Sedra Shemot: Inalienable Responsibilities

Mistrust abounds. As we enter 2016 faith in people is challenged in so many arenas — from entertainment to education, social media to sports, religion to law enforcement, managed care to finance — and our political climate is of little help. Dangers threaten too. Jerusalem’s Mayor offered advice to terror-afflicted Parisians last month, “Be good with the good guys and bad with the bad guys.” Moral clarity helps, but we yearn for something more.

Moses also struggled to believe in people. In this week’s Torah portion, he saves a Hebrew by taking the life of the Egyptian who had been abusing him. The Torah makes it clear that there are no witnesses (Ex. 2:12). The next day Moses intervenes again to save a weaker Hebrew from a wicked kinsman who challenges Moses, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian”(Ex. 2:14)? If the Bible conspicuously emphasizes that nobody saw what Moses did to the Egyptian the prior day, how did it become known? The only person in a position to know what Moses did the day before was the Hebrew he saved.

Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, “Isn’t it psychologically understandable that a man who had just been beaten up might himself look for someone weaker to beat up in order to restore his sense of power?” Psychologically understandable, perhaps, but for the Torah such a posture is unconscionable. Moses’ flight into the wilderness has more to do with disgust than with fear.

This reading certainly should have generated in Moses a mistrust of people. But instead he brings forth a Teaching (Torah) that insists that rights realized produce greater responsibilities. The rights of the rescued Hebrew slave do not produce a right to oppress others. Once freedom is secured, the Torah instills a responsibility to stand by society’s most vulnerable. Responsibilities in a free society are also inalienable. They mitigate victimhood because they make us doers not merely those who are done to.

A thoughtful cab driver recently shared, “It’s easy to doubt people, but I prefer to believe in them. When I’m wrong it can be costly. But when I’m not it can be magical.” May 2016 be a year in which our beliefs in each other are rewarded and renewed..

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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