By Rav David Silverberg
We read in Parashat Vaera that when Moshe conveyed to Benei Yisrael God’s promises of redemption, after Pharaoh had intensified their workload in response to Moshe’s initial demand that he release the slaves, the people paid no attention to him. The Torah tells, “They did not listen to Moshe due to [their] shortness of spirit and intense labor” (6:9). God then spoke to Moshe once again, commanding him to approach Pharaoh a second time to demand that he allow Benei Yisrael to leave. Moshe replied, “See, the Israelites did not listen to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?” (6:12). The simple reading of this verse, as Rashi explains, is that Moshe reasoned that if Benei Yisrael could not believe in the possibility of their redemption, then certainly Pharaoh would not believe in God’s ability to deliver them to freedom.
Many commentators noted the flaw in Moshe’s logic. The Torah made it very clear that Benei Yisrael paid no attention to Moshe’s prophecy because of the stress and anguish of slavery. Therefore, the fact that they rejected him did not necessarily mean that Pharaoh would react the same way. Why did Moshe presume it was more likely for Benei Yisrael to hear his message than Pharaoh, if, as the Torah explicitly states, they were incapable of doing so due to the pain and pressure of bondage?
The Tosafists, in Da’at Zekeinim, offer a number of possible answers, including the suggestion that Moshe did not understand the reason for the people’s rejection of his prophecy. The Torah informs us that they could not accept his prophecy of redemption because of their suffering and aggravation, but Moshe was not privy to this information. This approach is developed more elaborately by Keli Yakar, who explains that Moshe wrongly assumed that the people simply lacked faith. He thus figured that if Benei Yisrael did not have the faith to accept his message of redemption, then certainly Pharaoh, who rejected the belief in an omnipotent Creator altogether, would not heed Moshe’s call.
This explanation perhaps reminds us of the limits of our understanding of other people’s conduct and decisions. Even somebody as wise and incisive as Moshe Rabbenu did not fully understand the source of the people’s hostile response to his prophecy. Many times, there is a degree of “kotzer ru’ach va-avoda kasha” – of pain and adversity – that lead people to act as they do. We must train ourselves to be hesitant to cast judgment in the face of improper speech and conduct, recognizing that we rarely know the entire story, that all people carry their own share of “baggage” that could explain their inappropriate behavior. Just as Moshe did not correctly assess the people’s hostile reaction to his prophecy, we, too, often lack knowledge of other people’s circumstances and the struggles they face, and so we should be giving them the benefit of the doubt and judging them favorably.
Originally appears on VBM