Announcing the Cardozo Academy Writers Guild!
Due to the war in Israel and other circumstances, I have asked Calev Ben-Dor, a member of our Think Tank and Writer’s Guild to share with me the penning of the weekly Thoughts to Ponder Series. These essays are written in the spirit of the Cardozo Academy and with my full approval.
I thank him very much!
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
In this week’s parshah we begin the story of arguably our nation’s greatest leader—Moshe.
We read about his birth and his mother hiding him, his rescue and adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, and his increasing identification with his Hebrew brethren. We read how he murdered an Egyptian taskmaster striking a slave and his attempt to reconcile two Hebrews arguing, which ended in his enforced flight to Midian and his defense of Midianite shepherdesses. And finally, we read about his encounter with God—known as אהיה אשר אהיה—whose face he fears to look at, and who commands him to begin what will become the Israelites’ long walk to freedom.
By the parshah’s end, Moshe has gone to Pharaoh but initially been rebuffed. He is subsequently incensed towards God.
|And Moses returned to the LORD, and said: “Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why did You send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt ill with this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” (5:22-23)
|וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ.
A warrior for justice
What becomes apparent throughout these stories is that Moshe is a warrior for justice. Before his encounter with God, he battles on three different occasions without regard to the ethnic and religious background of those involved (Egyptian/Hebrew, Hebrew/Hebrew and Midianite/Midianite). He cannot stand idly by when he sees suffering. And when liberation doesn’t arrive at what he believes is the opportune time (namely Achshav, immediately!) he is angry and frustrated at God.
In Shemot Rabbah, Rabbi Akiva expands on Moshe’s thinking:
|“I know you [God] will [ultimately] save them”, says Moshe. “But why do You not care about those who are set under the building?” At that moment, the divine attribute of justice sought to injure Moshe. When God saw that it [his criticism] was for the sake of Israel that he spoke, the attribute of justice did not injure him.
|רבי עקיבא אומר יודע אני שאתה עתיד להצילם אלא מה איכפת לך באותן הנתונים תחת הבנין? באותה שעה בקשה מדת הדין לפגוע במשה וכיון שראה הקדוש ברוך הוא שבשביל ישראל הוא אומר לא פגעה בו מדת הדין:
The reference to those “set under the building” refers to a different Midrash, which tells how the Egyptians would use Hebrew babies for cement and “bury” them inside the buildings. Moshe intellectually understands that freedom takes time. But in the meantime, innocents are dying. That long-term, strategic (heavenly) view won’t save individual children who need help. Now!
Jonathan Sacks discusses Moshe’s “anger at the sight of evil which drove him, time and again, to intervene in the name of justice”. He suggests that it is this anger—and unwillingness to accept the suffering of individuals—that makes Moshe afraid to look at the face of God at the burning bush. “If he could understand history from the perspective of heaven,” Sacks writes, “he would have to make his peace with the suffering of human beings…How could he still be moved by the cry of slaves, the anguish of the oppressed, if he understood its place in the scheme of things, if he knew that it was necessary in the long run?”
This is Moshe: warrior for justice, the chosen leader for Israel’s liberation.
The tragedy of Moshe’s fight for justice
While Moshe successfully leads the people for decades, there is also a tragic component to his (praiseworthy) fight for justice.
One incredible Midrash (Ptirat Moshe) that imagines the Death of Moshe describes an argument between God and the long-suffering leader of the Israelites. Moshe is desperate to enter the Promised Land and—in a very uncharacteristic brazen way—makes a series of demands that God allow him to enter.
God explains that it is the nature of humans—no matter how great they may be—to die. He mentions Adam, Noah, and the patriarchs. Moshe responds that they all sinned in some way or had wicked descendants. Back and forth go the two protagonists until God delivers what He considers to be a conversation stopping argument.
|God said to him. “Did I tell you to kill the Egyptian?”
|אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: כלום אמרתי לך שתהרוג את המצרי?
Undeterred, Moshe has a response to this:
|“You slew all the first born of Egypt, and I shall die on account of one Egyptian?!”
|אמר לו משה: ואתה הרגת כל בכורי מצרים, ואני אמות בשביל מצרי אחד?!
And God responds:
|“You are comparing yourself to Me – Who causes death but can revive the dead? Can you in any way bring someone to life as I can?!”
|אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: ואתה דומה אלי, ממית ומחיה? כלום אתה יכול להחיות כמוני?
In this reading, what ultimately counts against Moshe is a seemingly praiseworthy act—the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. The very same act that demonstrated his leadership qualities—his demand for justice, his attempt to limit suffering of innocents—ultimately prevents him from entering the land.
The late American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that the responsibility of a statesman is to resolve complexity rather than contemplate it. But perhaps, complexity—for statesmen and nations driven by justice and fighting for survival—cannot always be resolved.
Judaism may be a religion of hope rather than tragedy, but tragedy often constitutes an integral part of our existence. And this means that we may be required to carry out actions that while necessary—perhaps even essential—simultaneously damage us. Being a warrior, even a warrior for justice, scars us.
May this lesson of Moshe’s life guide us and our leaders today.