November 17, 2018

Benefit of Doubt

Want to be a partner in redemption? Then don’t overlook a surprising message in this week’s parsha.

As Pharaoh and his chariots bear down upon the Israelites on the bank of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites react in two seemingly contradictory ways. First, they cry out to God. After all, it was God who had freed them from bondage by inflicting the signs and wonders upon Egypt. They had every reason to believe that God was indeed a powerful savior. And a moment later, they cry out bitterly against Moshe, accusing him of the perfidy of having brought them out of Egypt to die at the hands of the Egyptian horsemen. “What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?!” they screamed. “We would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert!” What a puzzling juxtaposition. Did the people believe that they had been redeemed, or didn’t they? Did they think that God had brought them here, or did they not? How were they able to discriminate between God and God’s right-hand man, appealing to the former and lashing out against the latter?

Nachmanides, among many others, set out to explain the people’s odd behavior. He suggests that while the people wholeheartedly believed that it was God who had wrought the plagues, they were much less certain that it was God who had brought them out of Egypt. The route they took out of Egypt was not the one that headed in the direction of their promised land. It was rather the route that headed off into the arid wilderness. The silent suspicion had arisen in the minds of some that God had only brought the plagues to punish the Egyptians for the their evil treatment of the slaves and to break the yoke of Israelite bondage. It was Moshe’s idea alone to lead the people out of the country, perhaps with the intention of ruling over them himself. This silent suspicion now appeared to be confirmed by the thunder of Pharaoh’s horses approaching from the rear.

The people believed in God, but not in Moshe.

I find something surprising in this — at least initially surprising. For most of us, faith in God is not a simple matter at all. Whether for intellectual, historical or experiential reasons, there are times when we struggle with faith and feel unsure about the idea of trusting in God. By contrast, there are many people whom we have implicit faith in and whom we would trust with our lives. Yet, the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt implies the opposite order of difficulty. It was faith in people that was harder for them.

The simple explanation for this is that the person in question here, namely Moshe, was not someone whom the people had long known, or whom they had chosen as a partner in trust. He was a stranger whose declared intentions were certainly good but about whose track record they knew little. In short, Moshe was to them what most of the people in our world are to us — seems nice, but who really knows?

The sage Joshua ben Prachya gave the following advice regarding these many strangers and acquaintances who populate our world: “Grant every person the benefit of the doubt.” Without being naive, assume the best about people’s intentions and be willing to take the chance of trusting others. Your life will be enriched in ways you can’t imagine. And although Joshua was addressing this teaching to us as individuals, the Exodus story instructs us to think about the teaching on a communal level as well. The culmination of Israel’s redemption, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, required us to trust Moshe’s intentions when he instructed us to march forward onto the dry seabed.

The teaching here is that no community can be redeemed through trust in God alone. A community that truly yearns for redemption must also develop the courage to trust in one another and to see the goodness in one another’s actions. When mutual suspicion and mistrust are the order of the day, Israel will struggle, no matter how strong our faith in God may be. Whether it be here at home in our multifaceted Jewish community or in the State of Israel where dividing lines of all kinds prevail, the key to redemption is belief in one another. We must learn to trust, and we must act and speak in ways that will deem us worthy of one another’s trust.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles.