Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Yitro 5765/ January 29, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Trust in Moses

Benjamin Salant

Kibbutz Sa’ad 


In this week’s reading the Lord says to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after” (19:9).   This expression is both difficult and surprising.  Why the need to believe in Moses, a man of flesh and blood?  Furthermore, in last week’s reading of the Song at the Sea the Torah already stated that “they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (14:31), so why repeat the idea in this week’s reading?  Relevant to both verses is the implicit comparison being made between the Lord and Moses and this too is not easily understood.

Before addressing these questions we must say that the subject of faith raises many questions that can not be dealt with in depth in this context.  Great philosophers have tried to define what faith is and whether the Torah command us to believe.   In Sefer ha-Mitzvot Maimonides lists faith in the Lord as the first of the 613 commandments, although many take issue with him.  Can a person be commanded, “thou shalt love,” or “thou shalt rejoice”?   As we have said, these are not our issues at the moment.

Several homilies and interpretations that grappled with these difficulties explained that vaya’aminu “and they believed” or ya’aminu, “they will believe in you” was not speaking of faith in Moses the man, but in Moses the prophet and in his prophecies.  Some even add that the words “ever after” in our Parasha refer to all the prophets who will arise after Moses. So we read in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Yitro (Tractate de-ba-Hodesh, ch. 2):   and so trust you ever after – you and the prophets that will arise after you.” 

Many exegetes take this approach. The Aramaic Targum Onkelos (14:31) translates:   “And they will believe in the words of the Lord and in the prophecy of His servant Moses.”  Hizkuni, Rashi, and Nahmanides (loc. sit.),  all offer similar interpretations.   Ibn Ezra, in his longer commentary on Exodus, uses our verse to answer the question raised by non-Jewish scholars (from India), whether it is conceivable that the Lord spoke with a human being.   He writes:  and so trust you ever after – that you are a prophet, so that their skepticism be removed … as it is written explicitly:   ‘we have seen this day that man may live though G-d has spoken to him’ (Deut. 5:21).”

Maimonides relates to the question why this week’s reading had to repeat the idea, “and so trust you ever after,” when that point had been made in the previous week’s reading (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah, ch. 8):

The Israelites did not believe in Moses because of the miraculous signs he performed; for there is fault in those who believe because of miraculous signs, since the signs could become sorcery and magic.  Rather, all the miraculous signs that he performed in the wilderness were done of necessity, not as evidence of his prophecy; it was necessary that the Egyptians be drowned, and so he split the sea and sank them in it … and likewise all the other miraculous signs.  So in what way did they believe in him?  At the Theophany on Mount Sinai, seen with our own eyes and not others, and heard with our own ears and not others – the fire, thunder and lightning…  And whence do we know that the Theophany at Mount Sinai alone is the proof that his prophecy is true and faultless?  As it is said:  I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”  This shows that prior to this they did not believe in him with everlasting faith, rather with faith that is accompanied by some lingering doubt.

Maimonides’ message is clear:  true faith does not rest on miraculous signs. Yeshayahu Leibowitz explains Maimonides’ approach here and elsewhere:  the ultimate objective is that faith in G-d be separated from all concrete realizations and anthropomorphism. [1] Natural phenomena or wondrous historical events are not sufficient to cause a person to have faith.  Pure faith is evidenced by the personal resolve to worship the Lord, not because of miraculous signs that a person has seen or heard. [2]

Ibn Ezra (in his commentary on Ex. 14:31) puts the stress on the words and His servant Moses:  “They believed in Moses, that he was His servant and would do nothing but that which He commanded of him.”  Rashbam (loc. sit.) takes this idea even further, saying:  they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses, even trusting that they would not perish of hunger in the wilderness.”   It turns out that Rashbam here was basing his commentary on the Mekhilta (Be-Shalah, ch. 3):  “That faith with which they believed in Me is deserving that I should split the sea for them, for they did not say to Moses, ‘How are we to go into the wilderness, having nothing to sustain us on our way?’  Rather, they had faith and followed Moses.”

Sforno explains:  and so trust you ever after – they will believe it is possible that you received prophecy face to face, that indeed I shall talk to them face to face, without any dream, as they said:  The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another’ (Ex. 33:11).”

Ba’al ha-Turim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (son of Rosh, 13-14th century) takes an original approach to our verse.   He deduces from it that one must have faith in the Rabbis. The words “they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” are “to indicate that a person who takes issue with his rabbi is like one who takes issue with the Divine Presence; and one who believes the words of the rabbis is like one who believes the Divine Presence.”

The representative variety of the exegetical views presented above far from exhausts the subject.  Faith was placed in Moses as a prophet, as the servant of the Lord.   What is necessary is to believe that Moses relays the word of G-d (see Sforno, above), as was formulated by Rabbi Judah Halevy as well:  “True, the people did not have the strength of Moses to see that great sight face to face, but from that day on the people believed that Moses, servant of G-d, had received the word of the Lord” (The Kuzari, 1.7).

[1] Emunato shel ha-Rambam, Tel-Aviv 1980, ch. 5.

[2] Emunah, Historia, ve-Arakhim, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 65ff.