Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Rabbi Gary Pokras
A congregant once asked his rabbi, “why did you decide to become a rabbi?” Without hesitation she responded: “For the great hours and the excellent pay!”
When I was a student, our class was asked the same question: “why did we decide to become rabbis?” As we each responded, three different answers began to emerge. Some said they were inspired by their love for God. Others by their love for Judaism. The last group was motivated by their love for the Jewish people. These various expressions of love led us to pursue positions of religious leadership.
In this week’s parasha we meet Moses, the greatest prophet and leader our people would ever know. Moses was an unwilling leader. He did not seek out the position. God called him at the Burning Bush, and despite Moses’ strenuous protestations, sent him off to Egypt.
Why did God choose Moses? What were his qualifications?
Moses was born an Israelite slave and raised by Pharoah’s daughter. In theory, he understood the need of the Hebrews, and how the Egyptian court operated. Yet knowledge, by itself, is not sufficient. In Exodus 2, we learn about three definitive events in Moses’ early life. First, upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, Moses jumps into the fray to defend the helpless and strikes with such strength that he kills the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). Shortly thereafter, having now defended the Israelites from an external threat, he inserts himself into an argument between two slaves to try to resolve their differences (Ex. 2:13). They refuse his help, and make it plain that Moses is no longer safe in Egypt. Moses makes his way to Midian, where he sees a gang of men preventing seven young women from watering their flock. Once again, Moses inserts himself into the conflict, chasing away the men, and watering the women’s flock himself. (Ex. 2:16-17)
Why does Torah tell us these stories?
To demonstrate which category of love motivated Moses. When God called, Moses did not respond as Avram did. Moses did not say, “hineini – I am here for you God, send me where you will.” Avram was motivated by love of God, Moses was not. Nor was Moses motivated by a love of Judaism. Torah had not yet been given! No, Moses was motivated by a love of justice, by compassion for the downtrodden, and by a passionate need to right the wrongs of the world, regardless of personal risk. Notably, this is true not only for the Israelites, his own people, but also for the Midianite women. He fought injustice against all people, not just his own.
It takes courage to act as Moses did, and a deep love for people. It is one thing to notice wrongdoing and to feel bad. It is another altogether to take decisive action. God sought to rescue our people from slavery and oppression, and Moses was the right man for the job.
Moses’ unquenchable love for people, along with his compassion and strength, made him uniquely qualified to lead our people out of slavery and to the Promised Land. Indeed, during the forty years of wandering, Moses dared to intervene directly with God to defend the people from God’s anger. Our greatest leaders are people-focused.
Yet, Moses was also the lawgiver, the one who brought Torah to the people. In a sense, he taught us love of Judaism. And Torah became the instrument for mediating our relationship with God, so in a sense, Moses brought us love of God as well.
How fortunate we are that God chose Moses to help us find our love and our way.