A Different Kind of Book
ויהי בימים ההם ויגדל משה ויצא אל אחיו וירא בסבלתם וירא איש מצרי מכה איש עברי מאחיו ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול
“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Shemot 2:11-12)
Many people claim that their ultimate goal in life is to achieve greatness, to become an אדם גדול (great person). However, questioning them as to the specific benchmark which should be used to measure one’s success will yield wildly varying answers. Some define success by the size of their bank account and the amount of respect they command, others claim that it is measured by one’s interpersonal skills and the acts of kindness he performs, and a third group may argue that it means becoming a wise Torah scholar. How does Judaism define greatness?
The Torah tells us that Moses grew up, went out and saw the suffering of his Jewish brethren, and rescued one of them from the hands of his oppressor. The Maharal observes that while all children naturally grow older, the Torah is teaching us that the true meaning of “growing up” is the ability and willingness to share in the pain and suffering of others and to allay it whenever possible.
Rav Eliyahu Chaim Meisels was a great Torah scholar who served as the Rav of Lodz in Poland. He was famous for his concern for the poor and downtrodden, and stories of his compassion for them abound. He was once asked by his good friend Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, the Rav of Vilna and leading Rabbi of the generation, why he never published a work of his Talmudic novellae as was common for scholars of his ilk.
Rav Meisels took out an old, tattered notebook. He explained that this book, containing a detailed list of all of the charity and interest-free loans he had distributed throughout his lifetime, was the most important book he could take with him to the next world. Shortly before Rav Chaim Ozer’s death, he commented that although his classic work Achiezer was indeed a masterpiece and worthy of the utmost respect, he now realized that Rav Meisels had been correct. The primary work he looked forward to taking with him to the World to Come wasn’t the book he had authored with his pen, but the book he had written with his deeds of chesed (kindness).
The Shelah HaKadosh, Rav Yeshaya Horowitz, writes that if a person wishes to know the true inner meaning of any word, he need only examine the meaning of that word the first time it appears in the Torah. Searching for the word גדול, we needn’t go too far, as it first appears in Bereishit 1:16 (את המאור הגדל לממשלת היום ואת המאור הקטן לממשלת הלילה), when the Torah relates that G-d made the large light – the sun – to rule by day, and the smaller one – the moon – to dominate by night.
On a simple level, it would appear that the first use of this word merely refers to the mundane fact that the sun is physically larger than the moon, hardly inspiring in our search to understand the Torah’s definition of greatness. However, the Bostoner Rebbe notes that in searching for some deeper significance, we must consider the scientific relationship between the sun and the moon.
To the uneducated eye it would seem that the sun provides light during the day and the moon by night. However, the reality is that the moon is incapable of independently generating its own light. More correctly, the sun gives us light during the day, and at night the moon reflects the sun’s light. In this sense, the sun is the giver and the moon is the receiver.
Applying this lesson to ourselves, the Torah is indeed teaching us a profound message. In our quest for true greatness, we must bear in mind that success isn’t only measured by how hard we work, pray, or study Torah, but by how much we emulate the “great” sun by sharing our warmth and light with others!
Consider the Consequences
וירא בסבלתם וירא איש מצרי מכה איש עברי מאחיו ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול
“And he (Moses) saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Shemot 2:11)
The Torah records how Moses went out to his brothers and witnessed an Egyptian hitting one of his fellow Jews. Moses looked both ways and then struck the Egyptian, killing him. The Medrash states that when Moses witnessed the Egyptian striking the Jew, he looked into the future to see if there would be any descendants who would be able to justify keeping the Egyptian alive. After Moses came to the realization that the Egyptian would bear no such descendants, Moses killed him.
The Egyptian was guilty of engaging in an affair with the Jew’s wife, sinning with idolatry, and committing murder and persecution. Why was it necessary for Moses to pause and contemplate whether the Egyptian deserved to be put to death? Could there be no better indictment than the Egyptian’s own actions? Why would Moses have needed to consider the Egyptian’s descendants? Wasn’t his indiscretion egregious in its own right to deserve this punishment?
Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Dean of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, was once addressing parents regarding the dangers of the internet. With the intention of imparting to parents that their children’s spirituality was at stake, Rabbi Bender related the following incident involving the late dean of the Mir Yeshiva, Rabbi Shmuel Birinbaum of blessed memory.
One of the students at the Mir became addicted to gambling. A group of older students were concerned about the boy’s potentially negative influence on them and believed that it would be prudent to ask Rabbi Birnbaum to expel that student. “I will never forget Rabbi Birnbaum’s response. After hearing us out, he had one question: ‘Did you fast for forty days? ‘Prior to making such a critical decision, you must realize that if we expel this boy, we may be the catalyst for his complete abandonment of Judaism. One who could fathom making such an essential decision would surely fast for forty days!’”
Subsequent to this discussion, Rabbi Birnbaum relayed that his personal intervention was necessary. Rather than expelling the student, Rabbi Birnbaum took him on as a personal study partner. The warmth that the rabbi demonstrated had a profound impact on him. With time, a complete transformation took place. That student eventually became an accomplished Torah scholar and a teacher of note.
“The story doesn’t end here,” continued Rabbi Bender. “I related this incident while eulogizing Rabbi Birnbaum at his funeral. Months after the funeral, a woman with a son in our yeshiva, who had been having a very rough time, received a call from the principal to inform her of her son’s considerable improvement. The mother proudly explained what she thought was the cause of the dramatic turn-around.
“‘After hearing the incident with Rabbi Birnbaum and the troubled boy,’” the mother said, “‘I realized that one should never despair. I took it upon myself to fast for forty days and prayed for his success. It certainly was not simple, and I had to refrain from eating at luncheons and on a long airplane flight. Nevertheless, I saw it through and feel that G-d has answered my prayers.’”
This incident might shed light on why the Medrash finds it necessary to inform us that Moses looked into the future to see if the Egyptian would have any worthy descendants. While it is easy to jump to condemn someone for his wrongdoing, we must always contemplate the potential future of that person. Though his actions may not warrant special consideration right now, his future can be most promising.
I Feel Your Pain, or Do I?
ויהי בימים ההם ויגדל משה ויצא אל אחיו וירא בסבלתם וירא איש מצרי מכה איש עברי מאחיו
“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens…” (Shemot 2:11)
The Torah records that Moses’ first act as an adult was to leave the palace and go out among his brethren. This was not a royal “fact-finding” tour regarding the living conditions of the enslaved Jewish people. Rather, Moses made a deliberate effort to invest his “eyes and heart” in their pain until their plight became his own. (Rashi, Shemot 2:11). This raises a fundamental question: Moses must surely have been aware of the brutal conditions under which the Jewish people lived for a long time, perhaps even his whole life. Why was it only after going out among his people that Moses felt their pain?
In the words of the famed Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the greatest distance in the world is the distance between a person’s mind and his heart – even for someone of Moses’ stature. Spiritually speaking, the way to a man’s heart is not through his stomach but through his eyes. Ultimately, people’s deepest motivations are driven by what they see. (Rashi, Bamidbar 16:32). Accordingly, even if Moses was aware of the Jewish people’s suffering, the only way he could reach a level of empathy that truly penetrated his heart was to witness their suffering personally.
G-d also “saw” the suffering of the Jewish people just before he brought about their redemption. The verse (Shemot 3:25) states that when the Jews cried out over their burdens, G-d first “heard their moaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. G-d saw the Children of Israel; and G-d knew.” The Seforno commentary notes that it was only after G-d allowed himself to, so to speak, “see” the suffering of the Jewish people that he turned his full attention to their plight.
Being able to fully comprehend the pain and suffering of other people is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. This is not because of a lack of information. In fact, we have too much information bombarding us from every corner of the world. Most of the time, however, it remains “out there,” far away from our daily lives. We “hear” about other people’s troubles, but we often do not truly “see” them.
Dr. Rick Hodes understands this concept. The Long-Island native and graduate of Johns Hopkins medical school could have enjoyed a cushy life as a Jewish doctor in America. Instead, he has spent more than two decades treating the poorest of the poor in Ethiopia and other poverty- or war-stricken countries. When more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Israel from Addis Ababa as rebel armies surrounded the city in 1991, Dr. Hodes pulled Jews out of the hospitals and made sure they could be part of “Operation Solomon,” the largest civilian airlift in history. When one million Rwandan refugees fled to neighboring Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi to escape genocide and civil war in the mid-1990s, Dr. Hodes helped save hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees dying from a cholera epidemic.
Today, Dr. Hodes remains in Ethiopia. His patients include children who have been debilitated and deformed by cancer, heart disease and tuberculosis of the spine, among other conditions. Along the way he has also adopted 20 foster children. “Once you’re here and you see what the need is, I just don’t see how you cannot do this,” Dr. Hodes told an interviewer. “I don’t feel that I am doing anything special. I am simply trying to do good work and be a decent person. I don’t think of myself as an especially good person.”
Every single person in our lives suffers from some kind of pain or misfortune, and we are obligated to take the time to see and feel their needs, and to do what we can to help them. True concern for others changes the world around us. Once the Jewish people have fully reclaimed this trait, we will be well on the path to fulfilling our mission in the world.
Taking the Next Step
ויאמר משא אסרה נא ואראה את המראה הגדל הזה מדוע לא יבער הסנה
“Moses said, ‘Let me turn now and see this great spectacle – why does the thorn bush not burn up?’ ” (Shemot 3:3)
In this week’s portion we witness G-d designating the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had, Moses. Let’s see if there is a lesson we can learn about what kind of person merits leadership roles. The Torah tells us of the events leading up to G-d’s appointment of Moses.
Moses was tending the sheep belonging to his father-in-law Jethro when he saw a thorn bush burning on the mountainside. According to the Medrash, the burning bush had been there for a long time and was well known to the locals. What set Moses apart from everyone else was that he actually left the path he was on to investigate this unusual sight. He stepped out of the heady rush of life to look into something that could provide him with more meaning. Only after Moses turned from his regular path to investigate did G-d call out to Moses and offer him the leadership role.
Many times people see things that are very powerful, but it does not cause any significant change to their lives. America was rocked by 9/11. Everyone is moved by the situation in Gaza. But for many, the novelty wears off and soon life continues as usual.
The father of a close friend of mine related that his son, daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren were in a boating accident. They had life jackets, but the water was frigid and some of them developed hypothermia. It was only through Divine Providence that they were located and saved just in time.
Immediately after finding out about the accident, my friend’s father wanted to do something concrete to show his gratitude to G-d. He started by waking up an hour earlier every day to set aside time to study Torah. He committed to facilitate the building of a neighborhood synagogue that had been years in the planning but long in coming. Three years later, the synagogue was built, he was still keeping his Torah study regimen, and his entire life was changed — all because he seized the moment when he saw a message from G-d.
In his commentary on Song of Songs (2:7), Nachmanides discusses the importance of translating inspiration into physical action. Inspiration is a fleeting emotion which, on its own, has a very short lifespan. Putting inspiration into action gives it staying power. If we hear about a soldier who was just wounded in Israel, we can feel terrible, but it is so much more meaningful if we can say a small prayer for that soldier. When we wake up and walk outside into a glorious morning with the sun shining brightly and the air crisp and refreshing, we can think about what a nice day it is, or we can say thanks to G-d for giving us such a beautiful day. And when we hear the news about yet one more rocket attack on Sderot, we can commit to studying ten minutes of Torah every day on behalf of our brothers and sisters living through such difficult times.
Like Moses, putting insight into action makes us qualified to be true leaders.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The Torah says that Jacob had 70 descendants who traveled together to Egypt (Shemot 1:5). In relating this event, the verse states, “And these are names of the children of Israel who were coming to Egypt; Jacob and his household came” (Shemot 1:1). Immediately following that verse is a list of names which includes only Jacob and eleven of his twelve sons (Joseph was already in Egypt).
Jacob and Israel were one and the same person. The name Jacob is derived from the word “heel,” for at birth Jacob held on to his twin brother Esau’s heel; it also alludes to Jacob’s humility and self-effacing nature. The name Israel is derived from the words “ruler” and “triumphant.” This name was given to him after he fought with and conquered Esau’s guardian angel, and brought his family to the land of his fathers — two great spiritual achievements. Why might Jacob’s descendants be listed here as “children of Israel,” emphasizing the fact that they descended from someone who was spiritually victorious, while Jacob himself is called “Jacob,” drawing attention to his humility?
The Torah mentions that Jacob’s extended family, 70 people, descended into Egypt and indicates that we are about to learn their identities. These 70 people are the kernel from which the Jewish nation would grow, so it would seem that their identities are important. Yet the only names actually listed here are Jacob and his sons — and we already know their names! Why might the Torah repeat their names and omit mentioning the names of the others?
In the Passover Haggadah, we say that whereas Pharaoh attempted to kill only the male Jews (Shemot 1:16), Laban wished to uproot the entire nation. As the Haggadah is read on Passover when we relive the suffering of the Egyptian servitude, why would it be written in a way which seems to minimize Pharaoh’s wickedness?
Q: Rashi writes (Shemot 2:3) that Moses’ parents were able to conceal him for 3 months after his birth because he was born at the beginning of the 7th month of pregnancy, and the Egyptians only came to check for him after a full 9 months had passed. What is the significance of the fact that Moses was born prematurely, and why was he specifically born at that time?
A: The Chatam Sofer (Drashot, 7 Adar 2 5575) writes that the majority of righteous souls are born prematurely due to a tremendous desire to rush into this world to begin serving G-d by learning Torah and doing mitzvot! In fact, the Seder Olam Rabbah, (Chapter 2) writes that the 12 tribes were all born during the 7th month of pregnancy and now we can understand why. Additionally, the Rosh and Rabbeinu Bechaye note that Moses was born on 7 Adar. After concealing him for 3 months, his mother placed him in a basket on the bank of the river. A quick mathematical calculation reveals that the day she did so – 3 months after his birth – was 6 Sivan, the day we know as the holiday of Shavuot, on which he and the Jewish people would later receive the Torah at Mount Sinai! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: When addressing Moses from the burning bush, G-d instructs him to remove his shoes because the ground upon which he is standing is Holy ground (Shemot 3:5). What is the concept behind removing one’s shoes when standing in a Holy place, such as inside the Beit Hamikdash? According to our societal norms this is considered disrespectful, not a sign of honor.
A: The Shelah Hakadosh quotes the Maharshal’s explanation of why the morning blessing שעשה לי כל צרכי (Blessed are You G-d…Who has given me all of my needs) is associated with and made on the wearing of shoes. The leather that shoes are made of demonstrates our dominion over animals: we use them to fill our needs. It logically follows that we rule over lower life forms and inanimate objects, and in fact the entire world was created to serve us. The Beer Yosef and Mishmeret Ariel note that it is indeed inappropriate to wear something connoting our control over the world when we are on Holy ground, in front of the Divine Presence. We therefore specifically remove our shoes to remind ourselves Who is the True King. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Many significant events in Moses’ life are associated with water: being placed in the river at the age of 3 months, meeting his future wife by a well, warning Pharaoh about the plagues next to the river, performing the first two plagues (blood and frogs) via water, splitting the Red Sea for the Jewish people and drowning the Egyptians in it, and eventually dying as a result of his sin in bringing forth water from the rock. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, what connection could there be between Moses and water?
We are told precious little information about Moses’ childhood and his qualifications to be the leader and redeemer of the Jews. In the 27 short verses from his birth until G-d speaks to him from the burning bush, all we are told about is his compassion for a Jewish slave being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, his questioning two Jews about why they were fighting with one another, and his saving Jethro’s daughters from shepherds who were mistreating them. How do these 3 episodes teach us on what basis he was selected as the savior of the Jewish people?
Moses replied to G-d, “Please my Lord, I am not a man of words…for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” Then G-d said to him, “Who makes a mouth for a man, or who makes one dumb or deaf or blind? Is it not I, G-d? So now, go! I shall be with your mouth and teach you what to say.” He replied, “Please, my Lord, send through whomever You will send!” The wrath of G-d burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite? I know that he will surely speak…and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I shall be with your mouth and with his mouth and teach both what you are to do. He shall speak for you to the people; and it will be that he will be your mouth and you will be his leader…” (Shemot 4:10-16)
Moses is known for all time as the one who maximally taught and obeyed the Torah. Here we find him fighting, as it were, his first assignment, thwarting the will of the Almighty.
As G-d wanted Moses to serve as His emissary, despite any impediments he may have had, why would Moses consider it appropriate to thwart G-d’s will and allow the Jewish people to languish for a moment longer than necessary? More perplexing is why G-d would, so to speak, play along and engage in this debate!
G-d was surely aware of Moses’ speech impediment. Why then would Moses, G-d’s devoted servant, use this to challenge the Almighty’s decision?
If Moses was concerned that he was physically unfit, how does the fact that G-d would place the words in his mouth assuage his concerns?
The Medrash teaches that if Aaron had known that the Torah would immortalize (Shemot 4:14) the fact that he went out to greet his returning brother Moses, he would have exerted himself much more and would have gone out to greet Moses while dancing and playing musical instruments. Shouldn’t Aaron’s actions have been purely motivated based on his assessment of what was proper and appropriate in the situation and not based on the publicity he would receive or how other people would judge him? (Imrei Daat by Rabbi Meir Shapiro)
After killing an evil Egyptian taskmaster, Moses was forced to flee for his life to Midian after two Jewish men, Datan and Aviram, betrayed him to Pharaoh. This is one in a series of threats and challenges Datan and Aviram pose to Moses’ leadership throughout the Torah. Forty years later, when G-d appoints Moses to appear before Pharaoh and demand that the Jewish people be set free, the Torah states: “G-d said to Moses in Midian, “Go return to Egypt, for all the people who seek your life have died.”
Rashi’s commentary tells us that the “people who seek your life” were none other than Datan and Aviram, the same men who betrayed him 40 years earlier. Rashi further explains that these men did not actually die but that they were now poor, which the Talmud compares to being dead. (Rashi, Shemot 4:19)
In what way is a poor person considered dead?
Why did G-d tell Moses to return to Egypt? Why would the fact that his pursuers were now poor make them any less dangerous or be otherwise relevant to Moses?
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
HOW SOON THEY FORGET
“And a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Shemot 1:8
Rav and Shmuel [disagree over this point]. One said that he was a new king in the literal sense and the other said that he enacted new decrees as if he did not know of Joseph [and what he done to save Egypt.] — Rashi
Both of these opinions are valid since he was born while Joseph was in prison and therefore was only a child during Joseph’s reign and did not know much about him. — Rabbeinu Bachya
For any Egyptian, much less the Pharaoh himself, to forget Joseph and his enormous contributions to Egypt, defies all logic. Yet, those familiar with Jewish history recognize this pattern all too well. First the Jews are greatly appreciated for their contributions to society and the economy, and then fear and jealousy sets in and they are viewed as dangerous subversives. There was no more loyal citizen than Joseph, yet in the end, it was all forgotten by the Egyptians. Only by retaining their Jewish identity did his descendants manage to transform their experience in Egypt into a positive one.
Shifrah – This is Jochebed, [Mother of Moses and Aaron] and she was called Shifrah because she would put the newborn into proper physical condition.
Puah – This is Miriam, [Daughter of Jochebed] and she was called Puah because she would make loud noises and speak and sooth the newborn, as do women who pacify a child that is crying. The word puah means shouting loudly as in: ‘I will scream like a birthing woman.’ – Rashi
The Hebrew midwives – There is no question that these were not the only two midwives who serviced the Jewish women, for there were in excess of 500 such midwives. Rather, they were the two administrators who ensured that Pharaoh received his share of the tax levied on this service. – Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni
It is almost impossible to believe that Pharaoh would have been so foolish as to ask Jochebed and Miriam, the wife and daughter of Amram, the leader of the entire generation, to murder all the newborns. They would be the least likely of all to obey. Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt”l explained, based on a Medrash, that Shifra and Puah concealed their identities and pretended not to be Jewish in order to gain access to the royal house and foil any plots against the Jews. Pharaoh never actually suspected them of being Jewish before this point and trusted them to carry out his nefarious scheme. The verse should be understood that they were “midwives who serviced the Jews,” not “Jewish midwives.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
“When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, for she said, “I drew him from the water.” Shemot 2:10
She named him Moses – As Onkelos translates it “shachalti” which means “extracting” in Aramaic…In Hebrew “Mishisihu” means “I removed him,”… – Rashi
She named him Moses – Our sages teach us that when she witnessed the great miracle that had occurred in the salvation of Moses, Batya converted to Judaism and learned to speak Hebrew. This is how she knew how to call him a name in Hebrew that reminded her of the miracle of saving him from the water. For this reason, this is the only name used for Moses throughout the entire Torah. – Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach)
She named him Moses – Batya was not necessarily proficient in Hebrew. Rather, she named him a name in Egyptian that describes how she withdrew him from the water and the Torah used Moses, the Hebrew equivalent of his Egyptian name. – Daas Zekeinim
She named him Moses – She called him this name to justify her desire to act as his parent. He was saved from the water where he placed by parents who abandoned all hope of saving him. He is therefore now mine, as I have saved him from certain death. – Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin)
The Einei HaEidah writes that the name Moses contains deep allusions to significant moments in the life of this great man. The Hebrew letter Mem has a numerical value of forty and symbolizes the forty days he spent on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah. The Hebrew letter Shin is the first letter of the word Shishim and represents the“Shishim Ribui” [600,000] Jews that he freed from Egypt. The Hebrew letter Hey equals five and represents the Five Books of Moses.
ONE GOOD TURN
“A long time passed and the king of Egypt died and the Children of Israel groaned because of their enslavement, and they cried and their cries about their enslavement went up to G-d.” Shemot 2:23
The king of Egypt died – Thus it was now possible for Moses to return to Egypt since his persecutor was no longer alive. – Ibn Ezra
The king of Egypt died – Interestingly, it does not say that Pharaoh died, only “The king of Egypt.” This is because it refers to the Heavenly Angel who represents Egypt in the heavenly spheres. This Angel prevented the cries of the Jewish people from ascending before the Almighty until He was “slain,” and therefore “their cries ascended before the Almighty.” – Zohar
Their cries about their enslavement – This term implies that their cries were not motivated by repentance, but they were simply expressions of pain over their backbreaking burden. Nevertheless, the Almighty allowed them to come before Him and advocate on behalf of His children. – Or HaChaim
From the simple reading of the verse, it appears that the Children of Israel did not actually start to groan and cry out to the Almighty until after the death of the Egyptian monarch. Why would they have waited until then when their pain had been so great throughout his lifetime? Riva”h explains that until he passed, they reassured themselves that their enslavement was a reflection of his personal animus toward them, but that the minute a new king would arise, they would be emancipated. Only once he passed and the situation continued to deteriorate did they finally accept that it wasn’t about him, but it was a Divine decree and the only One to turn to was the Almighty.
“An angel of G-d appeared to him [Moses] in the heart of a fire in the midst of a thorn-bush. He looked and behold the bush was on fire, but the bush was not consumed.” Shemot 3:2
In the midst of a thorn-bush – And not another tree because, “I (G-d) am with him (Israel) during his times of trouble.” – Rashi
In the midst of a thorn-bush – This was an ideal tree because a thorn-bush cannot be used in the construction of idols and images for idolatry. – Daas Zekeinim
In the midst of a thorn-bush – The Hebrew word for thorn-bush is “Sneh” and its letters also spell the word “HaNess” which means, “the miracle.” The Almighty was indicating to Moses that although the time to redeem the Jews from Egypt had not yet arrived, He was prepared to do so through a miracle. – Sifsei Kohein
Behold the bush was on fire – This was excellent training for Moses who would later experience fire and thunder on Mt. Sinai and need to remain undisturbed in the face of it all. – Chizkuni
Sefer Tikkunim points out that the word “thorn-bush” is found in these verses five times. This is the same number of times that the word “Ohr” [light] is found in the Torah’s account of the Creation of the World. The commentators explain that the world would be illuminated through the five lights of the Five Books of Moses. Perhaps the five occurrences of the word “thorn-bush” are hinting to the fact that the time to leave Egypt and receive the Five Books of the Torah have finally arrived.
“And Moses said to the Almighty, ‘Who am I that I shall go before Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?’ The Almighty said, ‘For I will be with you, and this will be your sign that I sent you; when you take the nation out of Egypt, they will serve the Almighty on this mountain.’” Shemot 3:11
Who am I – Who am I that I should speak to kings? – Rashi
That I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt – Even if somehow I am worthy of speaking to kings, what merits do the Children of Israel possess to be able to have miracles performed on their behalf to help them leave Egypt? In response, the Almighty explained that indeed, they do not currently possess sufficient merits, but since they will serve the Almighty in the future by accepting the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is on that basis that they will now be redeemed. – Rashi
Pardes Yosef asks that the Almighty seems not to have responded to Moses’ question of “Who am I” by giving him a sign of how they will later serve Him by the mountain. Ateret Yehoshua explains that Moses, in stating this, was acting out of humility, as was his practice. However, even while practicing humility, one must still possess a small kernel of self-acclaim. This can be seen from the fact that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, the smallest of all mountains and a symbol of humility. Yet, if the point was to emphasize the importance of humility, wouldn’t a valley have been a more appropriate location? The answer is that a small mountain was chosen to teach that even while behaving humbly, one must still have some measure of haughtiness to him. This then, was the essence of the Almighty’s response. The Children of Israel will later serve Me on this mountain in order to demonstrate that total humility is not appropriate. Instead, even while retaining your humble approach, you must still be strong and haughty enough to face Pharaoh and plead on behalf of the Children of Israel.
SALES EXPERIENCE NOT REQUIRED
“Moses pleaded with G-d, ‘Please my Lord, I am not a man of words, not yesterday, nor since the day before, not since the very first time You spoke to Your servant, for I find it difficult to speak and find the right language.’” Shemot 4:10
It would seem unbecoming for G-d to send an emissary so unsuited on a mission that required articulacy and expressiveness. Why did G-d not miraculously cure Moses of his speech impediment prior to sending him on his mission? The answer is that Moses, who sought to be exempted from this responsibility, did not pray to be healed and therefore he wasn’t. — Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachya
Moses argued that since he had left Egypt many years earlier, he did not feel that he could express himself adequately in Egyptian. Aaron however, had remained there all this time and was fluent in the language and therefore he should be charged instead with the duties of speaking to Pharaoh. — Chizkuni
It is ironic that the messenger chosen to represent G-d to the Jewish people and persuade them to accept a Torah lifestyle should be someone who lacked oratory skills. Contrast this with the founders of other religions, many of whom possessed superior public speaking ability and charisma. When the message is authentic, it needs little packaging to enhance its marketability.
PERSONAL AND NATIONAL OBLIGATIONS
“Moses went and returned to Yeter, his father-in-law, and said to him, ‘Let me now go and return to my brothers in Egypt, and see if they are still alive.’ Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.’” Shemot 4:18
And returned to Yeter – in order to obtain permission, for he had sworn to him [that he would not leave without his permission]. — Rashi
“Moses said to G-d, ‘Jethro accepted me, brought me into his home, and treated me with honor. I dare not leave without his permission.’” — Shemos Rabbah 4:2
Moses was now on a mission from G-d to speak to Pharaoh, save the Jewish people, and lead them to Sinai. This may well be the single most important position ever held by a human being. Nevertheless, Moses realized that his new responsibilities didn’t override or absolve him of his responsibilities or obligations to the common man. Jethro was deserving of his appreciation, and he could not leave on his mission before demonstrating his gratitude and loyalty to his father-in-law to whom he was so indebted. Great leaders recognize that their national responsibilities are not in place of, but in addition to, their personal obligations.
“The Israelite foremen, whom Pharaoh’s administrators had appointed, were whipped. They were told, ‘Yesterday and today you did not complete your quotas. Why didn’t you make as many bricks as before?’” Shemot 5:14
The Israelite foremen – The officers (who were Israelites) took pity on their fellow Jews and did not pressure them when they tallied the bricks for the taskmasters (who were Egyptians) and they fell short of the quota. The Egyptians would beat them for not pressuring the workers more. It is for this reason that these officers later merited to become members of the Sanhedrin, and some of the Divine spirit which was on Moses was set aside and placed on them. – Rashi
These foremen were not the first set of Elders. Rather, after the passing of the original Elders, this group was selected and they merited a portion of the Divine spirit that their predecessors had not merited. – Maskil L’David
Being selected later as leaders was measure for measure for their sacrifice on behalf of the people while in Egypt. A true leader is one who is willing to sacrifice on behalf of his flock, rather than an individual who personally enjoys a high standard, while mandating that those beneath him make do with the bare necessities. Having proven themselves in Egypt, they were later entrusted with the highest and most powerful positions among the Jewish people.
Hey, I Never Knew That
by RABBI MORDECHAI BECHER
The birth of Moses is described in a very unusual manner in the Torah. The verse states, “A man from the House of Levi married a daughter of Levi, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy…” (Shemot 2:1-2). The Torah does not mention the father’s name, the mother’s name, or the child’s name. Later, when Moses was in the basket in the Nile, we are told that “his sister watched from afar,” (ibid. 2:4); again, no name for his sister, or, for that matter, for Pharaoh’s daughter, who saved Moses, but is also not named. We only find out the name of Moses’ older brother, Aaron, in the fourth chapter of Exodus, and his parents’ names only in chapter 6 (v. 20). The Maharal explains that the anonymity surrounding the birth of Moses is teaching us that the redemption of the Jewish people is a historical inevitability, not dependent on the choices of specific individuals and certainly not in their hands. Rather, the destiny of the Jews is to be redeemed, to return to the land of Israel, and to return to G-d.
Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter and mother as well as Moses’s real mother, Jochebed, who was his nurse. The Torah portion this week shows the development of Moses as he becomes the leader of the Jewish people. First Moses “went out to his brothers and saw their afflictions” (Shemot 2:11). Although he was brought up in luxurious, royal surroundings, he identified with his brothers the Israelites. Not only did he recognize their suffering and sympathize, but when he saw an Egyptian overseer cruelly beating a Jew, Moses killed him (ibid). The next level of his development is apparent when he saw one Jew about to strike another, and he prevented him from doing so (Shemot 2:13). His concern was not only ethnocentric, prompting him to action when an Egyptian beat a Jew, but it is also moral and ethical, and he stopped one Jew from hitting another. The next stage saw Moses intervening even when a total stranger was oppressed by someone else: When the daughters of Jethro were driven away from the well by the shepherds, Moses intervened and saved them (Shemot 2:17). After all this, G-d appeared to Moses and appointed him as the leader of the Jewish people.
Word of the Week
Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moses his name, Moshe, because she “drew — mash — him from the water” (Shemot 2:10). In ancient Egyptian, Moses meant “son of,” as in Thutmose (son of Thut), Ahmose (son of Ah), etc. According to some (Josephus, Antiquities; Malbim) the word is a combination of two Egyptian words mo — water, and uses — drawn from. There are some sources that maintain that the gentiles preserved the name Moses as Musaeus, the teacher of Orpheus, and Muses, the ancient Greek term for spirits who inspired people with wisdom (Living Torah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan).
“And Moses ויואל to live with the man [Jethro], and he gave him his daughter Zipporah as his wife” (Shemot 2:21). Targum Onkelos translates ויואל — vayoel as Moses “desired or wanted.” The word also appears in Bereishit (18:27) and in Devarim(1:5), and in both places Rashi translates the term as began. Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg (Haktav Vehakabbalah, Shemotibid.) relates the word to the root אל — eil — strength. He explains that while someone is deciding something, the idea goes back and forth in his mind. Once he decides on a course of action, he gives power and strength to one side of the debate, so that ויואל means “he firmly decided.”
“And these are the names of the Children of Israel…” (Shemot 1:1). The commentaries point out that even in exile the Jews did not change their names (Baal Haturim). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked, given that the Medrash (Vayikra Rabba 32) attributes part of the merit for the redemption from Egypt to the fact that the Jews did not change their names, is it permitted to be called by a non-Jewish name? Rabbi Feinstein permits the use of a non-Jewish name and notes that many great rabbis had non-Jewish names, such as Maimon, father of Maimonides; Rabbi Vidal, author of the Magid Mishneh; and even a Rabbi Peter, cited by Tosafot (Gittin 8a). He explains that when the Jews were in Egypt and had not yet received the Torah, the only way to separate themselves from the Egyptians was by not changing their names, clothing, and language. However, now that we have the Torah and mitzvot, their observance is sufficient and we do not need to be so careful about other things, like names (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, 4:66, see Minchat Asher, Shemot 1:1 for other opinions).
Moses confronted two men involved in a fight and said to one of them, “Evil one, why are you going to hit your friend?” (Shemot 2:13). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 58b) deduces from the use of the future form “you are going to hit” that even if one raises his hand against his friend in order to hit, but has not yet hit him, he is nevertheless called a rasha — an evil person. Rabbi Yosef Karo rules that a person who raises his hand against someone else, even if he does not hit him, is disqualified as a witness in a Jewish court (Beit Yosef, Choshen Mishpat 34:4). The Shulchan Aruch Harav (Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Nizkei Guf) maintains that such a person may not be counted in a minyan — quorum until he repents and accepts upon himself never to do so again.
Parsha at a Glance
The small family of seventy souls became a multitude. The Egyptian government planned, first secretly, later openly, to reduce the Jewish population. It began with voluntary civic projects, then forced labor, and then decrees to murder Jewish infants. The Jewish midwives, at the risk of their lives, refused to cooperate with Pharaoh. Jochebed, the wife of Amram, Jacob’s great-grandson, gave birth to a premature boy, whom she hid. When this became too dangerous, she consigned the baby to a basket, which she set afloat in the rushes of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter rescued the baby and adopted him, hiring his mother to care for him. When the child, Moses, grew up, he sought ways to help his own people, and even killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jewish slave. He escaped Pharaoh’s police in Midian. There he assisted some girls tending their flocks and was invited to their home. He married one of them, Zipporah, daughter of Jethro. A son, Gershom, was born to them.
A new Pharaoh ruled Egypt. The situation of the Jews worsened. Moses, shepherding flocks in the desert, saw a bush burning, but not being consumed. Approaching the area, he was called by G-d and told that the ground on which he stands is sacred. G-d proposed to Moses that he take the Jewish nation out of Egypt. Moses was reluctant. G-d assured him that He would be with him, and told him how to convince the children of Israel, whose skepticism Moses feared. Moses could also call upon the elders for assistance. G-d predicted that Pharaoh would be stubborn, but that he would finally yield in the face of national disasters. The children of Israel would leave Egypt with wealth, as was promised to Abraham. G-d instructed Moses in the use of the “matteh,” a staff which he would employ to demonstrate miracles to Pharaoh. Moses, still unconvinced that he was the right person, cited his speech handicap. G-d dismissed this objection also, and expressing anger, insisted that Moses go. He could share the task with his older brother Aaron.
Moses took leave of Jethro and set out with his wife and two sons. On the road, he was punished and nearly killed for delaying the circumcision of his infant son. Zipporah performed that circumcision, saving her husband’s life. Moses, announced his mission to the Jewish nation, and they expressed gratitude for their impending rescue. However, Moses and Aaron met with stern resistance on the part of Pharaoh. He would not hear of the children of Israel leaving Egypt even temporarily. He increased the work burden drastically, causing anguish among the people, and even additional suffering for the Jewish supervisors. Moses complained bitterly to G-d that he had caused his people more trouble. G-d advised patience: “Pharaoh will chase them from his land!”