Towards the beginning of the Exodus story, God gives Moshe his great mission.
Moshe initially resists and says that the Jewish People will not listen to him. Although our sages criticize him for this, he demonstrates that he is highly attuned to his environment because, sure enough, that’s precisely what happens:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – But when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (6:9)
Exactly as Moshe had predicted, they didn’t listen, and this theatre only caused Moshe and his exhausted people unnecessary aggravation, disappointment, and frustration. It’s hard to see this as anything other than choreographed futility – a colossal waste of time, energy, and effort on all counts from the very outset.
This is consistent with a broader motif throughout the entire Torah, filled as it is with so many aborted attempts, failed efforts, and wasted opportunities.
Generally speaking, it is usually worth giving something a go, because you never know; but in this instance, everyone did know – they knew it wasn’t going to work!
Moshe knew they wouldn’t listen. God knew they wouldn’t listen. Yet God sent Moshe anyway. Why would God bother sending Moshe on an exercise in futility?
The Sfas Emes teaches that there is no such thing as futility when trying to help people. This particular chapter of the story illustrates that it’s never one specific interaction that has an instantaneous magical breakthrough effect; the helper must persist. Words can take root even if they don’t immediately blossom and yield fruit; the lack of immediate and apparent results doesn’t mean the efforts are wasted.
The Netziv highlights how the Torah is replete with phases and stages that indicate gradual transformation; for example, there are five expressions of redemption, ten plagues, and each phase of Dayeinu.
Let’s remember that we are reading the Exodus story, the grandest redemption story in history to date, and this is how it starts. Moshe is frustrated, his people are hurting and spent, and he can’t get them to entertain the dream or notion that things could change for the better. Not even the most legendary redemption story has an instant turning point or pivotal moment; it starts like this – boring and painfully slow. Nothing happens! On Seder night, we celebrate the great miracles, but maybe we should read these few lines as well and remember what change actually looks like, not only in our daily lived experience but as attested to in the Torah’s own words.
The Chizkuni suggests that it’s not that they wouldn’t listen, but that they couldn’t; they were structurally and systemically too traumatized to have the mental or physical capacity to hold on to hope. And even so, God sends Moshe to them with words that are not lost to the ether. Even if they can’t internalize the message, it is objectively important that they see Moshe trying to help them, that they hear the words; and accordingly, that we hear that interaction through the ages as well. There are times a person is so stuck that they don’t want to be saved; and still, you can’t abandon them.
Right after this unsuccessful effort to encourage his people, Moshe reports back to God, and a nonchalant God tells them straightforwardly that their mission is going ahead on schedule and as planned:
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וַיְצַוֵּם אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶל־פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – But Moshe appealed to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” So God spoke to both Moshe and Ahron regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:12,13)
But what follows this powerful reaffirmation of the mission isn’t a renewal or redoubling of efforts. The Torah interrupts this story mid-paragraph with a tangential breakdown of the heritage and lineage of the Jewish families in Egypt in exhaustive detail.
It’s unclear what this breakdown is doing in this story, but perhaps it ties into the notion of efforts not going to waste.
The Ishbitzer teaches that in the instant we choose to pray, before uttering a word, God is poised to listen, which is to say, God responds before we have reached out. In the physical world, Moshe tried to encourage the Jewish People, but they couldn’t hear him. But in the spiritual world, which is to say the world of the spirit, the Torah tells us who they were and where they came from, that they were descendants of Yisrael. Perhaps their identity could be a hook Moshe’s words latched on to in their intangible subconscious.
Moshe’s words weren’t futile because they don’t exist in isolation; they pooled into a more extensive relationship full of interactions, and this was just one of many. They weren’t futile because change happens gradually, incrementally, and slowly. They weren’t futile because they still register on a subconscious level. They weren’t futile because they were the Children of Israel, and he was going to save them and stand with them at Sinai. They weren’t futile because the people needed to see someone show them that they were worth fighting for, and we need to recognize that as well.
We read about this ostensibly failed interaction, and it’s blindingly obvious that although the words might not have landed perfectly, these efforts were anything but futile.
Nothing ever happens in a day. In the words of Steve Jobs, most overnight successes take a really long time.
God sent Moshe to talk to people when everyone knew it wouldn’t change a thing, but this failed interaction goes on to form a part of a foundation that all future growth and progress can be built upon. It’s not wasted breath; it’s an investment in posterity.
Time and again, we expect ultimate salvation, a moment everything changes and turns around, and we get disappointed because the world doesn’t work like that. God very deliberately sends Moshe on a mission he already knows he cannot possibly succeed at, highlighting to Moshe and to us that apparent failure and setbacks are not futile. God sends Moshe because humble beginnings and failed efforts are independently valuable, regardless of the outcome.
If you’ve clashed with someone in a relationship that matters to you, you know that you can’t fix things with a good one-liner. No single idea or thought will make them suddenly understand, no light bulb will turn on that changes everything. Reality is far more modest than that; each kind word and positive interaction is a deposit into an account balance that barely seems to grow at the start. It’s painfully slow, frustrating, and it doesn’t look like progress; sometimes it even looks like a step backwards.
If you’re stuck in trouble and can’t hear a kind word, hold on. If you’re trying to help someone who won’t hear or see it, keep it up.
It wasn’t futile then, it’s not futile now.