Shmot

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day and behold two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one, 'Why would you strike your fellow?' He replied, 'Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us?' Moses was frightened and he thought, 'Indeed this matter is known!' Pharaoh heard about this matter and sought to kill Moses; so Moses fled before Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian."

One of the most well known episodes in the life of our Law Giver, the murder of an Egyptian by the hand of Moses, is not merely a story. It rather contains within it an insight into human nature that replays itself in every generation of our People and has had an extraordinary effect upon the fate of Israel.

Our Sages generally agree that this seminal event in the life of Moses occurred when he was but twenty years of age. Raised in the house of Pharaoh, now a Prince of the Egyptian royal court, he nevertheless had not forgotten his early rearing by his mother always feeling himself part of the Jewish People. No doubt from the privileged halls of Pharaoh's palace he had little practical hands on contact with the enslaved Jews. And so, when he reached adulthood, he felt the need to go out into the streets and experience first hand the true plight of his brethren.

What he encountered was far worse than he could have anticipated. True he was aware of slavery and the suffering the yoke of slavery placed upon the shoulders of the slave. After all, slavery was a natural and functional part of the Egyptian Court. Even those who had the luck to serve in the palace, served as slaves, subject to the whims of the royals and the pain of the whip. What he could have never understood is the degenerative nature slavery has upon the human spirit. Mere survival often times requires the slave to sacrifice everything. Loyalty to one's fellow, to one's family falls by the wayside for a piece of bread. Today we are well aware of the bizarre bonding of master and captive in which the captive begins to actually respect and protect the very person who has placed him in captivity.

Moses' naiveté is hinted at in the first passage quoted above in the phrase, "...and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren." The phrase of his brethren seems superfluous. If the man was a Hebrew, he, of course, was of his brethren. Our Sages take this phrase to mean that the Hebrew man was being hit as a result of his brethren. That is, a Jew had reported him to the Egyptian for doing a forbidden action. This was the reason for the beating by the Egyptian. Moses, unaware of this crucial aspect of the beating, acts to reduce the pain of his fellow Jew. This all too true horror of slavery, however, has a dramatic effect upon Moses' own life. For but a few passages later, when he attempts to stop an attack by one Jew upon another, he is rebuked, "Who appointed you as a dignitary..." is the response to his simple question, "why would you strike your fellow?" And now the full horror of slavery, of persecution, comes down upon Moses himself. His genuine act of love and compassion for a fellow Jew had been bantered about among the People. Instead of accepting his obvious support and sense of kinship with them, they focus upon the illegality of the murder, attempting to curry favor in the eyes of their taskmasters to the extent that Moses' murderous act becomes known to the Pharaoh himself. Imagine the "points" one could garner by turning in a Prince of Egypt for the murder of an Egyptian merely fulfilling his duty by beating a Jewish slave! Tragically, Moses experiences the full horror of Egyptian slavery when he says, "Indeed the matter is known!" and flees for his life to the far off land of Midian.

Understanding this story in Moses' life gives us an insight into a constant dilemma faced by us all. How often do we chance upon a situation that to us seems self-evident and rather simple to cure at that? From our prospective as a sincere and sympathetic individual who is not immersed in the problem itself, we know a simple act on our part would remedy the problem. And yet, no matter how sincere our intent, we learn all too quickly and often times as Moses, tragically, that our action, not only doesn't make things better, but those who should appreciate it the most, those for whom we extended ourselves, now turn upon us, creating heretofore unknown difficulties in our own lives. And what do we do? How do we react? We flee from the situation desperately attempting to protect ourselves still unable to fully grasp the true complexities of the situation we responded to in the first place.

Is this not Moses' reaction when he is called upon by G‑d to go down to Egypt to lead his brethren out of slavery? He tells G‑d that he is confident that the Jews won't listen to him. His inability to fully comprehend the true horror of persecution, of slavery is still evident.

One of the more famous books written on American foreign policy was entitled "The Ugly American." It describes in detail how our foreign policy in the third world was flawed by our own inability to fully comprehend the true nature of society's ills abroad. Our cures were American cures; ones that made perfect sense to us in our own society, yet had little relevance to the people we were attempting to help. The result of our sincerest of efforts too often was the kindling of anti-American sentiments. Eating our food, using our medicines and aid willingly given, many societies, at the very same time, became more and more anti-American.

For me this very much describes the present relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel in many areas of concern to the Jewish State. Let me cite but one example - the role of religion in the Jewish State.

Many American Jews wish Israel to utilize the American approach to the relationship of Church and State. I recall the visit of a socialist member of the Jerusalem City Council to Chicago a number of years ago. He decried the "despotic" control of the Orthodox of religious life in Israel. He advocated the dissolution of the Rabbinic Courts and the establishment of Separation of Church and State, American style, in Israel. Most of the Jewish Chicagoans present at the meeting agreed with him. Yet, when I asked him would he dissolve the religious courts of Christendom and Islam supported by the Israeli government, he replied in the negative. When I explained that separation of Church and State means separation of every Church from the State, he replied that this could not be accomplished in Israel. Simply, an American approach to the Church and State issue will not work in Israel. And yet, after over 50 years of Jewish Statehood, many American Jews are still advocating an American concept for an Israeli problem. Over the years this issue, as several others, not the least of which is the peace process, have created a greater and greater divide between a growing number of American Jews and our Jewish Homeland. Today, I don't believe anyone would disagree with the statement that Jewish support for Israel among American Jews is a far cry from what it once was 40 years ago.

When I read the Moses story describing his own personal conflict with our People and realize this is the very selfsame Moses who eventually became our People's redeemer and Law Giver, I regain my optimism that, somehow, American Jewry and Israel will once again recapture our love affair of the past. Truly understanding the situation of another is a monumental task as even Moses experienced. Yet American Jews must open their hearts and minds to Israelis as true brethren, much as Moses did, if we are to recapture the unity both Jewries desperately need for their respective survivals.