“Moses said, My Lord, why have You done evil to this people, why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people… Hashem said to Moses, I am Hashem. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…but with My Name Hashem I did not make Myself known to them.”
(Shemot 5:22; 6:2-3)
These questions reverberate throughout our long history. “Why, have You not saved us?” “Why must we suffer?” In this dialogue between Moses and G-d, we find the first direct complaint by Man against the Creator. In all other instances before, such as Adam’s reply, Cain’s anger, and Abraham’s surprise at G-d’s destruction of Sodom, there were some echoes of questioning and probing of G-d’s ways, but never with the intensity of criticism that we find in Moses’ plaintive tones. Indeed G-d had sent him to announce to the people that G-d had heard their crying and that He was going to redeem them. They heard and they believed Moses and they began to expect some relief from their hardships or at the very least that they would not endure additional torture and torments. Now Moses stands bewildered and disappointed, and observing the anguish of his people he addresses G-d with these hard questions.
The parasha begins in the middle of G-d’s answer. After assuring Moses in stern language that He will free Israel from Egyptian slavery, G-d begins to explain to Moses the ways in which the Redemption will occur and why the Jewish people will suffer before being redeemed. The entire answer is summarized in just two Hebrew words: “Ani (I am) Hashem.” This is what these words mean—the reply by G-d: “I am the One Who runs the world; I am trustworthy to fulfill My promises. I govern all that happens, the misery and the respite, the agony and the ecstasy. Until now, you have seen the suffering and the degradation, but from now on you will see My hand, outstretched and evident to all, and the conditions that existed until now will be radically transformed. I am the G-d of History; I fulfill all My assurances and pledges to the Patriarchs.”
The answer continues with a reference to the experience of the Patriarchs. “I was Hashem when I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but I did not allow them to experience this power in their lives. Despite being promised the Land, Abraham had to plead with the Amorites for a piece of land in which to bury his wife! Jacob became a servant just to get a wife. You complain that things have gotten worse, but they did not complain; they trusted Me, but you will actually see My power and the fulfillment of My promise.”
G-d’s answer is puzzling. Moses is reassured that the promise will be fulfilled, but why was it necessary for the suffering to happen at all? Why did not Abraham become the great leader he was destined to become? Why did not the nation flourish in their land without the need for exile or enslavement? And now, if Redemption is near, why is it necessary to have additional burdens and more afflictions? Rabbi S. R. Hirsch suggests that Israel is not a nation like any other, but it is G-d’s People. As such, its history and evolution had to reflect G-d’s power and His infinite ability to act with absolute freedom, unencumbered by any preexisting conditions or limitations. Israel’s history must reveal G-d as Hashem. Therefore, if they had had a normal life, had they flourished in their native soil as other peoples, and reached its achievements in a normal process of nature, they would have been indistinguishable from any other nation and would have failed to show G-d’s Hand in the world. The result of this would have been Israel’s attachment to material successes and physical power and not the moral and spiritual goals for which they were created. Thus, Jewish history had to be framed in such a way as to reflect G-d’s presence in the world, and this required some very special and unique twists.
First, the Patriarchs as recipients of the Great Promise had to see nothing of its reality in their lives. Then their descendants would become slaves to the most oppressive society in history in a way that their freedom would be inconceivable. Finally, even as they are about to be liberated, they would have to endure further mistreatment and cruelty in order to make their eventual redemption appear more impossible and of lesser verisimilitude. It is at that time, when all hope is lost, when the agony appears insurmountable, that G-d appears and the salvation arrives. Rabbi Hirsch writes, “That is why this nation has to start where other nations finish.” When Israel is utterly helpless, stricken to the ground, it is at that very moment that they are born, reborn, and rise again. The prophet describes Israel’s birth and salvation thus, “No eye pitied you to do any one of these things (kindness) for you, to show you compassion: You were cast out upon the open field because of the loathsomeness of your being on the day you were born. Then I passed you and saw you wallowing in your blood and I said to you, ‘In your blood you shall live.’ I said to you, ‘In your blood you shall live.’” (Ezekiel 16:5-6). This verse is quoted in the Haggadah as one of the most important moments of the Redemption from Egypt and it is also proclaimed at the brit milah of every Jewish boy. Jewish history is replete with instances of moments of tragedy and decline, where every hope was dashed and every thought of salvation was suppressed. Yet from these situations, Israel is always redeemed and it rises from the ashes again. Its hitherto unimaginable rebirth announces to the world, “I am Hashem!” That is why G-d tells us, “Do not be afraid and do not tremble for I have always proclaimed that you are My witnesses.” (Isaiah 44:4)
In our times too we ask the same questions and many have despaired of finding the answer. In this brief dialogue we find a meaningful reply to the question. We are like no other nation; we cannot find a place among the nations for we are different. Our existence is not for the purpose of creating a nation like the others, but to create one that testifies to G-d’s power and love. Therefore, no matter how many enemies threaten us and what weapons are being developed to annihilate us, when we appear to be on the brink of obliteration we should remember that G-d’s promise is not in vain, that the Salvation will come and through our rebirth the Name of G-d will be praised in the world.
There is a lesson here for our personal lives as well, when we ask the question, “Why must I suffer?” Suffering and setbacks should not be regarded as terminal and inescapable but rather as rungs of a ladder. They are part of a journey, not its final destination. Some parts of the course of growth and development may have to go through some pain and challenges. We would be wise to regard these moments as part of a process that will culminate in some good ground at the end. Just as Israel suffers in certain periods of its history but only to reemerge again with renewed energy and dynamism, so we can be blessed with life and happiness after times of anguish and pain.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.