By Ezra N. Rich
We all know Moses for his role in heroically standing up to Pharaoh and leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Dayeinu! But what were the specific qualities that led to his success, and what can we learn from him that will allow us to stand with courage and compassion?
This week’s Torah portion of Shemot begins the Book of Exodus, introducing us to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) who in the coming weeks will embark on the monumental task of bringing the Jews out of Egypt. The Exodus story is pivotal to our sacred tradition, exemplified by the commandment to remember it, and exalted with the beloved Pesach (Passover) Seder, the most practiced of Jewish rituals. (Exodus 13:3)
The person at the center of this saga is Moshe. His central role is striking, considering that, according to tradition, his parents initially avoided trying to conceive, due to Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Jewish babies. According to the Midrash, his sister Miriam, encourages her parents to defy the decree. You know how kids are when they want a sibling! After he is born, his mother tries to save his life by putting him in the basket for a trip down the Nile, and he is taken in and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. The Torah doesn’t list the name his birth parents gave him, rather we know him with the Egyptian one given by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses, “because I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:10)
Based on his circumstances, it would not have been surprising if he distanced himself from his Jewish origins. Rather than be associated with an enslaved people, he could have embraced his status as being raised by royalty. That wasn’t how Moshe saw his role. Instead, as he becomes an adult, we see him “witnessing their labors,” (Exod. 2:11) first intervening to stop violence again a Jew by an Egyptian and then trying to mediate a fight between two Jews, actions that put his life at risk.
Moshe flees to Midian where he intercedes on behalf of women being harassed by shepherds who are preventing them from drawing water for their flock. Moshe doesn’t let that behavior go unanswered.
Rabbi Shai Held notes in his Torah commentary The Heart of Torah that the Torah uses the same language of saving for Moshe’s actions on behalf of the women “Va’yoshian” (Exod. 3:8) as it does for God’s–“Vayosha” (Exod. 14:30) at the Splitting of the Red Sea. Rabbi Held writes, “To side with the oppressed and act against injustice, the Torah subtly tells us, is to be like God. Just as God rebels against injustice and embraces the strangers, so too must the divinely appointed leader.”
Moshe doesn’t shy away from his people or the need to fight for justice. The Torah includes this information to show us the characteristics behind great leadership. In these initial episodes, as well as Moshe’s actions as a shepherd, we see someone who not only feels the pain of others, but one who takes action to alleviate it.
Later, at the scene of the Burning Bush, God reveals himself to Moshe and we see another key element of his character. Tasked with the role of going to Pharaoh to free the Jews from Egypt, Moshe questions the choice. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exod. 3.11) To which God replies that he will be with Moshe, “I will be with you; that shall be your sign that it was I that sent you… “
What is the sign of support for Moshe? Rabbi Held quotes Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, HY”D, who writes, “The very fact that you ask this question, the very fact that you doubt your ability to carry out this momentous mission is itself the sign that it is I who sent you, since I only choose those who are modest and self-effacing to do my work.”
Indeed, as I noted in my Bar Mitzvah speech on this portion 22 years ago, the Torah tells us “Moshe was a very humble man, more so than any other man on Earth.” (Numbers 12:3) While we must embrace our role in the world and strive to realize our full potential, it must be with modesty. Humility is a sign for sacred success.
As we enter the doldrums of winter, let us resolve to be compassionate, to take action and to be humble. Yes, it’s tempting to stay at home and avoid real human connection. However, that isn’t the way Moshe would act. He left the palace to see the plight of his people.
Let us be like Moshe and not only feel the pain of those suffering but take action to alleviate it. Let us make the effort to check in on our friends and neighbors and visit the sick. Try to apply the balm of concern and compassion to those in pain, whether physical or emotional.
Ezra N. Rich is a new member of the Federation’s Board of Governors and will be marking his Bar Mitzvah anniversary this Shabbat at Temple Beth Tzedek, perhaps followed by his daughter, Miriam, placing him in a raft in Ellicott Creek.