Parashat Shemot: More than a mediator

Parashat Shemot More th

"Moses wished [or swore] to dwell with the man [Jethro]" (Exodus 2:21) Moses is the greatest leader the Israelites have ever experienced - or will ever experience. He gave his people two most precious gifts: He freed them from Egyptian servitude, and he infused them with a divine mission and legal code, challenging them to become a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers. Whose influence contributed to the development of this outstanding liberator-legalist? Undoubtedly, Jochebed and Amram, his biological parents from the tribe of Levi, taught Moses the traditions of the covenantal family of Abraham, the fundamental teachings of ethical monotheism, with its emphasis on compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Whatever he received from them, however, was limited to his early years, since as soon as he was weaned, he was taken to Pharaoh's palace by his adoptive mother, Princess Bitya. This daughter of Pharaoh must have made a tremendous impression on him. She risked her life to save him, drawing him out of the River Nile in defiance of her father's orders that every male Hebrew child be drowned there. She then nurtured him during his formative years. Surely, it was she who served as his model when he reached out to his Hebrew brethren and killed the Egyptian task-master who was striking a Hebrew slave, thereby forsaking the plush, playboy life which could have been his in Pharaoh's palace. But we dare not forget yet another role model for Moses, Jethro, the priest-sheikh of Midian, his father-in-law and mentor for 60 years. The biblical narrative provides only the barest outline of how Moses got to Midian, but Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, in his superb commentary Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People draws on the Midrash to flesh out the details. The Bible records that "on the second day" - the day after this Prince of Egypt killed the Egyptian - Moses went out to his people, and found two Hebrews fighting between themselves. Why did Moses go out on the second day? Rabbi Lichtenstein suggests that he hoped to inspire the slaves with his fervor for freedom, inciting a rebellion against the Egyptian taskmasters. Instead, he found dissension within the Hebrew ranks and resentment and derision towards him for leading this initiative (Exodus 2:13, 14). Disappointed by the Hebrews, the Egyptians and perhaps by humanity in general, frustrated, and frightened lest he be killed by the Egyptian authorities, Moses fled to Midian. Why Midian, a city in the midst of a great desert? Perhaps the attraction was not so much the place, or even the shepherdess he rescued there, but rather Zipporah's father, Sheikh/Pastor Jethro. This man was a seeker after God, a spiritual personality who deliberately chose to live in an isolated area ideal for meditation, working as a shepherd and living in tune with nature. Indeed, when Jethro met Moses many years later, after the splitting of the Reed Sea, he declared, "Now I know that JHVH is greater than all the gods…" (Genesis 18:11) Apparently, he had investigated all the gods himself. Now, Moses yearns to spend significant time in search for and in the company of God. He spends 60 years in the desert, developing his spiritual energies, his "active intellect." As the Bible tells us, "Moses wished to [or swore to, according to Rashi] dwell with the person [Jethro], and he [Jethro] gave Zipporah his daughter [as wife] to Moses" (Ex. 2:21). "And Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, Priest of Midian, and he led the sheep far away into the desert; and he came to the Mountain of the Lord, to Horeb." Moses is searching, Moses is praying, Moses is meditating. Moses is near Horeb, at Sinai. Then Moses has a Divine revelation, an angel of the Lord in a blazing spark at the heart of fire in the midst of a sneh (thornbush) at Sinai. The thornbush is glowing red with fire, but it is not being consumed. This prickly bush symbolizes the ungrateful nation of Israel, lowly slaves in Egypt's social pecking order, but still passionately burning with the fiery message of God. Israel is suffering, but it is also basking in its eternal covenant with God. And God expects Moses to suffer the thorn pricks and, at the same time, to lead the bush to Sinai and beyond. The Almighty describes Himself as "I will be who I will be," as the God of history, as the God who demands of people in general, of Israel in particular, and most especially of Moses, to be His partners in redeeming the world. The lowly sneh must rise to the exalted heights of Sinai, the word and fire of God must transform an unfriendly and difficult desert into a peaceful and secure universe. God is telling Moses to assume his rightful place in world history, to act rather than meditate. "Know and be informed about Me that I am the Lord who does loving-kindness, justice and compassionate righteousness on earth; it is these things that I want, says the Lord (Jeremiah 9:24, and Maimonides, at the end of his Guide for the Perplexed). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.