As we catch up with the Jewish nation at the shores of the Red Sea in this week's Torah portion, it is appropriate to take a look at who was leading them on their journey out of Egypt to accept Hashem's Torah. Moses' rise to power is somewhat atypical, as he himself did not personally experience the slavery in Egypt.
As we catch up with the Jewish nation at the shores of the Red Sea in this week's Torah portion, it is appropriate to take a look at who was leading them on their journey out of Egypt to accept Hashem's Torah. Moses' rise to power is somewhat atypical, as he himself did not personally experience the slavery in Egypt. The question begs itself, why was Moses worthy of being the leader of the Jewish people? What made him so special?
To begin, we must first take a look at what the Torah tells us about his birth: "A man went from the house of Levi and he took a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son" (Exodus 2:1-2). These two verses seem, at first glance, quite odd. Why doesn't the Torah mention Moses' parents by name? The verses simply state that a man met a woman. By merely saying that a man and a woman had a child, the Torah is, in fact, teaching us a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Moses is not the son of G-d. He is merely the son of a man and a woman. The second verse makes it even clearer. After the man and the woman got together, "the woman conceived. . ." No one can ever say that Moses was born from an immaculate conception. The Torah goes out of its way to point out that Moses was born through normal circumstances. Moses was a man of great potential, but in no way does the Torah want the Jewish people to treat him as a deity. That is one of the reasons why we don't know where Moses is buried. If we did, it could all too easily become a shrine where people worshipped him.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz, a classic 19th century commentator on the Mishnah, tells the story that a king once heard about the greatness of Moses and commissioned an artist to go to the Israelite camp to paint a portrait of him. Upon the artist's return, the king gasped when he saw the portrait of what appeared to be a mass murderer. "How can this be?" shouted the king. "This evil man which you painted cannot be Moses!" The artist insisted that the evil degenerate in the portrait was indeed Moses. The king could not believe this and himself traveled to the Jewish people's camp in order to see Moses in person. When the king arrived, he was astonished to find out that the artist had in fact painted Moses. The king, surprised, admitted to Moses why he originally did not believe the artist. Moses responded by saying that the evil they saw in his face was there. Those evil characteristics were a part of him since birth. However, it was precisely because he could contain and control his natural evil instincts, that Hashem chose him to lead the nation of Israel. Moses had proven that he could conquer those evil impulses within him and transform them to good.
We are hardly told anything of the first eighty years of Moses' life. However, the Torah does describe three defining events that occurred in his early years which epitomize his character. Each episode shows Moses' constant involvement in helping other people. Not only that, but these three stories tell of a sequential development. First, we read about Moses intervening when he sees an Egyptian beating up a Jew. That is a case where the obligation to get involved is quite obvious. A fellow Jew is being physically harmed, so Moses takes the initiative and steps in. In the second story we see Moses getting involved when he sees an argument between two Jews. In a situation like that, it is understandable why one would be reluctant to step in, but Moses still feels that it is his duty to help out and make peace. In the third episode, we see Moses intervening when two groups of non-Jews are pitted against each other at the well in Midian. Moses has no obligation to get involved there, but once again he intervenes. The Torah is teaching us the backbone of Moses' character - when he sees something wrong, he chooses to get involved and do something about it.
In the Yigdal prayer in the morning service, we read, "No one from Israel arose like Moses. . ." Could there have been another Moses? Theoretically, yes. But did anyone reach his lofty heights? Only Moses earned the right to ascend Mt. Sinai and accept the Torah directly from Hashem. Moses was just a normal human being who overcame his evil inclination and reached his vast potential. He was a man of physical defects who was slow in speech and spoke with a lisp. Nobody can say that it was his great oratorical skills that mesmerized an entire nation into following him. Moses was a far cry from one who could preach matters in his own words or give expression to divine truths. He was a scribe who could sit before Hashem on Mt. Sinai and take perfect dictation. Moses was the secretary who mirrored the ideals of his divine boss. Interestingly, Moses' Hebrew name Moshe, spelled mem, shin, hay, mirrors that of Hashem, spelled hay, shin, mem. Moshe spelled backwards reads Hashem.
After we finish reading the Torah during our prayers, we lift the Torah and proclaim, "And this is the Torah which Moses placed before the Children of Israel through the mouth of Hashem by the hand of Moses." Hashem spoke and Moses wrote. There has been no other prophet who has reached the spiritual plateaus that Moses ascended.
Now, let us return to this week's Torah portion as the Jewish people are poised to cross the Red Sea. We can now understand why Moses was chosen to lead them on their journey. Moses went against his natural evil inclination and chose to get involved - to help in a situation of need. Moses represented the ideals which Hashem wanted to convey to the Jewish people. Moses was indeed the ideal person to lead the Jewish people on their journey to accept Hashem's Torah.
This article is based on a series of lectures given by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, associate professor at Yeshiva University in New York.
For further study about Moses' development as a leader, cassette tapes are available of Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger's lecture for Torah from Dixie LIVE last week on this subject.
Benyamin Cohen, a native Atlantan and alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a junior at Georgia State University.
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