(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The first part of the Book of Exodus (Shmot), which we are starting to read this week, deals with a period of 210 years when the People of Israel (Am Yisrael) was enslaved in Egypt and was then liberated from this slavery. The central character in this story, in fact the central character from here until we finish reading the Torah, is Moses, Moshe Rabbeinu. He is the one who liberated the nation from Egypt. He is the one who went up to Mount Sinai to get the Torah. He is the one who led the nation for 40 years in the desert with all the hardships, wars, and challenges on the way to the Promised Land – Eretz Yisrael. It is no coincidence that he is the only one who merited the name “Rabbeinu” – our rabbi – linked to his name.
The Torah does not provide us with a complete biography of Moses. We mainly read about the first period of his life and then about the last 40 years of his life.
Between those two periods, there are around 60 years about which we have almost no information.
It is the first period in Moses’s life that we are interested in now due to its uniqueness. Moses was not raised in a Jewish home and did not receive a Jewish education. On the contrary, Moses was the adopted son of the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who had found him floating in a basket in the Nile River. Since we are talking about a boy who grew up in Pharaoh’s household, it would be reasonable to assume that the connection between him and the Jewish nation would be a weak one.
But we discover that this is not so. Moses’s first action when he becomes an adult is evidence of his deep connection with the Jewish nation enslaved to the Egyptian nation.
We read the following in the Torah: “Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12) The Torah’s repetition of the word “brothers” reveals to us that this is not only a moral act, but also one of national affinity. Moses sees an Egyptian man hitting a Jewish man, feels that the Egyptian is striking his own brother, and goes to help defend his brother while killing the abusive Egyptian.
We can only imagine what might have happened following such a deed. It could have been that following this, the rumor would have quickly spread among the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Jews in Egypt that “the Egyptian prince defended the stricken Hebrew man.” The story might have passed from slave to slave, giving them a reason to smile and a spark of hope in their hearts. Days later, it could have become known that there were various cases of local rebellions, and within a short time, those rebellions could have become an organized process of thousands of slaves united against the Egyptians, refusing to accept their burden and their enslavement. The rebellion could have spread like fire, and in several months it would have turned the Jews from a nation of hopeless slaves into a people with national aspirations of freedom and independence. The process might have gained momentum and political expression. Delegations could have been organized and they would have then turned to Pharaoh with an unequivocal demand to be released.
We can continue in this imaginary vein, but though it is hard to land back in reality, let us do so. What really happened after Moses struck the Egyptian? How many Jews rushed to inform Pharaoh, Pharaoh who understood the dangerous potential of such a deed and its implications? Because of this, he wanted Moses killed, and Moses escaped from Egypt, returning only 60 years later demanding that the Jewish nation be released from slavery.
This unfortunate and strange phenomenon of Jews acting against their own nation requires a deep analysis down to the roots of this issue. But we can learn this from the Torah portion: Even if those informers managed to delay the liberation from slavery by decades, they did not have the power to prevent it entirely.
They had the ability to disturb, but not to truly change the course of history. Ultimately, the Jewish nation was liberated from Egypt despite those Jews who preferred to stay there. After all, we believe, the course of history is determined not by kings, presidents or heads of state, but rather by God.
This faith offers us hope that despite all the hardships, history will progress toward its promised state, to the time when “... it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains, and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it... nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.