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The first weekly reading in the Book of Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) introduces us to the central character who will be the main protagonist through the end of the Torah: Moshe ("Moses" in English). Moshe is so important in Judaism that to this day we call him "Moshe Rabbeinu" -- "our Rabbi and Teacher Moshe" -- and indeed his teachings dominate not only the Written Torah but also the Oral Law. But just who is this man that will lead the Jews from slavery and bring us not only the Ten Commandments but also the entire Torah itself?
The Torah tells us few details about his early life; Torah is not intended to teach us history but rather the essential information that we need to understand the spiritual development of the Jewish People, and as such the lack of details of Moshe’s character are not surprising. But this dearth of detail magnifies the significance and importance of what is revealed.
Of his birth, we are told only that he is of the House of Levi. Fearful that their slaves will rebel, the Egyptians have decreed death upon all newborn Jewish boys; Moshe’s mother hides him from the Egyptian tyrants for some three months following his birth. When she can no longer hide him, she places him in a basket and he is found, adopted, and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. We know that he grew up in the Pharaoh’s palace and can guess at what that meant in terms of his education and social status.
A few verses later, we are told that Moshe grew up and "went out to see the suffering of his People." (Ex. 2:11) Despite his upbringing, Moshe sees the Jews as his people -- he identifies with the Jews, not the Egyptians. Rashi tells us of Moshe’ empathy: "[Moshe] directed his eyes and his heart to be distressed over [the Jewish people]." (Rashi’s comment is based on Ex. Rab. 1:27) We are told of three incidents that follow in the coming six verses:
• First, Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and the Torah tells us that Moshe sees the Jew as "his brother." Rashi spells out the detailed background for us. The Hebrew was the husband of Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri, (who will be mentioned in Lev. 24:10), and this Egyptian had forced himself upon her. To complete his destruction of this Jewish family, the Egyptian now beat her husband. Moshe steps in and kills the Egyptian -- a righteous punishment in defense of the dignity of Shlomit and her anonymous husband.
• The second incident follows the next day, when Moshe sees two Jews arguing so fiercely that one is about to strike the other. He steps in to settle the dispute, but his intervention is rejected by the guilty party who asks him: "Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Ex. 2:14) Moshe realizes that if the Jews know that he killed the Egyptian, the Egyptians surely know as well. He flees from Pharaoh, in fear for his life. Though we are not told so, we can surmise that the penalty for striking down an Egyptian is death -- and that there is no such penalty for killing a Jew.
• Moshe flees to Midian where we hear of the third incident. Resting by a well, he sees the seven daughters of Yitro draw water for their sheep. They are attacked by a group of men who steal their water; Moshe intervenes on their behalf, fighting off the group of male shepherds who attacked them, and justice is served. (Ex. 2:15-17)
What do these incidents tell us of the character of Moshe? Indeed, though terse in words, the Torah reveals much. In these stories, we are told one of Moshe’s defining traits: he identifies with and stands up for the rights of the oppressed. Not only does Moshe defend the weak and powerless, including slaves and women, he identifies with the oppressed on a personal basis. Further, he is an equal-opportunity defender, defending Jew from Egyptian, Jew from Jew, and the Midianite women from non-Jews.
These incidents are apparently all we need to know of Moshe’s character to prepare us for his greatness. We are next given genealogical details -- he marries, has children -- and then we learn of Moshe’s encounter with G-d at the Burning Bush. He has been chosen by Hashem to free the Jewish slaves.
This same characteristic that defines Moshe’s greatness in his early life, his quest for justice, is one of the many ideals we strive for as Americans. Our all-American fantasy hero, Superman, stands for "truth, justice, and the American way." We are a country of equality before the Law, founded on the principle that "all Men are created equal." Our ideals allow the oppressed to seek redress in court where they can expect fair and equal treatment before the Law, and we expect justice for Jew and non-Jew, Egyptian and Midianite. Moshe sees the Jewish slaves as his brethren, but more, he sees them as human beings, not property -- human beings created in the Image of G-d.
As such, Moshe doesn’t hesitate to stand up in defense of the innocent -- even at the risk of losing his status in Egyptian royalty (which he does), even at the risk of great personal harm when he is outnumbered at the Midianite well, even to the point of using lethal force against the Egyptian who attacked the Hebrew slave. Moshe embodies a model of law and justice that ideally would be manifest in all our leaders. At the very least, we can seek to emulate his model in our own behavior: defend the rights of the oppressed, protect the innocent from harm, and seek justice and equal treatment before the law. In perfecting these and other manifestations of his character, Moshe will grow into the great law-giver who transmits the Torah, G-d's Law manifest on Earth. May we aspire to display his respect for justice and the dignity of others.
Rabbi Dovid Bendory
Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership
Rabbi Bendory is an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor.
The Rabbi's Archive page.
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