Thursday, January 19, 2017

Parashat Shemot

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus. In it, we read about the birth of Moses, his upbringing as a Prince of Egypt, all the way through his life in Midian with his wife Tzipporah and his command by the Burning Bush to return to Egypt and ask Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go free. The Torah skips a large part of Moses’s life. One day, he is a baby found in the river, and then: “It came to pass in those days when Moses was grown that he went out to his brothers.”
So a young adult Moses is walking among the Israelite slaves, which the Torah identifies as his brethren, though we don’t know if Moses actually is aware that he himself is a Hebrew at this point. You may know what happens next in the story: Moses sees a slave master beating a slave and his compassion and empathy is stirred. Perhaps because he identifies with the Hebrew slave or perhaps just because he knows slavery and violence is wrong, Moses intervenes. In doing so, he kills the Egyptian slavemaster. Many versions of the story depict Moses immediately running away after that. However, the Torah tells us that before getting involved in the situation, Moses looks around and sees that no one else is nearby. The Midrash Rabbah, a big many-volumed source of rabbi’s tales about the Torah, says that Moses was looking for someone else to stop the violence, and saw that there was no one but him and so it was his unique responsibility to act, as difficult as it was. But after the Egyptian is dead, it is also clear that because there was no one around, Moses thought no one saw the deed. So he doesn’t run away just yet. The next day, Moses goes out again among the slaves, and he sees two Israelites fighting with each other. The Torah says, “He said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’” The wicked one responds that it’s none of Moses’s beeswax, and asks, “Do you intend to kill me too, as you killed the Egyptian?” From this Moses knows that indeed someone did witness his manslaughter the previous day, and THAT is when he runs away.
In the Talmud, robber/gladiator-turned-wise sage Resh Lakish comments on this interaction between Moses and the “wicked” Hebrew slave. He points out that the Torah immediately identifies one as wicked, without sharing with us the details of the altercation, and that Moses uses future tense for the verb “hit”, which tells us that probably no punches were yet thrown, but one is man is being more obviously aggressive toward another. Resh Lakish says that one who “lifts his hand against his fellow, even if he did not hit him, is called wicked,” as it is written: “He said to the wicked one: Why would you hit your fellow?” rather than “Why did you hit," indicating that though he had not hit him yet, he was termed a “wicked one.”
In my second grade classroom, occasionally students like to pretend hit or kick each other, or tease about wicked things. I’m sure many of our religious school students who have joined us tonight have done the same at some point in their lives. Maybe they’ve even hit a brother or sister, not in pretend but out of anger and frustration. Doing such things on occasion as a young kid doesn’t automatically make you wicked. You probably didn’t mean to hurt anyone, and I hope if you have hurt someone by accident, you apologized immediately. Saying sorry is an important Jewish value to learn, and we all make mistakes and act impulsively sometimes.
Sometimes, though, we need an adult, a strong leader, someone with an outside perspective or an ability to look through multiple lenses to help mediate such situations. When such a person comes in and tries to help, it is best not to respond as the wicked Hebrew slave did. Don’t be rude and defiant, but accept help. Take a moment and look at your scene from that person’s eyes. Explain why you were frustrated to the point of raising your fist. Not only is it the right thing to do, because hitting is wicked, but you might find that the outside person, the authority figure, the adult, is able to understand your frustration as well, and help you resolve the issue entirely.
There may come a time when you are that outside person, a more mature viewpoint, a reasonable and strong leader as well. When you happen upon a situation that looks like it might get violent, may you have the courage to step in. A good leader is someone who knows how to mediate and bring peace between people. A good leader knows that violence, even the mere threat of it, is wicked. A good leader is brave but clear headed and able to look at a situation from multiple angles. That’s why Moses was such a strong leader for the Israelites. Although after this incident, he ran away and he was reluctant to come back and put himself in the spotlight again, thanks to the harsh words of this wicked slave, he was still always willing and able to do what was right. He had grown up a prince of Egypt, but was a Jew at heart, and had spent many years as a Midianite shepherd. These varied life experiences helped him know how to talk to different people in different ways, and get his message heard best by the widest range of people. It wasn’t always easy. The Israelites wanted proof that God sent him, and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. He had many people who weren’t always sure of his methods. But in the end, he secured the liberation of the People of Israel and the mixed multitudes and he led over a million people to freedom.
May we learn non-violence, may we preach non-violence, may we lead in non-violence. May we lead in strength, grow in courage, and find freedom for all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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