Complaining to Moshe and God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Beshalach

Protests Proper and Im

The comment of HaKetav VeHaKabbalah we are about to study does not convince me. Rather, I think it worth considering it to see how assumptions can affect even our greatest Torah scholars, to heighten our alertness to our own propensity to see the world the way we want rather than the way it is. [Because, I would have hoped it went without saying, the world makes its best progress when we see what is and work to improve it.]

The Jews have no water when they reach Refidim, and complain to Moshe, who passes the question on to Hashem, in 17;4. What he should do for these people, who are on the brink of stoning him for their lack of water?

R. Mecklenburg rejects the possibility that he was offended by their behavior or worried for himself, because they were asking for something indispensable. It would be beneath the man described as the most faithful in the House of the Lord, to complain about/blame the Jewish people for wanting what they need (no matter how they did it, I think he means).

He declares unthinkable that Moshe would seek to have the Jews be treated strictly in their time of great trouble. To support the claim, he points to the Name of God used here, Moshe cried out to Hashem, not Elokim, to the Attribute of Mercy, not Justice.

Before we see his alternate explanation, let’s stop and notice his repeat insertion of a certainty about how Moshe would react to an unruly mob. Already by this point in Moshe’s career, R. Mecklenburg is sure he would have the patience and understanding to let their aggressiveness wash off him, to see only the need pushing them to act this way, even if it included the immediate readiness to stone him.

Moshe, Defender of Israel

He cried to Hashem to help the Jewish people, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah insists. They were thirsty, Moshe mentioned his inability to help them only to show why Hashem had to be the one to do it, and referred to their stoning him to say they would be justified if they did, because he would have failed a prime responsibility of a leader, caring for the people’s essential needs. (He pauses to argue that u-sekaluni does not mean they will stone me, but they would be right to stone me.)

A passage in Sifrei somewhat agrees with him, praising Moshe for praying on the Jews’ behalf despite their contentious approach to him. In addition, Rava in Baba Batra 16b says people are not tripped up by what they do in times of trouble.

Moshe, Commanded Loving Leader of the Jewish People

He summarizes: Moshe, the faithful shepherd, out of his great love for the Jewish people, found a way to see their good side, despite their attacks on him personally, absorbs their slings and arrows out of recognition of their stressed situation, and justifies them to God, part of seeking Hashem’s compassionate assistance in giving them water.

One more remarkable claim, he thinks Hashem had told Moshe to develop this attitude in last week’s parsha, 6;13, where the verse says Hashem commanded him to the Jewish people. Sifrei Beha’alotecha said it was a moment where Hashem told him the Jews are recalcitrant and burdensome, and required Moshe and Aharon to accept the leadership knowing people might curse or stone them.

It means Moshe was doing his job rather than demonstrating remarkable forbearance.

Leadership of the Jewish People, in R. Mecklenburg’s Eyes

I started by saying I wasn’t convinced, partially because of how counter his view seems to the simple reading of the text. R. Mecklenburg does concede that Midrashim, Shemot Rabbah and Mechilta, think Moshe is punished for saying the Jews would stone him.

He re-reads them to mean it was wrong for Moshe, at his level, to bring up the idea, as if it were a possibility. And then adds, the commentators read these verses other ways, more reason to be unsure he has uncovered an incontrovertible truth.

That aside, it seems to me R. Mechlenburg’s view of Torah leadership does ring true in many contexts. To the extent a leader can understand the roots of people’s misbehavior, see it as reasonable reactions to circumstances—even if not ideal ones—the leader’s job is to ignore the reaction and focus on the issue. Even if the people threaten him.

A high bar.

Shabbat Responds to a Legitimate Complaint About Livelihood

The first two verses of chapter sixteen speak of kol adat Benei Yisrael, the entirety of the congregation of the Jewish people, followed in verse three by a reference just to Benei Yisrael, the Jewish people. R. Hirsch argues that kol adat refers to a unified Jewish people, sharing a common destiny, to be God’s nation. Our story characterizes them thus to signal another stage in their development.

The Torah pauses to tell us where and when this will happen, he says, because of the importance of the event. The date, too, matters, exactly one month after the Exodus, on a day that would be named Pesach Sheini, the holiday established to afford another chance to bring a Pesach sacrifice for those who missed the first one.

Here, he thinks the incident will bring us to Shabbat, a day whose observance frees Jews of the need to worry about their sustenance by placing them under Hashem’s direct rule and providence. The whole man story, he is saying, is primarily there for the Shabbat part (a double portion falls on Friday, none on Shabbat), as well as to show us how the Jewish people were tested the whole time they were in the desert, forced to live with constant recognition of Hashem’s providence, their need to act in consonance with God’s Will.

Paraphrasing his words, Pesach on the fifteenth of the first month established a Jewish people, Shabbat was introduced with a story starting on the fifteenth of the second month, to put in place the livelihood of the Jewish people.

Who Complains and How

In verse two, R. Hirsch seemingly had no problem with kol adat Benei Yisrael—a phrase he had said indicated the highest form of the Jewish people—complaining about the lack of food (our second time this week seeing a commentator certain that stress excuses certain behaviors). However, verse three quotes what Benei Yisrael said, their wish to have died back in Egypt, when they were sitting on fleshpots, with plenty of food to eat.

From the flow, this might be quoting what was referenced in verse two. R. Hirsch instead thinks these the words of a separate group, insolent protesters, who expressed the nation’s feelings inappropriately. Hence the change in name of who was speaking.

Expecting Miracles, Getting Nature

When the Jews leave the site of the miracle of the Sea, 15;22 says va-yasa Moshe, a verb translated as brought, led, made, caused, as if Moshe was the driving force. Malbim cites Chazal’s explanation, the people did not want to leave because the Sea continued to expel the treasures of the Egyptians [Rashi said they decorated their horses with jewels, where Malbim thinks the Egyptians themselves were carrying those items].

When they did leave, the same verse tells us they went sheloshet days in the desert and did not find water. Malbim thinks sheloshet refers to a planned number, they went a trio of days, had brought water with them to cover those.

After, they expected a miracle to provide water, along the lines of the miracles they had just seen at the Sea (which included water, Malbim says, the Jews’ having been able to drink fresh water while crossing the Sea). Instead, God decided to leave them to live with the vicissitudes of the “natural” world, both because they lacked the merits to be granted a miracle and because this is the runup to the Giving of the Torah. Hashem wanted them to be tested in their faith, first, to be made aware of their constant need for divine providence for their survival. [The second time we’ve seen a stress on that this week.]

So they didn’t find water.

Don’t Be So Impressed with the Egyptians

In 14;13, with the Jews frightened of the Egyptians’ approach, Moshe tells them hityatzevu (Sefaria translations: stand fast, stand firm, stand ready, and the like), to witness God’s salvation. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann claims it means to be brave and not despondent, an idea Neima Novetsky, the translator at, chose to mention. For R. Hoffmann, Moshe is telling them they will never again confront the Egyptians as strong, dangerous enemies chasing after them.

His idea of the silence Moshe urged on them at the end of this verse could fit many of the verses we have seen today. He contrasts this silence with the complaints they had (and would) lodge. Hashem will save them, and they should wait for that salvation, each time, without complaint.

A lesson they never quite learned, as we saw from their complaints later in this parsha and will see throughout the rest of the Torah. A lesson for us to learn, if we can, our national salvation always and only comes from Hashem, and it is us to us to absorb the idea fully, and then act accordingly.

About Gidon Rothstein

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