- The new king of Egypt makes slaves of the Hebrews and orders their male children to be drowned in the Nile River. (1:1-22)
- A Levite woman places her son, Moses, in a basket on the Nile, where he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in Pharaoh's house. (2:1-10)
- Moses flees to Midian after killing an Egyptian. (2:11-15)
- Moses marries the priest of Midian's daughter, Zipporah. They have a son named Gershom. (2:16-22)
- God calls Moses from a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from Egypt. (3:1-4:17)
- Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses and makes life even harder for the Israelites. (5:1-23)
by Ronnie Nathan
This week we begin the second book in Torah, Shemot, which is also the name of the parsha. The book documents the Israelites’ redemption from slavery, our exodus from Egypt, receiving and accepting the Torah and finally erecting the Tabernacle, all under the leadership of Moses. Our parsha begins by describing the Israelites’ descent, from the pinnacle of power during the time of Joseph, into slavery. It then records the 1st 80 years of Moses’ life, from his birth until his first encounter with Pharaoh in his role as leader of his people. In some ways, it is a microcosm for the last 40 years of his life as he led his people in the wilderness to the Promised Land. There are many gaps in the story of these 80 years, huge gaps that suggest interesting questions, gaps that clearly demonstrate the Torah is not a history book. It is a handbook for how human beings should live in this world, the story of the divine mission of the Jewish people and how and why Hashem chose us for this mission. The parsha documents why Hashem chose Moses, an extraordinarily unlikely choice indeed. It also tells us something about the qualities required of true leaders, righteous leaders, lessons especially timely for the present.
We know very little about Moses’ early years growing up in Egypt. Was he an Egyptian prince? Was he more Egyptian than Hebrew? Why, after years passively observing the severe Egyptian oppression of the people he would one day lead, did he suddenly identify as one of them and kill the Egyptian taskmaster, putting himself at mortal risk? How old was he when he took this life-changing act? Rambam claims he was as young as 12, other commentators as old as 30 or 40. The consensus is approximately 20. Once the deed was known, why did he flee to Midian instead of the Holy Land, the land of his ancestors? Why did he present himself there as an Egyptian instead of an Israelite, especially since Israelites were cousins to the Midianites? We really don’t know the answers to any of these questions.
And why did Hashem choose Moses? His older brother Aaron was the natural choice. Aaron remained in Egypt all those years, sharing the experiences of his fellow Hebrews. He was an elder and leader in his community and the heir to the leadership of his father Amram. Moses never shared the Israelites’ experience of slavery and oppression. Moses was a reluctant leader. He was modest. He doubted his abilities, rightly so because when called by G-d he was only a simple shepherd. He had a speech defect. He argued with G-d for 7 days before accepting the mission Hashem assigned to him. He was a virtual stranger to the Israelites when he arrived to lead them. He needed his brother as his intermediary with his own people and as his spokesperson before Pharaoh. What qualities did Hashem see in Moses making him uniquely qualified to lead his people out of slavery, teach them Torah and shepherd them through the wilderness for 38 years; suffer their rebellions, their lapses of faith; plead for them before G-d through all their misdeeds; outlive his entire generation only to die at the brink of the Holy Land?
Moses’ overriding character trait was humility. The Talmud describes him as the most humble human being that ever lived. He was never arrogant, neither before the people nor G-d. He was incredibly brave, whether he was exhorting G-d, confronting Pharaoh, facing his own people when they rebelled against him or inspiring his people in battle. His love and selfless dedication as a leader to his people was unshakeable. His integrity as a judge and teacher was beyond reproach. His honesty was uncompromising. He was selfless. There were very wealthy men among the leaders of Israel. Moses was not one of them. Through all his trials and tribulations, his absolute faith in G-d was constant.
Once upon a time, at America’s founding and throughout our history, our greatest leaders shared many of these Mosaic qualities. They remain the ideal standard of righteous leadership. As we approach the transition of power to a new administration, does this remind any of us of our leaders today? Perhaps we need to reevaluate our responsibilities as citizens and demand of our leaders at least some of the qualities Hashem identified in Moshe Rabeinu, the first and greatest leader of the Jewish nation.