"If Moses was early leaving his tent, they would say, 'Why does the son of Amram leave so early? Perhaps he is not at ease inside his house?' If he left late, they would say, 'Why does the son of Amram not leave? What do you think? He is [probably] sitting and devising evil schemes against you, and is thinking up plots against you.'" * On Parshas Devarim.
In the vast expanse of the desert, amidst the swirling sands and beneath a canopy of stars, the Israelites stood on the cusp of their long-awaited destiny. Moses, their trusted leader, addressed the multitude, his words echoing with a mixture of awe, frustration, and a burden too heavy to bear alone:
“How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself?”
The weight of responsibility and the challenges of leading a vast community became apparent in Moses' plea. He expressed his overwhelming feeling of being unable to cope with the multitude of troubles, burdens, and internal conflicts that beset the people. This verse serves as a poignant reminder of the strains and complexities of leadership, particularly when managing a large community.
Rashi's commentary on this verse delves deeper into the behavior of the Israelites during their journey in the wilderness, shedding light on their troublesome nature, heretical tendencies, and contentiousness.
I. TROUBLE: MANIPULATION AND STRIFE
Rashi explains that the Israelites were troublesome individuals who would manipulate legal proceedings to their advantage. He writes, "This teaches us that the Israelites were troublesome [people]; if one saw his opponent in a lawsuit about to win, he would say, 'I have [other] witnesses to bring, [more] evidence to introduce, I [will exercise my right to] add judges to you [in your tribunal].'" Their inclination to introduce additional witnesses or evidence at the last moment caused strife and complicated legal proceedings. This manipulative behavior demonstrated their lack of good faith and their willingness to go to great lengths to secure victory.
II. BURDEN: HERESY AND SUSPICION
Rashi suggests that the Israelites exhibited heretical tendencies, doubting and criticizing Moses even in trivial matters. He explains, "This teaches that they [the Israelites] were heretics: If Moses was early leaving his tent, they would say, 'Why does the son of Amram leave so early? Perhaps he is not at ease inside his house?' If he left late, they would say, 'Why does the son of Amram not leave? What do you think? He is [probably] sitting and devising evil schemes against you, and is thinking up plots against you.'" The Israelites displayed a lack of trust and respect for Moses, questioning his motives regardless of whether he left his tent early or late. Their constant suspicion and accusations revealed a deep-seated skepticism towards their leader, suggesting a lack of faith in his intentions and character.
III. STRIFE: CONTENTIOUSNESS AND DIVISION
Rashi further highlights the Israelites' contentious nature, stating that they engaged in constant disputes and conflicts among themselves. Their contentiousness created a hostile and divided environment, making it exceedingly difficult for Moses to bear the burden of leadership and maintain peace among the people. The pervasive presence of internal conflicts added yet another layer of challenge to Moses' already overwhelming responsibilities.
THE BURDEN OF HERESY
The claim made by the Israelites against Moses, as described in the verse "and your heresy," is nothing short of staggering. This accusation, which led to doubts and suspicions about Moses' intentions and actions, reveals a significant level of disbelief and mistrust towards their trusted leader. The Israelites would scrutinize every move Moses made, whether he left his house hurriedly or late, and attribute negative motives to his behavior. They suggested that he was not at ease in his own home or even plotting against them with his wife, drawing parallels to the rebellion of Korach and his wife. By making such allegations, the Israelites demonstrated their heretical tendencies, casting doubt on Moses' character and intentions. This profound lack of faith and willingness to question the integrity of their leader further highlights the challenges Moses faced in gaining their trust and maintaining his authority.
Here is the Sifrei Devarim that Rashi quotes, reinforcing the explanation of the Israelites' heretical behavior.
"and your heresy" — whence we are taught that they were "heretics" (against Moses). If Moses left his house (hurriedly to meet them), they would say: Why did the son of Amram leave (so hurriedly)? He is probably not at ease at home. If he was late to leave, they would say: Why isn't the son of Amram leaving? What do you think? He is plotting against you with his wife, as Korach did with his wife! — thus, "and your heresy."
WILD, WILD HORSES
The commentary from Siftei Chakhamim adds another dimension to the Israelites' behavior. Describing them as scoffers or rebels, Siftei Chakhamim compares their unruly nature to unbridled horses, rejecting authority and acting in a defiant and rebellious manner.
Siftei Chakhamim states that the Israelites were scoffers or rebels. The word used, אפיקורסין (apikorsin), is derived from the Hebrew words אפיק (afik) meaning "discard" and רסן (resen) meaning "bridle." The commentary explains that the Israelites were like unbridled horses, throwing off any form of restraint. This rebelliousness is likened to a horse that refuses to be controlled and goes about without a bridle.
In this interpretation, Siftei Chakhamim emphasizes the Israelites' tendency to reject authority and act in a rebellious manner. Their refusal to accept guidance and follow proper conduct would have contributed to the challenges faced by Moses in leading them.
By highlighting this aspect, Siftei Chakhamim adds to the understanding of the Israelites' behavior, painting a picture of a people who not only caused trouble, were heretical, and contentious but also displayed a defiant and rebellious attitude towards authority.
THEIR SOURCE OF DOUBT
Why would the Jewish people, who had been led by their trusted leader Moses throughout their arduous journey, begin to doubt him to this degree? Classic sources provide various answers, shedding light on the complex dynamics that contributed to their skepticism:
1. Ramban (Nachmanides) - Commentary on Exodus 5:21:
Ramban suggests that the Israelites doubted Moses due to their difficult and oppressive circumstances in Egypt. Burdened with hard labor and subjected to severe slavery, they lost hope and doubted the possibility of being saved. Their lack of faith in Moses stemmed from their own despair and the overwhelming challenges they faced.
2. Midrash Rabbah - Exodus Rabbah 5:16:
According to this midrashic source, the Israelites doubted Moses because they had been misled by a false messiah. This false messiah had promised to deliver them from Egypt but failed to do so, leading the Israelites to question and hesitate in believing Moses as a true leader. Their trust had been misplaced, and their skepticism towards Moses grew as a result.
3. Sifrei Bamidbar 16:7:
This passage indicates that some of the Israelites doubted Moses out of jealousy and personal ambition. Dissatisfied with their positions, individuals like Korach and his followers sought to challenge Moses' authority. Their doubts and rebellion emerged from a desire for power and influence, driving them to question the legitimacy of Moses' leadership.
4. Talmud - Sanhedrin 110a:
The Talmud presents diverse reasons for the Israelites' doubts. One perspective suggests that they questioned Moses because he was unable to immediately convince Pharaoh to let them go. Another viewpoint posits that their doubts stemmed from their own spiritual weakness and lack of connection to God. These perspectives highlight the influence of immediate outcomes and spiritual disconnection as factors contributing to their skepticism.
These classic sources offer multifaceted explanations for the doubts the Israelites held towards Moses. Factors such as despair, influence of false leaders, personal ambition, and spiritual weakness all played a role in shaping their skepticism during their journey in the wilderness. By exploring these perspectives, we gain further insights into the complex motivations behind their doubts, underscoring the challenges faced by Moses as he sought to lead and guide them.