Ari Afilalo

Shemot’s Rebels with a Cause: What Makes Might?

The Book of Exodus starts with contrasting narratives of fear-mongering and cruelty, and courageous acts of compassion.  A new Pharaoh rises to rule Egypt.  He chooses to ignore that Yosef the Hebrew turned Egypt into the world’s sole superpower.  Instead, Pharaoh convenes the Wannsee Conference of the day, to plot the annihilation of the Children of Israel.  Pharaoh’s indictment of Israel contains no accusations of misconduct, only the fear that “they could multiply and join with our enemies in case of war.”  From there, enslavement and true ethnic cleansing, the killing of baby boys at birth, ensues.

The first recorded acts of rebellion come from resisting midwives refusing to kill newborns and then from Batya, Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Seeing Moshe in the Nile, the text tells us, Batya immediately realizes that he is a Hebrew child and “has compassion for him.”   She not only saves Moshe but sends him back to his mother among the Hebrews to be nursed.  When he grows up and is brought to Pharaoh’s palace, Batya names him Moshe because “I brought him out of the water.”  The very name Batya gives him connotes her continued defiance of the Pharaonic policies.

The Midrash, enamored with Batya, tells us that she went on to marry a Hebrew man named “Mered,” or “Revolt,” who was in fact Caleb ben Yefuneh.  Caleb was of course, along with Yehoshua, one of the dissenters from the ill-fated mission and fear-based report of the 12 Spies.  Both Batya and Mered are rebels, the Midrash says.  They had the courage to stand up to the prevailing beliefs in their society, and therefore deserved each other.

Owing his life to an Egyptian rebel, Moshe embodies his adoptive mother’s courage and compassion, on behalf of his own people as well as strangers.  Instead of living a comfortable princely life, Moshe rebels and kills the Egyptian taskmaster savagely beating a Hebrew slave.  And as he runs away from Pharaoh’s wrath, alone in a foreign land, Moshe’s first act is to come to the rescue of Yitro’s daughters, harassed by hostile shepherds.

It is no coincidence that the Book of Exodus opens with stories of cruelty and compassion.  The Book will then move on to a long narrative dominated by themes of power and conflict, pitting Pharaoh, the commander in chief of the world’s most powerful army, and the unleashed might of G-d coming to the rescue of the oppressed. The powerful Egyptian armies wind up drowned in the Red Sea as the Empire falls. The lessons are clear:  Might is not enough.  It must have as its basis a foundation of compassion in order to endure and prevail. One rebellious act of compassion has set in motion a great historical movement of liberation, whereas policies devoid of humanity triggered self-destruction — even for the mightiest in the world.

The lessons for today’s world are many. Those who flex muscle out of cruelty, or to control and subjugate others, will end up drowned and disgraced by History.  This will surely be the fate of regimes like Iran’s or Venezuela’s, who have shown their true colors by squandering enormous wealth to self-perpetuate, self-aggrandize, and colonize.  One act of compassion may have enormous impact: a Syrian baby flown in to an Israeli hospital for life-saving surgery might become tomorrow’s leader and turn today’s enemies into friends.  And, as a mighty power we have to consistently strengthen our foundation of compassion.  This could mean meting out justice with moderation on a Palestinian teenage girl despite her assaulting one of our own, investing in the Arab and Haredi sectors to alleviate inequality, or seizing on other daily opportunities to translate compassion into action.  It is the surest way to assure that our might will endure and prevail.

About the Author
Ari Afilalo ( is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He grew up in France, the son of a Jewish Moroccan family, in an ethnically mixed working class neighborhood. He has published extensively in the field of international law. He is the current president of the West Side Sephardic Synagogue in Manhattan.
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