PARASHAT SHMOT: The fateful choice: To be a brother

Did secular Jews ever create a space in which to practice their Judaism?

‘THE FINDING of Moses’ (1904) by Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘THE FINDING of Moses’ (1904) by Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A handsome Egyptian prince grew up in the king’s palace as the beloved son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He took for granted that all Egypt had to offer was his for the taking.
In the Egyptian class system, he was of the highest class. The social classes under him included the temple priests, scribes, artists, farmers and, at the bottom of the ladder, the foreign workers who streamed to Egypt in ancient times.
At some point – and we do not know at what age – the Egyptian prince made a shocking discovery: He was not actually the princess’s son. He was adopted.
The truth was he was the son of Hebrew parents, of the foreign nation enslaved in Egypt.
This secret could have destroyed Moses’s life, and its discovery could have toppled him from the top of the ladder to its bottom. It is safe to assume that anyone with whom Moses consulted about this revelation – if he did indeed seek advice – would have advised him to forget about his dark past and live the life of pleasure offered by Pharaoh’s palace.
Did Moses debate these options with himself? If so, for how long? The Bible does not reveal any of these interesting ideas to us. But we do read about his final decision: “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” (Exodus 2:11).
The double emphasis on the term “his brothers” tells us about Moses’s motivations in leaving the palace and going to see the beaten nation of slaves. He feels solidarity with them. He does not feel that he belongs to the Egyptian royal family. He chooses to identify as a brother of the enslaved Hebrews.
The sights and sounds that Moses encounters when leaving the palace are hard to bear, given his internal sense of identity as a brother of these Hebrews.
First, he “looked at their burdens” – he recognizes their great suffering, their lack of basic rights. Then he encounters a scene that epitomizes the Hebrews’ situation for him – he sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man.
Why did the Egyptian strike the Hebrew man? Truthfully, there is no need to search for an explanation.
The Hebrew slaves in Egypt did not have rights.
Moses suddenly faces this reality and cannot remain an apathetic bystander: “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” (ibid. 2:12) Moses acts cautiously but with determination.
He checks that there is no one around to notice and then saves the beaten Hebrew man by killing the abusive Egyptian. This caution does not ultimately help him. His involvement in saving the enslaved Hebrew reaches Pharaoh, who, despite Moses growing up in his palace, wishes to kill him. Moses is forced to escape from Egypt and find refuge elsewhere.
Pharaoh’s ire is understandable. In Egyptian culture, which attributes higher powers to the king, there is no place for independence or moral initiatives. The murder of the Egyptian is interpreted as defying the king, even if the act was motivated by compassion. In the language of the midrash, by this act “Moses gave his soul for Israel” (Mechilta, Beshalah). He lost everything he had when he chose to see the Children of Israel as his brothers.
Moses escaped from Egypt and seemingly lost his entire world with that one, perhaps impulsive, act.
But if you keep reading the Torah, you see that this act made Moses privileged to take on the great mission of redeeming the Children of Israel from Egypt, giving them the Torah, and bringing them to the entrance of the land of their fathers – the Land of Israel.
Moses’s moral act, choosing to identify with his brothers rather than looking out for himself and enjoying a life of pleasure in the Egyptian palace, led to him becoming a great leader who has been called “Rabbeinu” (our Master) by the Jewish nation throughout the generations. Moses, who chose to be the brother of our stricken forefathers, became our rabbi, teaching us from his deeds and his Torah how to make the right choices.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.