As is well-known, Moses was a highly reluctant messenger. When G‑d revealed Himself to Moses at the famous Burning Bush and instructed him to return to Egypt to lead the Israelites to their long-awaited freedom, Moses’ initial reaction was:

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?”1

G‑d responded:

“For I will be with you, and this is the sign for you that it was I who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G‑d on this mountain.”2

If you think about it, the answer does not properly fit the question. Moses asked: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” questioning why he, of all people, would be chosen for the task. Yet the response mostly focuses on what the Israelites will do after they are freed! How does that answer the question?

Searching for Merit

Rashi thus adopts the Midrashic interpretation3 that the dialogue includes quite a different meaning:

What merit do the Israelites have that a miracle should be wrought for them, and I should take them out of Egypt?4

G‑d answered:

As for your questions, “What merit do the Israelites have that they should go out of Egypt?” I have a great thing [dependent] on this Exodus, for at the end of three months from their Exodus from Egypt they are destined to receive the Torah on this mountain [Sinai].5

In other words, if you are wondering what merit the Israelites have to be rewarded with the miracle of the Great Exodus, the answer is: Right now, nothing. However, given what they will do after they leave Egypt, their redemption is justified—i.e., the redemption was“payment” for the acceptance of the Torah that would occur later.

Prepaid Piety?

The way rewards work is that first the person does something worthy, and thereafter a reward is given as recompense. Yet, in this case, we are supposed to imagine that they would first receive the reward, and only later would they earn later! Is this not astonishing?

Advance Anticipation

The Rebbe offers a beautiful and moving explanation. True they had not yet received the Torah, and thus had not actually earned the reward, but their attitude towards receiving the Torah meant they had earned it in advance.

How so?

As a reason for the seven-week Counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavuot, the sages explain:

At the time that Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him, informed the Israelites that upon their release from bondage ‘You will worship the L‑rd on this mountain,’ they were greatly excited. The Israelites asked: ‘When will this worship be?’ Moses answered: ‘At the end of fifty days,’ and each person counted down the days.6

Now, there is an obvious problem with this text: The Israelites were told about the future worship at Sinai when Moses first appeared before them, long before the Exodus occurred. Yet, the counting only took place after the Exodus. So how can the Sages say that the counting was a response to Moses’ foretelling the revelation at Sinai?

Clearly, the Sages’ intention was that although the formal counting began at the time of the Exodus, because they then had a concrete timeline of 50 days to count towards, they were already greatly looking forward to Sinai from the moment they were told about it.

The thought of receiving the Torah at Sinai filled the people with excitement and anticipation. They greeted the prophecy with palpable and intense longing – even if the actual counting had to wait until they had a date.

The Sages use a parable to capture the Israelites’ emotional reaction to being told about the future Sinai revelation:

A king had one of his ministers thrown in jail for disobedience. After some time, the king sent notice to the minister that he would be freed from prison on a particular date, and that a certain number of days thereafter he would marry the king’s daughter. The minister was overjoyed!

When the set day arrived, and the king freed the man from prison, the minister became convinced that he would truly marry the princess. He said to himself: “Now that the king has kept part of his promise, I can be confident that he will also give me his daughter in marriage,” and he began counting down the days till the wedding date.7

Similarly, the Israelites were already overjoyed at the thought that not only would they be liberated from enslavement in Egypt, but they would also go on to form a marriage-like union with G‑d at Sinai. So while they only started actively counting from the day of their liberation, their anticipation began immediately.

Their overwhelming enthusiasm for arriving at Sinai, and the commitment that was evident to enter into a covenant with G‑d, is what earned them the reward even before they had carried through with the act.

The Serendipitous Slip

Several years ago in Israel, a teacher made a deeply embarrassing mistake. She gave a certificate of excellence to one student at school, but accidentally sent a message to the mother of a different student: “Congratulations! Your child has received a certificate of excellence!”

She quickly realized her mistake and went to delete it, but before she could do so she received a response from the mother: “You do not understand what your message did for me. This is the happiest thing that has happened to me.”

The teacher understood that the child was going to get home without actually having a certificate of excellence. In fact, that very day the boy whose mother had mistakenly been sent the congratulatory message was being disruptive in class.

So, the teacher took the boy out of class and explained what had just happened with the erroneous text message.

Then she said to him: “Listen, you’re the first student to whom I am going to lend a certificate of excellence. You do not deserve it yet, but I believe your future behavior throughout the week will justify it.”

When he heard that his mother was told about the certificate, his eyes lit up. “Only last night my mother cried about how much I upset her, after she spoke to the English teacher,” he said. “ Thanks. I will not disappoint you.”

Over the course of a week, this difficult student who always ruined classes became an angel. The school counselor asked the teacher if his mother had started giving him Ritalin, but she replied, “No, his behavior change is fueled by a much stronger substance that burns within him.”

In Egypt, the Israelites were bereft of good deeds, and they needed the merits to deserve redemption. G‑d said, as it were, “Your commitment to a life dedicated to a higher calling is merit enough. I will give you your certificate of excellence in advance because your commitment and passion for great things in the future is sincere and real.”

G‑d paid us forward, because He believed we would justify His belief in us.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 36, Parshat Shemot II.