Parshat Shmot ends on a note of despair. Pharoah not only refused Moshe’s admonition to release the children of Israel, but also made their workload as slaves even more burdensome. This prompted the children of Israel to turn on Moshe, expressing their bitterness toward him in the most biting terms. This animus rested heavily on Moshe’s shoulders and consequently, he shared his disappointment over the ineffectiveness of his mission to Pharaoh with God:
And Moshe went back to the Lord, and said: ‘My Lord, why have you done harm to the people, why have you sent me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done harm to this people and You surely have not rescued your people.’ (Exodus 5:22-23)
Parshat Vaera begins immediately following this episode and opens with these words:
And God (E-lohim) spoke to Moshe and He said to him: ‘I am the Lord (God’s four lettered name). (Exodus 6:2)
The juxtaposition of this verse with Moshe’s confrontation with God found at the end of the last parasha made an impression upon the sages, as we note in the following midrash:
What is written before this parasha? ‘And Moshe went back to the Lord, and said: ‘My Lord, why have you done harm to the people’ If a man should dare say to a person more important than himself, ‘Why did you do harm?’ He would be considered to have done something very offensive. Nevertheless, Moshe said: Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done harm to this people and You surely have not rescued your people (Exodus 6:23). The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moshe: ‘Haval al d’avdin v’lo mishtakikhin – Woe for those who have perished and are not to be found! How many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the Lord Almighty, but I never said to them by the four lettered name, as I said to you. Yet, they never criticized My ways. I said to Avraham: ‘Rise, walk about the land through its length’ (Genesis 13:1), yet, when he searched for a burial place for Sarah and was unable to find one until he paid four hundred shekels of silver, he did not criticize My ways. I said to Yitzhak: ‘Sojourn in this land …for to you and your seed I will give all these lands.’ (Genesis 26:3), but even when he wanted water to drink and was unable to find any, as it says: “And the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s shepherds, saying: ‘The water is ours’” (Genesis 26:20), he did not criticize My ways. I said to Yaakov: “The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed (Genesis 28:13), yet when he wanted a place to pitch his tent, he could not find one until he purchased it with a hundred keshita, yet, he did not criticize My ways.
But you (Moshe), at the very beginning of My mission, you asked Me, “What is your name?” and now you say: “’Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, He has done harm…’ (Exodus 5:23) Therefore, ‘Now will you see what I shall do to Pharaoh…’ (Exodus 6:1). That is, you will see the struggle with Pharaoh, but you will not see the war against the thirty-one kings, that Yehoshua, your disciple, will wage in vengeance against them.
From this, you may learn that Moshe was punished by being forbidden to enter the land. Therefore, it is written: “And God said to Moshe” (Exodus 6:2) that He would requite him with Divine Justice. But He said to him: “I am the Lord” (ibid.), thereby indicating that Divine Mercy demands that I redeem the Israelites and bring them into the land. Hence it is written: And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty (Exodus 6:3). (Adapted from Tanhuma Vaera 1)
It is difficult for us to fathom that Moshe, the Jewish tradition’s ultimate prophet, should be in any way inferior even to the patriarchs. How could it be that the patriarchs to whom God made promises which remained unfulfilled should remain faithful and unquestioning in a way that Moshe could not? In defense of Moshe, one must note that he had responsibility resting on his shoulders that the patriarchs did not. Their quests were individual quests, while Moshe had the fate of a people weighing on him.
This said, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, known by the title of his collection of drashot – Sefat Emet, had a different and interesting take on this midrash:
[This midrash] raises a big challenge for Moshe Rabeinu (our rabbi), of whom the Torah writes: ‘in all My house he is trusted’ (Numbers 12:7). Is it conceivable that Moshe would challenge the Holy One Blessed Be He? This is how it should be understood. Since Moshe was an extraordinary prophetic visionary (aspeklaria d’nahara – a prophetic window of light), who expected every divine promise to be fulfilled immediately, he therefore said: ‘Why do you (God) do harm?’… but the essence of redemption is through a less clear sort of prophecy (aspliklaria d’lo nahara) like that of the patriarchs… (See Sefat Emet Likutim vol. 1 Vaera, Or Etzion ed. p. 247)
According to the Sefat Emet, Moshe’s extraordinary insight was, in a sense, an impediment which did not give him the requisite patience necessary to realize that the redemption of the children of Israel would be a process and would not be achieved in one fell swoop. Often, our expectations are hampered by similar assumptions. The patriarchs, as pictured in this midrash, “kept the faith” even when God’s promises were not fulfilled as quickly as they probably would have hoped. They plodded along to help make them happen and, in the end, so did Moshe. Dedication and perseverence, in the long run, is the ultimate sign of faith.