Parshat Va’era – פרשת וארא

Parshat Va’era – פרשת וארא
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Va’era – פרשת וארא
January 25, 2020 – כח טבת תשפ
This essay is dedicated in memory of Shlomo Scharf Z”L.
Faith and Trust
Moses’ popularity among the Israelites declined as his promise of national freedom from bondage failed to materialize quickly. God commanded Moses to speak again to the Israelites and proclaim a Divine message employing the four expressions of redemption.  Moses complied with God’s command, but his words were ineffective and he failed to raise the people’s hopes. “But they hearkened not unto Moses for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage (Exodus 6:9 JPS translation).” ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח ומעבודה קשה
The translators and commentators differ in their understanding of the phrase קצר רוח.  Rashi explained that the Israelites refused to accept the words of consolation proffered by Moses.  Rashi noted that one who is in a state of suffering, in particular from backbreaking manual labor, is unable to inhale deeply.  Robert Alter follows Rashi in translating the phrase as “shortness of breath.”  In Rashi’s view, רוח takes on the dual meaning of physical breath and metaphysical spirit.  The Israelites’ oppressive physical reality also took a severe psychological toll on them and crushed their spirits.
Ibn Ezra noted that the verse offers two reasons for the failure of the Israelites to heed the word of Moses, both impatience of spirit and hard work.  He understood the two phrases to be distinct.  Impatience of spirit was the result of a protracted exile, entering its fifth century.  But a lengthy tenure in the diaspora in Egypt would not, on its own, have caused an unreceptive attitude. Only because their situation was recently exacerbated by an unbearable increase in the workload – for which they blamed Moses -- did the Israelites close their ears to good news.
How can the dismissive Israelite attitude found in Exodus 6:9 be reconciled with their earlier enthusiasm for Moses and their belief in his agency as God’s representative? “And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped (Exodus 4:31).”  Does 6:9 represent a complete reversal of popular belief in the prospect of Divine salvation at the hands of Moses?  Rashbam, indeed, understood these contradictory verses in that manner.
Ramban strenuously disagreed with Rashbam. He rejected the notion that the Israelites failed to believe in God or His prophet.  Rather, according to Ramban, the Israelites simply lacked the capacity to listen because of their deepening sense of doom.  Their shortness of breath was caused by a fear that Pharaoh would intensify the persecution from hard labor and infanticide to outright genocide.  Hard labor and fear of missing the daily brick quota left them little time to ponder Moses’ message of salvation.
Sforno also understood Exodus 6:9 not to be a complete negation of the sentiments expressed in Exodus 4:31. He noted that whereas the earlier verse spoke of belief, the later verses addresses the issue of בטחון trust.  Unfortunately, Sforno’s insightful comment here is terse, only alluding to, and not fully explicating, the deep philosophical and psychological issue – the nature of trust and how it differs from belief -- central to a correct understanding of the text.
Belief (אמונה) and trust (בטחון) are two fundamental concepts in religion. (There are many rabbinical works on the subjects of Emunah and Bitachon; in Christianity and Islam, these two notions are also basic.) Although many lay people view the two concepts as indistinguishable, in fact they are distinct.
אמונה is the belief in God and His traits. In the context of the early chapters of the Book of Exodus, it means belief in God’s omnipotence.  Exodus 4:31 says that the Israelites believed in a Higher Power capable of orchestrating an unprecedented exodus of the slave population.  No human being using natural means could accomplish such a task.  Only a deity with supernatural abilities could produce the long-awaited redemption.  The belief described in that verse also indicates acceptance of Moses as having been truly selected by God to serve as His human agent for a divinely ordained mission.
In contrast, בטחון means trust or confidence in God to deliver the positive outcome of which it is believed He is capable. In our context, the Israelites were at first buoyed by the news of a “deliverer.”  Their belief in God remained the same throughout, even as their בטחון slipped in the absence of a quick termination to their enslavement.
Support for this interpretation can be found in Exodus 4:1. At the Burning Bush, Moses attempted to evade his appointment as God’s emissary by claiming that the people would not believe in him. “But they will not believe me nor will they heed my voice, for they will say the Lord did not appear to you.”  Moses distinguished between believing (יאמינו) and heeding (ישמעו).  God became angry with Moses and told him that the Israelites would believe him.  Just in case, God gave Moses three wondrous signs – a staff turning into a snake, a hand becoming leprous, and water turning to blood – to prove his legitimacy as God’s agent. Clearly, אמונה is a matter of belief in the existence of God and in the ability of His appointed agents to accomplish fantastic feats.  The Israelites always had this sort of belief and, according to the Talmud, Moses was punished for even questioning his people’s faith (Shabbat 97a).  But even with their faith, it was reasonable of Moses to question whether or not the Israelites would heed his voice.  That was a matter of בטחון, which, as Exodus 6:9 indicates, is subject to fluctuation.
In this tale the Torah teaches us an important lesson about human nature.  One’s abstract beliefs about God tend to remain steady throughout life and are based upon what one has absorbed during one’s early impressionable years.  What tends to fluctuate, and can do so wildly, is the trust one has in God to bring about positive developments. בטחון is fairly easy when one has a livelihood, a happy family, and health. בטחון is far more difficult when one experiences the vicissitudes of life.  One could make the argument that it is sufficient, from the standpoint of observance, for a Jew to have אמונה without בטחון.  One could believe in the ability of an all-powerful God to do as He so chooses, but to take a pessimistic view of one’s personal future on the assumption that God probably will not be intervening in any perceptible way.  Yet such an attitude is theologically quite dangerous.  If one believes in the capacity of God to intervene on behalf of the righteous and the tormented, yet assume that God will not do so in one’s own case, then some might contend that one has postulated a pernicious god in place of the traditionally understood benevolent One.
Returning to the Scriptural account: God goes ahead with the Exodus despite a decline in בטחון by the Israelites, precisely because He is benevolent and kept His word to the forefathers.
The challenge for us is to overcome shortness of breath and impatience of spirit whenever it occurs in our own lives. Unlike the fickle attitude of our forebears, our conviction concerning the redemption of Israel needs to be unwavering.