Rabbi Baht Yameem Weiss
This week we begin the book of Exodus, Shemot. It is the story that made us a unified people. In this week’s parsha, we meet Moses, who is called the greatest prophet that the Jewish people ever had. Moses becomes the leader of the Jewish people even though he didn’t grow up among the Hebrews. Rather, he grew up in Pharaoh’s palace because Pharaoh’s daughter had rescued and adopted him without her father’s knowledge. This new King, this Pharaoh didn’t have a relationship with Joseph from Genesis, and out of that xenophobia, he was fearful of the Hebrews—that they were becoming too numerous—that they would rise up against him and revolt and so he appointed task master over them and enslaved them with back breaking work.
Moses could have remained comfortable in his social situation. He enjoyed wealth, prestige, and freedom. But somehow within Moses burned a deep sense of justice—of right and wrong. We don’t know much about his youth–if he was secretly educated as a Jew by his mother Yocheved who is said to have nursed him at the beginning of his life or by his sister Miriam who we are told kept a close watch over him from his early infancy. We don’t know if he was aware of his Jewish roots.
There are three incidents that happen in this week’s Torah portion that introduce us to an adult Moses. Moses encounters an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and looking around to make sure no one is watching, he kills the Egyptian. Why did he do this? Was it because he knows that deep down, he too is a Hebrew, or did he feel moved to act seeing someone in power oppress someone who was in a weaker position. Immediately following this incident, he sees to Hebrews quarrelling and he confronts them asking the offender, “Why do you strike your kinsman?” The offender retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us?” The offender continues “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Uh oh. Moses became frightened—it was known that he had killed an Egyptian. When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and arrived in the land of Midian.
In the fields of Midian, Moses encounters a third act of injustice. While Midian women (sisters) are trying to fill up their water at the well, some shepherds came and drove them off. Coming to these strangers’ defense, Moses watered their flocks.
Biblical commentator Nechama Liebowitz notes:
Moses intervened on three occasions to save the victim from the aggressor. Each of these represents an archetype. First, he intervenes in a clash between a Jew and a non-Jew, second between two Jews and third between two non-Jews. In all three cases Moses championed the just cause…Had we been told only of the first clash; we might have doubted the unselfishness of his motives. Perhaps he had been activated by a sense of solidarity with his own people, hatred for the stronger oppressing his people rather than pure justice. Had we been faced with the second example…perhaps he was revolted by the disgrace of watching internal strife amongst his own folk, activated by national pride…then came the third clash where both parties were outsiders, neither brothers nor neighbors. His sense of justice and fair play was exclusively involved.
Nineteenth century Zionistic essayist, Ahad Ha’am explained what makes Moses so exemplary:
The prophet knows no distinction between man and man, only between right and wrong. He helps weak women against the shepherds who trample on their rights. Bearing in mind that their common characteristic is the prophet’s revolt against injustice, we may confidently infer that the intention of the record was to show that the prophetic quality was there from the very beginning. We may also infer that throughout the long period of his wanderings Moses never ceased to fight for justice, until the moment came for him to become the savior of his people and teach mankind justice—not for his age alone but for all time.
We are not free until all people are free. Like Moses, Judaism champions the rights of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, those who are most in need. May we work to ensure justice for all people-regardless of race, religion or gender.