Portrait of Greatness
Adapted from Parsha U'Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Moshe (Moses) is one of the only figures in the Torah whose infancy is described in detail. The Torah devotes ten verses (Exodus 2: 1-10) to describing his birth, his being laid in the reed basket by the banks of the Nile River, and his subsequent adoption by Pharaoh's daughter who finds him crying as he floats along the water.
But then the scene changes. Skipping Moshe's entire childhood growing up in the palace, the next verse in the Torah reads, "It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and observed their burdens." (Exodus 2:11)
Surely Moshe had heard about Pharaoh's Jewish slave army while growing up in the palace. Why does the Torah only introduce us to Moshe as an autonomous personality at this point in his life?
Moshe might have known about the Jewish slave army beforehand, but that knowledge never moved him to action...until this point. Rashi explains that the particular snapshot the Torah captures in this verse features Moshe opening, "his eyes and his heart to be distressed over them."
Up until that moment, regardless of his physical age, Moshe had been in his spiritual infancy. The empathy Moshe chose to experience at that moment marked a turning point. The defining moment when Moshe began his adult life as leader of the Jewish People had just taken place, marked by the empathy he felt with the suffering of his brothers.
Moshe had come of age, but it takes more than empathy to be a leader of the Jewish nation. Several anecdotes follow in the text telling us more about who Moshe was. What qualities did Moshe possess that qualified him for the leadership role he would accept and come to define for the rest of our history?
The common thread between all three stories is that they feature Moshe becoming involved in conflict situations (Exodus 2:11-19). Our first scenario features Moshe attacking an Egyptian slave driver who had been abusing a Jewish slave. The second picture shows Moshe trying to resolve the conflict between two Jewish men by rebuking the man at fault. In our third scene we watch as Moshe saves several young women from those mistreating them.
In every one of these situations we watch as Moshe takes an uncompromising stance for justice without regard for his personal welfare. For example, the first situation resulted in his needing to flee Egypt under threat of his life! The second scenario saw Moses suffering insult and losing his reputation. In the third scene, during Moshe's first steps in to the new world of Midian, Moshe proved just how unconcerned he was with his personal wellbeing when it came to ensuring justice.
Taken in concert, these three scenarios begin to create a portrait of who Moshe was. The lessons of the first stories are crystallized by the last as Moshe displays his willingness to defend the helpless despite the fact that he had never even met them before and the event took place during his very first day in a foreign country. His deeply embedded sense of justice moves Moshe to extend himself in any situation and any location where his assistance may be required. The picture is completed by several anecdotes only hinted at in the text itself.
Most people know that G-d revealed Himself to Moshe in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). However, they might not have read the verse before. The verse immediately prior to the burning bush event tells us that while tending to the livestock of his father-in-law, Yisro (Jethro), "he guided the sheep far in to the wilderness."
"Far in to the wilderness," explains Rashi, "In order to distance himself from theft so that the sheep would not graze in the fields of others." Moshe's integrity was another quality crucial for true leadership.
Moshe's deep empathy with others, powerful sense of justice, and staunch integrity were crowned only by his profound humility: when G-d requested from Moshe to take on the job of redeeming the Jewish People, he initially refused (Exodus 4:11). Why did Moshe initially refuse the mission he was destined for? Moshe initially refused out of a concern that were he to accept his mission, his older brother Aharon (Aaron) might be disappointed that the job had been given to his younger brother rather than to him.
Moshe was to become the quintessential leader of the Jewish People and the paradigm of Jewish leadership for all time. Why? These stories display some of the many choices Moshe made to become the extraordinary man - and leader - that he was.