The Measure of Goodness
Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )
Moses' first visit to Pharaoh did not turn out exactly as he had expected. As the messenger of God, he had hoped to convince Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from bondage. But Pharaoh responded with disdain, "Moshe and Aharon, why are you making trouble? The people have work to do, and you're only getting in the way." Then Pharaoh had turned the screws of bondage even tighter. He decreed that the people had to go out and procure their own building materials, but the quota expected of them would not be lowered.
Moshe was upset, and he said to Hashem (Shemos 5:22), "My Master, why have You treated these people badly? Why did You send me on this mission?"
God took exception to Moshe's questions and rebuked him. "I am Hashem. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov, and they never questioned Me. I promised Avraham the entire land of Israel, yet he could not find a grave for his wife Sarah until he paid a high price for a burial ground. Did he complain? Did he question Me? I told Yitzchak to live in this land, that I would give it to him and his descendants, yet in order to find water he had to wrangle with the Philistine shepherds. Did he complain? Did he question Me? I promised Yaakov the entire land, yet he was unable to find a place to pitch his tent until he bought a place from Chamor ben Shechem for one hundred kesitas. Did he complain? Did he question Me? Only you had complaints, Moshe. Only you questioned Me. What a loss the patriarchs are to Me. What an irreplaceable loss!"
The patriarchs had also experienced adverse conditions. They had also had times when things did not go as well as they might have expected. But they never complained. They never questioned Hashem. Moshe did, and Hashem rebuked him for it.
If we think into it more deeply, however, it would seem that there is an important difference between Moshe and the patriarchs. They were private citizens, so to speak, individuals who were having a hard time. True, the promises they received from Hashem involved a future nation, but at the time they experienced their hardships, there was no nation as yet. Only they themselves were affected. Therefore, the patriarchs could, in all good conscience, suffer in silence and not complain.
Moshe, however, was the leader of an entire nation, responsible for the welfare of millions of people. It was his duty to advocate for them, to fight for their welfare, to complain when things did not go well for them. Why then did Hashem rebuke him? What did he do wrong?
When the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, Moshe argued for their survival, otherwise, he said, "Erase me from Your book." And Hashem did not object. When Moshe came to their defense again and again in the desert, Hashem did not object. Why did He object now?
The answer lies in Moshe's choice of words. "My Master," he said, "why have You treated these people badly?" He characterized Hashem's actions as "bad." This was his mistake. True, it was his responsibility to advocate for the Jewish people. True, it was his responsibility to complain to Hashem when things did not go well for them. But at the same time, he had to recognize that everything Hashem did was good. All he could do was ask that it become better. In his position, Moshe should have had too profound understanding of the goodness of Hashem's actions to utter the words "treated them badly."
When Pharaoh asked Yaakov how old he was, he replied (Bereishis 47:9), "The years of my life have been few and bad." According to the Midrash, Hashem immediately said to Yaakov, "I saved you from Eisav and Lavan and I returned Dinah and Yosef to you, and now you are complaining that your years are few and bad? Your life will be shortened by the number of words in your complaint."
Yaakov never expressed his complaints to Hashem, but apparently deep inside he did not perceive the absolute good of everything Hashem had sent his way. Although his life may have been bitter, he should have realized that it was not bad. The confrontation with Eisav developed the Jewish people's ability to contend with Eisav's descendants in future generations. Yosef's removal to Egypt paved the way for the salvation of the nation. These were difficult, trying and even incomprehensible events, but ultimately, they were not bad. As the Chafetz Chaim points out, strong medicine may be bitter, but if it is effective, it cannot be considered bad.
This is where Moshe erred. In his great love and devotion for the Jewish people, he was distracted by their momentary affliction and lost sight of its ultimate good. For that brief moment when those fateful words slipped out, he failed to see that, in the broader scheme of things, Hashem was treating the Jewish people exceedingly well.