Speaking Truth to Power

Va'era By :  Andrew Shugerman Posted On Jan 1, 2011 / 5771 | Midrash: Between the Lines

שמות רבה ו:ד

אמר לו הקב״ה למשה חבל על דאבדין ולא משתכחין הרבה פעמים נגליתי על אברהם יצחק ויעקב באל שדי ולא הודעתי להם כי שמי ה׳ כשם שאמרתי לך ולא הרהרו אחר מדותי אמרתי לאברהם (בראשית יג) קום התהלך בארץ לארכה ולרחבה וגו׳ בקש לקבור שרה ולא מצא עד שקנה בדמים ולא הרהר אחר מדותי אמרתי ליצחק (שם כו) גור בארץ הזאת כי לך ולזרעך וגו׳ בקש לשתות מים ולא מצא אלא (שם) ויריבו רועי גרר עם רועי יצחק ולא הרהר אחר מדותי אמרתי ליעקב (שם כח) הארץ אשר אתה שוכב עליה וגו׳ בקש מקום לנטות אהלו ולא מצא עד שקנה במאה קשיטה ולא הרהר אחר מדותי ולא שאלני מה שמי כשם ששאלת אתה ואתה תחלת שליחותי אמרת לי מה שמי ולבסוף אמרת ומאז באתי אל פרעה וע״ז נאמר וגם הקימותי את בריתי שניתנה להם כמו שאמרתי להם שאתן להם את הארץ ולא הרהרו אחרי וגם אני שמעתי את נאקת בני ישראל לפי שהן לא הרהרו אחרי

Exodus Rabbah 6:4

God said to Moses: “Oh, for those that are gone and cannot be replaced! Many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but I did not inform them that My name is Adonai, as I have told you, and still they did not criticize My ways.

“To Abraham, I said: Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, [for I give it to you] (Gen. 13:17). But when he sought to bury Sarah, he found no burial plot until he had purchased one. Still, he did not criticize My ways.

“To Isaac, I said: Reside in this land . . . I will assign all these lands to you and your offspring . . . (Gen. 26:3). But when he sought water to drink, he found none; instead, the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, ‘The water is ours’ (ibid. 20). Still, he did not criticize My ways.

“To Jacob, I said: . . . The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring (Gen. 28:13). But when he sought a place to pitch his tent, he found none until he purchased one for a hundred kesitah. Still, he did not criticize My ways, nor did he ask Me, as you asked Me, what My name is.

“At the outset of making you My messenger, you asked what My name is and then later said: Ever since I came to Pharaoh [to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people . . .] (Exod. 5:23). Accordingly [Scripture] says: I also established my covenant . . . (Exod. 6:4), which was given to them, just as I promised to give them the land, and they never criticized My ways. Moreover, l have now heard the moaning of the Israelites (ibid. 5), because they did not criticize Me.”

Might this midrash be intentionally ironic? Surely, the anonymous Sage who imagines this divine monologue would have acknowledged Abraham’s chutzpah in questioning God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Even if that encounter only amounts to an implicit critique of God’s ways, it sets the stage for one of the most important acts of Moses’s career.

After the Golden Calf episode, the Israelites’ most famous act as an ever-complaining, “stiff-necked people,” Moses challenges God’s stated intention to destroy the nascent nation. The prophet demands that God “forgive their sin; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written!” (Exod. 32:32). While that kind of spiritual leadership, in the words of this midrash, “is gone and cannot be replaced,” let us never lose the passionately critical voice of one who walks with God and speaks truth to power.