Moshe – Civil Servant by Rabbi Josh Kahn


It is evident that Moshe Rabbeinu, even from a young age, is the appropriate choice to lead Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. The Torah shares three episodes from Moshe’s youth that paint a clear picture of Moshe’s character. Interestingly, according to the Ramban (Shemot 2:11), these events occurred immediately after Moshe found out that he is a member of Bnei Yisrael.

First, Moshe goes out to see the experience of Bnei Yisrael as slaves. He wants to see first hand what his brothers are experiencing but what he sees is worse than he expected: he witnesses an Egyptian’s beating a member of Bnei Yisrael. The mistreatment of this member of Bnei Yisrael is troubling to Moshe, but more troubling is what he notices. The Torah describes that Moshe looked this way and that and after not seeing anyone around, he killed the Egyptian.

But the Torah does not describe what Moshe was looking for, and why it is significant that he did not see anyone. Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, suggests that Moshe was looking for an Egyptian who would object to this cruel treatment of Bnei Yisrael. He expected to see someone bothered by the cruel torture of human beings. True, Bnei Yisrael were slaves, but even so Moshe expected someone to stand up for their rights as human beings. Moshe glances around and does not see anyone who cares. Therefore, he takes matters into his own hands and kills the Egyptian. This episode begins Moshe’s disappointment in humanity.

Moshe’s entry into the realm of Tikkun HaOlam, fixing the world’s wrongs, is just beginning. On the following day, Moshe again goes out to see his brethren. This time, he sees two Jews arguing with each other. Again, Moshe tries to intervene, but is mocked by these two individuals. Whereas Moshe was able to tolerate the mistreatment of a Jew by an Egyptian, the fighting amongst Bnei Yisrael, even after Moshe tries to intervene, is too much for Moshe to handle. Consequently, he runs away from Egypt, hoping that a new society may better demonstrate an understanding of how people should treat one another.

How shocking it was for Moshe that upon his arrival to Midyan, he is greeted by a third act of bullying, this time, as the shepherds of Midyan tease and torment the daughters of Yitro, who is an outcast in Midyanite society. Once again, Moshe’s reaction remains committed to civil service, as he intervenes of behalf of Yitro’s daughters.

Moshe’s commitment to caring for humanity comes at a steep price. In an essay developed by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, he quotes an idea suggested by his grandfather, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik. He notes that the biography of Moshe in the Torah contains a significant gap. Specifically, after this episode with Yitro’s daughters and Moshe’s subsequent marriage to Tziporah, we don’t hear about Moshe until Hashem calls on him to lead Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. There are cases in the Torah of other prominent leaders where there are also gaps in the story. One of the most well known of these is the storyline of Avraham which begins once he is already a married adult. The childhood of Avraham, however, which is noticeably absent in the Torah, is discussed heavily in rabbinic literature, such as Midrashim; however, the gap regarding Moshe’s life is not filled in by the Midrashim. Why does the Torah leave this part out? Rav Soloveitchik suggests that this gap is due to Moshe’s withdrawal from society. Distraught and disturbed by the three episodes involving mistreatment of others, Moshe decided to run away from humanity, only to distance himself and turn his attention and care to sheep. It is during that period, witnessing the compassion and sensitivity that Moshe demonstrates, that Hashem calls on Moshe to return to society and lead Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt.

The message Moshe sends is clear but challenging. He can not tolerate witnessing people being mistreated. It did not matter whether it was disappointment in the bystanders, as in the first episode, frustration from the infighting, as in the episode, or bullying of the weaker class, as was the case in Midyan. In each case, Moshe must intervene—because that is what it means to be a member of Bnei Yisrael.

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