Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

The First and Last Redeemers: Proofs and Mission

"Moshe answered and said, 'Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, "The Lord has not appeared to you."'" (Shemos 4:1).[1] In response to these words of Moshe Rabbeinu - presenting the argument before Hashem that the Jewish people will not accept Moshe's role as the redeemer without proof, Hashem instructs Moshe to perform three signs before the nation: changing his staff into a snake, causing tzara'as on his own hand, and converting water into blood. The midrashim and commentaries present diametrically opposed interpretations as to the validity of Moshe's claim. They also offer different approaches both concerning the need for three signs and the symbolism behind them.[2]

Moshe was the first redeemer, the first mashiach if you will; even if not formally anointed with shemen hamishcha, he was appointed as such by Hashem Yisborach. Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 12:3 quoted further on) defines the messianic mission as leading the Jewish people out of exile, teaching them Torah and bringing them closer to observing mitzvos, successfully warring against the enemies of Israel, and building the Beis HaMikdash. Moshe's role certainly consisted of all of these. (He built the mishkan and originally was supposed to lead the Jews into Eretz Yisrael and build the mikdash.) In the language of Chazal (see Koheles Rabba 1:1 and other places), he is dubbed the "go'eil rishon", and the "go'eil acharon", Mashiach ben Dovid, will share common characteristics with Moshe Rabbeinu. (Also see Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 9:2.) Since Jewish history has seen its fair share of false messiahs, one can certainly understand Moshe's concern. Indeed, Rashba (Responsa, 1:548) writes the following about the identification of the redeemer:

[The nation of] Israel, the inheritors of the true religion...[are] more willing to suffer exile...than believe in something until they investigate thoroughly that which is told to them even concerning that which appears to be an os and mofeis...Even the Jews [in Egypt] who were subject to back breaking, harsh labor [with] Moshe having been commanded to inform them [of the imminent redemption], with all that, [Moshe] said "They will not believe me!" and he needed several miracles [to prove himself]. This is a true indicator to our people, the people of G-;d, not to be convinced of something, until they investigate it thoroughly.

Rashi (4:2,3,6,8), by contrast, quotes Chazal as criticizing Moshe for questioning the belief of the people concerning his appointment as the redeemer. Moshe is viewed as having spoken lashon hara about them, and the first two signs were meant to indicate his sin by showing him a snake, the first creature to speak lashon hara about its Creator, and by making his hand leprous, tzara'as being a punishment for lashon hara. Rashi quotes the midrash which even explains that by Moshe performing these signs before the people, this would demonstrate to the Jewish people how much Hashem had confidence in their belief such that Moshe who dared express lack of confidence in it was immediately smitten by tzara'as.

Chazal's view, at first glance, is difficult. Are the Jewish people expected to believe in any person who claims that he is the redeemer?! This objection was exactly the thrust of Rav Sasportas' (Tzitas Noveil Tzvi, p. 66) blistering attack against those - even Rabbinic personalities - who believed, at least initially, in the messiahship of Shabbetai Tzvi. In his words: "Have you seen in any book that we are obligated to believe in anyone who states, 'I am the messiah'?! [Without proof] anyone who wishes to be crowned with the title of mashiach will do so if his piousness is evident, and in accordance with the number of pious people will be the number of messiahs!"

The commentaries on Rashi rally to defend this view of Chazal asserting that there was proof of Moshe's appointment even without the need for signs. Rashi earlier (3:18) quotes the midrash that the Jewish people had a tradition from Ya'akov Avinu and Yosef that the redeemer will present himself with the language of "pakod pakad'ti - I have surely remembered you". Hashem revealed this language to Moshe (3:16) who told it to the elders of Israel (4:31). Ramban (3:18) questions the value of this presentation as a proof since it would have been possible that Moshe learned it while he was in Egypt just as the elders knew it. He suggests that the elders of Israel had a tradition from Ya'akov Avinu that the first person to present these words would, in fact, be the redeemer, thus eliminating the possibility of impostors. Alternatively, Ramban answers based on a midrash which asserts that Moshe left Egypt at the age of 12 before the age of bar mitzvah when this sign would have been given over to the children. Maharal (Gur Aryeh ibid.) challenges both answers, the first one based on the fact the Hashem would certainly allow human free choice enabling an impostor to misappropriate the phrase. Consequently, he suggests that the key phrase "pakod pakad'ti" would merely serve as a means of piquing the B'nei Yisrael's interest so that they would listen to Moshe but would not conclusively prove his appointment; he would then prove himself through the subsequent miracles performed before them.[3]

The Torah states concerning the miracle of k'rias Yam Suf, "ויאמינו בד' ובמשה עבדו" (14:31). Since the Torah states that they then believed in Moshe, it would appear that the former confirmation of Moshe as the redeemer was not fully settled in the minds of Israel until his mission had been completed by the utter destruction of the Egyptian pursuers. In other words, Moshe proved his messiahship conclusively by doing no less than doing what the redeemer is supposed to do - redeem the Jewish people. What emerges then are two different models of the redeemer proving his authenticity: performing miracles or stating some kind of "password" on the one hand versus actually causing the redemption on the other.

These same two models are at the root of a Rishonic debate as to how the final redeemer will prove himself. Famously, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b) comments that when Bar Kochba claimed that he was mashiach, the Sages asked him to rule on a halachic matter through smell based on the verse in Yeshayahu "והריחו ביראת ד'". After he failed the test, they killed him. Ra'avad quotes this as the normative condition necessary for mashiach. Similarly, Rambam in his Iggeres Teiman states: "A previously unknown man will arise. The signs and miracles which will be performed by him are the proofs of the truth of his lineage." But this assertion is contradicted by no less an authority than Rambam himself! In Hilchos Melachim (11:3) Rambam writes:

One should not presume that the Messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena in the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.[4]

Rambam then proceeds to prove his point from Bar Kochba since R' Akiva and the other sages did not ask him to perform miracles to prove his messiahship! Kesef Mishne notes that Rambam relied on other midrashim which differ from the aforementioned Gemara Sanhedrin quoted by Ra'avad. Rambam (11:4) then proceeds to state his view of how mashiach proves himself:

If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently studies the Torah and observes its commandments according to the Written and Oral Torah as David, his ancestor [did], will compel all of Israel to walk in its ways and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, he is the presumed mashiach. If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is the certain mashiach.

Several recent commentaries[5] suggest a resolution of these seemingly contradictory sources. As explored elsewhere,[6] the Gemara in Sanhedrin (98a) presents the statement of R. Yehoshua ben Leivi that there are two tracks of redemption: an on-time, natural track and a rushed, supernatural track. The latter depends on merit; the former does not. If the redemption is natural, then mashiach will prove his credentials by performing messianic activities as mentioned by Rambam in Hilchos Melachim. If we merit a rushed redemption, he will prove his role through miracles. A recent, prominent Jewish thinker added that each model is a foretaste of what era he will usher in. If the redemption is on time and will usher in a natural messianic era, then it is logical that he will prove himself naturally. If, on the other hand, the redemption is based on merit and hence, begins a supernatural era, the mashiach will introduce this era with miracles. This resolution helps explain why Moshe had to perform miracles to prove himself. The redemption from Egypt was "rushed" since the original exile was supposed to be for 400 years, and instead, only lasted 210 years. Indeed, the redemption from Egypt was followed by a forty-year supernatural period of the Jewish people's sojourn in the desert, and perhaps that is why this period was introduced by Moshe's initial miracles. If Moshe had led the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael, it is reasonable to assume that the miraculous era would have continued.

Rambam (ibid. 11:1) writes: "Anyone who does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only the words of the prophets but the Torah itself and Moshe Rabbeinu". In our spiritually confused and geopolitically troubled world, it is our fervent wish that this brief summary and comparison of the revelation of the first and last redeemers should contribute to the longing for the blessed day when the true Go'eil and Master of history, Hashem Yisborach, will speedily send the true mashiach to redeem his beloved people.

[1] Translation courtesy of www.chabad.org.

[2] See Sha'arei Aharon for a summary of the approaches. Also see Abarbanel (4) and Gevuros Hashem (26-27).

[3] Maharal does not explain why, then, was Moshe accused of questioning the Jewish people's belief in his appointment and punished according to the midrash quoted by Rashi later. וצריך עיון .

[4] Translation courtesy of Rav Eliyahu Touger available at www.chabad.org.

[5] See Otzros Acharis HaYamim by Rav Yehuda Chayun (1:7 fn. 4) and others. It is from this informative compilation that many of the sources in this presentation were culled.

[6] See Beit HaMikdash: Built by Whom? and Parallels Between the Exodus from Egypt and the Final Redemption

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