Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
Out of terrible human tragedies can come the most remarkable universal examples of heroism and humanity. Such is the case in Parshat Shemot. Curiously, although the Torah condenses hundreds of years of slavery and suffering at the hands of the Egyptians into a mere ten verses, it dedicates many dozens of verses to some exemplary individuals who lived in Egypt at that time. These people bravely defied a genocidal regime of terror, risking death for their act of resistance.
We read about the midwives who risked their lives to save Jewish newborn boys; Moses’ parents, who brought him into the world in the face of near-certain infanticide; Moses’s sister, Miriam, who cared for Moses from afar (our Sages add that she was the one to approach her parents and propose that they remarry after having separated in reaction to Pharoah’s infanticidal decree); and Bitya, daughter of Pharoah, who risked her own life to rescue Moses, against her maidservants’ advice. And then, there is the most famous character of all – Moses – who could not stand idly by and watch his brethren being tormented.
Interestingly, the Torah separates the actions of these heroes from their nationalities. For example, the commentators are divided with regard to the identities of the midwives who refused to carry out the kings infanticidal decree. Were they Jewish or Egyptian? And it was none other than Pharoah’s own daughter – an Egyptian – who acted nobly in saving a Jewish baby, Moses, then a tiny infant floating in a basket in the Nile River.
This universalist impulse includes Moses himself, who discovers that his sense of justice is not reserved for his people alone. Upon witnessing the injustice being committed by the Midianite shepherds, who used brute force against the daughters of Jethro to prevent them from drawing water for their family, Moses musters his strength and intervenes to save the girls from their tormentors [ibid., 2:16-17].
Moses has nothing to do with this conflict between other peoples. Having fled Egypt, he was a refugee, and could have stood idly by. But his sense of justice was blind, and he makes no distinction between nationalities and territories. He feels that justice must be done even it does nothing to further his interests.
Imagine for a moment the outrage that would ensue if a Holocaust historian downplayed the prominence of the concentration camps, gas chambers, medical experiments, etc, and instead dwelt on how a small group of people helped each other, or how a few Christians concealed Jews in their homes. Critics would be justified in calling such a work of history biased, unreliable and unprofessional.
This, however, is exactly what takes place in Parshat Shemot! Why? Perhaps the Torah is not interested in delving into the finer details of Egyptian depravity because it does not possess long-term significance, or perhaps because we would encounter this evil in so many places in the future. Most importantly, though, the reason is because the Torah is not a book of history, but rather a pedagogical masterpiece.
The Torah wants to teach that when humanity is being tested, people must stand up for justice, and not be swept along in the tide of hatred. People with a conscience can and must be found in places living under the thumb of the darkest regimes.
The Torah teaches us that a leader like Moses cannot solely focus on the interests of his own people while turning a blind eye to the suffering of gentiles. Beyond that, the Torah conveys an even more profound message to future generations. When we face omnipresent evil – and it may sometimes seem as if this evil has taken hold of our world – it is then when we must stop and remember these exemplary characters from Parshat Shemot.
Every generation needs them, and every generation can produce them. If, in the days of the horrific Egyptian empire, certain men and women could rise up and find various ways of saying “enough is enough”, we could and should expect this to happen everywhere.
Ultimately, the benevolent will go down in the annals of history, not just as people who produced change and brought more good into the world, but also as those who gave hope to all nations, for all time.
Pharaoh and other tyrants have been discarded to the dustbin of human history, and the evils they brought about are but a faint and distant memory. In contrast, the midwives and their companions have been immortalized as symbols of the struggle to bring out the good hidden within all of us. This spirit is the driving force behind humanity’s quest to perfect the world in every generation.