The power of the Torah’s stories is found not only in their actual words, but in their back stories as well. The best works of Midrash, active exploration and interpretation of the Torah, recognize that the Torah’s words are mere doors behind which entire worlds of truth and meaning can be discovered. Midrash is the key which unlocks those doors for the person seeking to enter those worlds.
For an excellent example of the interpretive possibilities found in the Torah, let’s consider the following verse, Exodus 2:11:
When Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and saw their labors. (Exodus 2:11)
This is such a brief, elliptical verse, but it hints at so many different meanings. This point in the text is the Torah’s second mention to us that Moses has grown up. We imagine him as a young, restless man who senses vaguely that he does not belong entirely in the royal world which is his home. Chafing under the strictures of palace life and romanticizing the folks he sees living on the wrong side of town, Moses runs away from the palace to gawk at them. What does he see? His kinsfolk: people who look like him, who have his features, not the features of the native Egyptians. What else does he see? These people with whom he feels kinship, who but a moment ago were an irrelevance, are suffering under the ruthless whip of the State to which he belongs, into which he was adopted as a young boy. At this moment of seeing, Moses doesn’t grow up physically, he grows up morally and emotionally.
Yet something is still missing here in our interpretive puzzle. A rule of classic rabbinic midrash is that words which appear superfluous are not superfluous. Every word of Torah plays a role. Thus, for the rabbis, a vaguely worded phrase or reference practically begs us to unpack it. For example, we know that Moses saw the suffering labors of the slaves, yet what exactly did he see? We need details to truly understand this story. The following magnificent rabbinic teaching, in my somewhat free translation, opens up this text, as well as our hearts and minds:
“Moses saw their labors.” What exactly did he see?
He saw their suffering was so great that he began to weep, saying, “Would that I could die in solidarity with you!” He jumped in among the slaves to help them with their work.
What exactly did he see?
He saw the Egyptian task masters switch around the labor details of the weak and the strong, of the men and the women, and of the old and the young. He took off his royal clothing and set about to help the slaves, while appearing as if he were merely a dutiful prince helping Pharaoh to get his work projects done.
What exactly did he see?
He saw the slaves’ suffering was so great that he was moved to speak with Pharaoh, his grandfather. “You know, grandpa,” he reasoned, “These slaves are good property. Why work them to death? Give them one day off a week, and they’ll produce more for you.” Pharaoh liked Moses’ reasoning and allowed him to establish one day a week for the Israelites to rest. Moses chose Shabbat as that day. (Exodus Rabbah 1:31)
Did Moses really see and do all of these things? Did he really establish Shabbat then and there as a respite from slavery? In midrashic thinking, “Did it really happen?” is the wrong question to ask. The rabbis telling these stories are not being literalists; they are expanding the moral message of this verse by explaining to us what true solidarity with suffering is. Moses could have buried hints of his Israelite background under his life of elite Egyptian privilege, and simply ignored the oppressed people around him. Or, he could have regarded the slaves with sincere but condescending pity, and then gone about his business. Instead, he witnessed first- hand the sadistic perversity of their oppression, internalized their pain as his own, shouldered their burdens with them, and used his position of privilege and status to lighten their pain. This midrashic comment is telling us indirectly that Moses is a model for how we can reach out to others who are suffering under oppression.
What does it mean to emulate Moses? He was a prince of Egypt who used his position to upend the Egyptian system of oppression; we have no such power or status. From infancy, he had already been selected by God to be moshian shel Yisrael, the savior of the Israelites; who among us could make such a grandiose claim? Yet as I suggested before, the rabbis of ancient tradition primarily used these stories of Moses to teach and inspire us with lessons about our own moral capacities, using Moses as an ideal. First, they were teaching us that real solidarity is the result of empathic engagement with others, where they are, not where we think they need to be. Second, though Moses’ elite privilege was tainted by its association with oppression and bigotry, our luck and blessing at having been born with distinct advantages are great things that can be harnessed to make a difference in behalf of people who are disadvantaged. Do many of us have more money, more education, more opportunity for class and political advancement than most people in the South Bronx or Hatikvah Quarter in Tel Aviv? Yes, we do. Wringing our hands with self flagellating guilt over these advantages is ridiculous. Using them for good to move progressive change forward is a mitzvah. This is what the Shma means when it tells us to serve God b’khol meodekha, with all of our might and personal power. Finally, no movement toward real change in a society happens without the opportunity for retreat, reflection and rejuvenation. By identifying Shabbat as a distinctively Mosaic institution intended to liberate the slaves weekly, the rabbis were hinting to us readers that anyone who works non-stop, even with the best motives to liberate the world of evil, is nothing more than a slave him or herself. Shabbat is Yom La-Shem, God’s day, but it is expressed humanly by being our day of work stoppage and transformation.
What does it mean to emulate Moses? Perhaps, in the end, this too is the wrong question to ask. In our hearts we already know that Moses our teacher was well beyond where we could ever be, while also being our most accessible model for just behavior. Perhaps the real question for us is not whether we can emulate him, but how we can emulate him in our individual and communal lives.