Parshat Va’erah includes the famous ‘five languages of redemption’; it is the message that God tells Moshe to convey to Bnei Yisrael to inspire a hope in and excitement for their upcoming Divine salvation from slavery. God promises that He will, ‘take them out from the Egyptian oppression’, ‘save them from their servitude’ and ‘redeem them with a mighty hand and immense miracles’; these three include the complete exodus from Egypt and its domineering authority. God continues, saying that He will then, ‘take them as My nation and I will be their God’ – this represents the ‘signing’ of the contact at Har Sinai, the mutual acceptance of the national contract. Lastly, a new nation with a new system of government needs a land, so God concludes His promised plan with, ‘I will bring them to the land that I swore to give to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov’. In order to inculcate a belief and hope in God and His plan within Bnei Yisrael, God lays out a detailed step-by-step process describing how and what He will do for them.
However, when Moshe relays this awesome message to the nation, ‘they did not hear Moshe because of the shortness of spirit and hard work.’ Did God’s plan to energize His children for the upcoming exodus fail? Was God wrong in assuming He could revitalize the will and hope of such a broken nation?
The method with which to answer this conundrum is to understand the exact meaning of ‘they did not listen’; for this can be understood as not ‘hearing’ or not ‘listening’. Ramban explains that because of the tremendously arduous workload the nation was saddled with, they were simply unable to hear Moshe; they were incapable of giving him any attention no matter what he was saying. Sforno takes another approach, stating that the nation heard him just fine, but they ignored Moshe’s message of hope, unable to accept that God would truly come through with such salvation; they simply could not believe after all these years of bitter oppression (‘broken spirit and strenuous labor’). While the words of the verse are now more clearly defined, this only serves to strengthen our question: Did God actually misjudge the nation’s ability to hear the message or did He mistakenly believe they could accept the promised hopeful future?
Rashbam’s explanation of the verse will not only help in answering this quandary but also allow us to glean a message from this episode within our nation’s early history. He explains that originally they did believe in the promised liberation (Shemot 4: 31), but because they had expected that the work would have then lessened, when it in fact became harsher, they rejected any further promises of hope. And this is exactly what God had planned on all along! He didn’t mistakenly believe they would accept Moshe’s message, He actually knew they wouldn’t! At the genesis of the nation’s creation, God wanted to teach them a critical lesson for their future: a promise from God will never be broken even when the times look the darkest. By creating an initial hope and following it up with a seeming ‘dispelling’ of this hope (through the increase of suffering), when their total freedom from Egypt is ultimately then achieved, God ensured the nation’s total belief in the ultimate promise (receiving the Torah and entering the Eretz Yisrael), despite the almost certain ‘bumps along the way’.
The application of this lesson for us during these difficult days is perfectly clear. It’s the very ‘bumps’ that strengthen the ‘smoothness’. Through our hardship our inspiration flourishes; through our weakening we are eternally strengthened.