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God's Commands Have a Caveat

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

God instructs Moses to return to Egypt and tasks him with delivering the Hebrew nation from Egyptian bondage. Moses resists God’s request but eventually agrees to his divinely commanded mission. The expected sequence of events would be for Moses to inform his father-in-law, Jethro, that God has commanded him to go and redeem the Hebrew nation. However, this is not what occurs.

Rather than simply informing Jethro of his imminent departure, Moses seeks his father-in-law’s permission to leave Midian to carry out God’s command: “Let me go now and return to my brothers who are in Egypt, and let me see whether they are still alive.” So Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” (Exodus 3:18)

This is rather astounding since God himself commands Moses to return to Egypt and, yet, Moses asks permission for a leave of absence from his father-in-law? Is it possible that had Jethro not have granted Moses’ request that Moses would be willing to disobey the decree of the almighty God?

Our Rabbis deduce a fantastic message from this episode. Moses understood that God would never ask or expect him to do anything that lacked Menshlichkeit (good social etiquette and behavior.) It was clear to him that the fulfillment of a Mitzvah (divine command) cannot involve the transgression of basic Derech Eretz (good, refined behavior.) He, therefore, understands that God’s command was conditioned on his obtaining permission from his father-in-law. This explains why the verse that follows immediately states: “The Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go, return to Egypt…’.” (Exodus 3:19) God repeats his command to Moses as if to say – now that you have permission from your father-in-law, there is no longer a valid reason to delay fulfilling my command.

The lesson is clear. Fulfilling a command of God in a way that is not dignified and considerate is certainly not the will God. On the contrary, even while carrying out the command of God, one should ensure that one acts in a refined and considerate fashion to all those around us.