Yisrael, demonstrate shrewd insight into human psychology. He did not respond to the demands of the Jews by simply denying them. He was completely dismissive. He declared that they were motivated by slothfulness. They were simply a collection of lazy servants seeking to shirk their responsibilities. 

Pharaoh’s assessment of the psychological susceptibilities of the Jews was completely accurate. The elders immediately complained to Moshe and Aharon saying, “You have made our spirit disgusting in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.”  They were completely unprepared to endure their shame and embarrassment. 

Rabbi Chait concludes that there is no contradiction between the Torah’s and our Sages’ description of elders and the people as “believers” and their immediate deterioration in response to Pharaoh’s rejection of their demands. They were “believers” but they were also human beings. They were confronted by an unanticipated setback for which they were completely unprepared. Furthermore, Pharaoh succeeded in completely undermining their dignity and self-respect. The combination of these factors undercut the strength of their convictions.

And after this Moshe and Aharon came. And they said to Pharaoh: “Thus says Hashem the God of Yisrael, ‘Send forth my nation and they will celebrate before Me in the wilderness.’”  And Pharaoh said: “Who is Hashem that I should obey His voice to send forth Yisrael?  I do not know of Hashem. Furthermore, I will not send forth Yisrael.”  (Sefer Shemot 5:1-2)

Moshe altered the relationship between Pharaoh and the people

Based upon the above discussion, another element of the dynamic within this encounter becomes evident. Moshe and Aharon came to the elders in order to enlist them as partners. They asked that the elders join them in placing their demands before Pharaoh. They were seeking in the elders great courage of confidence. The elders responded by accepting upon themselves this role. How did Moshe and Aharon inspire this courage?

Moshe and Aharon offered the elders and the people an opportunity to address Pharaoh in a framework that was very appealing. They would be making their request in a framework that is inconsistent with the slave-master relationship. They would demand to be sent forth to serve their God. Consider how inconsistent this demand was with the creed of the Egyptians. A vanquished people was demanding to worship its own God!  Moshe and Aharon offered the elders the opportunity to speak to Pharaoh as leaders of a people with its own powerful God – Who must be obeyed. 

Let us consider the implications of this framework. Moshe and Aharon told the elders and the people that they would confront Pharaoh as a proud people, demanding the right to worship its own God. This is a confrontation in which one can engage with dignity and even gratification. It is not a conversation between a master and a slave begging for his freedom. It is demand made by a proud people, insisting on its right to serve its powerful God.

Now, let us review Pharaoh’s response. Again, his shrewd psychological insight is evident. He does not simply reject their demand. He dismisses their God. He refuses to allow the discussion to rise above the pleadings of a slave before his master. He would not allow the Jews and their elders to imagine themselves other than as lowly slaves.

Recognizing the fragility of our convictions

A conclusion that emerges from this investigation is the fragility of our convictions. This discussion focuses on a few of the factors that undermine even firmly established and strongly embraced convictions. One factor is our estimation of the challenges we will face in living by our convictions. The other is the difficulty that every person encounters in remaining true to convictions and values when they evoke ridicule and derision. The Torah’s account should be sobering for us. It should be a warning. The elders of Israel were incapable of maintaining their commitment when confronted with unanticipated setbacks and intense ridicule. We are foolish if we think that we can be more steadfast than these giants.

This discussion should inform our plans and how we live. Let’s consider an example. Parents and their teenagers put significant time, effort, and thought into selecting their college. If the above discussion is taken seriously, then this selection process must include the following consideration:  

The environment of the secular college campus is often very dangerous for our young people. Students encounter hostility toward traditional values, religion, and especially toward Judaism. This hostility takes the form of implied and even manifest ridicule. A day school education and even a year or two of study in Israel will not immunize our teens from the deleterious impact of this environment. Many of our young people succumb to the pressures of this environment and either abandon observance or loose the intensity of their commitment. It is important to take seriously the challenges teens encounter on campus. Our teens should not be expected to overcome the type of challenges that defeated our elders.

Young people and their parents must carefully consider the extent and quality of Jewish life on the campus. The institutions on campus that promote Jewish life and provide a Jewish environment will likely be the only consistent refuge for our teens from the challenges that surround them. Their future as committed members of the Jewish people will not be secured through the education that they received before moving on to the campus. It will depend on the degree of our teens’ Jewish experience on campus.