Parshat VaEra: Why was Moshe Chosen?
This past week has been a fairly emotional one for me. On Monday, I was in New York with Jewish Day School Judaic directors from around the country where I attended a moving tefillah community service dedicated to the legacy of Martin Luther King. Now, just three days later as I try to put words on my screen, I am focusing on a global event taking place in Jerusalem—the Holocaust Remembrance Forum which is commemorating 75 years since the Auschwitz death camp was liberated. Nearly 50 world leaders are gathering in the capital of Israel for events marking the darkest period in civilization. These events are reminders of what happens when evil is not stopped, as soon as it rears its ugly head. All the leaders condemned the rise of anti-Semitism in the world and promised to fight it in all its forms. Even in our parsha, Va’Era, God promises that He will bring His people out of Egypt and into the Land of Canaan. He has heard the cries of His people and develops an action plan that will release the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. These oppressed people will also see Moshe as His chosen leader.
In Va’Era the first seven plagues afflict the Egyptians. Next week, the final three will be brought on them. But why was Moshe chosen to be the leader as opposed to Avraham who seeks out God? We learn in the Book of Exodus that God is seeking out a person who will not only be their leader but also be the one who will have to bring them out of the servitude of Egypt and lead them to Eretz Yisrael—the Promised Land. Yet it is not quite evident why Moshe is chosen by God to not only lead, but also be seen as the law-giver on Sinai. From a first reading of the biblical narratives, Moshe appears to be not only a reluctant leader who has a physical impediment—a heavy tongue—but also one who lacks confidence in his ability to be seen as someone with followers. So is there any evidence in the biblical narratives why God chooses him?
In Exodus 2 there are three short stories at the beginning of last week’s parsha that may hint at Moshe’s character and why he may have been chosen by God to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom and then receive the Torah. The first narrative describes Moshe’s reaction when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. Moshe strikes the Egyptian who dies from his wounds. The second incident concerns two Jews who are fighting. When Moshe approaches the instigator of the fight he is rebuked and told “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? You think you are going to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” The third story happens after Moshe realizes that it is known that he killed an Egyptian. He escapes to Midian. There Moshe arrives at a well where shepherdesses and their flocks are being harassed by shepherds. He drives away the shepherds and lets the shepherdesses water their flocks.
From the above stories, one may see why Moshe was chosen to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, receive the Torah and end up before the borders of the Land of Israel. The first narrative shows that Moshe was prepared to stand up for the victim. The second narrative shows that Moshe was able to identify the guilty party who was bullying his fellow Israelite. The text even uses the term rasha—the wicked or guilty one. The third story shows that Moshe again stands up for what is right and is not afraid to take a stand against injustice. Moshe is chosen because he stands up for the weak and vulnerable and is a role model for justice. All three narratives describe leadership of the highest order.
Finally, I would like to complete this D’var Torah with the words of two people who have affected millions of people throughout the world—Martin Luther King and Elie Weisel. King is often seen as a modern-day Moses, who charges the Israelites before they enter the Land of Israel. In a famous speech he made to a group of school children in Philadephia on October 26, 1967—six months before his assassination—Martin Luther King laid down a challenge for his student audience. He said the following:
“And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it, don't just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn't do it any better. If it falls on your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can't be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill. Be a bush if you can't be a tree. If you can't be a highway, just be a trail. If you can't be a sun, be a star. For it isn't by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
This is an inspirational message for all graduates who are about to leave the “nest” and go nervously into a world. They will be faced with many challenges.
Elie Wiesel—the Holocaust survivor and writer—loved his Jewish heritage and learning Torah. His biblical hero was Moses. In an article printed in a 2006 edition of Time magazine, Weisel wrote the following:
“Moses was the greatest legislator and the commander in chief of the first liberation army. He was a prophet, God’s representative to the people and the people’s representative to God. And he never had a good day in his life. Either the people were against him, or God was against him. From Moses, we learn humility. Everyone needs it, but mainly the leaders. Because they have power.”
For Weisel, Moshe was also chosen because he was humble, he never sought power. He was not influenced by the powerful, but stood up for justice and what was right.
Our students at Bernard Zell are brought up with the above Jewish values that were close to Moshe Rabbenu, our teacher. His influence is still felt today and it is even written in one of our famous prayers Yigdal, “There has never been in Israel a prophet like Moshe…” So as we read the rest of the Torah may we continue to learn about Moshe as a leader, rabbi, prophet, teacher, law-giver and also guide who loved his people and strove for justice and righteousness in the world.
B’vracha and Shabbat Shalom.