December 30, 1999
On the Outside, Looking In
Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-- 6:1)
A bush that is on fire but doesn't burn is indeed a mysterious phenomenon. But arguably, there is a far more mysterious element in the story of God's commanding Moshe to go down to Egypt to the palace of Pharaoh. And that mysterious element is the very selection of Moshe. On the face of it, Moshe would seem to be the least well suited person in the world to take on the epic challenge of confronting Pharaoh and liberating the Israelite slaves.
I don't say this because of Moshe's self-professed weakness in the area of public speaking. The rest of the Torah is a powerful testament to his ability to speak eloquently, passionately and powerfully. Moshe's claim that "I am not a man of words," was an expression of his legendary humility, not a reflection of the objective reality. I rather refer to the vast distance that existed between Moshe and the people whose liberator he would be -- a distance that began with happenstance, but persisted by design.
Moshe, of course, was the only Jew in the world who did not grow up among his brethren. As soon as he was weaned, he was returned to the care of the daughter of Pharaoh who had drawn him up from the river. And when, years later, Moshe left the royal compound to see the state of his biological kin, the Jews did not perceive him as being one of their own. This was pointedly displayed when Moshe chided one of the Jewish slaves to not strike his own brother. The slave's response exuded suspicion and fear of Moshe: "Are you threatening to kill me as you killed the Egyptian taskmaster?"
Moshe was an outsider looking in. The distance between himself and the people whom he called "brothers" appeared unbridgeable. The fact that he never experienced the suffering and degradation that was their daily routine, only made the gap more severe.
The argument can strongly be made that in the aftermath of the above incident, Moshe made a conscious decision to separate himself from these people. The words that Moshe spoke in his heart, "behold, the thing is known," are taken by the Midrash to reflect Moshe's sudden understanding as to why the Children of Israel, of all the nations, are deserving of such a terrible, unjust lot. Their seeming lack of regard for each other, and their suspicion of any one who would want to help alleviate their plight leave a very sour taste in Moshe's mouth. Reinforcing this argument are Moshe's subsequent decisions to become a son-in-law, employee and permanent fixture in the home of Yitro, the priest of Midian.
Moshe had initially fled there to escape prosecution for the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, but he quickly decided to set down roots. Decades and decades pass before God appears to Moshe at the burning bush. Decades and decades pass, during which time he has no contact at all with his kin in Egypt.
So why indeed is Moshe, of all people, selected? Why does God charge him with the task of liberating the people from their bondage? The answer is that in the fulfillment of this particular task, distance was not disqualification. It was an absolute necessity.
If it persists long enough, evil comes to be accepted as the normal state of things. It was certainly the opinion of the Pharaohs, that Jewish bondage was as natural and immutable as the annual ebb and flow of the Nile. Pharaoh had no framework with which to understand the cry "let my people go." The cry could just as well have been "let the sun not rise."
Even more tragically, the Jews themselves had assimilated this way of thinking. Jews were slaves. Such was their fate. It was an issue with as much moral charge to it as the direction of the wind. The people's resistance to Moshe's first efforts to confront Pharaoh, and their periodic desire to return to bondage even after the Exodus are powerful testaments to this.
Who could see things otherwise? Who could stand up and rail against an obscene injustice that everyone else had long since accepted as normal? Only the outsider could. Only Moshe, who saw himself as an outsider in the palace, and whose sense of morality and justice had never been anesthetized by the institutionalization of evil, could see the outrage of bondage. Only Moshe could be so convinced of the righteousness of his cause, that he could stare defiantly into the eyes of the most powerful man on earth, and not blink. Only Moshe would have the stamina, resiliency and tenacity to see the mission through to its end. And this is why God did not allow Moshe to decline the mission. Moshe the outsider, Moshe who alone could see what others had become blind to, was the only one who could get the job done.
We are a people of Moshe. It is our task to see and point out the flaws and injustices that the general society has come to accept. This week's parsha reminds us to never relinquish this demanding role -- the one that underlies our claim to being a holy people.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B'nai David Judea in Los Angeles.