Parshat Shemot: Moshe’s Soul Work
Rabbi Zecharia and Nava Deutsch are Straus-Amiel emissaries serving as Campus Chaplains at Leeds University, England
In our parsha we are introduced to Moshe, who will be the leading figure from this point onwards, until Vezot HaBracha, the very last portion of the Torah.
Throughout the four Books of the Torah in which Moshe takes center stage, we are witness to the process Moshe undergoes: from being “the child who was good” to becoming “the man of God”.
Let us look into our parsha in the hope of understanding the true nature of the man called Moshe and why he was chosen to be the savior of Israel.
Moshe the young man: “And when Moses was grown up, he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens” (Shemot 2:11). Rashi brings the Midrash and explains that “he set his eyes and hearts on them in their pain.” Moshe was certainly not ignorant of the circumstances of the Children of Israel, and was aware of their suffering. But he wanted more than just awareness. He wanted to feel their pain in his own heart.
Years pass and we are introduced to Moshe the father. Moshe calls his firstborn son Gershom – “for I have been a stranger [ger] in a strange land.” Moshe had fled from Egypt, but cannot help but think of his afflicted brethren who are still there. By calling his son Gershom, Moshe expresses his sorrow and the deep bond he still cherishes with his own people. Although the Israelites in Egypt are the strangers, gerim, in a land not theirs, it is Moshe who feels that he is the real ger, the ultimate stranger, being far away from his brethren in Egypt. By calling his son Gershom, Moshe ascertains that he will never forget his brethren in Egypt.
Then we meet Moshe the shepherd. Moshe notices a burning bush which does not seem to be consumed. Awed by the sight, he draws near to see why the bush has remained untouched. God calls out to Moshe from the burning bush and identifies Himself as the God of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov. And immediately “Moshe hid his face for he was afraid to look upon the Lord.” Our Sages teach us in the tractate of Brachot that because Moshe was “afraid to look”, he merited “to look upon the similitude of God.” What does this mean?
We once heard a beautiful commentary from Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinovitch, of blessed memory. Rabbi Rabinovitch explains that God wanted to teach Moshe the hidden qualities of Midat HaDin, the Attribute of Justice, found in the Divine name Elokim. God wanted Moshe to comprehend the real reason for the suffering of the People of Israel, but Moshe refuses. What was Moshe afraid of?
Moshe was afraid that the minute he understood the purpose of the suffering, he would lose his compassion. When a person has a purpose, or a goal to which he aspires, he is able to gird himself with strength and endure any pain and hardship that might come his way (much like a necessary medical procedure one has to endure).
It is this precise attitude that Moshe did not wish to adopt. Moshe wanted to remain as ignorant as his suffering brethren, who endured their anguish without the knowledge that it was serving a purpose. Moshe wanted to hold onto his compassionate and sensitive heart. He did not wish to rationalize the Israelites’ pain and look upon it as would an outsider. Rather, he wanted to feel their pain together with them. Moshe’s reward was “to look upon the similitude of God” – i.e., to have an understanding of Midat Harachamim, the Attribute of Mercy.
Moshe merited a profound understanding of the inherent goodness which exists in every person. Because he was not willing to look upon people through the prism of Midat HaDin, he was given the ability to look upon every individual through the Attribute of Mercy; the quality which would gain him insight into the human heart and allow him to see the bountiful mercy present in this world.
The three scenes in which Moshe appears seem to have one common denominator: empathy. In the first scene, at the outset of Moshe’s adult life, he goes out to his brethren with the aim of seeing them. Moshe is proactive and goes out to the people to observe them from up close. He wants to feel his fellow brethren, step into their shoes, as it were.
In the second scene, Moshe gives his son a name that expresses his empathy for the People of Israel, and in so doing, perpetuates this emotion.
The third time we encounter Moshe in our portion, we see that Moshe is given the opportunity to learn the secret of God’s leadership in this world, but he refuses so as not to undermine the compassion he feels for the People of Israel.
All of these actions and reactions teach us how important it is for leaders, and any person for that matter, to be sensitive to others. Moreover, we also learn that it is no less important to exert efforts in order to upkeep this feeling. Some people have a natural propensity for this particular emotional quality, while others do not. We must think of creative ways to incorporate this good trait into our character.
During the course of our emissary work here on the local campus, we have been fortunate to meet all kinds of people, each with his or her unique story and background. Students turn to us and ask for our assistance in numerous matters. Sometimes a student may find it difficult to combine academic studies with religious duties; in other instances, a student may struggle to fit in socially. And sometimes, all a person really wants is an attentive ear, someone trustworthy to whom he can disclose all that lies heavy on his heart.
As foreigners, who come from an altogether different culture, our viewpoint does not always allow us to see what the person in front of us is really going through. Moshe teaches us how important it is to be proactive, and to set one’s eyes and one’s heart upon the other in order to tune into what the other person is experiencing. It means putting one’s own sense of self aside, and stepping into the shoes of the other, listening to the story of the other in an attempt to experience reality as s/he is experiencing it.
A little before our firstborn son turned three, we started telling him the story of Moshe in the basket. He loved the story and asked us to tell it to him each night before going to bed. One day, we role-played the story. Our son was Moshe, and we, his parents, role-played the parts of Yocheved and the daughter of Pharaoh. We chose the scene when Moshe is weaned, and the time has come to say goodbye to Yocheved, and go to the home of the daughter of Pharaoh. Before they say farewell, Yocheved asks Moshe not to forget his family, his past, his self. She sings the verses of Shema Yisrael and Ha’mal’ach ha’go’el oti – “The angel who protects me…”. At this point in our role-play game, my son, feeling the pain of the pending separation, shed a tear. “And behold, there was a boy who was crying.”
The student community in Leeds comprises some 1200 Jewish students aged 18-24. Most of these students emanate from London and Manchester, but there are also students from Europe and the USA. The student body is varied, boasting diverse backgrounds, and very different levels of Jewish awareness, identity and affiliation. Our role is to strengthen and empower the Jewish community, as well as the Jewish student body.