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From Parsha to Halakha Beshalach: Faith in our leadership

Shevat 5784 | January 2024


Faith in Moshe

Israel’s relationship with Moshe is rocky. After the splitting of the sea we’re told “they had faith in the Eternal and Moshe, His servant.”[1] In next week’s parsha, before the revelation at Sinai, God tells Moshe “I will come to you in a thickness of cloud, so the People will hear Me when I speak to you, and they will also have faith in you forever.”[2]

These revelations cement Moshe’s place in history. But why did it take them so long to believe him? Moshe and Aaron come prepared, with three signs for the people and another for Pharaoh. He acts as emissary to and from God throughout the miracles of the Ten Plagues and splitting of the sea. Even so, the people challenge his leadership and prophecy, perhaps most notably Korach and his assembly.

The question of the people’s faith in his leadership is one that plagued Moshe from the outset. When God first appeared to him at the burning bush Moshe challenged the assignment on several grounds. Even after God gives Moshe three supernatural signs to perform before the Israelites so they believe he was sent by God, Moshe continues to resist: “I am not a man of words… I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”[3] Commentaries suggest various descriptions of the type of impairment – a lisp, a stutter, ineloquence, and even an unusual accent, dialect, or affectation due to his multilingual background…[4]

After arriving in Egypt, Moshe and Aaron gather the elders to relay God’s message and perform the signs. “The people believed that God had recalled (pakad) the Children of Israel and saw their plight, and they bowed and stooped.”[5]  But after his meeting with Pharaoh leads to increasingly harsh servitude the people turn on Moshe. Nevertheless, God tells him to continue, to go to Pharaoh and demand that he release Israel. Moshe pushes back, “The Children of Israel would not listen to me, how will Pharaoh hear me out, and I am aarel sefatayim (lit. uncircumcised lips).”[6]

A flawed leader

Often a commentator’s description of this impairment is secondary to their understanding of its significance. For example, Ramban questions why God did not simply cure Moshe’s speech, after all “Who gives humans speech?”[7] He explains that there were several combined factors – Moshe never asked to be healed; he preferred to use his weakness as an excuse to get out of the responsibility. Consequently, God chose not to initiate a miraculous panacea and only fixed Moshe’s speech when he was speaking on God’s behalf – thereby demonstrating God’s power. Furthermore, Ramban cites the midrash that Moshe’s impediment stood as a testament to God’s miraculous intervention to save him from Pharaoh when he was a child.[8]

According to this explanation Moshe’s imperfection serves his message. Malbim expands on this idea and points out that since Moshe’s speech was only clear when he was quoting God word for word, the Israelites could be certain he was relaying God’s word faithfully.[9]

Ramban’s multifaceted explanation gives insight into the making of a leader and the nature of prayer and Divine intervention; it assumes the inevitability of human fallibility and the impossibility of natural perfection in our world while highlighting God’s omnipotence. While people may be imperfect, a representative of God should be as close to perfect as possible – and God can fix whatever isn’t. In our imperfect world scars may be badges of honor, testaments to what we have endured and overcome, but a perfect God is certainly able to grant salvation without such a price. The barrier is one of will.[10]

Accepting flaws versus embracing flaws

Other commentaries explain that God helped Moshe work around his disability – provided him with Aaron as a mouthpiece, or with words he wouldn’t stumble over, or his speech naturally developed along with his leadership and spirituality. These commentaries accept that to be human is to be imperfect, we should work to improve what we can and find help or workarounds for what we can’t. Moshe was chosen because he was the best candidate, in spite of his speech impairment.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch offers a uniquely contrarian explanation – Moshe had a speech impairment, his speech was flawed his entire life, and this is precisely why he was chosen. It’s easy to listen to a powerful orator; a resonant voice, an inviting cadence, and eloquent words make for a captive audience. But if a speaker stumbles over their words or has a distracting accent, voice, or tick the only thing that can persuade people to listen is the content of the message. There’s no flash, only substance.[11]

These commentaries all speak around the same issue – what kind of leader does God choose? And once chosen, how can a human convince the people to follow?

The mitzvot to heed a true prophet and execute a false prophet

There are several mitzvot related to prophecy. As we saw with kings and judges a few weeks ago, there are more mitzvot incumbent on those in positions of leadership and power than there are on those they lead.

God commands the people to heed true prophets, “The Eternal, your God will establish a prophet from your midst, of your kin, like me, you must listen to them.”[12] God also prohibits us from obeying a false prophet:  “If a prophet or dreamer rises among you and gives you a sign (ot) or portent (mofet), and the sign and portent that they said to you happened and they say: let’s follow another god that you didn’t know and serve it, do not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer…”[13] We are further cautioned not to fear false prophets and to execute them. The common thread is that it is the people who must determine if a prophet is true or false.

Based on these verses the mishna and beraita in Sanhedrin list types of people liable for the death penalty whose punishment is carried out by the people – a false prophet who prophesizes what they did not hear, or what was not said to them, or in the name of a false god, even if what they said was true.[14] Three types of people are liable for death and their punishment is carried out by the Heavens – someone who does not obey a true prophet, a prophet who refuses to give a prophecy over, and one who does not obey their own prophecy.[15] Ultimately, prophets can be executed for several offenses, there are strict rules governing what they may and may not say.[16]

Easier said than done

These laws may seem easy, but in practice they can be quite confusing. For example, there’s no clear litmus test to establish who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet. The Torah does not state that signs and portents are a reason to trust a true prophet, but rather something to dismiss when demonstrated by a false prophet.[17]

Moreover, although the Torah indicates that someone whose prophecy does not come to pass is a false prophet, the commentaries point out that this is far more complicated, with many giving contrary explanations on what it means in practice.[18] The books of the Prophets contain prophecies of redemption whose fruition we still await and prophecies of destruction that were averted. After all, the point of a negative prophecy is often for the people to repent so that it does not occur, and the point of a positive prophecy is to encourage the people to do good – it can be delayed.

Compounding the confusion is the possibility that someone who initially spoke true prophecies could come to speak falsely, as some explain happened when Chananiah ben Azur accused Yirmiyahu of false prophecy.[19]

Furthermore, while the Torah makes it clear that we must execute  a prophet that commands serving false gods, the Sifrei teaches that a prophet may tell us to a violate a Torah mitzvah: “Even if [the prophet] tells you to violate one of the mitzvot stated in the Torah, like Eliyahu on Mount Carmel for [the needs of that limited time] listen to them.”[20] Rambam rules accordingly – even if a prophet instructs the people “to do the opposite of a mitzvah or any of these mitzvot, as long as it is temporary, and they do not command a permanent addition or detraction…”[21] Meaning if someone is a true prophet we should obey them if they tell us to violate a Torah mitzvah, but only if it’s only temporary and not foreign worship.

But once again, how do we know this person is a true prophet?

Discerning the truth

The gemara asks the same question and answers that sometimes prophecies need signs, although we’ve already noted that issue, but no sign is necessary when the prophet “is established.”[22] How is a prophet established? Some state with earlier signs and wonders, while Rashi teaches that a prophet is “a tzaddik (righteous person) and true prophet.”

In the Torah Moshe tells the people that God will establish “a prophet from your midst, from your kin, like me.”[23] The consensus is that “from your kin” means the prophet must be Jewish, and “from your midst” either known in the community or from within Israel.[24] “Like me” is more complex. Aderet Eliyahu explains that this means he should be like Moshe, who observed all the mitzvot of the Torah. Meaning do not trust a prophet who is not God-fearing.

Alternatively, Rashi teaches that a prophet is made known by another prophet, in a chain going back to Moshe. The reason we trust a prophet is the reason we trust rabbinic leadership – tradition. Consequently, in the absence of any known prophets a new prophet can’t be trusted.

Indeed, this happened with Moshe, his signs only got him so far, after all Egypt was full of magicians who could demonstrate similar wonders. Chazal explain that the signs didn’t convince the people, but after Moshe and Aaron performed the signs the elders consulted with Serach the daughter of Asher and told her what happened. When she heard Moshe used the language of “pakod yifkod,” “God will profoundly recall you,” she understood he was the true redeemer, since she had a tradition passed from the forefathers to Yosef to Asher to her that the redeemer would use this language. The prophet, like other leaders, can only be trusted if their message and character aligns with our traditions.

Words and actions

We’ve seen that there are few halakhot and mitzvot to guide us on which leaders to trust, there are many more that govern how the leaders should act. Even from prophets we should not come to expect signs and wonders. A prophet is judged by their words and actions, like the rest of our leaders

Ultimately, we should not be persuaded by a deep voice, emphatic speech, or absolute pronouncements. A true leader is judged by the content of their words, not their smooth talking. When their words and actions reinforce justice and righteousness and generally align with what we know of God’s Torah – we can support their leadership.

There is some space for handing over authority from one generation to the next, a self-selecting body. But ultimately, the Torah demands of us, the people as a whole, to have the ability to discern the truth for ourselves and not to blindly rely on leaders. New leaders should be known and trusted by the community. There’s a certain trust in the wisdom of the masses.

At the same time, just because an established leader has a good track record does not mean they can’t do wrong or we should agree with all their decisions and actions. Only God is perfect. Even the humans God favors are flawed, they sin. God chose Saul, Saul sinned, God rejected Saul. Did God make a mistake? Perhaps God was teaching us it’s ok to admit we made a mistake. Even an established and Divinely chosen leader may lose the way – like King  Saul or Chananiah ben Azur – and we should not be afraid to say so, reject their leadership, and bring them to justice.

Once upon a time prophets spoke truth to power, Moshe to Pharaoh, Shmuel to Shaul, Gad to King David, Eliyahu to Achav… But prophecy no longer exists. There is no one on earth who can say with certainty they know what God wants from us at a given moment. This has never been easy. It is up to us, the masses, to ensure that our leadership’s power remains in check, that they put God and Israel above their own interests, and that their words and actions align with Torah law and values.  The only way to do so is to work together, to put aside our differences and focus on shared values and common interests. Even though we may disagree on how to accomplish these things, we are all aiming for the same values – justice, righteousness, security, peace…

May we find the strength to keep this in mind and work together to prevail.


[1] Shemot 14:31

[2] Shemot 19:10

[3] ibid 4:10. While most commentaries interpret Moshe’s words as some sort of speech impairment, Ben Ish Chai interprets them as a rhetorical question – Moshe states that he is a man of words and not a man of action, and that is why he is unfit. This interpretation indeed aligns with Moshe’s general persona, but is curious in light of his past – the three instances where he leapt into action.

[4] Shemot Rabba 3:15, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Umberto Cassuto, HaEmek Davar’s expansion and explanation of Ramban, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and more.

[5] ibid 4:31

[6] ibid verse 9

[7] ibid verse 11; Ramban on verse 10.

[8] Shemot Rabba 1:26. The midrash gives us a glimpse into Moshe’s upbringing by Pharaoh’s daughter, relating that people were drawn to him and when Pharaoh would cuddle him Moshe would take Pharaoh’s crown off his head. This is interpreted by the midrash, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the Egyptian magicians as a portent that Moshe would take Pharaoh’s kingdom and wanted to execute him.

Yitro, one of Pharaoh’s advisors, notes that this is possibly harmless child’s play and not an intelligent choice. To prove this was not an intelligent choice he suggested a test – place two bowls before him and see what he chooses – one filled with gold and one with hot, presumably glowing, coals. Moshe reached toward the gold, and as he was about to seal his doom the angel Gavriel came and moved his hand to the coal. He put the hand with the coal in his mouth.

This midrash has layers of meaning, whether it is understood as historical fact, symbolic truth, or a combination of the two. It also plays with thematic and linguistic similarities to Yishayahu’s inaugural prophecy in Yishayahu Chapter 6.

[9] ibid 4:11

[10] And prayer can influence God’s will.

[11] ibid 4:10

[12] Devarim 18:16-22

[13] Devarim 13:1-6

[14] It’s generally assumed that the first is someone who makes up a prophecy and speaks in the name of God even if their message is in line with the Torah. The second is a person who relates another prophet’s prophecy as if it was said to them. The third is someone who claims prophecy in the name of a false God but what they command does not violate the Torah. This is different from a prophet who commands the people to worship a false god or uproots a mitzvah from the Torah – in all these cases the people are responsible for the false prophet’s trial and execution.

[15] TB Sanhedrin 89a

[16] Rambam lists several Torah prohibitions concerning prophecy: not to prophesize in the name of false gods, not to falsely prophesize in God’s name, not to heed people who prophesize in the names of false gods, and not to fear a false prophet and avoid executing them. Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Mitzvot (Lo Ta’aseh) 27, 28, 29. (Also Sefer Mitzvot Gadol Lavin 33, 34, 35)

[17] The commentaries debate the strength of the sign or portent the prophet gives. Rashi and others maintain it is a supernatural sign. Others, such as Ibn Ezra, do not believe a false prophet capable of a supernatural sign. The prophet’s sign could still be persuasive – either a physical act to reinforce the prophecy, such as Yishayahu’s naming of his children, or a correct prediction of the future because the individual “stole” another prophet’s prophecy.

[18] See commentaries on Devarim 18:22 “Should you say in your hearts: How will we know a thing that was not spoken by God? If the prophet speaks in the name of God and the thing does not occur and does not come, that is the thing that the Eternal did not say, the prophet spoke insolently, do not fear him.”

[19] See Yirmiyahu Chapter 28 within the context of Chapters 27-30, and the broad array of commentary.

[20] Melakhim I:18. In the story of Eliyahu’s confrontation with the Priests of Ba’al in order to prove that Ba’al is non-existent and God is true Eliyahu offers a sacrifice to God on Mount Carmel, which is accepted with a miraculous fire. Once the Temple was erected in Jerusalem all offerings outside the Temple were prohibited, however as a prophet Eliyahu was allowed to violate that prohibition on a temporary, as needed basis.

[21] Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvot 172; Sefer HaChinuch 516

[22] TB Sanhedrin 89b

[23] Devarim 18:15

[24] See commentaries such as Rashi, Ramban, and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on the verses.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.