Parashat Shmot: A leader of leaders?

It's critical that the bearer of the biblical birthright show love, commitment to the covenantal values.

Torah 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
During the Book of Genesis, we spent a great deal of time analyzing what it was that made one worthy of the birthright. The first and most necessary characteristic is tzedek (justice), or tzedaka (compassionate justice). The second necessary condition for birthright eligibility is connectedness to family and homeland. When we analyze the towering personalities of the Bible as they appear during the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, not only do we understand why Judah and not Joseph receives the birthright from Jacob, but we also recognize the qualities of Moses which elevated him to become the master prophet, the supreme transmitter of the content of the birthright in the form of God's Torah to His firstborn son Israel. Joseph, although brilliant and charismatic, seems less than righteous and moral when he brings his father evil reports about his siblings (Gen. 37:2). Furthermore, he does not "reach out" to his brothers with sensitive concern when he - one of the younger ones - acts as "the shepherd toward his brothers among the sheep" (ibid.), and seeks to lord over them through his dreams of cosmic subjugation. And if his general family disconnectedness can be understood when he is a slave in Egypt, his lack of familial magnanimity is less forgivable when he confronts his siblings as the Grand Vizier. Judah, in stark contrast, is able to declare about Tamar - even though she deceived him by playing a harlot - "She is more righteous than I" (tzadka mimeni 38:26). In so saying, he emerges as the brother of consummate righteous compassion. Judah also unifies the family in leading the Grand Vizier to reveal himself and accept responsibility both for his father as well as for his brothers (Gen. 44:18-34) - responsibility which he, Judah, has already assumed regarding Benjamin, and before the Grand Vizier, when he asks to be a slave instead of Benjamin (Gen. 44:33) Now let us turn to Moses. Unlike Joseph, who is born in Israel and dreams of Egypt, Moses is born in Egypt but expends all his energies in taking the Israelites back to their homeland. And why does God choose Moses? Moses is the consummate fighter for justice (tzedek) and morality (mishpat), risking his life to struggle against injustice. The Bible records three incidents in Moses's early life before recording his confrontation - and election - by God to lead the Israelites to freedom: first he sees an Egyptian taskmaster slaying a Hebrew, and he slays the Egyptian; then he sees two Hebrews fighting and he breaks up the fight, chastising the instigator; and finally he chases away the Midianite shepherds for mistreating the daughters of the priest (sheikh) of Midian (Ex. 2:11-17). Moses is chosen to break the Egyptian tyranny because he fought against injustice perpetrated by Egyptian against Hebrew, by Hebrew against Hebrew, and by Midianite against Midianite. And whereas young Joseph tried to lord over his brothers, and his siblings responded by rejecting him, Moses - although he was adopted as a babe by the daughter of Pharaoh and brought up in Pharaoh's palace as a prince - reacts very differently to his biological family, despite a resultant loss of status and a self-imposed exile as a result of his brotherly concern and commitment: "And Moses grew, and he went out [and reached out] to his brothers when he saw their suffering; he saw an Egyptian taskmaster slaying a Hebrew personage from among his brothers… and he slew the Egyptian" (Ex. 2:11,12). Our final contrast: Joseph in Egypt and especially as Grand Vizier in Egypt, tries mightily to forget his father and siblings, naming his first son Manasseh, "because God has made me forget (nasheh) all my troubles and my father's household" (Gen 41:51). Even Judah "left his brothers… and married the daughter of a Canaanite" (Gen 38:1, 2) - a rejection of accepted paternal tradition. The very name Moses, however, means "son" in ancient Egyptian (Ra Mses, son of the sun-god); despite personal discomfiture, and derision by his Hebrew brothers for having assumed the leadership - "Who made you our prince and judge? … Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Ex. 2:14) - Moses remains a true son of his biological family, risking life and limb in order to rescue his enslaved brothers from their Egyptian taskmasters. His heart was never in Egypt: "And she [Moses' wife Zipporah] gave birth to a son, and he [Moses] called his name Gershom, because he said I was a stranger in a strange land" (Ex. 2:22). And Moses shows his beleaguered family unconditional love - despite their ingratitude and abuse. ("Isn't it enough that you brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey - Egypt - just to kill us in the desert; will you also rule, yes, rule over us?" [Numbers 16:13], which is reminiscent of the charge of Joseph's brothers, "Do you want to be king, yes king over us, to rule, yes rule against us" in Genesis [37:8]). Finally, once he learns his true identity, Moses never falters in his behavior as a proud son of Levi - and indeed this is how he is introduced at the beginning of our portion (Ex. 1:1) - in order to keep his eye on the goal i.e. to transmit God's message of compassionate righteousness and morality which was given to Abraham to the progeny of Israel for all eternity in the form of our Holy Bible. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.