This week we begin reading Sefer Shemot. Up until this point, until the opening lines of Sefer Shemot, the Torah has been concerned almost entirely with the lives and stories of the individuals. As Abarbanel points out in his introduction to Sefer Shemot, one of the differences between the books of Bereishit and Shemot is the move from recounting the episodes of individuals to the history of an entire people. Although hints of this change can be found towards the end of Sefer Bereishit, it is only in the first few verses of this week’s parsha that the family of Ya’akov are termed an Am, a nation.
Despite this noticeable change, the second chapter of Shemot returns us to a family setting and the birth of a child. As we meet Moshe, we are told of his birth, his arrival at the palace of Pharoh, and his life story up until his meeting with Hashem at the burning bush. It is quite obvious, that the Torah is providing us with background so that we may understand why Moshe was chosen by Hashem to lead Am Yisrael.
Having grown up in the Egyptian palace with an air of aristocracy about him, Moshe sets out to mingle with his brethren. He intervenes in two disputes; one involving an Egyptian officer who is hitting a Jew, the other a quarrel between two Jews. Even after fleeing Mitzrayim, which had become an unsafe place for Moshe, he intervenes at the well in order to allow Yitro’s daughters to give their flock water to drink.
How would one describe Moshe on reading the episodes described above? He seems to be a man with great moral sensitivity, a man with a clear sense of right and wrong. Moshe demonstrates great courage bordering on arrogance as he forces his opinion through words and actions on his fellow human beings. Moreover, Moshe does not seem to carefully calculate the ramifications of his words or actions and so is forced to flee from the clutches of Pharoh and the Egyptian government. Moshe’s behavior could be described as that of a passionate, courageous idealist.
Several commentaries, classical and modern, discuss how the stories of Moshe in Mitzrayim and at the well make him the obvious choice as the leader of Am Yisrael. Worth noting are the comments of Ibn Ezra towards the beginning of chapter 2 and the essay by Professor Nechama Leibowitz in her Studies on Shemot.
However we envisage the introductory verses about Moshe, one cannot ignore an obvious change in his character when he speaks with Hashem at the burning bush. The courageous passionate man we encounter only a few pesukim earlier, is now hesitant to take on his new leadership role. “Mi Anochi”, who am I?, Moshe cries to G-d. Why am I the right person for the job? Can I, Moshe, really be expected to make demands of Pharoh?
We could understand Moshe’s concern as to his ability to confront Pharoh as being due to the fact that he had actually grown up in his palace. This suggestion is problematic for several reasons. The Pharoh Moshe knew has died and a new king has been installed. A great deal of time had passed since Moshe was a household name in Mitzrayim. In addition, Moshe fled Pharoh after a death warrant was issued against him. A close relationship between him and the Egyptian leadership did not seem to exist at this stage. On the other hand, this last point may be a further reason why Moshe did not want to go and confront Pharoh – as soon as he entered Egypt he would be punished by death for his earlier crime. This last suggestion and others are raised by the mefarshim on this pasuk in an attempt to explain Moshe’s reluctance to perform the task placed on him by Hashem.
Let us focus on the larger picture. Moshe offers several reasons as to why he cannot fulfill the job for which Hashem has chosen him. Is this the same Moshe of perek Bet? What caused the change in Moshe?
We will offer two possible answers. The first is based on the weight of responsibility now asked of Moshe and the awe of G-d. The second examines the interim period between the two parts of Moshe’s life.
Moshe is having a conversation with Hashem. At the start of this episode, Moshe turns his eyes from the burning bush because, as the Torah tells us, he was afraid to look at Hashem.(Shemot 3:6) Moshe is then told that he will not only be the leader of the Jewish people, but will be required to make demands of the leader of the mighty Egyptian empire, Pharoh. Moshe may have been courageous, he may also have felt that Am Yisrael did not deserve to be slaves, but the responsibility now being placed on his shoulders was simply too great a burden to bear. Furthermore, he would now be answerable to the Almighty Himself. This was a difficult concept for Moshe to fathom and caused him to lose the confidence exhibited earlier in his life. At the time, he had been a member of the royal household, a privileged youngster, with a keen sense of right and wrong. He acted on impulse, in the belief that he could solve any problem that might arise in his daily life. This was no longer the case. He was now a simple shepherd and was being asked to take on the mantel of leadership. We can understand Moshe’s hesitations and concerns.
On a different note, one must ponder what Moshe had been doing since he last left Egypt. He had been in the desert, far from civilization, shepherding sheep. This ancient profession is associated with many of our Tanach heroes. The avot were shepherds as was David Hamelech. The life of the shepherd allows much time for thought and contemplation. Whilst the sheep graze, the shepherd can read, write or merely dream. Moshe may have gotten use to this type of pastoral life. He may have changed and no longer be the wild activist he once was. When he is approached by Hashem, Moshe is at once confused by the task set for him. He is after all, a mere philosophizing shepherd. He does not see himself as a born leader, known for making history. Moshe may even be trying to avoid this new role because he prefers the calm life of the shepherd and enjoys the time available for thought and other spiritual pursuits.
[Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, in his book “Tzir Vetzon” about Moshe Rabbeinu elaborates on this idea. He claims that Moshe left Egypt frustrated that none of his brethren were prepared to fight their Egyptian masters. He turned instead to the life of Yitro about whom the midrash recalls that he investigated every religion on earth. Moshe joined Yitro in his theological quest and thus became a philosopher rather than the leader of a people’s revolt.]
In a similar vein, the Malbim in his commentary to psalm 23 (the well known and oft-sung mizmor leDavid), claims that David Hamelech is recalling his days as a shepherd. He pines for those hours in the field when he could devote his mind to clinging to Hashem and writing his poems – tehillim. Only because Hashem, through cause of history, put David in a position to be king did he take on the role of leader. The mizmor describes David’s pining for his quiet days in the fields, pursuing spiritual quests or as the mizmor states “veshavti beveit Hshem leorech yamim – I will dwell in the house of Hashem for many days’.
We have explained the apparent difference in Moshe’s character between perakim Bet and Gimmel. How does Hashem react? He answers Moshe’s questions one by one until Moshe says “shelach na beyad tishlach ” (4:13) loosely translated as : send someone else! At this point Hashem gets angry, informs Moshe that Aaron will assist him, and tells Moshe to go and do the job! Hashem saw in Moshe the moral clarity and courage required to take am Yisrael out of Mitzrayim.
The message is clear – the role of leadership is not easy to assume. It is often simpler and more convenient to remain out of the limelight, concerned only with one’s own comforts and needs as commendable as these may be. But when Am Yisrael cries and we are able to help, we must take on the responsibilities to which we are suited. Moshe was told so by Hashem; David Hamelech realized that G-d’s hand in history left him with no other choice. Each one of us must examine our role in the world and in the fate of Am Yisrael and strive to achieve whatever our potential and the period in which we live mandates.
Shabbat Shalom – Rav Yonatan
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