This week’s portion is Shemot, and it’s an important portion because this is where we see the birth of Moses. We all know his infamous origin story: born to Hebrew parents at a time when their babies were being slaughtered by an evil Pharaoh, Moses was protected when they placed him in a basket on the banks of the river. He was found there by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who took pity on the baby and allowed him to be raised by a Hebrew woman: his own mother. Later, once he had grown, Moses was returned to the Pharaoh’s daughter, and it was she who gave him his name. We may know this story very well; however, it implies many lessons that are both timeless and timely, and so it remains very worthy of analysis.
The birth of Moses is significant, of course, because Moses was the redeemer. He was a savior and a leader, and what distinguished him as a leader was his capacity to care for others. We see this trait in him clearly, because he was never apathetic in the face of suffering. Rather than disconnect from the pain of others, he would take extra steps to relate to it and share in it. Most importantly, he took action to fix it when it was required of him. An extreme example is when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and he killed him for his cruelty. Without promoting violence, we can learn from this example that we must never turn our heads when we are confronted with injustice. Moses didn’t.
Moses took action once again when he saw two slaves fighting one another. Confused, he intervened to ask why they were in conflict when they were, after all, Hebrew brethren. They had no satisfying answer for him, and yet Moses suddenly understood everything. They simply did not care for one another. This experience taught Moses a profound lesson about the society he lived in, which was suffering from a severe shortage of empathy. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a society founded on the dehumanizing atrocity of slavery, people had stopped looking after their neighbors. Moses, whose name incorporated the words for both “mercy” and “balance,” was obviously the exception to the rule.
These values are what attracted G-d’s attention. It is notable that when G-d first addressed Moses, Moses was in the middle of a caring act: saving a sheep who had escaped into a cave, doing more than his job asked of him. Remember: to do your job is to be responsible, but that alone will never change the world. This is when G-d showed him the burning bush, a powerful symbol of Divine energy and wisdom. To Moses’ surprise, G-d told him that he had the capacity to do incredible good in the world and for his people. He wasn’t sure he was the right man for the job, which was to liberate the Hebrew slaves. However, G-d reassured him that he would protect him and that his future life would be good.
While reflecting on this portion, it is worth considering how our own approaches to life might change if we received a similar reassurance. In life, we so often act out of fear. Fear and insecurity are so dominant that they can prevent us from doing the correct thing. Like Moses, we all have the capacity to make some difference in this world. The society of Moses was poisoned by cruelty and indifference, but in many ways so is our own. To do the right thing, perhaps we should imagine what we’d do if we too knew it would all end well, and do it anyway. Let our faith in the Divine be sufficient reassurance to make a change today.
Moses shared G-d’s message with his brother, Aaron, who helped him to transmit it to the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh’s response was hostile. In fact, he promised to make the lives of the Hebrews even worse after they made their demand: let my people go. When the slaves heard of this, they blamed Moses and Aaron. They were unable to see the bigger picture -- how they had shown courage in confronting the Pharaoh and enacting G-d’s will. This reaction shows an unfortunate slave mentality, the same mentality that we ourselves show when we use our external circumstances as an excuse for inaction.
When G-d showed Moses his message, Moses was called upon to share it. This is one way in which Moses showed care for his people and so became the redeemer. In our modern times, we are always looking for a redeemer, someone who will deliver us from our suffering. Often we place our hopes in false redeemers with empty promises. Rarely do we ask if we are deserving of redemption. To be worthy of a redeemer, we must emulate the redeemer. We must try to be more like Moses. One way we can do this is by sharing the important messages that we receive; for example, the Vital Transformation lectures and readings that we find useful or inspiring.
In 2021, we still live in times of great hardship. It can be exhausting to even acknowledge, and it is tempting to ignore it completely: to disconnect from other people’s struggles, to be lazy, and to make excuses for ourselves and our apathy. However, the only way we will be saved is by caring for those around us, as Moses did, and acting on this care. Ask yourself: if G-d had come to you with the assignment that he gave Moses, would you have done it? Naturally, we want to say yes. But is that honest? It’s easy to say now that we would be brave and decisive enough to lead the Hebrew slaves from suffering to freedom. After all, we know how the story ends.
What we really need to do is apply that courage and compassion to our own lives, right now. The reality is that people close to you are suffering even as you read this. The challenge that this week’s portion, Shemot, issues to us is “how are you going to care for them?”
Whatever you decide to do, don’t wait to start.