Chazal's Criticism of Moshe Rabbenu

by: HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l

Chazal’s Criticism of Moshe Rabbenu

Sicha Given By HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

Both sichot that appear here were delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vaera 5755 (1995) – the first on leil Shabbat, and the second at Seuda Shelishit. They were summarized after Shabbat by a student at the Yeshiva.

Courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Summarized by Matan Glidai.

Translated by David Silverberg.

“God spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am God. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as ‘E-l Shad- dai,’ but I did not make Myself known to them by My Name ‘H-V-Y-H. ‘” (Shemot 6:2-3)
Very little about these verses is readily understandable. What does God mean when He reminds Moshe, “I am God?” Why does He suddenly introduce the issue of His revelation to the Patriarchs? Rashi relates these verses to the previous section, where Moshe complains, “Why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me?” (5:22). God now responds that He guarantees reward to those who follow His will. Thus, since He promised the Patriarchs that He will redeem their descendants, He will assuredly fulfill His promise and Moshe may never doubt this guarantee.
We may suggest a slight variation on Rashi’s approach. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 111a) sharply criticizes Moshe’s comments at the end of last week’s parasha (see Rashi’s citation of the gemara in his commentary to verse 9):
“The Almighty said to him [Moshe]: Woe for those who are gone, the like of whom areno more. I appeared several times to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov in the Name of E-l Shad-dai, and yet they never questioned My ways nor ever asked, ‘What is Your Name? ‘ I said to Avraham, ‘Go, walk about the land, through its length andits breadth, for I give it to you. ‘ Yet, when he wanted to bury Sarah and could not find a place until he purchased a lot for four hundred silver coins, he still did not question My ways. I said to Yitzchak, ‘Live in this land, and I will be with you and I will bless you. ‘ But when his servants wanted water to drink and could not find any without a fight? he never questioned My ways. I said to Yaakov, ‘? the land upon which you lie I am giving you. ‘ Yet, when he looked for aplace to pitch his tent and could not find one until he purchased one for a hundred kesita, he never questioned My ways. Furthermore, they never asked, ‘What is Your Name, ‘ while you asked Me, ‘What is Your Name? ‘ And now you tell Me, ‘still, You have not delivered Your people.’ [Therefore,] ‘You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh ‘ – you will see the battle against Pharaoh, but you will not see the battles against the thirty- one kings [of Canaan].”
This passage in the Gemara raises a most difficult question: how is it possible that Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest of all prophets, questioned the ways of the Almighty and thought that He would not live up to His word? This certainly does not correspond with the image of Moshe Rabbenu as depicted in other writings of Chazal! True, at this point Moshe is still at the dawn of his prophetic career, but it still strikes us as inconceivable that he would sin so severely.
It would seem that wemust understand Moshe’s comments in light of an earlier passage in that Gemara:
“It was learnt: Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Yossi said, I once went to Alexandria of Egypt and I met there an elderly man who said to me, ‘Come, let me show you what my forefathers did to your forefathers. Some they drowned in the sea, some they slew with the sword, some they crushed into buildings, ‘ and on account of this Moshe was punished, for he said, ‘Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done [even more] evil to this nation ‘ (Shemot 5:23).” (The Gemara then continues with the aforementioned critique against Moshe Rabbenu.)
The Gemara here describes Am Yisrael’s plight in Egypt in the most horrific terms, as large numbers of people were killed on a daily basis through various types of unspeakable deaths. With this in mind, we may perhaps understand Moshe’s reaction a little more clearly. He never considered the possibility that the Almighty would not uphold His promise to redeem Benei Yisrael. He just could not understand why God had not done so already, why He allowed Benei Yisrael to suffer so bitterly. Moshe Rabbenu, who could not stand by idly and watch the sufferingof another person (and who thus killed the Egyptian who beat a Jewish slave), could not contain himself as he witnessed the terrible suffering of an entire nation.
Moshe knew that the Patriarchs had never once questioned or second-guessed the Almighty; but in his mind, there was no comparison between their time and his own day. The Patriarchs encountered relatively minor problems – they had to pay for some property and quarrel over water rights. But here Moshe saw before his eyes the inhumane, barbaric, systematic slaughter of people day in and day out. Additionally, the Patriarchs struggled with personal problems, on the individual level. In Egypt, he confronted the problems of an entire nation – men, women andchildren.
Thus, although we cannot entirely absolve Moshe of wrongdoing, we can better understand how and why he sinned. He could not stand any longer to see the bitter suffering of Am Yisrael, and he could not understand why the redemption was not already unfolding.
“God appeared to Avraham and said to him: I am E-l Shad-dai. Walk before Me and be blameless” (Bereishit 17:1). The commentators dispute the precise meaning of this verse. Rashi offers a most novel interpretation: “I am He who possesses enough divinity for each creature [‘shad-dai ‘ =‘she-dai, ‘ i.e. there is enough].” A far simpler explanation is that of the Ibn Ezra, that the Name “Shad-dai” derives from the root “sh.d.d.,” meaning “prevailing,” which refers to God’s unlimited power and dominion in the heavens. The Ramban expands on this concept, explaining the verse as a reference to God’s power over the constellations and hence His performance of “hidden miracles.” It is not altogether “natural” that when we perform the mitzvot, more rain descends from the heavens and the ground produces higher quality fruits and vegetables. From the strict perspective of the natural forces, there exists no correlation whatsoever between man’s conduct and that of nature. This correlation is created by the Almighty Himself, Who overpowers the natural order and determines when rain will fall, etc. According to the Ramban, God dealt with the Patriarchs with this attribute – “E-l Shad-dai” – by which He did not perform overt miracles involving the deviation from natural norms, such as splitting the sea and the like. Rather, He performed for them only subtle miracles, directing the normal processes of nature in accordance with their conduct. The divine Name of “H-V-Y- H,” by contrast, relates to the obvious miracles that override the laws of nature, such as the ten plagues, the splitting of Yam Suf, etc.
Moshe knew full well that, when workingthrough natural means, redemption demands sacrifice and suffering – “You can ‘t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” He understood that so long as the attribute of “E-l Shad- dai” was in force,Benei Yisrael’s suffering was only natural;before redemption comes suffering, and one cannot complain or object. Moshe based his protest on the fact that God has another attribute, signified by the Name “H-V-Y-H” – the ability to perform miracles and alter the natural order. He thus questions: Why does God not end the terrible suffering of Am Yisrael and redeem them immediately?
The Almighty responds, “I am God.” In other words, God does in fact possess the attribute of performing overt miracles. However, even when redeemed by this attribute, Am Yisrael must endure suffering. Suffering could be understood not only through the attribute of “E- l Shad-dai,” but according to the attribute of “H-V-Y-H,” as well. Of course, Mosh did not understand, as none of us can understand. The Almighty essentially tells Moshe not to question the divine plan; a human being is incapable of understanding God’s providence. This reminds us of God’s response to Moshe’s plea, “Please teach me Your ways” (33:13).
When Am Yisrael encounters difficult times, we must remember never to question the providence of God. He has the power to perform great miracles, but we may never criticize His decision not to utilize this exclusive capability.

The Sins of Gedolei Yisrael

Summarized by Matan Glidai.

Translated by David Silverberg.

In the previous sicha, we encountered Chazal’s sharp criticism of Moshe Rabbenu in massekhet Sanhedrin. This criticism emerges also from a series of passages in the Midrash Rabba (6:1-2), where the censure of Moshe’s complaint becomes even stronger. The Midrash goes so far as to say that Moshe engaged in “foolishness and nonsense.” After all, God had told him from the outset that Pharaoh would harden his heart, that there would be difficulties and obstacles before the redemption reached its completion. Moshe, however, tried to “outsmart” the Master of the World and complained, “Why did You bring harm upon this people?” In this context, the Midrash posits the principle that one who involves himself in public affairs forgets his wisdom and Torah. The Midrash then continues by describing God’s wonderment over the fact that Moshe – the most humble of all human beings – expressed himself in such a way.
Criticism against Moshe was raised in last week’s parasha as well. Moshe predicts, “But they will not believe me” (4:1), despite the fact that God had guaranteed him that “theywill listen to you” (3:18). The Midrash there (3:12) comments that “Moshe here spoke inappropriately.” The Midrash then goes on to claim that God’s signs came as a rebuke to Moshe for his suspicions: the staff turned into a snake to symbolizeMoshe’s “usurping the profession of the snake,” and Moshe’s hand became leprous as punishment for his improper remarks about Benei Yisrael.
From our perspective, these midrashim present a difficult dilemma. How are we to relate to such harsh reproach? We view Moshe Rabbenu as the greatest of all prophets, the human being who reached the highest possible level of spirituality. How can we accept the fact that he sinned? A similar problem arises with regard to the sins of other gedolei Yisrael, such as the incident of David and Batsheva, etc.
We generally find within the Jewish world two extreme and opposing approaches to this problem. Most secular Jews adopt the approach of the Enlightenment and Biblical criticism, which relates to gedolei Yisrael as ordinary people. They sinned, very simply, because they were fallible human beings just like us. Just as we occasionally make mistakes, so did they. By contrast, many in the religious camp adopt the opposite approach, namely, that gedolei Yisrael are superhuman. One cannot draw any comparison between us and them. They have no emotions, struggles or drives, and certainly never sin: “Whoever says that David sinned is in error; whoever says that Reuven sinned is in error” (Shabbat55b-56a). This approach applies the same principle to other apparent sinners. Although this approach evolves from an admirable concern for the preservation of our respect and reverence for our gedolim, it reaches absurd conclusions. One cannot simply ignore sins explicitly mentioned in the Scripture and midrashim.
We must adopt a different approach. On the one hand, we cannot overlook the sins of gedolei Yisrael, but at the same time, we may not look at these sins in isolation from their specific context. The Midrash states clearly that Moshe sinned. King David certainly sinned, as clearly evidenced by the prophet Natan’s harsh critique and David’s own confession. His process of repentance is recorded in detail in Mizmor 51 of Tehillim. Although the gemara (Ketubot 9a) discusses whether or not Batsheva technically had the status of a married woman, in any case David’s act clearly involved a sin – a fact which we cannot ignore. Regarding Reuven, as well, we are clearly dealing with a sin. The gemara (Shabbat55b) tells us that he didn’t sleep with Bilha, but rather rearranged his father’s beds. Clearly, however, Reuven sinned, as indicated by Yaakov’s deathbed rebuke to him: “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace – my couch he mounted!” (Bereishit 49:4).
However, although we cannot deny these sins, we must view them in light of Chazal’s overall attitude toward these personalities. Generally, Chazal and the Rishonim relate to Moshe with obvious reverence. The Rambam speaks at length (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:6) about Moshe’s uniqueness over all other prophets, going so far as to say that Moshe was like the angels in that he was perpetually ready to receive prophecy. The Rambam also devotes one of the thirteen principles of faith to the singularity of Moshe Rabbenu. In truth, GodHimself spells out the praise of Moshe: “Not so My servant Moshe; with him I speak mouth to mouth? and he beholds the likeness of God” (Bemidbar 12:6-8). Chazal exhibit the same respect and reverence for other gedolei Yisrael, as well, depicting them as giants of character and deed.
We must relate to these gedolim in the same manner as Chazal. Just as we have a tradition of Halakha, so too do we have a tradition regarding these matters. Just as we do not deviate even one iotafrom Chazal’s specifications regarding the four species on Sukkot, for example, so we may never stray from their approach towards the personality of King David. We must view Moshe, David and others as giants in the full sense of the term.
However, we cannot relate to them as superhuman beings, bereft of any emotion or human experience. We are still dealing with human beings, and they may even have experienced stronger drives then we do: “Whoever is greater than his fellow, has a greater [evil] inclination” (Sukka 52a). Even these people can stumble occasionally, for they, too, struggle with a “yetzer ha-ra.” Were Avraham not to have had any human emotions or drives, and would thus have taken his son to be sacrificed just as one would an animal, then akeidat Yitzchak would not have constituted as monumental a display of faith and religious resolve as it did; it would have lost its significance.
Thus, we cannot overlook the sins of several of gedolei Yisrael, but we must view them in the broader context of Chazal’s overall attitude towards these exceptional personalities. These are giants who sinned, but whose sins do not diminish their greatness.
Today, there are many people disloyal to the tradition of Chazal who focus only on the sins of gedolei Yisrael, rather than on their greatness. Therefore, specifically in our day and age, we must be sure not to take these sins out of their appropriate context, and must rather relate to our Biblical heroes in light of the attitude of Chazal and the Rishonim toward them.
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