With the death of Yosef, the Book of Bereishet (Genesis) comes to an end. The Book of Shmot (Exodus) chronicles the creation of the nation of Israel from the descendants of Yaakov. At the beginning of this week's Parsha, Pharaoh, fearing the population explosion of Jews, enslaves them. However, when their birthrate increases, he orders the Jewish midwives to kill all newborn males. Yocheved gives birth to Moshe and hides him in the reeds by the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter finds and adopts him, although she knows he is probably a Hebrew. Miriam, Moshe's sister, offers to find a nursemaid for Moshe and arranges for his mother Yochevedto fulfill that roleYears later, Moshe witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and Moshe kills the Egyptian. Realizing his life is in danger, Moshe flees to Midian where he rescues Tzipporah, whose father Yitro approves their subsequent marriage. On Chorev (Mt. Sinai) Moshe witnesses the burning bush where G-d commands him to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to Eretz Yisrael, the land promised to their ancestors. Moshe protests that the Jewish People will doubt his being G-d’s agent, so G-d enables Moshe to perform three miraculous transformations to validate himself in the people's eyes: transforming his staff into a snake, his healthy hand into a leprous one, and water into blood. When Moshe declares that he is not a good public speaker, G-d tells him that his brother Aharon will be his spokesman. Aharon greets Moshe on his return to Egypt and they petition Pharaoh to release the Jews. Pharaoh responds with even harsher decrees, declaring that the Jews must produce the same quota of bricks as before but without being given supplies. The people become dispirited, but G-d assures Moshe that He will force Pharaoh to let the Jews leave.
“…Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers…” (2:11)
In the ‘60s, American Jews played a significant role in the founding and funding of some of the most important civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). Fully one-third of those who ‘traveled south’ as volunteers were Jewish, at a time when Jews made up only 3 percent of the population of the United States.
Jews, it seems, have a very low tolerance level for injustice.
Look at every social liberation cause throughout the ages and you will find it filled with Jewish-sounding names: Marx, Lenin, Hoffman, Rubin, Cohn-Bendit – or the most Jewish-sounding name of them all – Moshe Rabbeinu.
In the annals of social awareness, Moshe Rabbeinu ranks number one.
If the Torah chose to mention three incidents in the early life of Moshe, it must be that these incidents epitomize him.
One: Leaving Pharaoh’s palace, the twelve-year-old Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. Moshe kills him on the spot.
Two: The following day, Moshe sees a Jew about to strike another Jew and intervenes. With the death penalty hanging over him for killing the Egyptian, Moshe escapes.
Three: At the well in Midian, seven young women are watering their flocks. Other shepherds turn up with their own flocks and chase them away. Moshe cannot allow this clear injustice; interposing himself, he saves the young women and waters their sheep.
Three stories with a clear common theme: Zero tolerance to injustice.
Moshe could have said to himself, “Let these Mindianites fight it out themselves!” but his innate holiness did not allow him to stand uncaringly on the sidelines.
During the civil rights movement in the United States, Jews could have stood back and said, “What’s this got to do with us?” Yet, that inherited sense of the fair and the just galvanized Jews to the head of the civil rights movement. That’s Moshe’s bequest.
Later in the weekly Torah portion Moshe argues with G-d for seven days that he is not the man to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. Why was Moshe so adamant?
Moshe thought it unjust that his older brother Aharon should be passed over for the number one spot in Israel.
It’s really this last incident that is the most telling. It’s all too easy to get on our high horses or take to the barricades in the defense of fair play, civil rights and justice when our own interests are not at stake, but to be equally concerned with the rights of others when we stand to lose is the real test of the love of justice.
- Sources: Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe