Judah Kerbel

Greatness: Flowing With or Against the Tide?

(Originally given as a sermon on January 14, Parashat Shemot)

We read this morning about the famous beginnings of Moshe’s life. As the Torah describes, and as you would know if you ever watched Prince of Egypt, Paroh decrees that the firstborn males should be cast into the Nile. Not wanting to see her son taken, Yocheved hides Moshe for three months, and then when she could not hide him any longer, she puts him in a “basket,” let’s say, and sends him across the Nile, hoping that a Good Samaritan so to speak would take care of him. But it is important to pay attention to the word used to describe the “basket” in which Moshe is placed. In Hebrew it is called a תבה. This word תבה is not used frequently in Tanach – twice to be precise. The only other place where it appears is at the beginning of Sefer Bereishit – Noach built a תבה before the flood began.

How are these teivahs similar and different? Rav Amnon Bazak, a premier Tanach at Yeshivat Har Etzion, explains that both teivahs were made from natural material. Both were completely covered. And both were meant to spare the lives of those inside, given the near inevitability that all others were going to be killed by water.

But Rav Bazak argues that the similarities are only meant to highlight the differences. Hashem commanded Noach to build his תבה, but Yocheved made Moshe’s תבה at her own initiative. Furthermore, there are no heroes outside the תבה in Noach’s story. Humanity has entirely failed. But when it comes to Moshe, we encounter heroes outside the תבה. First of all, יוכבד who built it; מרים who followed Moshe to ensure his safety; and בת פרעה who ultimately adopted Moshe. While there are certainly human actors who display destructive behavior, there are other actors who play a role in redemption (see Starting Point, p. 161).

These differences are apparent in the actions of both Noach and Moshe as well. There’s a Midrash that I actually mentioned a couple of months ago that describes conversations that Moshe Rabbeinu had with Adam, Noach, and the Avot. Each one says why they are greater than Moshe, but Moshe has a reply to each one. So in this Midrash, Noach says to Moshe, “I am greater than you because I survived the flood.” That seems pretty heroic, right? Did Moshe survive an Armageddon of that proportion? But Moshe has a powerful argument – not based on survival virtue but on moral virtue:

אָמַר לוֹ משֶׁה אֲנִי נִתְעַלֵּיתִי יוֹתֵר מִמְּךָ, אַתָּה הִצַּלְתָּ אֶת עַצְמְךָ וְלֹא הָיָה בְךָ כֹּחַ לְהַצִּיל אֶת דּוֹרְךָ, אֲבָל אֲנִי הִצַּלְתִּי אֶת עַצְמִי וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶת דּוֹרִי כְּשֶׁנִּתְחַיְּבוּ כְּלָיָה בָּעֵגֶל

Moshe says to Noach: I’m greater than you. You only saved yourself and could not save your entire generation, but I was able to save myself and my entire generation in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf.

Noach might have been able to survive in the תבה, but there is nobody else around him with redemptive virtue. Moshe, however, has his moment in the תבה, but he alone does not encounter redemption, but his entire generation benefits from his survival as well.

In another Midrash, we learn that when it comes to Noach, he is initially described as an איש צדיק – a very noble accolade – but after the flood, he is known as איש האדמה, merely a man of the land. Moshe’s trajectory is the inverse. He begins as an איש מצרי, a sort-of Egyptian man, but at the end of his life, he is called an איש אלקים, a man of God. Both of these Midrashim give the impression that Moshe ends up the greater man.

The Meshech Chochma elaborates on why it turned out this way. He explains that there are two ways to serve Hashem. One way is to be a hermit and concentrate solely on one’s own spiritual growth. The other way is to be involved in communal matters and to sacrifice one’s sense of self for the sake of the community. One would think that the greater virtue would be to be the hermit, the “monk” if you will. Yet, Noach was this kind of hermit; as Moshe claims in the first Midrash, Noach did not go out of his way to convince others to repent. Thus, he goes from being an איש צדיק to an איש האדמה. Moshe, however, rises to become an איש אלקים because of his devotion to the Klal. While Noach focused on his own צדקות while ignoring the evil around him, Moshe does not ignore the evil that takes place around him. He strikes down the abusive Egyptian taskmaster, intervenes between two Jews who were quarreling, and fights off the shepherds who were harassing Yitro’s daughters. This is in addition to his self-sacrifice in dealing with the needs of B’nei Yisrael for forty years in the desert. It is the man who served the community, at his own expense, who comes out greater. Noach flows with the tide, albeit on his own boat. Moshe, however, flows against the tide.

Essentially, to quote Rav Bazak, Moshe “realizes that one does not accommodate evil but fights against it. He will not stand for his nation’s being harmed. He feels a responsibility to bring people safely to the land which they have been promised. His ongoing commitment to those who saved his life makes him into a leader who works to save others.”

What we have to appreciate is that it is easier to be Noach. It is easier, less messy, less risky, to be a good person without meddling in the business of others. It is easy just to focus on living day to day without carrying the weight of the entire world on your shoulders. It is easier to flow with the tide instead of against the tide. That is what makes Moshe so heroic in this sense.

On Monday, we will mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. MLK, someone who certainly drew inspiration from the story of Moshe and Yetziat Mitzrayim, understood the importance of a Moshe-like heroism. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” authored nearly sixty years ago, he evaluates the merits of different means of fighting injustice. His letter was addressed to eight White clergymen who authored a “Call for Unity,” encouraging Civil Rights activists to fight in court and not on the streets. While MLK explicitly acknowledged the clergymen’s good intentions and sincerity, he took issue with their approach. In a particularly famous passage, MLK says something quite powerful:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I have to say that this passage always strikes me with great cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, if I were alive in 1963, I might have been one of those “white moderates” that King takes issue with. Although I recognize the immense contributions of MLK today, would I have been one to take issue with the “abrasive” actions of Civil Rights leaders? On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu was not passive when an Egyptian taskmaster abused a Jew. He did not turn a blind eye and assume that his righteousness would be preserved if only he let the status quo remain. Obviously, these considerations are terribly complex, and neither extreme passivity nor extreme activism is ultimately productive. But it was Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, the great Rav of Elizabeth, NJ, who heard the call of Moshe Rabbeinu to not flow with the tide of evil. Instead, a few months after the Birmingham incident, he represented Orthodox rabbis in a call to march in Washington with MLK to protest injustice. Rabbi Teitz taught religious Jews to try to do something to demonstrate that injustice is unpalatable.

But I want to bring us back to Shemot and antisemitism. It is in Parashat Shemot that we encounter the first antisemitic tropes that led to the oppression of the Jewish people. There are too many of them, they are too powerful, they will take over our country. Sound familiar? The Anti-Defamation league just released the results of a poll the other day indicating that the number of Americans who believe antisemitic stereotypes has doubled since 2019. 20% believe that Jews have “too much power” in the US, 26% say Jews have “too much power in the business world, and 21% agree that Jews “don’t care about anyone other than themselves.” The findings indicate antisemitic beliefs that “Jews are too powerful, selfish, foreign, and clannish.” Straight out of Parashat Shemot! These beliefs are not harmless. They are certainly the kind that have contributed to incidents like the synagogue shooting Pittsburgh in 2018.

What is to be done to dismantle the harmful manifestations of evil ideas? We need all people of conscience to think more like Moshe than Noach. Not to just be a tzaddik for ourselves but to be like Moshe and swim against the tide of evil. In his recent book on antisemitism, It Could Happen Here (p. 194), ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tells the story of two Muslim-American groups who initiated a fundraising campaign online to help victims of a terrible terrorist attack. Within two days, they collected $150,000, and by the end, 5,800 donated 230,000.  The day this started was October 27, 2018, and the occasion was the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Their goal was to “respond to evil with good.” While sometimes, people criticize religion as being a catalyst for violence, Greenblatt uses this and other examples to demonstrate that people who draw from the illuminating values of their faith can bring positive change. The Muslim Imam Abduallah Antepli was someone who grew up a secular Muslim, believing every antisemitic stereotype out there in the world. It was his move towards being a more religious Muslim that taught him the values of love, peace, and compassion. Antepli is now friends with Jews, especially religious Jews.

Our world is not the generation of the flood, and with all due respect to Noach, his path is not proper for us. There are people of good conscience around us. But we need to actualize that good consciousness and teach positive values far and wide. Although it sometimes feels like there are a lot of really bad people in the world, I still believe that there are people who can emulate Moshe Rabbeinu to swim against the tide of evil, stand up to oppression, and sacrifice a little bit of themselves to inspire a generation to follow humane values.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and a development associate for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He received his rabbinic ordination from RIETS and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. He serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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