“Can We Question G-d and Get Away With It?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, opens with G-d’s response to Moshe’s complaint that things have only gotten worse for the People of Israel in Egypt since his (Moshe’s) intervention at G-d’s behest, and continues with G-d’s assurance that the redemption will come very soon.

Parashat Va’eira begins with the words (Exodus 6:2): “Vay’daber Eh’lohkim el Moshe, va’yomer ay’lav: Ah’nee Hashem.” And G-d spoke to Moshe and said to him, I am the Lord. Rashi says that G-d rebuked Moshe for questioning G-d’s actions as stated in Exodus 5:22: “Va’yomar: Ah’do’nay, lah’mah ha’ray’oh’tah la’am ha’zeh, v’lah’mah zeh sh’lach’tah’nee?” And Moshe said: My Lord, why have You done evil to this people and why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he did evil to this people. You did not rescue Your people.

The Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin 111a, elaborates on the details of G-d’s reproof of Moshe. The Talmud quotes G-d as saying to Moshe: “Alas for those who are gone and are no more to be found. For how many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name of Kayl Shadai and they did not question My character nor say to Me, ‘What is Thy name?'” The Talmud then provides an example: “I [G-d] said to Avraham, ‘Arise and walk through the land in the length and breadth of it, for I will give it unto thee.’ (Genesis 13:17). Yet when he [Avraham] sought a place to bury Sarah he did not find one, but had to purchase it for 400 silver shekels. And still he did not question my character!” The Talmud relates that both Isaac and Jacob were similarly tested, yet they did not question G-d. “And you, Moshe,” the Talmud continues, “You say onto Me, ‘Neither hast thou delivered thy people at all!’ Therefore, you shall now see what I will do to Pharaoh. You will behold the war against Pharaoh, but not the war against the 31 kings. You will never enter the land of Israel for questioning My character.”

The Chassidic commentators on the Bible always have difficulty whenever G-d questions the sincerity of the Jewish People, or reproves them. The great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev personified unquestioned love of Israel. He would do acrobatics in order to find a justification for anything negative uttered about a Jew or the Jewish nation. When once asked to explain Isaiah’s searing rebuke of the Jewish People (Isaiah 1:2): “Children have I [G-d] reared and raised, and they have rebelled against me!” Reb Levy Yitzchak of Berditchev simply restructured the entire verse to read as a question: Children have I reared and raised, and they have rebelled against me? Is it possible? Of course not! Completely out of the question! Impossible!

Similarly, the Chassidic commentators labor long and hard to explain G-d’s rebuke of Moshe for questioning Him. Rabbi Meir of Peremyshlyany (Chassidic leader 1780?-1850) explains away Rashi’s interpretation, maintaining that G-d spoke to Moshe not in rebuke, but rather in praise of his heightened sense of justice. You, Moshe, were the defense attorney for the People of Israel. That is why you said to Me (Exodus 5:22), “Lah’mah ha’ray’o’tah?” Why have You done evil? You weren’t afraid of Me. You did not recoil, because of your single-minded commitment to defend the People of Israel. You, Moshe, are the bulwark of righteousness and justice.

The Noam Elimelech, the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787), says that in the merit of Moshe, G-d’s would-be strict judgment was turned into a judgment of mercy. As the opening verse of the parasha itself indicates (Exodus 6:2): Va’y’daber Eloh’kim el Moshe, va’yomer ay’lov: ah’nee Hashem.” Eloh’kim represents judgment. Hashem, the Tetragrammaton, represents mercy. You, Moshe, transformed G-d’s message into a message of mercy.

The Chatam Sofer, in his work Torat Moshe, says that despite the fact that Moshe knew that it was forbidden to speak harshly with G-d, in his selfless devotion to the People of Israel, Moshe proceeded to risk his own future in order to save Israel. That act caused G-d to immediately well up with mercy.

Returning to the fundamental issue: “Can we question G-d and get away with it?”, the answer depends on whether you are a Litvak or a Chassid. The strict interpretation holds Moshe accountable, resulting in his inability to enter the promised land. The more liberal interpretation implies that G-d desires to be challenged, hoping to find a justification that would exonerate those guilty of unseemly acts. As the Bible says (Proverbs 3:17): “D’rah’cheh’ha dar’chai noam.” Its [the Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths peace.

May you be blessed.