“A Truly Moral Man Goes Out To His Brethren”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we learn how Moses is saved from certain death after being placed by his mother in a basket in the Nile River.

Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe in the river, sees the floating basket and draws the child out of the water. Recognizing that it is a Jewish child, Pharaoh’s daughter agrees to call a Jewish woman to nurse the child. When the child grows older and is weaned, he is brought to Pharaoh’s daughter and becomes her adopted son. She calls the child Moses, because he was drawn from the water.

We have no idea how many years passed from the time Moses is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter until Moses begins to play his role on the world’s stage. Some rabbis suggest that at least twenty years had passed.

Describing the public emergence of Moses, the Torah, in Exodus 2:11 states, “Vye’hee ba’yah’meem ha’haym, va’yig’dahl Moshe, va’yay’tzay el eh’chav, vah’yahr b’siv’lo’tahm,” and it occurred in those days, when Moses grew up, he went out to his brethren and looked upon their burden. Moses sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew slave. Moses looks this way and that, and when he sees that there is no one to help, he strikes the Egyptian down and hides his body in the sand.

Our commentators say that when Moses looked upon his people’s burden, it was no mere external gazing with the eyes. Surely, a Jewish slave being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster was quite a common occurrence. Rashi, therefore, states that when Moses looked, he directed his eyes and his heart in order to share the distress of his brethren.

The Torah does not inform us how a child, raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, was able to develop such an exalted identity as a Jew despite having spent the vast majority of his formative years in an intensive Egyptian environment.

The Midrash states that, like his relative Joseph, Moses was also blessed with charisma and was beloved in Pharaoh’s palace. The rabbis say that the Torah’s expression (Exodus 2:11), “Va’yig’dahl Moshe,” when Moses grew up, indicates that he grew not only in physical stature, but that he also grew in terms of rank in the palace. As Pharaoh appointed him over his household, it appeared obvious to everyone that this gifted young lad would not be just another prince, speeding around the streets of Cairo in fancy sports cars, or taking private flying lessons, but that he would undoubtedly emerge as crown prince. In the palace of Pharaoh, he had all the markings of a future Pharaoh of Egypt.

The Torah does not disclose what caused Moses to abandon his steadfast trajectory toward a brilliant “career” as a member of Egyptian royalty, and instead to throw his lot with his persecuted brethren, about whom he knew so little. (For those who are interested, please see Shemot 5760-1999 “Commitment to Judaism–A Lesson from Moshe” and Shemot 5763-2002, “The Making of a Concerned Jewish Leader”).

R. Abraham Ibn Ezra underscores that Moses’ background as a prince was extremely important in making him acceptable to his brethren. His superior education, at a time when his brethren were infused with an inbred “slave mentality,” provided Moses with the capability to act as a leader. Had he been brought up among his own people, they would have had little respect for him, regarding him as just another Jew.

The fact that Moses had a heightened Jewish identity despite spending years in Pharaoh’s palace, seems to indicate that he had an innate passion for his people. Otherwise, why would he have gone out to see their burdens?

The Midrash says that Moses would actually reach out to help the Hebrew slaves when he saw them falling under their burdens, and that he even succeeded in convincing Pharaoh to give the slaves a day off, obtaining for them the Sabbath as a day of rest.

Expounding on the strong Jewish identity and highly tuned moral sensitivities that Moses possessed, the brilliant Professor Nehama Leibowitz suggests that it should come as no surprise that Moses would get involved when he sees an Egyptian smiting a Jew.

What is surprising, says Professor Leibowitz, is that on the very next day, when Moses sees two Jews fighting, he says to the wicked one, “Why do you strike your fellow?” Without this second intervention, there could be no claim to the purity of Moses’ motives. Perhaps, when seeing a Jew being beaten by the Egyptian, rather than pure justice, Moses was inspired by a sense of chauvinistic solidarity with his own people, and a hatred for those stronger overlords who were oppressing his brethren. However, were we presented with only the second example of two Jews fighting, we might have thought that Moses was revolted by the disgrace of witnessing internal strife among his own people, and that his actions were motivated by national pride, rather than by pure justice.

But then we learn of the third confrontation. Moses flees to Midian, where the Midianite shepherds chase away the daughters of Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, preventing them from watering their flocks at the community well. Moses stands up, chases the Midianite shepherds away, saves the women, and personally waters their flocks.

Here we see proof that Moses’ sense of justice is exclusively motivated by his ethical sense and not by chauvinism or national pride. This third instance of Moses championing the cause of justice is further revealing. He does this even though when he had intervened previously he had to flee for his life. He does this even though as a result of his previous intervention he was separated from everything and everyone that he had previously known and loved. Because he always stood up for what he believed was just and correct, the first thing Moses does after being forced to flee to the land of Midian is to protect the defenseless, intervening again, and once more championing the weak.

It is then not surprising that, later in his life, Moses consistently stands up for the weak and the defenseless. Time and again, Moses prostrates himself before G-d, begging Him to forgive the Children of Israel for rebelling, for worshiping the Golden Calf, for demanding meat, for crying out for water, for wanting to return to Egypt, and for looking for a new leader.

When we view the life of Moses through the panorama of his years, we see that Moses’ actions are based on more than just being an ethical human being who craves justice and abhors unfairness. Even as a young man, we see that Moses is much more than merely another kindhearted individual. He is a rare person endowed with the instincts of a parent caring for his children. But even as a parent, Moses assumes a responsibility that is far beyond what is expected. For Moses, it is not just every Jew, but every human being who is his child. Moses sees all of G-d’s children as his own progeny, who are entitled to justice and fairness.

Although we might justifiably relish seeing Moses exclusively as the leader of the Jewish people, Moses really emerges as the shepherd of all humankind.

May you be blessed.