by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – December 30, 2010
We are told in the beginning of the Torah section of VaEirah that the enslavement of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians was so crushing that when Moses came to his brethren to announce their impending redemption, “They were unable to listen to him out of shortness of spirit and hard work” (Sh’mot 6:9).
The 18th century Torah great R. Yonatan Eibeshutz notes in his Tiferet Yonatan our Sages’ assertion that Pharaoh excused the tribe of Levi from slavery. It would appear uncharacteristic, R. Eibeshutz argues, of such an evil despot to grant such a dispensation. R. Eibeshutz answers that Pharaoh was informed by his astrologers that the eventual redeemer of the Israelites would come from this tribe. Pharaoh, then, reasoned that someone who did not take part in the pain and suffering of the people would never be able to redeem them. He would simply not be able to rally the people behind him. The population at large would discount his ability to lead them since he was not together with them during their time of suffering.
It is in light of this that R. Eibeshutz interprets the aforementioned verse. The enslaved Israelites were unable to listen to Moses because they were feeling shortness of spirit and hard work – while Moses did not. Moses did not work hard. Moses did not toil. Moses was not enslaved. He lived in relative luxury. They found themselves unable to listen to Moses or let him become their redeemer!
Indeed, Pharaoh’s reasoning seemed sensible. However, he made one mistake. He did not realize one of Moses’ most prominent character traits as emphasized in the Torah. In the prior Torah section, Sh’mot, we are told “And Moses grew up” (Sh’mot 3:11), which Rashi explains to mean that Moses became prominent in Pharaoh’s household – effectively enjoying princedom. Moses could have remained in the luxury of the palace and been satisfied with a few words of prayer for the sake of his brethren. Instead, Moses left the palace to see with his own eyes how his brethren were fairing – and he saw their suffering. Then, he risked his life by killing an Egyptian who was mercilessly beating one of his brethren, thereby taking a part in the misery of his brethren’s enslavement. He identified not only with the suffering of his brothers at large, but with that of each individual in particular. Later, when two of his brethren were fighting, he came to the rescue of the victim, again demonstrating his attribute of sympathy and caring for the burden of his fellow man. In Midian, again, he came to the rescue of Yitro’s daughters because his personality was not one that could tolerate oppression.
Time and again, in all these descriptions, the Torah emphasizes that Moses demonstrated the character trait that Pharaoh thought he would never have, that of caring for the suffering of others – although he himself was not experiencing the same suffering. Logically, Pharaoh may have been correct, but he failed to appreciate Moses’ stalwart character, that despite of his not personally being oppressed, he felt the pain of those who were. Others who are doing well are often unable to listen to the cries of the less fortunate. Even when such people act, they suffice with a few coins or a prayer or, perhaps, a good wish. Moses, although doing very well, could not help paying attention and acting upon what he heard and what he saw. Moses could not suffice with the minimum. Moses was not one unable to listen. Moses had to do the utmost for his fellow man. That’s why he was able to be the leader of the people of Israel. May we all follow in his footsteps.