Last year on Parshat Sh’mot, I gave the following speech at Young People’s Synagogue where I announced my intention to apply to Pardes for the coming year. As it turns out, once I got to Pardes, I spent most of the first semester in Chumash studying Parshat Sh’mot, then, as it happens, yesterday, the last school day before Shabbat Sh’mot, I gave a Take 5 during community lunch about my heroes at YPS who helped make my dream of spending a year at Pardes a reality (much more on that in the coming weekly blog post.)
(Note: Parshat Sh’mot fell exactly on December 25 last year, which will explain a lot.)
Merry Shabbos. Today we celebrate the birth of a man who was uniquely blessed. From his miraculous childhood and through till his premature death by the gripes of the Jewish people, he was a man who had a special relationship with God unlike that of anyone before or since, who diligently taught the Word of God to the Jews even though they did not want to listen, the suffering servant of God who pleaded with his Father in Heaven to have mercy on their behalf even while hurting more than anyone for their continued intransigence. That man of course was Moshe Rabbenu, whose early years we commemorate in today’s parasha, Sh’mot.
It is interesting to note how Moses never became Jesus. He may be our rebbe and our redeemer, but we don’t make images of him, and while we call his teaching the Torah of Moses, it is universally understood that we do not mean that literally. Judaism was never “Mosaism” and nobody ever prayed to him or even in his merit (though we do for the Forefathers). It has always been about God, and Moses and his Rabbinical heirs would want it no other way.
So his legacy to us is primarily that of teacher—Moshe Rabbenu. But what is it about him that makes him eternally Judaism’s rabbi par excellence, that qualified him be chosen by God as Israel’s greatest redeemer and teacher?
Sh’mot provides the answer. This is what we know about Moshe’s conscious life pre- Rabbenu: He looked out from Pharaoh’s palace at his brothers’ burdens and saw an Egyptian dealing cruelly with a Hebrew. Upon looking around and seeing there was no one else who will take responsibility, he does—by slaying the Egyptian then hiding the body in the sand. The next day he saw two Hebrews in conflict and rebuked the one in the wrong who in turn rebuked him, saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Will you kill me now like you killed the Egyptian?” To which Moses responded, “No respect, I can’t get no respect I tell you,” and ran for his life to Midian.
Once in Midian he sat by a well—the JDate of the era—and stood up for the seven daughters of the priest of Midian and helped them water their flocks after the Midianite shepherds tried to drive them away. As a reward for his action, their father, here named Reuel, gave him his daughter Zipporah as a wife, thus beginning the tradition of meeting and marrying non-Jewish girls on JDate that continues to this day. Moses spends some years tending flocks for his father-in-law until one day he approached Mt. Horeb with his flocks and his interest is piqued by a bush that is burning but not being consumed. He goes to check it out, and when he does, reluctantly becomes Moshe Rabbenu.
This isn’t much information, but it is all we need. In these 15 verses, Moses shows his absolute burning passion for justice, regardless. He doesn’t discriminate. Not only does he stick his neck out for Jews being oppressed by non-Jews, he also fights for justice between Jews, and for justice between gentiles when it has nothing even to do with the Jews. And this last example is especially remarkable since you would think he should have known better by now—playing Batman in Egypt got him exiled from his idyllic life in Pharaoh’s court to live as a nobody in Midian, yet still—even when there are no Jews involved—he takes responsibility for his fellow man and sticks his neck out for what is right, consequences be damned. It took the entire book of Genesis for man to realize he is his brother’s keeper, and so it fits that the man who embodies this concept more than anyone else is the first great man of the post-Genesis world. The principle lesson of Genesis has been realized and has sunk in.
The incidents that bookend Moses’ early actions give us further insight into what made him this way. I learned from a podcast called “A Role Model for Social Action: Moshe’s Leadership,” by Mishael Zion from Mechon HaDar in NYC that Moses’ first act of justice was not really slaying the Egyptian, but looking out from the palace at his people. He was rich and royal. He could have ignored the Hebrew slaves, thought himself to be better than them, convinced himself that it was by his own merit that he was not a slave, or he could have even just ignored their suffering because it was too uncomfortable to think about, but he didn’t. He “went unto his brethren,” he identified with the persecuted, realized that as a free and fortunate person it was his sacred responsibility to help the oppressed, and so went out to see the situation with his own eyes. Upon witnessing the horrors of oppression and seeing that no one else was going to stand up for what’s right, he took justice into his own hands and killed the oppressor. But while this act proved Moses had great intentions and a good heart, we’ve already learned from Reuben that good intentions aren’t always enough in the end. In a drash by R. Shimon Felix, he points out that this hot-headed act did nothing to directly help the Israelite cause and in fact probably did more harm to it than good. He says Moses shows a growing level of maturity in each successive incident, then finally, with the burning bush incident, his maturity at last catches up with his passion. With the burning bush, R. Felix writes, “Moses is challenged to be interested in something that doesn’t matter. Something that has no right or wrong, no apparent moral weight, no good guys and bad guys. Something that is simply interesting, worth looking into, worth investigating…. It is only when Moses ‘turns aside’–perhaps not only from the road he was on with his father-in-law’s sheep, but also from the passionate, violent, symbolic battles he had been waging, and is able to step out of that persona for a moment and see and experience other things, that he is ready to be called by God.” In other words, in order to fight for justice, we must be able to see the forest for the trees. Moses was passionate about justice but was no narrow-minded extremist; his bleeding heart was now balanced by an open and curious mind. He was burning without being consumed.
So this then is why Moses was chosen—he was humble and open yet still fiercely passionate. He would stop at nothing to take responsibility and fight for the freedom and dignity of humanity yet was still open to taking advice and letting someone more qualified do the job as long as the job got done in the best possible way, as seen when he suggests to God that his more articulate brother Aaron be sent to Pharaoh in his stead. The best leaders don’t want to be leaders. My joke earlier notwithstanding, as seen countless times through out the Torah, Moses doesn’t care about getting respect, he cares about justice.
Moshe Rabbenu’s sense of responsibility and indiscriminate passion for justice for all people, Jews and non, must be our guiding principles in living a life centered around the Law he merited to teach us. In his podcast, Mishael Zion quotes extensively from the book Darkhei Moshe by R. Moshe Halfon HaCohen, leader of the Jewish community of 19th Century Djerba, Tunisia, where he, based on Moses’ example, rebukes those who do not take action. He writes that from Moshe’s actions here, “must every person of wise heart and holy spirit learn to take a stand and save his brothers and sisters from the hands of those who exploit them….Moreover, when one of our fellow Jews is exploiting someone else, one cannot turn a blind eye. An action must be taken to help and rescue the oppressed. Even when the oppressed person is not of our faith, it is proper that in such a situation one stand in support of those being persecuted. Because any oppressor is repulsive to God, as we see in Deut. 25:16. And from this we must learn that even when a person is in serenity and security, in peace and in comfort in his home, wealth and honor surround him, and his requests are heard by the local government, even then one must not think, ‘Here, I have peace in my home. What do I care about my brothers, or my sisters, or indeed the entire world?’ A person must also not think to himself perhaps by attending to someone else’s issues, I will suffer some physical harm or monetary loss, or my status will fall in the eyes of the local government, perhaps even quoting the Rabbinical rule that your lost object and your peers’ lost object, your lost object takes precedence. Only someone who is of unclean spirit would say such things; firstly because if he does not act and save the poor and impoverished, tomorrow, or the day after, the persecution will arrive at his door, and then it will indeed be his own affliction, and moreover, in issues that regard to rule of the land, it is an obligation and a commandment for every person to protest, thus fulfilling the verse, ‘You shall purge the evil from your midst.’ And whoever turns away from such situations is a despicable, lost wretch.”
So says R. Moshe Halfon HaCohen. I’m sure he was an outstanding man, but I wish there were some way I could quote those lines without feeling like the world’s biggest hypocrite. But just because I don’t embody them as of yet doesn’t make them untrue. The biggest difference between Moshe Rabbenu and I is that he didn’t have papers to write. In other words, the biggest difference between us is that he wasn’t lazy and didn’t make excuses. But nonetheless, I try. Since coming to college I have done much volunteer work for many causes both explicitly Jewish and not, and, I am proud to tell you, undoubtedly as part of the legacy of having studied the Law of Moses for millennia, Jews are over-represented even in those.
Personally I never used to be much of a go-getter, and I still meet with much inner inertia anytime I try to be. It is no coincidence my religious awakening has corresponded with my social one. As many of you know, after graduation this April, I want to enroll in the Year Program at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem—a traditional, co-ed, non-denominational school open to all Jews regardless of background—the YPS of yeshivas; fittingly, if I get in and can afford it, it will be due in large part to the support of our president Dr. Toker and our former president Marian Salamon, who have so graciously and enthusiastically helped me with the admissions and financing processes. The idea of a religious Jewish school without a program for social justice is incomprehensible to me, and one of the biggest things that makes Pardes so attractive to me is that built in to the curriculum is one day a week for going out and volunteering with a variety of causes in Israel.
We see this obsession with justice and personal responsibility everywhere in the Jewish tradition that sprang from the Torah of Moses, from the Prophets to the Rabbis to our day. But why is this so important to God? Shouldn’t He have chosen as his chief prophet someone whose main virtue is doing His Will exactly as told and not letting all this compassion stand in the way since it could be a liability to properly obeying the Commandments as instructed? I think the answer to this lays in something I found myself pondering earlier this week when I read an excerpt about why people suffer from a Haredi book. The answer, well, the most predominant one of many the author gave anyway, was that when we truly realize everything in life is an undeserved gift from God, we realize the question isn’t valid. We shouldn’t say for example, why did my loved one die young, God-forbid, but rather, what did I do to deserve any loved ones at all? Nothing. What could ever I do to deserve her? Nothing. So I must just be grateful for the time we got to spend together and realize God has a Plan, and ultimately all is a gift for my benefit. When I read this, I got to thinking that if this answer is true, why do justice? While the networks for social support within Haredi communities are tremendous, and while I certainly agree that I have done nothing to deserve my absurdly fortunate lot in life and never could, the fact remains that if no one deserves loving parents to begin with, why help an orphan? If no one deserves food, why feed a hungry person? After all, no one is entitled to luxuries. So I decided instead, since justice is a cornerstone of Torah and Judaism, that the answer must be rather the opposite. As semi-divine beings, humans have an inalienable divine right tosecurity, food, clothing, shelter, love, health, freedom, and all the rest simply because they are God’s children made in His Image, meaning that if anybody doesn’t have any of these things, it is our divine duty to provide them since it is a gross injustice that anybody should be without something they have a Divine right to. Heschel once said “The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince.” He is a prince because he is a son of the King. If we Jews seriously believe this to be true then we should expand it to say that the biggest sin a man can commit is to forget that all men are equally princes (and princesses), children of the same King. Moses understood this better than anyone and that is why he will eternally be our teacher, Moshe Rabbenu. Merry Shabbos.