When G-d chose Moses to lead the Jewish people, He couldn’t have found a more recalcitrant candidate.
The 80-year-old shepherd from Midian didn’t want the job. For seven days, he sparred with G-d: He would fail; he wasn’t able to speak to Pharaoh; the Jewish people wouldn’t listen to him. His energy for debate never flagged.
Finally, Moses relented and in his first encounter, he failed. Pharaoh, as G-d had told Moses, refused to release the Jews. Instead, he made their slavery much more difficult. The Jews turned against Moses, whose Levite tribe was exempted from heavy labor, and the Midrash said he was driven out of Egypt.
“Lord, why did You make things worse for this people: Why did You send me? Since I went to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he made things worse for this nation and You did not save Your nation?”
Moses was not challenging G-d. He simply couldn’t understand how G-d would let this evil emperor intensify the oppression of the Jews. True, G-d had told Moses that Pharaoh would refuse the demand to leave Egypt, but that didn’t mean he would be allowed to punish the Chosen People.
Perhaps, Moses suggested, the time for redemption had not arrived. If so, why did G-d send him rather than wait for the appropriate moment? Now, Pharaoh was laughing at G-d, who remained silent. If the Jewish people did not deserve a miracle, did that mean that G-d’s name should be debased? The worst fears of Moses had come to pass.
G-d’s answer can only be described as historic, a primer for the fate of the Jews in their exile. Rabbi Chaim Bin Attar, known as the Or Hahayim, says G-d agreed with Moses: The time for redemption had not yet arrived. But this did not mean that G-d would tolerate the suffering of the Jews. He would accelerate the end of their slavery and save them from Pharaoh.
And that’s why G-d sent Moses on his mission: The Jewish suffering must end now. He told Moses that Pharaoh would not be allowed to hurt the Jews any longer. And the plagues began. During the first plague, the Egyptians fled their posts and the Jewish people were left alone. Some Jews, seeing this as a fleeting reprieve, continued to report to work out of fear of Pharaoh. But others understood that something had irrevocably changed and removed their chains.
And so began an interim period of 12 months until G-d was ready to redeem His people. In the meantime, an impotent Pharaoh would see the destruction of his country. The man who claimed he was god stood in front of his people naked.
Many sense the end of an era but few are prepared to act. During the last year of World War II, Germany retreated on all fronts. Yet, Hitler and his henchmen devised new ways of death — particularly the march of starving and barefoot Jews evacuated from concentration camps. The trigger-happy German guards shot stragglers or anybody who tried to grab a bite of food or scoop up rainwater. Until Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, up to 100,000 Jews died in these marches.
Some of the Jews, however, were determined not to obey. At Buchenwald, prisoners stormed the watchtowers and seized control of the camp on April 11, 1945. The Germans fled, leaving behind more than 21,000 inmates. Later that day, units from the U.S. 6th Armored Division arrived.
The Jews in Egypt were not deserving of redemption. But G-d was intent on keeping his promise to the patriarchs that the exile would end. The sages say that eventually the piety of Abraham, Issac and Jacob would be insufficient to prevent future tragedies. This resulted in G-d’s silence as He saw the exiles of Babylon, Persia and Greece.
For the last 2,000 years, the Jews have been suffering under Edom, or Rome. The Midrash says G-d will not remain passive in face of the sins of Edom, who have spread hate against the Jews since Esau. The Jews might not be prepared or even reject redemption, but G-d would respond to Jewish suffering.
In August 2005, the Israeli military, equipped, financed and directed by the United States, drove more than 10,000 Jews out of their homes in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The expulsion marked a violation of numerous promises by Israeli governments that Jews would be allowed to settle the land.
On Aug. 22, residents of the last Jewish community, Netzarim, were expelled from their homes. On the very next day, a huge hurricane emerged from the Atlantic Ocean and destroyed the American city of New Orleans, also damaging communities throughout the east and north of the country. Around one million people saw their homes destroyed by floods. The very same Israeli military sent tons of food and equipment and even rescued abandoned pets of the homeless Americans.
The Midrash says that the disasters visited on Edom and its allies reflect the role of the Jews. The world is blessed because of Israel, and when it is oppressed so is the blessing. In Egypt, this resulted in the 10 plagues, which ranged from rampaging frogs to the death of every first-born.
But Moses could not see this. He was wrapped up in the pain of his brethren, beaten down by 86 years of slavery. He tried to talk to the Jews but they, monitored by their Egyptian masters, were unable to respond. G-d’s message was that He would employ mercy rather than justice. The end was near. Pharaoh was finished. Moses’ job had just begun.
“Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”