The Pardonable Sin (Ideas #88)




According to one opinion in the Talmud(1), Moshe seems to get a break that is not afforded to anyone else in the Torah: When he is first chosen as the Jewish leader, he is allowed to evoke Divine anger without being punished. This occurs when Moshe refuses to listen G-d, Who tells him to speak to Pharaoh on behalf of the Jewish people (Shemot 4:14). The uniqueness of Moshe's dispensation is underscored by its theologically problematic nature.


This discussion between G-d and Moshe is most remarkable. When G-d seems to have debunked every excuse Moshe presents to him, Moshe ends up basically saying I still do not want to do it. This, according to our tradition, ends an entire week of arguing with G-d over this point. Moreover, the excuse of having some sort of speech problem is repeated twice more in Parshat Va'era, as if Moshe cannot except even the compromise that G-d strikes with him, whereby he is allowed to give over the more public side of leadership to his brother, Aharon. It appears that even once commissioned, Moshe is still looking for a way out.


We have discussed elsewhere ( Herzl, Chutzpah & Heresy (Ideas #49) ) that G-d appreciates it when one of His prophets argues with Him in defense of other human beings. But even in such an instance, we never see a prophet saying, “I disagree even if I have no reason for it.” Such an argument would be audacious in front of any interlocutor, but certainly in front of the Master of the Universe. One can readily compare this situation to that of Yonah in his refusal to listen to G-d. There, however, not only is Yonah made to suffer, he is also coerced to do exactly what G-d had asked him to do in the first place. By comparison, Moshe is not only allowed to strike a compromise, he does not even seem to reap any negative consequences (at least according to this opinion in the Talmud).


While there are certainly several differences between the story of Yonah and that of Moshe, it may be worthwhile to focus briefly on the nature of Moshe's refusal. In my recent book, Redeeming Relevance, I argued that true Jewish leadership is marked by the tremendous ambivalence of Jewish leaders about the concept of human leadership itself.


With Moshe, however, it goes beyond the reticence common to almost all Jewish leaders. Moshe's leadership is exceptional in its scope as well as its grandeur: His proximity to G-d and the enormity of taking the Jews out of Egypt to become G-d's nation made his a unique role. Precisely for this reason, G-d was interested in a man whose natural humility was so overwhelming that no matter what G-d said to him, he still could not see himself as someone who could speak to the world's most powerful leader on behalf of G-d's people. In other words, Moshe's humility was so internalized that the greatest arguments could not dissuade him from it. It is for this reason that he was – shockingly – not even swayed by G-d.


There are certain things that are so clear to us that we would have trouble believing otherwise, even if G-d were to appear to us personally and tell us otherwise; for example, if He were to tell us that we do not exist or that we do not breathe. This was how Moshe saw the inappropriateness of his taking on the role that G-d requested of him. Of course, when G-d did tell Moshe to ignore that which he was so sure about, Moshe was asked to accept that G-d always knows better, no matter how convinced a person can be of something to the contrary. Thus, Moshe erred in his unwillingness to put aside his own worldview, when G-d told him to do so, justifiably arousing G-d's anger.


The tenacity of Moshe easily accounts for G-d's anger. Paradoxically, however, it appears that this very tenacity proved that Moshe was the man for the job. The power as well as the honor that would be accorded to Moshe would be the undoing of just about anyone with a less extreme sense of humility.  If Moshe's humility had caused him to go overboard in his argument with G-d, it also showed that the place that would be given to him in the annals of human history would not allow him to lose his perspective.  



Moshe teaches us that greatness requires the complete internalization of certain truths by which one should evaluate oneself. There are certain things which should not be open to uncertainty. In the case of humility, it is a basic truth that a human being is very small indeed. Both in how much space he occupies and in how many years he lives, a person is barely perceivable. The more objective one is, the more he can see this. Our greatness lies only in the fact that G-d chose to relate to us and to be concerned with us. Many great religious thinkers have tried to explain this Divine prerogative, which, at the end of the day, will always be an almost inexplicable kindness.


It is has been suggested that the reason the exile brought about by Rome and its cultural descendants has been so long and bitter is because the very core of this culture is the opposite of humility, the sense of human pride (2). Over this exile, Jews could not have prevented themselves completely from being influenced into exaggerating their sense of self-importance, both individually and nationally.


It is not accidental that the hallmark of a holy Jewish individual is his or her humility. Accordingly, I remember being amazed by a brief audience I had with a leading posek here in Jerusalem. He inquired about “his honor,” which after a few seconds I realized was meant to refer to me.


When we examine the acculturation of the Jewish people to Western culture, it is particularly important to pick out these facets of Western culture that we need to protest. If we look back to our first national leader, we see that it is humility that must be the hallmark of the Jew and it is upon this issue that we must draw our true cultural battle lines.



(1) The opinion of R. Yehoshua be Karcha in Zevachim102a

(2) R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav m'Eliyahu vol. 2, p. 51