Kanfei Yonah: Shemot II: A Different Sort of Leader
“And Moshe returned to God, and he said, ‘God, why have You made it worse for this nation? Why indeed did You send me? Since coming to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, You have made it worse for this nation, and You have also not saved Your nation.’ And God said to Moshe, ‘Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh; that with a strong hand he will send them, and with a strong hand he will expel them from his land.’” (Exodus 5:22)
The Midrash records that Moshe was actually conducting a great philosophical polemic with God, challenging Him about why one generation absorbs the suffering for the accumulated misdeeds of its predecessors, and why the ‘redemption of the nation,’ is experienced only by one generation, but not by those who are “buried under the buildings” which they built as slave labor for the Egyptians.
In response to this tirade, the heavenly Standard of Judgment called for Moshe to be harmed. But God saw that Moshe was devoid of self-interest, that he was making these complaints only on behalf of the People of Israel, and saw to it that Moshe was spared.
Still, God said, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh,” i.e. now you will merit to see My victory over Pharaoh, but you will not live long enough to see the victory of the Jewish People over the 31 kings who ruled the Land of Canaan.
This Midrashic version of the dialogue between God and Moshe reminds us of the ultimate mystery of life, the fact that all revolution and change in history come at the expense of human lives. Apparently, even Moshe – of whom it says, “And he was just short of divine” – could not fully comprehend why the Divine plan for history demands this trade-off in blood.
We see how the commanders of the armies of all nations lead their troops to death for the sake of the nation. Even King David said, “As many and as many as have died here, will be consumed by the sword.” Yet all this seems inexplicable, that the powerful human instinct for survival is put aside to protect one’s nation and the land; the individual is ready and prepared to lay down his life for his people. It seems that on some intuitive level man is sensitive to the terms of this mysterious reality, that some of the nation must give up their lives, in order for the rest to advance toward redemption.
This, then, was the Heavenly response to Moshe: “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh,” but you will not see the war against the 31 kings. In other words, the final victory over Pharaoh will be achieved without war. Moshe’s job would be to maintain the refined level of spirituality necessary to be a conduit for miracles, and the Egyptians will be defeated without an actual battlefield, and without the loss of Jewish lives in war. That, you will see, God says to Moshe, because that is the sort of transition you envision.
But the war against the 31 kings is not for you. That will call for the great and poignant sacrifices of battle, the best of our youth fighting, many of them dying. Then you will ask, “Why must these die, so that those may inherit the land?”
No, the job of being a commander in that kind of warfare is not for you. I will leave that work to your disciple Yehoshua.