By Braha Bender
Moshe (Moses) was the first Cinderella. He went from rags to riches. Not only was Moshe born into a poor family, but his entire nation was enslaved. Not only were his people oppressed and impoverished, but his very life was decreed to end the minute it began.
The Egyptians had ordered every Jewish family to drown their baby boys in the Nile River, and they didn’t leave it up to chance. The Egyptians would take their own crying infants into Jewish homes in order to try to get the hidden Jewish babies to began crying along. Any Jewish baby boys found were flung mercilessly into the rushing cold waters, never to be seen again.
One particularly gruesome account tells of Jewish mothers having their babies snatched out of their arms by Egyptian slave-drivers to be used as bricks. The cries of the infant would be choked by thick, hot mortar and the weight of the next layer of heavy slabs of stone. Torah claims that before the Jewish People, no slave ever escaped from Egypt.
Moshe’s story was different. Shortly after his birth, Moshe’s family tucked him into a water-proofed basket of reeds to float down the Nile River. As the basket rushed with the currents, baby Moshe’s cries caught the attention of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bisya, as she was bathing in the river. Princess Bisya extended her arm to catch on to the basket floating by, and was shocked to discover a live infant. She decided to adopt the child, and the rest should have been history.
But it wasn’t. Moshe grew up in the palace of Pharaoh showered with every privilege a prince could desire. Rich foods, fragrances, and fabrics engulfed Moshe in a life of luxury that most would have wanted to last forever. The pharaohs certainly did. They built pyramids containing glittering mounds of their riches and even clothing to accompany them to what they believed to be the next world. They yearned and prayed to take it all with them. You can go to Egypt and find their wealth still waiting for them there today.
Moshe knew he was Jewish, but could have chosen to assimilate with ease. Everything was laid out for him. Instead, “Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens” (Shemos-Exodus 2:11). Why? Why not just stay in the lap of luxury? Moshe was to become the great redeemer of the Jewish People, but what gave him the strength to take that first step outside the palace walls? After all, the story doesn’t usually end that way. I never heard of Cinderella leaving the castle.
Another Man Who “Went Out”
This week’s parasha, Parashas Emor, describes another man who changed his destiny. This unnamed character is described as “the son of an Israelite woman” who is also “the son of an Egyptian man”. At that time in history, such a union approximated a Jewish woman in Auschwitz having a child with a Nazi.
This boy grew up not in the lap of luxury, but in the midst of the suffering of his people. He knew from the inside out how extraordinary it was when the plagues and the miracles started taking place. Water turning to blood? Pestilence? Fiery hail raining out of the heavens? When these things took place, the Jews watched safely from the sidelines as their torturers got what they deserved. Again and again, Moshe and Aharon (Aaron)offered Pharaoh the chance to stop plagues before they took place. All he had to do was acknowledge the sovereignty of the Almighty and to let the Jewish People go. Like many politicians, he made false promises, expecting that things would somehow work out in the end.
They didn’t work out though – for Pharaoh. For the Jewish People, ten plagues finally culminated in a humbled and desperate Pharaoh running through the streets to pound on Moshe’s door at midnight during the plague of the firstborn, begging the Jewish People to leave immediately.(Just to show Pharaoh Who was calling the shots, we left the next morning.)
When Pharaoh once again changed his mind and the crazed Egyptian army pursued the Jews days later at the shores of the Red Sea, the sea split. Let me repeat that: the sea. It split. Does that just about define miracle?
The bottom of the sea, between the awesome standing walls of water, was not muddy but seemed to be paved in marble. Fruit trees miraculously appeared in the tunnels the Jewish People walked through amidst the caverns of the ocean. They ate when they were hungry. They drank out of an awed thirst. And when they arrived at the shores on the other end of their journey, they exploded in song, wild with gratitude and adoration for a God who deserved a title nothing less.
This unnamed fellow, son of the Jewish woman and Egyptian man, was there for all this. He didn’t just see it, he was it. It was his story. He lived it, he breathed it, he danced it. Which was why it was so shocking when he negated it all in a moment of weakness.
Throwing It All Away
Like Moshe, this man is also said to have “went out”. The same words are used for both these dramatic transitions: “The son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – among the Children of Israel; they fought in the camp, the son of an Israelite woman and an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name and blasphemed...” (VaYikra-Leviticus 24:10-11).
This fellow got into a rumble with another member of the nation. They had a fight. But there’s fighting and then there’s fighting. When things got really nasty, our character pulled a low blow. He cursed God. Keep in mind that for this fellow, God wasn’t some theoretical construct hovering somewhere at the outskirts of his consciousness. This man had experienced the splitting of the sea! The ten plagues! The redemption from Egypt! This fellow knew God the way we know Target.
Please excuse the gauche comparison. What can I say? Our generation is gauche. We have what to work on. But for this blasphemer, God was everywhere, obvious, real. God was Someone he knew and had a relationship with, an extraordinary relationship. A relationship that should have been the most precious thing in his life. A relationship that he threw away on the turn of a dime.
Once again, the question is why. Most normal human beings have certain values or memories or relationships that are simply too precious to poke fun at. Certain things are not a joke. Certain things are too deeply ingrained in one’s sense of self to jocularly throw around in moments of hot temper or frustration or late afternoon traffic. (You know who doesn’t have any such untouchable values? Psychopaths, that’s who. That’s how they are able to kill people. They really don’t care. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about you.) Why did this unnamed man abandon fealty to everything that had ever been meaningful to him, the very substance of his life, for a brief expression of frustration?
Looking at these two very different stories, we see that people make changes. They “go out” from the circumstances and narratives that we would have expected to shape their lives and become someone we never thought they were meant to be. We all want to be able to do that. We all want to grow to be more extraordinary and wonderful than we had ever been. Who wants to be mediocre?
The question is how. These two stories illustrate that “going out” is possible. They also illustrate the strengths we can draw on to do it – for good or for ill.
Judaism asserts the existence of spiritual genetics. That means that even if you never met your biological parents, even if after conception you grew up in a test tube and were adopted by aliens, they still have a spiritual influence on you. (The same goes for your own children, by the way, so watch out.)
Parents choose to become certain types of people through the way they live their lives, whether good or evil, healthy or dysfunctional, strong or weak. These character traits are inherited by their children whether the children directly observe the parents’ behaviour or not. It is a spiritual process, one that cannot be seen by the eyes, but that can be verified by large-scale observation. Indeed, most kids to some extent or another become their parents. It is possible, but very hard, to break patterns of behaviour passed along in the blood.
To the extent that our parents bequeath us difficult traits, these are our challenges to overcome. On the other hand, to the extent that our parents bequeath us wonderful qualities, these are our strengths to draw upon.
We can find depths of resilience, compassion, gratitude, and a plethora of other gifts within ourselves without having any idea where such deep internal reservoirs ever came from. Torah tells us where some of these qualities come from: our parents, and our parents’ parents, and our generations leading back to the founding of our nation with Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father).
Back to the Source
Of course, the composition of a human personality is complex and multi-sourced, but knowing where we come from and what we have inherited can give us extraordinary strength. Our nation is peopled with heroes known and unknown. Many of our ancestors were willing to die rather than relinquish their commitment to the beautiful values of the Torah.
Then there are the myriad untold stories. How many of our great-great-grandparents simply lived in humble service to the Almighty’s dictates of kindness and community, justice and intelligence, honesty and courage? Those of us privileged to be born Jewish today know with certainty that the blood running in our veins bears these stories and more, of great heroes and heroines who survived generations of persecution and destruction with courage and faith in ideals that have stood the test of time.
Moshe was the son of Amram, grandson of Levi, son of Yaacov (Jacob). Even growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, an environment that makes modern-day Vegas look like the Kotel, couldn’t put out that spark. Within the unnamed son of an Egyptian father, despite the miracles he had seen, a callousness threatened to overwhelm the truths he knew, a callousness that he chose to succumb to despite everything he should have held dear.
Our generation has been viciously severed from the tree of life that held our grandparents in its tender grasp. Today we nose around like blind kittens, hoping to find a source of nourishment we know not where, or at least to escape the growing sense of meaninglessness gnawing at the everyday pleasures that we use to cover our own eyes.
We don’t have to be afraid to wake up. The past we come from has riches to offer that we will not find so threatening once we get to know them. The wisdom of the Torah isn’t foreign to us. It runs in our veins. Moshe “went out” by reaching in. All we have to do is look inside and be willing to open our eyes.