‘Believing, Listening, and Leading’ Parashat Shemot 5779

G-d appears to Moses, designates him as His earthly emissary, and sends him to inform the Children of Israel that He will soon be rescuing them from their Egyptian bondage. Moses, all too familiar with Jewish scepticism, is not at all certain that he is going to receive the kind of reception that G-d thinks he is going to receive. G-d pre-empts Moses’ negativity, telling him [Shemot 3:18], “They will listen to your voice”. But did they listen? G-d gives Moses three “signs” to perform for the Jewish People “just in case” they show signs of scepticism: the “snake-to-staff trick”, the “leprous hand trick”, and the old “water-turns-to-blood trick”. He tells Moses that the first trick should be performed only if the Jewish People do not believe him, the second trick should be performed only after performing the first trick and they still don’t believe him, and the third trick should be performed only after performing the first two tricks and they still don’t believe him. When Moses returns to Egypt with his message of salvation, he [Shemot 4:30] “spoke all the words that G-d had spoken to [him] and he performed the signs before the eyes of the people.” Waitaminute! He performed all of the signs? This means that it took three supernatural tricks to convince the people to hear what he had to say. What, then, did G-d mean when He told Moses that they would listen to him? If somebody turns water into blood, of course I’m going to want to hear what he has to say.

The Netziv from Volozhn proposes a novel interpretation, suggesting that G-d does not promise Moses that the people will merely “listen”, but that they will “listen to your voice”[1]. The Netziv is alluding to the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [7a] that teaches that G-d spoke “from Moses’ throat”. When Moses and Aaron speak to the Children of Israel, it is Aaron, an orator par excellence, who does the talking. This, asserts the Netziv, was a mistake of epic proportions. Had Moses done the talking, the people would have heard the Voice of G-d emanating from his mouth and they would have been convinced on the spot. Because Aharon spoke, the people remained sceptical and Moses had to resort to the three signs.

I would like to look at the problem from another direction. We begin by noting that when G-d first appears to Moses, He uses two different words to describe the response of the Jewish People to the news of their impending redemption: listening (shome’a) and believing (ma’amin). It seems that the Torah alternates between these words almost randomly. G-d first tells Moses [Shemot 3:18] “They will listen to your voice”. Moses responds, telling G-d [Shemot 4:1] “Behold they will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice”. In response, G-d shows Moses the three signs. After showing Moses the first sign, G-d tells him [Shemot 4:5] “In order that they believe that the G-d of their forefathers, has appeared to you”. After showing Moses the second sign, G-d tells him [Shemot 4:8] “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 next sign”. Finally, before introducing the third and final sign, G-d says [Shemot 4:9] “If they do not believe either of these two signs and they do not listen to your voice, you shall [perform the old water-turns-to-blood trick]”. Finally, when Moses speaks to the Jewish People after he has performed all of the signs, the Torah tells us [Shemot 4:31] “The people believed, and they listened that G-d had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction”. What is the difference between “believing” and “listening”?

According to Webster’s Dictionary, “belief” is “something that is accepted, considered to be true”. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains “belief” in something means far more than simply the assumption that “it is true”. In Hebrew, the word “belief” has the same root as the word “instruct”. A person “believes” in something that he can learn from, something supreme for which he is willing to dedicate his life and to sacrifice it, if necessary. “Belief” guides a person at every step of his life.

“Listening” is something completely different. When the Torah uses the word “listen”, there is an assumption that the person doing the listening will act upon what he hears. He will obey – he will heed[2] – the words of the speaker. When G-d offers the Jewish People the Torah, they tell Him [Shemot 24:7] “We will do and we will listen”. What they were saying was “we will do and we will obey”.

Armed with our new understanding of “believing” and “listening”, let’s revisit the verses and see what kinds of insights we can attain. I suggest that the conversation between Moses and G-d revolves around the required skill-set of a leader. When G-d first promises Moses that the Children of Israel will listen to him”, He is telling Moses that they will obey him. They will follow him out of the Egypt into a barren desert. A leader, whether he is the CEO of a large company, an Army General, or the Prime Minister, is judged on the merits of his accomplishments. A quarterback with a seventy percent completion rate but with only five wins cannot be considered a winning quarterback. A leader can be a great guy with excellent personal skills but if he cannot bring positive results then he must be replaced. G-d promises Moses that he will successfully complete his mission: he will take a ramshackle group of slaves and he will galvanize them. He will lead and they will follow. He will successfully extract them from their bondage.

Moses feels that G-d’s promise is incomplete. When he tells G-d “they will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice”, he is saying that while he agrees that a leader is judged on the results of his leadership, nevertheless, a leader without a vision cannot lead. A leader without a vision is nothing more than a demagogue or a talking head. He may experience temporary success but eventually the people will see that the emperor is not wearing any clothing and his leadership will falter. Moses could not simply tell the Children of Israel, “The time for your redemption has come!” He was telling them that they were about to rebel against the world’s only superpower. In order to obey, they had to believe – in a Hirschian sense – that Moses was bearing a life-altering message, a message that came directly from the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that his vision was one worth fighting for.

G-d answers Moses’ request by giving him the three signs. The purpose of the signs was to give Moses gravitas, to demonstrate to the people that while they were listening to Moses’ voice, they were hearing G-d’s words, words they could believe in. Hence, after showing Moses the first sign, G-d tells Moses “In order that they believe that the G-d of their forefathers, has appeared to you”. After showing Moses the second sign, G-d says, “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 next sign”. What He means to say is “If they do not believe and [as a result] they do not [obey you even after you show them one sign], they will [believe after you show them a second sign]”. Before showing Moses the final sign, G-d tells him “If they do not believe either of these two signs and they do not listen to your voice…” If they do not believe, they will not listen. This sign is unequivocal proof[3] that you have the Divine stamp of approval.

When Moses finally speaks to the people, they are indeed sceptical until he shows them the signs, clearly proving that his message is one worth believing in: “The people believed [because of the three signs that Moses performed] and they listened [to Moses because[4] they realized that] G-d had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction”. A leader must have well-defined goals and he must have the capability to achieve these goals.

I leave the conclusion to the imagination of the reader.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tzvi ben Shoshana, Shira Yael bat Liora Sara and Amichai Yishai ben Faiga Galila.

[1] In Steven Spielberg’s “Prince of Egypt”, the voice of G-d is the same as the voice of Moses (Val Kilmer). Spielberg made heavy use of Midrash in the movie and this is one excellent example.

[2] The English translations on both the Chabad and Sefaria sites translate shome’a here as “to heed”.

[3] Unclear why this is so, as in the plague of blood, the Egyptian magicians also turn water into blood.

[4] The Hebrew word “ki”, translated above as “that”, can also mean “because”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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