Building Observance Upon a Torah Foundation

And Moshe returned to Hashem, and said: L-rd, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You have sent me? For since I came to Paroh to speak in Your name, he has dealt ill with this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all. (Sefer Shemot 5:22-23)

1. Moshe’s failed mission and his protest to Hashem
Parshat VaEyra continues a discussion between Hashem and Moshe that began at the end of Parshat Shemot. Moshe initiates the conversation. He expresses to Hashem his confusion over his mission. He was directed by Hashem to confront Paroh and to demand that he allow Bnai Yisrael to travel into the wilderness and serve Hashem. He did exactly as directed. However, the outcome has been disastrous. Rather than acquiescing to his demand, Paroh has refused to grant Bnai Yisrael leave from their labors. Instead, he has increased their burden. Moshe has performed his assigned task but the plight of his people has only been made more disparate through his efforts.

The initial element of Hashem’s response is included in Parshat Shemot. Hashem tells Moshe that he will see that, in the end, Paroh will eagerly send forth Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. In Parshat VaEyra, Hashem’s response continues. He explains to Moshe that the revelation that will occur in Egypt will exceed the revelation granted to the Patriarchs. The covenant that Hashem made with the Avot – the Patriarchs – will be fulfilled; their descendants will be redeemed from bondage in Egypt and they will be brought to the Land of Canaan.

The commentaries note that Hashem’s response to Moshe seems incomplete. He tells Moshe that He will redeem Bnai Yisrael from Egypt. However, Moshe did not question whether Hashem would rescue the nation. His confusion was in regard to his personal role in this process. He asked Hashem why he had been sent to Paroh on a mission that Hashem had allowed to fail and also worsen the plight of the people.

The commentaries offer a number of interesting responses to this question. However, in order to better appreciate their responses, another issue must be considered.

And Hashem said to Moshe: Behold, I come unto you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever. And Moshe told the words of the people unto Hashem. (Sefer Shemot 19:9)

2. The proper foundation for a theology and religion
The narrative contained in the first portion of Sefer Shemot can be summarized in two sentences. Bnai Yisrael is placed in bondage in Egypt. Hashem rescues Bnai Yisrael from persecution through a series of miracles. This summary of the narrative suggests two questions. First, why did Hashem allow the Egyptians to subject the descendants of His faithful Patriarchs to severe persecution and even genocide? Second, why did Hashem rescue Bnai Yisrael through wonders and miracles? Why did He not redeem Bnai Yisrael through more natural or conventional means? Both of these questions are important. However, the second question is relevant to the above discussion.

Maimonides describes the method by which the first patriarch – Avraham – discovered Hashem. His comments are based upon the midrash. He explains that Avraham did not discover Hashem through a personal encounter. Instead, he concluded that there must be a creator based upon an assessment of the complexity of the universe. In other words, he studied the universe, recognized its complexity, and concluded that the universe, like all complex entities emerged through design. The design evident in the universe provides testimony to the existence of an intelligent creator.[1]

Rabbaynu Yehudah HaLeyve explains that Avraham’s method of discovering G-d cannot be the basis for the theology of a nation. Only the most advanced thinkers – individuals like Avraham – can discover Hashem through this method. A religion or theology intended to be embraced by an entire people must provide evidence of Hashem’s existence that is accessible to even the unsophisticated common person. He explains that the Sinai Revelation provided this evidence. The people heard Hashem and they experienced His “presence”. This event provided evidence of Hashem’s existence that could be equally grasped by the scholar and the common person.[2]

However, the Sinai Revelation also confirmed other basic principles of the Torah. Maimonides, identifies thirteen basic principles of the Torah. In addition to demonstrating the existence of Hashem, Revelation established the truth of other of these principles. It confirmed that Hashem communicates with human beings through prophecy. It proved that the Torah is from Hashem. It demonstrated the uncommon nature of Moshe’s prophetic achievement. This is expressed in the above passage. The passage explains that the purpose of Revelation was to create a permanent foundation for the authenticity of Moshe’s prophecy and the Torah.

Therefore say unto the children of Israel: I am Hashem. I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments. I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a G-d. And you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Sefer Shemot 6:6-7)

3. The educational objectives of the redemption

The above passages explain that the redemption of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt was not intended to merely rectify the injustice of their suffering and punish their persecutors. It was intended to mold the people into a nation that woud serve Hashem. Hashem tells Moshe that He will take Bnai Yisrael to Himself as a nation and He will be their G-d. However, Hashem adds that through the process of their redemption they will know “I am Hashem your G-d who brought you out from under the burdens of Egypt”. In other words, the redemption process was intended to be educational and to establish beyond doubt fundamental truths. Nachmanides explains that among these truths is that Hashem is omnipotent. He has a degree of control over all nature that can only be asserted by nature’s creator. He also notes additional fundamental principles demonstrated by the redemption. For example the redemption demonstrated Hashem’s involvement in events in the material world – an issue reconfirmed by Revelation.[3]

4. Miracles and wonders were essential to the educational objectives
From this discussion, the issue raised above is resolved. Why did Hashem choose to redeem Bnai Yisrael through wonders and miracles? The redemption was not merely designed to rescue Bnai Yisrael from persecution. It was designed to serve as the firm foundation of a new religion and theology. In order, to achieve this objective, Hashem repeatedly revealed himself through wonders and miracles. These demonstrations testified to His omnipotence and His involvement with humankind.

Now, the original question can be reconsidered. Moshe protested to Hashem that he had done exactly as He had commanded. Yet, rather than his efforts helping Bnai Yisrael, they had only led to greater persecution. Hashem seems to merely respond that He will redeem the people. How does this response relate to Moshe’s objection?

And G-d spoke unto Moses, and said to him: I am Hashem. (Sefer Shemot 6:2)

5. Fear of G-d is reserved for Hashem

Chizkuni notes that Hashem continues His response to Moshe in the opening passages of Parshat VaEyrah with the declaration “I am Hashem”. What is the message intended in this pronouncement? Chizkuni suggests that it is a reference to an earlier passage. When Hashem initially appointed Moshe and Aharon to their mission of leading the people forth from Egypt, He assigned each a specific role. Moshe was to be the “master” and Aharon was to speak on his behalf. In other words, Moshe would be the leader and the individual wielding the power and authority. Aharon would only act as his spokesperson. Chizkuni explains that Moshe’s role as leader was limited by an important consideration. The ultimate objective of the redemption was for the people to accept and to fear Hashem. In this opening statement of the parasha, Hashem tells Moshe that yes, you have been appointed leader. But the objective is for the people to recognize that I am Hashem and to fear and serve only Me.[4]

Through this insight, Chizkuni attributes to Hashem a response to Moshe’s objection. Moshe asked Hashem why he had appointed him to a mission and then not secured its success. According to Chizkuni, Hashem answered that this was an essential step in the educational process imbedded in the redemption. The process was intended to demonstrate that only Hashem is the true G-d. Only He is fit to be awed and worshiped. No other power and certainly no other person is His rival – not even Moshe. Therefore, Moshe’s initial failure to secure results was essential. It demonstrated to the people that even Moshe was powerless to rescue them. Moshe had no power of his own and could not command Hashem’s response. Moshe’s efforts only became meaningful and effective when Hashem began to act through him.

6. Placing practice and observance upon a firm foundation
The fundamental lesson that emerges from this discussion is that the redemption from Egypt in conjunction with Revelation was intended to demonstrate and teach to the people the fundamental principles of the Torah. Most of the thirteen principles identified by Maimonides are confirmed through these events. It is true that Torah Judaism places a premium upon practice and observance. However, it is also evident from the Torah’s narrative regarding these events that practice and observance are to be built upon a foundation. This foundation is formed of these principles. This lesson suggests that attention should be given to knowing and understanding these principles. They are the foundation of all other aspects of our observance.