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When Moses Didn't Believe God

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski

It happened as he [Moses] drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses' anger flared up. He threw down the Tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain #(32:19)

There is a remarkable Midrash which states that when God said to Moses, “Go, descend – for your people that you brought up from Egypt have become corrupt,” Moses held on to the Tablets and did not believe that the Israelites had sinned. He said, “If I do not see it, I do not believe it,” for the Torah says, “It happened as he [Moses] drew near the camp and saw the calf and the dances,” hence, he did not break the Tablets until he saw it with his own eyes.

The Midrash continues, “Woe unto those people who testify to what they did not see. Is it possible that Moses did not believe it when God said to him, `your people have become corrupt?' But Moses wished to teach the Israelites proper behavior. Even if one hears something critical from a trustworthy person, one is not permitted to accept his word and take action on it if he does not see it himself” (Shemos Rabbah 46:1).

The Midrash seems to say that Moses did in fact believe God, but that he acted as if he did not in order to set an example for the people. However, the Midrash earlier is very clear: “Moses held on to the Tablets and did not believe that the Israelites had sinned. He said, `If I do not see it, I do not believe it.'”

The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that Moses did not believe God because he knew that God did not wish that he believe Him. Moses knew that God desires only what is proper, and inasmuch as it is proper not to believe anything negative about others unless one sees it oneself, God did not want Moses to believe Him. Moses did not act “as if.” His example and teaching were factual.

We find a similar incident when God told Moses to go to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from their enslavement. Moses said, “I must first ask permission from my father-in-law, Jethro” (Rashi, Exodus 4:18). How dare he refuse to follow God's command until he received Jethro's permission? Rabbi Chaim Shmulevits explains that Moses understood God's will, that inasmuch as Jethro was hospitable to him when he fled from Pharaoh, God would not want him to depart without seeking his permission.

The Torah forbids speaking lashon hara (defamatory speech) and rechilus (talebearing). The Chafetz Chaim says that one who accepts lashon hara or talebearing is as sinful as the one who spreads them. In fact, even when one does see an apparent wrongdoing with one's own eyes, one should still give the person the benefit of doubt and assume that there must be compelling reasons for the person's action (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6).

If we observe Hillel's principle, “Do not do anything to others that you would not want done to you,” we can avoid both speaking and listening to lashon hara and talebearing.

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