The Book of Exodus takes us from the foundations of a family in Genesis to the
development of a nation. Ironically, the first time the children of Israel are
referred to as a nation is after the family of Jacob arrives in Egypt and became
“numerous and powerful” there (Exodus 1:9). The segue between the books is the
towering persona of Joseph, to whom Genesis devotes 13 chapters (Jacob only
merits 10-and-a-half). Is it not odd that Joseph, who is called ha’tzaddik (the
righteous one) by our sages, is not deemed worthy of being the fourth patriarch?
Furthermore, what is there about Moses that causes him to be singled out by God
as the savior of Israel?
Let us begin with Joseph. I believe he merits the
appellation “tzaddik” because, as a stranger in a strange land, he nevertheless
resists the seduction of Potiphiar’s wife and refrains from committing adultery
(Genesis 39:7-12). However, he still cannot be counted as one of the
God promises Abraham, the first patriarch, the legacy of a
nation, guaranteeing him eternal “seed” who will eventually live within the
borders of Israel. Joseph, from the earliest time when he dreamt of sheaves of
grain, hankered after the lush agricultural prosperity of Egypt rather than the
more arid grazing lands of Judea.
Indeed, throughout his lifetime, he
dedicated himself to the economic advancement of Egypt – far removed from the
Abrahamic family and the Land of Israel.
But there is an even more
powerful reason for Joseph’s exclusion. The Abrahamic covenant is predicated
upon the principle that every human being is created in the image of God
(Genesis 1:26,27). It is this axiom that makes every person inviolable and free
– ideas that are developed in the Exodus from Egypt and the commandments given
at Sinai. This is why God chose and loved Abraham, “since he will command his
children to guard the way of the Lord to do compassionate righteousness and
moral justice” (Genesis 18:19).
Enslaving a human being is the antithesis
of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Through Abraham “all the
families of the earth are to be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), but Joseph’s economic
policies by which he enslaved the entire Egyptian populace to Pharaoh – who
owned them and their lands – and resettled them wherever he wanted in Egypt, was
directly contrary to the Abrahamic obligation (Genesis 47:18-27).
Hebrews, who were shepherds rather than landowners, were exempt from the
enslavement, as well as re-settlement (Exodus 47:27).
I suggest that the
subsequent enslavement of the Hebrews by a Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” was
a divine punishment of those whose ancestor enslaved all of Egypt (midah keneged
midah). In his cavalier and degrading treatment of the Egyptians, Joseph had
turned away from the Abrahamic covenant.
Moses is the mirror-image of
Joseph – if Joseph was the family member who yearned for the greener pastures of
Egypt, Moses was the prince of the Court of Pharaoh who identified with and
reached out to his enslaved brethren (Exodus 2:11). Much more than that, “he saw
[va’yar] their burdened pains, and saw [va’yar] an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew
man from among his brothers” (ibid).
The Hebrew word va’yar
means to see
suffering and to do something for the victim. This is the meaning of the verse
in the Scroll of Esther, “How so would I be able to see [the same verb as in
va’yar, v’ra’iti] the evil which has befallen my nation [and not act to prevent
it], how would I be able to see [the same verb] the evil which has befallen my
nation [and not act to prevent it], how would I be able to see the destruction
of my birthplace [without attempting to forestall its occurrence]” (Scroll of
Esther 8:6). Likewise, this is the only way to understand the conclusion of the
Grace After Meals, “I was young and I also grew old, and I never saw a righteous
person forsaken, or his children scrounging for bread – [without attempting to
Hence, the very next verse records, “And [Moses] slew the
Egyptian and hid [his corpse] in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). When the oppressor is
about to murder the oppressed, when the master is about to smite the slave, then
the only correct expression of “compassionate righteousness and moral justice”
is to slay the oppressor-master.
Moses, in acting in the way of ethical
monotheism, in identifying with the Hebrews and in attempting to spark the
rebellion which would eventually free them and take them to the Promised Land,
is the “repair” for the “Egyptianization” of Joseph.
Moses our teacher is
the proper Covenantal continuation of Jacob.