Tadhg Cleary

Moshe’s first attempt at freedom just wasn’t enough

Alleviating suffering is important, but we have to be able to envision a vibrant and viable future beyond the suffering
Detail of a statue of a new kingdom pharoah Amenhotep III in the British Museum. August 10, 2022 (James Kemp via Wikimedia)
Detail of a statue of a new kingdom pharoah Amenhotep III in the British Museum. August 10, 2022 (James Kemp via Wikimedia)

It’s not good enough to stop oppression, to alleviate suffering – there has to be a vision for a viable and vibrant future after that suffering is over.

This is something that – at first – Moshe simply didn’t understand.

Moshe receives his mandate to free the Jewish people at the Burning Bush in the middle of Parashat Shemot (Ex 3). Moshe returns to Egypt to confront Pharoah and free the Israelites as God had commanded. But this first attempt is a spectacular failure. By the end, not only are the Jews still enslaved, but their work has been doubled – they must now collect the raw materials to make the bricks and mortar (Ex 6-10). The people and Moshe are left hopeless and defeated (Ex 5:20-23).

Why does this first attempt go so catastrophically wrong?

At first blush, Moshe is already the perfect leader to free the oppressed Israelites. Moshe is never a bystander. Moshe is all about standing up against oppression. He leaves the palace and sees an Egyptian oppressing a Jew. He intervenes (Ex 2:11-12). He leaves the palace the next day and sees one Jew oppressing another. He intervenes (Ex 2:13). He flees Egypt, and, at the well in Midian, he sees shepherds oppressing a group of young girls. He intervenes (Ex 2:15-17). Moshe is never a bystander.

But Moshe doesn’t really have a plan. He kills the Egyptian, but he doesn’t have a next step, and – when Pharoah finds out – he has to flee. The Jew even points this out to Moshe; “what? Are you going to kill me too?” (Ex 2:14) – you can’t kill everybody.

Moshe can’t stand oppression, but he doesn’t have an end goal.

We see this again when Moshe finally returns to Egypt some 60 years later. Moshe and Aharon gather the Elders of Israel to tell them everything that God had said to Moshe at the Burning Bush. They show them the signs, and the Elders believed (Ex 4:29-31).

The stage is now set for all the Israelite leaders to march on the Palace, arm-linked-in-arm, to demand their freedom from Pharoah – just as God had instructed (Ex 3:18).

Yet, in the very next scene, Moshe and Aharon appear before Pharoah alone. The Midrash asks, “Where did the Elders go?” The Midrash explains (ibid.):

The Elders actually went with [Moshe and Aharon] at the beginning. But the gap between them widened, and slowly – one by one, two by two – they began to slip away and walk off in another direction, until, when they finally arrived at the palace, not a single [Elder] remained.

Why was that inspiration so fleeting? Why do the Elders lose their nerve?

Let’s read closely what the people heard from Moshe’s message (Ex 4:29-31):

Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of those assembled. And the people believed and they heard that the LORD had remembered the Children of Israel and that [God] had seen their plight. They bowed low in homage.

The people heard two things: 1) that God remembered the Jews, and 2) that God had seen their suffering.

But notice what’s missing. There’s no mention of the goal, the endpoint, the telos. No mention of the land of Israel, no mention of Matan Torah (the upcoming lawgiving at Sinai). Where is “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God” (Ex 6:7)?

God is going to do something about the suffering, God’s going to end the oppression – great. But what comes next? How are we to live?

Maybe Moshe told them about it, maybe he didn’t. But either way they didn’t hear it. Moshe fails to impress upon the people a sense of their destiny, he fails to give them a compelling vision of what their future could be.

And so – one by one – the Elders lost their nerve, their passion cooled, until it was just the two brothers standing alone in that enormous palace before the Egyptian court. No wonder Pharoah laughs at them (Ex 5:2):

Who is the LORD that I should listen to God’s voice?

You and what army, Moshe?

It’s not good enough to stop oppression, to alleviate suffering – there has to be a vision for a viable and vibrant future.

* * *

The Queer Yid Podcast is an amazing, powerful reservoir of lived Jewish and queer experience. To date, Chana Peterson has created the space for 13 Jews to tell the story of the ways in which their Jewishness and their queerness intersect. Every episode is amazing, unique, and beautiful in its own way.

I want to bring you just one snippet from Joe’s story (Episode 9) that really stuck with me. Joe is a survivor of conversion therapy. He recounted his experience on gap year in Israel. He was in Yeshiva, closeted, and secretly going to conversion therapy on the side. One day, his Yeshiva held a day seminar on LGBT issues. At one of the sessions, Joe’s rabbi gets up and talks about how bad, how unhealthy, and how ineffective conversion therapy is. His rabbi tells Joe – and everyone else in the room – that it’s wrong and it doesn’t work. Yet the next day Joe goes back to conversion therapy. He would continue to go the entire time he was in Israel.

Chana – the interviewer – asks Joe how he made sense of that, how he continued to go to conversion therapy after his rabbis had so vehemently condemned it. I’ll never forget what Joe said. He said: however vehemently they had condemned conversion therapy, it was still better than any alternative they were offering. Joe said: it’s not good enough to tell the closeted gay kid that conversion therapy is bad. If you don’t offer an alternative – if there’s no vision for a vibrant and viable future – of course Joe is going to go back to conversion therapy. He’ll grasp at any chance – no matter how infinitesimal – to live the ‘normal’ life he’s always dreamed of; was always told his future would be.

Compassion is great. Kindness is wonderful, necessary. Alleviating suffering and oppression is really important. But it’s just not enough. It wasn’t enough for the Jews in Egypt, it wasn’t enough for Joe, and it isn’t enough for us.

* * *

In Parashat Va’era’s reboot, when God comes to Moshe again, when Hashem instructs him to go back to the Israelites again, God makes sure to stress the end goal. It is only in Va’era that Hashem reveals the Five Expressions of Redemption.* God promises not just (Ex 6:6):

I will take you out (והוצאתי) from the labors of the Egyptians and save you (והצלתי) from their bondage. I will redeem you (וגאלתי) with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary wonders.

But also (6:7-8):

And I will take you (ולקחתי) to be My people, and I will be your God… I will bring you (והבאתי) into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am the LORD.

Whereas the focus of the revelation at the Burning Bush had been on the people’s suffering and God’s plan to alleviate that, three chapters later, in the opening verses of Va’era, God highlights again and again the Brit – the covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov; the promise that their descendants would inherit the land of Canaan, would live sanctified, uplifted as Hashem’s people.

Moshe understands what must be done and he goes to tell the Israelites – this time stressing the end goal, the next step, just as God had said (Ex 6:9):

And Moshe relayed [God’s words] exactly to the children of Israel…

But, tragically, it was already too late (ibid.):

…but they did not listen to Moshe because of their depressed spirit and because of their heavy workload (מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה).

It’s not good enough to stop oppression, to alleviate suffering – we have to be able to envision a vibrant and viable future after that suffering is over.

* * *

And that’s why this Pesach I am proudly sharing my voice as a queer Frum Jew. That’s why organisations like Eshel and JQY, groups like the YU Pride Alliance and others are so important. That’s why we need to fight for – to demand – not just an end to the bigotry, the homophobia, the transphobia, but keep pushing, keep prodding, keep striving for a vision of that viable and vibrant future we all deserve. And we need to do it before it’s too late. We need to do it before queer and genderqueer Jews give up on the Jewish community because it’s just too damn hard, before, one by one, we simply slip away – dispirited and exhausted, מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה.

For all the difficulty, all the complexity – I see so many queer Jews courageously striving for that vibrant future. I see so many refusing to relinquish their birthright, refusing to give up their membership in the Jewish community. It gives me such strength and hope.

The call to our religious communities and especially to our leaders could not be clearer. You should know that we are ready to join with you. We are ready to link arms, taking strength from one another, and bravely march towards that vital future – one that embraces us all.

* * *

*On the Five Expressions of Redemption: Universally, four expressions of redemption are recognized – excluding “והבאתי” “I will bring”. See, for instance, Shemot Raba (Vilna) 6:4 and Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:1. Already in the Medieval period, however, it was suggested that “והבאתי” is a fifth expression. This might explain R’ Yossi’s view that five cups of wine are consumed on Seder night, not four (see, for example, Daat Zekeinim M’Baalei Tosafot on Shemot 12:8).

About the Author
Tadhg Cleary (he/him) divided the last ten years between New Zealand and Israel - learning, teaching, and building Jewish community. An alumnus of Victoria University and Yeshivat Har Etzion, he is in his second year of Semicha studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Tadhg also loves wearing hats, honest physical labour, and defending Constitutional monarchy to his (very skeptical) American friends.
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