Taking the Stage in Stages — Parashat Shemot 5775

How many times have we asked our children “Why don’t you act your age!”? More often than not, the fault lies not with our children but with ourselves. Our children are indeed acting their age but we would like them to act as if they are older than they really are. As a father of eight, I have learned that while most children go through similar stages of growing up, each child matures at his own pace.

Parashat Shemot describes the early life of Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe is born to a prominent Jewish family but he is abandoned as an infant in a last-ditch effort to save his life. Hashem performs a miracle and Moshe is discovered by the Princess of Egypt. She brings him to the Royal Palace where he is raised as a Prince of Egypt, far away from the hellish conditions experienced on a daily basis by every other Jew in Egypt. Moshe’s childhood in the palace is not explicitly described in the Torah because it is not particularly relevant in the formation of his personality[1].

The Torah is more concerned with how Moshe grows up – how he willingly leaves the life of an Egyptian noble in order to lead a group of slaves in revolt against the greatest Superpower in the world. The Torah twice describes how Moshe “grew up”. First we are told [Shemot 2:10] “The child grew up and he was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, where he became like her son.” In the very next verse we hear how [Shemot 2:11] “It came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.” Rashi is sensitive to this double usage and he suggests that first Moshe grew physically and then afterwards he grew mentally – he matured[2]. Let’s try to understand the stages in which Moshe matured.

When Moshe “grows” for the first time, he is brought to Pharaoh’s daughter and he takes on an Egyptian identity. When he “grows” for the second time, his sense of identity is shaken to the core. He comes face to face with slavery of the worst kind [Shemot 2:11-12]: “Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no man; so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Notice that in two verses the verb “to see” is used three times, identifying it as a “key word”.

Let’s try to understand the message that it is conveying. The word “to see” does not always mean to see with one’s eyes. “Seeing” also means “understanding”, as in “I see what you mean”. When Moshe “saw their burdens” Rashi explains this to mean that he “attuned his eyes and his heart to share in their pain”. He witnesses scenes from his worst nightmares and he is devastated. He understands that there lies a vast distance between the life he has been leading and the lives of his countrymen[3]. At this point, Moshe’s understanding is still amorphous.

But when he sees an Egyptian bondsman beating a Jew, his understanding takes on a new component: Things become personal. An Egyptian who might very well have played with Moshe as a child was beating to death a Jewish slave who might very well have been Moshe’s cousin. Moshe understands that he must do more than just grimly shake his head up and down and say “Tsk Tsk”. He understands that he has a choice: he can turn around and return to life as an Egyptian or he can completely change his identity and with it, his destiny. He chooses the later. While he has made a decision, he has still not taken any kind of physical action. When he “[sees] that there was no man” he understands that if he does not stop the beating right now, then it will be too late. If he does not actively take responsibility for the life of another, then all will be for nought. And so he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand, saving the life of a slave-cum-Jewish brother and forever severing the bonds that tie him to the palace.

The stages in Moshe’s maturation can be better understood when reflected in the stages of the maturation of an earlier leader of Am Yisrael, Yaakov’s son Yehuda[4]. Yehuda first takes the stage at the sale of his brother, Joseph. Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit, intending for him to die there. Along comes a caravan of Ishmaelites heading for Egypt and Yehuda tells his brothers [Bereishit 37:26-27] “What [financial] benefit is it if we murder our brother? Let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites…[5]” Yehuda and his brothers complete the sale, kill a goat, dip Joseph’s Coat of Many Colours into the blood and send it to Yaakov, telling him “Have you ever see this before?” Yaakov is inconsolable, and, according to Rashi, Yehuda leaves home in shame.

The first stage in Yehuda’s growing up is when his own two sons, Er and Onan, die. Yehuda reacts by becoming extremely protective of his remaining son, Shelah. He refuses to let Shelah marry Tamar, the wife of Er and Onan[6], fearing [Bereishit 38:11] “Lest he too die, like his brothers”. Yehuda suddenly develops empathy for his father. Yehuda, too, understands what is like to lose a child. The second stage in Yehuda’s maturation occurs when he impregnates his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar becomes visibly pregnant and she is sentenced to death by Yehuda, who does not yet know that she carries his child. Tamar refuses to explicitly implicate him. She shows him some of his possessions that he used as collateral when he slept with her[7], and asks him “Have you ever see this before?”

Yehuda understands that he has a choice: he can turn around and deny any involvement or he can completely change his identity and with it, his destiny. He chooses the later and admits that the child is his. Yehuda still has one last stage of maturing to do before he can lead his people. It is not enough for a leader to take responsibility only for himself. He must take responsibility for his people. Twenty two years later, Joseph, posing as the Grand Vizier of Egypt, accuses his brothers of espionage. He incarcerates Shimon, swearing that he will not be released until he sees their brother Benjamin.

Yaakov will hear nothing of it [Bereishit 42:38]: “My son shall not go down with you, because his brother is dead and he alone is left”. Reuven tries convincing Yaakov to let him take charge, telling him [Bereishit 42:37] “You may put my two sons to death if I don’t bring [Benjamin] to you”, but Yaakov is, unsurprisingly, unswayed. Yehuda, who has lost two sons, is probably mortified. He tells Yaakov [Bereishit 43:9] “I will guarantee him; from my hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him to you and stand him up before you, I will have sinned against you forever.” Yaakov, knowing that Yehuda is the only son who can empathize with his loss, acquiesces. And Yehuda comes through. When Benjamin has apparently stolen Joseph’s goblet, Yehuda offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. When he offers to sacrifice his future for his brother, he proves that he is finally ready to take the stage.

Many Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches that I have heard pertain in some way to taking responsibility. “You are now a man. You are now responsible for your deeds”. But that’s only half the story. A Jew has grown up only when he willingly takes responsibility for another Jew. This is his one and only ticket into Am Yisrael. Until then, he’s just a child.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] This is not completely true, but it is a topic for another shiur.

[2] The simplest way of interpreting the two verses is that they are separated by many years. First Moshe grew enough so that he did not need his [Jewish] nanny, and then many years later he left the castle walls to return to his nation.

[3] It is the common consensus that Moshe always knew that he was a Jew.

[4] The ideas in this paragraph are based on shiurim given by Rav Chanoch Waxman and by Rav Yonaton Grossman.

[5] Yehuda and his brothers look pretty bad here. There are many ways of understanding the episode in a much more forgiving light, but we are trying to make a point, so the simple explanation will be used.

[6] Shelah, like Onan before him, should have performed Yibum (Levirate marriage) by marrying the childless wife of his brothers

[7] Tamar was posing as a prostitute.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts