During the encounter at the burning bush in this week’s Torah portion, Hashem commands Moses to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moses, however, is sceptical about his people’s faith in him as their leader, and as the great Talmudic sage Raish Lakish comments (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 97a); this scepticism caused Moses to be punished: “Whoever suspects the innocent is struck on his body. As it is written, ‘Moses said, ‘But the nation will not believe me’. . . and behold, his hand was inflicted with leprosy'” (Exodus 4:1-6).
Many questions arise from this Talmudic statement. Raish Lakish explained that one is punished by Hashem for accusing the innocent. Were the Jews really so innocent? Later in this week’s Torah portion, they accuse Moses of “putting a sword in the Egyptians’ hands to murder us” (ibid. 5:21). The truth was that the Jewish people did not have faith in Moses as their leader, and it would therefore seem that the Jews were not so innocent after all.
Furthermore, should Moses not have been realistic and asked Hashem what to do in case the nation did not believe him? Why, then, was he punished for taking into account the possibility that the nation, after more than two hundred years of slavery, would not believe that he was a messenger sent from Hashem?
The explanation is that Hashem was not punishing Moses because He was angry that someone could suspect His people of not having faith in Him. Rather, Hashem was trying to teach Moses an important lesson. The problem with suspecting the innocent is a problem in one’s own relationship with Hashem. The obligation to develop good character traits and do acts of kindness is not designed solely to foster constructive relationships between people. One who behaves with respect towards other people, who are made in the image of G-d, will ultimately come to understand the greatness of Hashem who created each unique person. The problem with suspecting the innocent, therefore, is a problem in one’s own relationship with Hashem.
In order to understand how this relationship is damaged, we must first analyze the reason why Moses suspected the Jews. He falsely believed that people cannot change. Moses saw that the Jews had been enslaved for over two hundred years and he could not see how they would suddenly believe in him as their redeemer. Such an understanding is detrimental to one’s relationship with Hashem, for the accuser does not realize Hashem’s power to influence and help change people’s outlook on life. By giving Moses the three signs to show the Jews, Hashem expressed His ability to influence people.
The first sign – changing the staff into a snake – showed Hashem’s ability to influence the inanimate and animal world. Even by changing the nature of an inanimate object, Hashem influenced Moses’ behaviour, as the Torah reports that Moses fled from before the snake. The second sign – inflicting Moses with leprosy – showed Hashem’s influence on the human body. The third sign – changing water to blood – showed Hashem’s power over the essence of human life – water and blood. The spiritual aspect of Man, symbolized by the water (Torah is compared to water), and the physical aspect of Man, represented by the blood, are both under Hashem’s influence.
Moses was punished because he failed to recognize Hashem’s ability to influence the Jewish people. The signs were designed to teach Moses that Hashem has this ability to influence people’s behaviour. After seeing the signs, Moses truly believed that the Jewish people would have faith in him, for he knew that Hashem would help them conquer any internal doubts or external hardships.