Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Rabbi Gary Pokras
We’ve all said it, at one time or another, or perhaps more often: “I told you so!”
Oh, the frustration when we know better than them: “I told you this would/wouldn’t work! If you had just listened to me we would have saved so much time/aggravation/money.” In one form, ‘I told you so’ is a statement of our superiority – proof that we know more than they know. However, it can also express our fear.
Last week’s parasha concludes with just such a moment, where Moses effectively says “I told you so” to God. Moses, the reluctant leader, is frustrated and pained by the result of his initial efforts as God’s messenger to Egypt. When the Israelite foremen complained to Moses and Aaron about how much worse things were since Pharaoh took away the straw for making bricks, Moses went back to God and said:
“O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharoah to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” [Ex. 5:22-23]
Does Moses think he knows better than God? No. He is afraid. He fears the pain and suffering that will result from trying to convince Pharoah to free the people – and, perhaps, he also fears failure.
Notably, God does not smack Moses down for being disrespectful. Instead, VaEira opens with this:
“I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself know to them by My name YHWH … I have heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God … I am the Lord.” (Ex. 6:2-8 [excerpts])
In more colloquial language, God responds to Moses’ fear by saying this: ‘Uhhhh, Moses … God here. Did you forget? Do you think there is anything I cannot do? Everything will turn out fine.’
Wouldn’t that be reassuring? If, when we faced our deepest fears, God would speak to us to tell us that we will be just fine, wouldn’t that give us the courage to ‘stay calm and keep on’?
Moses took God’s reassurance to heart, and went to the Israelites to pass along the exciting news: “but they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Ex. 6:9b)
Not surprisingly, this leads Moses right back to God, with more insecurities about the task at hand.
It’s as if we are in a circular feedback loop of fear-based ‘I told you so’s.’ Moses is so overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge ahead that he needs constant reassurances, despite his intimate and direct relationship with God. The Israelites are so beaten down by Pharoah’s new oppressions that they cannot even hear the message of redemption. They are afraid to hope, and afraid of what Pharoah might do next. And, they are utterly exhausted.
Sometimes, we are just too afraid, too overwhelmed to take on the big important tasks. It’s not that we don’t recognize their importance, it just that we are too worn down, and too worried about how to bear the short-term consequences of our actions.
Every fear-based ‘I told you so’ is a defense mechanism – a way to avoid confronting our fears. Saying “I told you so’ out of fear gives us the illusion of being right, and keeps us from a better potential future.
How then is the cycle broken?
Modern Israelis have a saying: ‘L’at l’at, yom yomi — slowly, slowly, day by day.’
God responds gently, over and over, to each of Moses’ complaints – slowly building up Moses’ reservoir of strength and confidence so that he can eventually fulfill his higher purpose. And for Israel, God will do the same – demonstrating over and again that Egypt’s power can be confronted and defeated, until not only will Egypt be willing to let them go, but they themselves will finally have the strength to leave Egypt. Yet, even before the first miracle, there is something else God provides for the Israelites.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his colleague (another Rabbi Menachem Mendel – this one from Warsaw) about an earlier passage in the text, where God promised Moses that the Israelites will listen to him. (Ex. 3:18) If God promised, shouldn’t the people have listened? The response from Warsaw notes that in 3:18, God says l’kol’cha (to your voice) rather than b’chol’cha (in your voice). What does this mean? Rabbi Joshua Mikutis teaches that this subtle difference suggests that the Israelites will listen to Moses’ voice, even when they cannot hear the content of what he says (what is in his voice). In this way, the Israelites may derive some comfort in the midst of their pain, in just knowing that Moses, God’s servant, is there for them.1
When we feel oppressed by the forces in the world around us, and our spirits falter, and we feel alone and isolated, VaEira reminds us that we are not alone. The voice of our friends, of our family, of Torah, of God can provide comfort and strength even when we cannot hear the words themselves. God comforted Moses, and Moses comforted the people. We can comfort each other and listen for God’s voice in the voices around us. And together, we can find the strength and the courage, slowly, slowly, day by day, to overcome the fear and the exhaustion to build the world in which we want to live – one step at a time.