Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

      Entrances are always a big deal.  In a Broadway show or even a TV show with a live audience, when the headliner first appears, there's excitement and applause.  When I was a little kid, people used to clap and cheer at movies.  So, when the star, someone like John Wayne or Cary Grant, would show themselves larger than life on the silver screen, there would be a smattering of cheers and a palpable awe in the theater.  Well, l'havdil quite a number of havdalot, Moshe Rabbeinu makes his entrance in this week's Torah reading.  And it's a very dramatic first scene.  From his thrilling ride down the Nile (I love the way this was portrayed in Prince of Egypt.) until his secret burial overlooking the Promised Land, no other personality so dominated the Jewish people.  Maimonides said it best, 'There will never be another Moshe.'  But how did Moshe the refugee baby become Moshe Rabbeinu?  Our mission this week is to discover that answer.

            Before we get going on Moshe, I want to share a certain weirdness at the beginning of the book of Shmot.  Shmot means 'names', but after listing the names of Ya'akov's kids, there's a sort of conspiracy against mentioning names.  When the text describes the birth and saving of Moshe, it doesn't mention the names of his mother, father, sister or the daughter of Pharaoh.  Even the two names we do have (Shifra and, the ever popular, Puah) are assumed to be aliases by almost every traditional commentary (they're really Yocheved and Miriam, who was very precocious, at maybe 5 YO).  Until the naming of Moshe (2:10), there's basically a moratorium on names.   Why?  Perhaps the leadership squabbles of Genesis, soured the nascent nation on leaders.  Maybe they wanted a homogenized nation without fame or even names (perhaps the agenda of Korach in Bamidbar).  Enter Moshe, who is an outsider, he has none of these qualms.  He grew up in the house of Pharaoh, where leadership is the very air they breathe.  This may also explain why Moshe is told to mind his own business when the two Jews are squabbling (2:14).  They don't want leaders or guidance.  However, Moshe is already on the leadership track, but it will be many years until he assumes the mantle.

            It's not until midway through the book of Numbers that the Jews fully acknowledge Moshe as the true leader of the nation.  In the midst of that reluctant recognition of Moshe as the national guide, we are informed of Moshe's greatest attribute, 'Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).'  Here, as that rocky road to acceptance begins, we are informed of other attributes.  What singles out Moshe for greatness?

            The answer to that question, I believe, begins with an anomaly in the text.  In verse 10 of chapter 2 here in Exodus we're told that the 'child grew up' and was brought back from Yocheved (apparently, his wet nurse) to the daughter of Pharaoh and the palace.  But in the very next verse we're told that 'Moshe grew up'.  He grew up again?  It would be easy to say, as we often do, that one describes physical growth and the other spiritual or psychological growth or as Rashi quotes from the Midrash, 'The first one was Moses' growth in height, and the second one was his growth in greatness.'  But I'd like to suggest that the verses are teaching that he imbibed from both Jewish mores and Egyptian standards.  He grew up in both cultures.  This was unique, and seems to support learning secular studies.  It allowed him to examine issues from angles no one else could fathom.  He didn't have the Egyptian's fear and loathing of outsiders ('they will join our enemies' 1:10) or the Jews' antipathy to leaders ('Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us?' 2:14).  But he did have Egyptian organizational skills and a healthy serving of Jewish empathy.

            All of this is wonderful.  He has been educated into both civilizations.  However, to become the greatest leader of all time, he must bring his own character to the table, as well.  What we see of his own strengths is also impressive.  He identifies with his people and must go out to see the plight of his brethren. He can't turn his back on injustice.  When he sees the Egyptian taskmaster mistreat the Jewish slave, he can't ignore the wrong doing.  He is still a citizen of the 13th century BCE, and, therefore, can't see slavery as an absolute evil.  That insight would require many more centuries of human experience.  But he clearly understands that slaves must not be beaten, and bystanders must get involved.  Moshe also can't watch the daughters of Yitro be abused by the other shepherds, without righting the wrong.  He innately anticipates the lectures of Yishayahu on social justice. 

            So, we have set the table for Moshe's ascendance to greatness.  We're ready to go!  But there are decades between Moshe's departure from Egypt as a young man and his return as an octogenarian.  Why?  One could argue that the Jews weren't ready for redemption.  Another could posit that his leadership skills required years of honing as a shepherd before they could be put to the test by the Jewish people.  Or one could say that it was a combination of many factors.  I don't know.  Furthermore, I believe that the wildly speculative stories in the Midrash about Moshe's 'missing years' are meant to advocate for one position or another.

            The fact that Moshe waited scores of years before putting his life's experiences and lessons to the test, teaches us a fundamental idea.  We must view ourselves like Moshe, that all the events and circumstances of our lives prepare us for a role that we never imagined possible.  We're all warming up for that call to the bullpen.  We'll never make the impact Moshe did, but we must believe that we have a role to play, and that the call will come.  Perhaps, there'll even be applause.