Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1)
Yaakov and his sons haved passed away, and a new king came to reign over Egypt, who either did not know about, or did not want to know about, the special relationship that existed between Egypt and Yosef and his family. The new king gradually and consistently passes economic decrees to afflict the nation. He sends them to work camps, where they would be forced to build new cities, and later, he orders the murder of all male children born into this nation. The Hebrew midwives try to smuggle the babies away, but they don’t always succeed.
One family, now faced with this terrible reality, grapples with a terrible dilemma. Amram and Yocheved beget two children, Miriam and Aharon, and then stop to contemplate their next step. Originally, they had decided to separate, to avoid becoming the victims of infanticide. In turn, many of their friends and students leave their wives as well, for similar reasons. It seemed as though the Jewish people were doomed to slow but certain annihilation – it was just a matter of time.
Miriam, who was six years old at the time, protested to her father: ‘By taking this decision, you’ve brought a holocaust upon our people. Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. He has pronounced a decree only against the male children, while you have extended that to the female children, as well!’
Amram wisely heeds his young daughter’s advice, and boldly decides to return to Yocheved, who would once again be his wife, and to have children, even in this atmosphere of evil decrees. This is how their child, Moshe, was born.
Moshe was in peril from the moment he took his first breath. His life was miraculously saved when the daughter of Pharaoh reached out her hand to pull him out of the water. An act of mercy saved the life of the first leader of the Jewish people. This was a leader who would later extend his own outstretched hand and draw his brethren out of slavery, and into redemption.
What do we know about this man, Moshe? Why was he the persona whom Hashem would choose to lead his nation at its darkest time? The text is rather vague about Moshe’s youth and adolescence. Moshe spent his childhood in Pharaoh’s palace, and when he goes out to the street, he comes face to face with their affliction: “… 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…” [Ex. 2:11-12]
The following day, the text continues, he sees “two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, “Why are you going to strike your friend?” [ibid. v. 13]
He goes to the foreign land of Midyan, sits beside a well, and witnesses how shepherds drive away Yitro’s daughters, who had come to water their flocks. Compelled to act, “…Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks.” [ibid. v. 17]
These are the three images we ought to etch into our memories. They are the images of a man who sees and acts. He could have turned the other way in Egypt and in Midyan. The events there should have been none of his business. What could the protege of an Egyptian princess have in common with a beaten Hebrew slave? What business is it of Moshe’s if two Hebrew slaves quarrel? What connection does he have with the daughters of Yitro, an idolatrous priest?
Helping someone we know is easy and feels good. However, people who can identify with those who are different, those with a different social standing, of those with divergent background, are much more difficult to come by. Moshe is someone who could not look the other way indifferently. He sees before him a despondent man being abused, a person who needed to be saved, and he lends him his hand.
This is how Moshe’s life begins, from his salvation at the outstretched hand of Pharaoh’s daughter. That helping hand remained with him his entire life. Long before he would become the great leader who would lead an entire nation, he saved one person, and then another, and another. This is how great things begin. These three snapshots from Moshe’s private photo album teach us that when you reach out to someone, it could be the beginning of redemption for countless more.