Parashat Shemot: An antisemite, an apathetic man and a righteous gentile

Only when we are confident in the possibility of reality being better can we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to repairing humanity.

MOSES EMBODIES morality and caring without limit.’  (photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
MOSES EMBODIES morality and caring without limit.’
(photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
The Book of Exodus, the second of the five books of the Torah, begins with a description of the growth of Jacob’s family in Egypt: “The Children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased and became very, very strong, and the land became filled with them” (Exodus 1:7).
The result follows immediately: “A new king arose over Egypt.... He said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase.... So the Egyptians enslaved the Children of Israel with backbreaking labor” (ibid. 1:8-13).
Our Sages tell us about the process that preceded the fateful decision to “deal shrewdly” with the Jewish nation. They say that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had three advisers, men we later read about: Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law; Balaam, the magician who tried to curse the Jewish nation in the desert; and Job, the tormented and tragedy-stricken man who has a book in the Bible named for him. Our Sages tell us as follows:
“Three noteworthy people were consulted by Pharaoh in that counsel where Pharaoh questioned what should be done with the Jewish people. They were Balaam, Job, and Jethro.... Balaam, who advised Pharaoh to kill all sons born to the Jewish people, was punished by being killed in the war with Midian; Job, who was silent and neither advised nor protested, was punished by suffering; Jethro, who ran away as a sign of protest, merited that some of his children sat in the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of the Hewn Stone [served as judges in the court adjacent to the Temple in Jerusalem]” (Sota 11).
Three advisers, three different approaches.
One advised to harm the Jewish people by enslaving them. This is the classic antisemite. The Jews make him uncomfortable. They’re too strong, too successful, too many. They are the “them” that must be oppressed. He does not attempt to hide this, nor does he suffer any pangs of conscience. This character is represented by Balaam, who “merited” the rare moniker “Balaam the Evil.”
The second was silent. We know that type. This is the apathetic person who prefers to look away when he encounters wrongdoing. He is not evil, but he chooses to ignore unpleasant situations. He would not encourage antisemitic activity, nor would he actively support boycotting the Jewish nation. But when asked to sign a declaration opposing antisemitism, he will suddenly remember something else he urgently has to do.
This character is surprisingly represented by Job, whom the Bible describes as “sincere and upright, God-fearing and shunning evil” (Job 1:1). Indeed, apathetic people are not evil. They might even have good qualities and be God-fearing. But they lack faith in their own power or that of humanity in general to rise above evil and live a life of morality. Their silence, which does not necessarily point to a negative personality, allows evil to flourish.
The third adviser fled. He expressed his opposition to evil and tried to block the proposal, but failed in the face of stronger powers. He became the one who was threatened and had to escape to save himself. This is the Righteous Gentile. This character is represented by Jethro, the person we will later encounter as Moses’s father-in-law, who even assisted the Jewish nation after it left Egypt by setting up a judicial system and public leadership.
These three characters are presented alongside that of Moses, a character who embodies morality and caring without limit. When Moses encounters an Egyptian abusing and beating a Jewish man, he could not stand idly by. He beat the Egyptian and killed him. And when he encountered a Jew beating another Jew, he asked the wicked one: “Why are you going to strike your friend?” And when he arrived in a strange land and saw aggressive shepherds banishing weaker girls from the water well, he helped the girls and watered their flock.
Moses opposed evil with his entire being. He punished and admonished, saved and redeemed. Therefore, he was chosen to be the person suitable for giving the Torah to the Jewish nation and explaining its historic mission.
Only when we are confident in the possibility of reality being better – a confidence rooted in faith in God, the Creator of the universe – can we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to repairing ourselves and all of humanity.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.