Upon arriving in Egypt, fresh from his encounter with God at the burning bush, Moshe enlists his brother Aharon as well as the elders of Israel to confront Pharaoh. Together, representing the united leadership of the Hebrews, they would demand their freedom, or at very least that they be allowed to worship their God in the desert for three days. But the Torah’s description of that initial encounter with Pharaoh signals that something about the plan went awry.
“And after this, Moshe and Aharon appeared before Pharaoh and said to him, ‘Thus says the God of Israel, release my nation so that they may celebrate before Me in the desert’ ” (Exodus 5:1). The Sages of the Midrash pounce with their question. “Where did the elders go?” “Why were they not also present at the encounter with Pharaoh?” The answer they posit is none too flattering for Israel’s elders. “They all set out behind Moshe and Aharon. But one by one, or two by two, they stole away and disappeared, so that by the time Moshe and Aharon reached Pharaoh’s palace, there was not a single one of them left.” It’s almost a comical scene (especially if you imagine the right soundtrack), but one imagines that neither Moshe nor Aharon was amused.
Turns out, according to the Midrash, God was not amused either. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, ‘By your lives, I shall pay you back for what you have done!’ And when did He do so? Later on, when Moshe and Aharon, along with the elders, began to ascend Mount Sinai (at the giving of the Torah), it is written, ‘And to the elders God said, “You remain where you are.” ’ ” Ouch.
One might object to the particular way God chose to repay the elders for their earlier abandonment of Moshe and Aharon. The situation that the elders had failed in was a distinctly political one. The enslaved Israelite nation was preparing to claim its political rights from the dominant Egyptian nation. The issues would be issues of state, and the discourse would be the discourse of kings. What expertise do elders possess when it comes to such matters? What could they possibly have contributed to the negotiation? The elders might have reasoned that Moshe made a tactical error in having recruited them to come along. But at Mount Sinai? Mount Sinai was a religious event! It was precisely the sort of moment at which the presence of elders is meaningful and appropriate. Why would God punish their nonparticipation in a political moment by depriving them of participation in a religious one?
Yet, this may be precisely the point the Midrash is intending to make. The political/religious dichotomy is a false one, at least when applied to the work of confronting Pharaoh. The intended legacy of the Exodus story is that contrary to the way all people of the ancient world viewed these things, power, oppression, bondage and freedom are not political issues. They are, rather, the pinnacle of religion’s concern. The legitimacy or illegitimacy of one group dominating another and imposing its will upon them is not a function of one’s political philosophy. It is rather a matter of one’s religious philosophy. Moshe and Aharon were not commanded to go to Pharaoh and to represent the political aspirations of the Hebrews. They were to go to him and represent the idea that there is one God who created all, and who desired freedom for his creations.
I’m always struck by the annual proximity between our reading of Parashat Shmot, and the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (except this year, when the Jewish calendar is running so “early”). Dr. King frequently invoked the story of the Exodus, characterizing the struggle between Moshe and Pharaoh as a profoundly spiritual one.
Some years ago I came across a 1965 recording of a sermon that Dr. King delivered at Temple of Israel of Hollywood, in which he compared many in his generation to the group of Israelites who, at the Red Sea and at various other points of crisis in the wilderness, did not want to return to the slavery of Egypt, but also lacked the courage to face the tough challenges that entering the Promised Land would demand of them. And he also described the malady that afflicted Pharaoh in distinctly spiritual terms. The slavery at Pharaoh’s hand was the result of his “reduction of persons to things. Throughout slavery, they [the Israelites] were things to be used, rather than persons to be respected.”
Yet, the person of that era who most understood that which the ancient Israelite elders failed to grasp was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who told the 1963 Conference on Religion and Race that “the tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and all the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert, and together stood at the foot of Sinai.”
There is surely a proper place to draw the line between the political and the religious. But matters of justice and freedom are always religious.
Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.