Who Is Your Moshe?

The Vital Role of the “Rebbe” in Jewish Observance

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.

“They believed in G‑d and in Moshe His servant” (Exodus 14:31)

Is Judaism a static or living, “breathing,” religion? To better explain the question: Has G‑d, according to Jewish faith, revealed and communicated all the knowledge and guidance intended for man, albeit with eternal relevance, in some prior historic form and era, or does He continue to communicate and guide his people in “real time”?

This discussion may be larger than the scope of this essay and require further study. This of course, is highly encouraged. As for our conversation, the answer to the question is yes and no. How is that for rabbinical verdict?

What is meant by this, though, is that on some level everything has already been transmitted within the confines of the written and oral Torah. Still, on another level, as is evident from our Parsha, Divine guidance is as real and prevalent today as it has ever been. Let us explore this intriguing phenomenon.

In the narrative leading up to our Parsha, we have come to learn how a battery of devastating plagues, ten in all, worked wonders in shattering the iron resolve of the Egyptian autocracy. The despotic king Pharaoh and his barbaric taskmasters found themselves all but compelled to release the Israelites from their evil clutches. Two harrowing centuries of exile and slavery had consequently come to a rapid halt.

With their sights now set on Sinai and the long awaited rendezvous with G‑d, the C hildren of Israel were free and well on their way to a future of promise and reward. Or so they thought. But alas, in an unexpected turn of events, their hopes were abruptly dashed.

Having experienced a complete change of heart, Pharaoh’s army, now in hot pursuit of their former slaves, was closing-in from behind. To add insult to injury, directly ahead lay the fearsome waters of the fast approaching Sea. Suddenly the fledgling nation found itself caught between a rock and a hard place, or more accurately stated, between the extended spears of the advancing Egyptian army and the choppy waves of the daunting Sea of Reeds.

With Egypt on the prowl, Israel’s brief brush with freedom was slipping rapidly. The elation and joy resulting from their miraculous liberation gave way to confusion and hysteria. Gripped by panic the newly formed nation reacted in hysteria to their first major crisis: "The C hildren of Israel raised their eyes and behold! – the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, so the C hildren of Israel cried out to G‑d. . ." (Exodus 14:10)

The Midrash purports that the Israelites – in proverbial Jewish tradition – were actually arguing amongst themselves. Some said: “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” A second group exclaimed: “Let us return to Egypt.” Others argued: “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.” And yet a fourth camp advocated: “Let us pray to G‑d.”

In an effort to restore order, Moshe declares: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G‑d which He will show you today; for as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. G‑d shall fight for you, and you shall be silent.” (Exodus 14:13)

These words imply, asserts the Midrash, Moshe's outright rejection of all four options: “Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G‑d,” says the Midrash, is Moshe’s response to those who had despaired of the Egyptian threat and wanted to plunge into the sea.

“As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again,” addresses those who advocated surrender and return to Egypt.

“G‑d shall fight for you,” is the answer to those who wished to battle the Egyptians.

“And you shall be silent.” is Moshe’s rejection of those who said, “This is all beyond us. All we can do is pray.”

Yet, if all the stated opinions were wrong, what was Israel supposed to do during this life threatening crossroads? Moreover, all of the alternatives seem reasonable – solutions that at one occasion or another, in Jewish history, proved effective and even prescribed by G‑d.

For example, Israel’s response to the attack on the part of the Amaleikites, related at the end of our very own Parsha, called for the Jewish nation to “Go out and do battle with Amaleik” – an idea rejected in our situation. If this response was right there, why was it wrong here?

The other solutions have also proven valid on respective occasions. Esther, for example asked Mordechai to “Go and gather all the Jewish people and fast for me. . .” Why was fasting and praying correct then, but not now?

Neither is martyrdom without precedent in the annals of Jewish history. We are all familiar with the story of the ten martyrs and the legendary episode of Massada. In fact, wasn’t the binding of Yitzchok, G‑d’s tenth test of Avraham, a call to martyrdom? Why then was the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem ruled out here?

Moreover, if different crisis require different reactions, how are we to ever know which response is correct in any given circumstance?

The answer to these deserving queries is actually the point of our very narrative – the lesson of the legendary blunder at the banks of the Yam Suf.

"Speak to the Children of Israel," G‑d says to Moshe, in response to all their fussing, tell them "that they should go forward," i.e., they should follow the directives which have been set forth. In other words: "Let Me give the orders while you do the following and not the other way around."

The multiple voices of the varied camps all committed the same error. They all based their opinions and suggestions on their own imaginations. Instead of looking to G‑d and Moshe for direction, they turned to themselves. They never even thought to consider whether G‑d had something to say about all this.

The voyage from Egypt to Sinai is emblematic of the perpetual voyage from exile to redemption – the ongoing assignment to transform humanity and the very world into a G‑dly domain. At the very inception of the Journey we are taught a critical lesson. Man, in his service of G‑d, must not be driven by his own logic, feelings and motives; he is rather instructed to seek the true will of G‑d.

There is G‑d's will and then there is ours. While on the surface the two may seem as though they are one and the same, this is usually because we have not yet learned to tell them apart. As we grow in our understanding and service of G‑d through Torah, we learn to distinguish and extricate G‑d's will from our own.

Now, as then, we are faced with multiple choices at every crossroads in our national and personal journey from Egypt to Sinai and beyond. And now, as then, there are many voices – inner as well as outer – that are eager to share their opinions on when and how we ought to proceed.

The first thing we must know is that not all voices are those of G‑d. This is the premier message to the newborn nation of Israel upon the onset of its journey. It is likewise the premier lesson for every Jew in his personal spiritual journey.

But how are we to know which voice is from G‑d and which is from elsewhere? This can obviously not be learned while standing on one foot. It is perhaps the most essential skill taught by Judaism. In fact, much of Chassidic philosophy is designed to help accomplish this very task.

There is one inevitable principle however, without which it is virtually impossible to overcome this obstacle: We must recognize and follow the guidance of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our teacher). In absence of a Moshe there is no Judaism and there is no knowable G‑d.

What this means, in more practical terms, is that a Jew cannot go-it-alone. A Jew cannot rely on himself to determine and decipher the credibility of every voice – he cannot trust himself to navigate every fork in the road. This is precisely what our sages meant when they say: "Make for yourself a teacher and free yourself from doubt." – Avos 1:16

Making for oneself a teacher, however, should not be confused with "teacher hopping," or "teacher shopping." The latter is a common syndrome, which involves, amongst others, people who are new to Torah observance but refuse to follow an established path in their approach. They rather glean a little here and a little there, and the rest they make up themselves.

For some the internet has become the new Moshe, “The Webbe Rebbe”. They consult various websites etc. and pick and choose from each that which they like, and leave that which they don't.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the Internet as a source of raw knowledge, but by no means does it provide a reliable path and approach to the service of G‑d – by no means does it take the place of a teacher and mentor.

As Jews we must always remember the lesson from that fateful experience on the banks of the Red Sea. And G‑d said to Moshe…. “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they should go forward.” We must look to the Moshe in our lives and discern between the voice of G‑d and the voices that wish to present themselves as G‑d, be it from within or without. Only then can we be certain that our ideas and ideologies are not rooted in one of the four camps which entirely missed the mark, good as their intentions were .

By following the call of the Moshe of our generation, his teachings and guidance through which G‑d communicates to us, we will be sure not to veer from the Divine intention and path and thereby fulfill our G‑dly mission with the coming of the righteous Moshiach.