“And you, go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will take out my nation, the Children of Israel, from Egypt.” (Shemot 3:10). Moshe encounters God at the burning bush and he is commanded by God to be the person, the leader, who will take the people out of Egypt.
Why Moshe? This is, essentially, the question that Moshe himself asks: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (3:11). God’s answer: “For I will be with you” (3:12) cannot be the full explanation. Certainly, being sent by God, having God work through him, will allow Moshe to stand before Pharaoh, will give Moshe the ability to be successful in his mission. It answers the “how”, but not the “why”. Why choose Moshe? Why, to put in Shakespeare’s words, was Moshe not only the one who had “greatness thrust upon him,” but also the one who “achieved greatness”?
To answer this, we must look to the beginning of the story. “And it was during those days that Moshe grew up and he went out to his brothers, and he saw in their travails, and he saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew man of his brothers.” (2:11). Much of what made Moshe a leader can be seen in this one verse. First, “he went out to his brothers.” He left the comforts of Pharaoh’s house. He realized that life was not to be lived wrapped up in the protective cocoon of status and material wealth. There was responsibility to the larger world, and it was this sense of responsibility that propelled him out of the house into this larger world.
How many of us can say that we have done the same? That we have left our comfortable upper-middle-class existence, left the house of Pharaoh, gone into the inner-city, or taken the job that could do more good, even though it paid far less, because we were similarly driven? That we felt compelled to see what needed to be done in the world, and how we could be a part of doing it?
This, then, is the first step. But then there is the next step: “And he went out to his brothers.” Moshe felt a particular connection to his own people. While philosophers such as Peter Singer will debate the fact, most of us believe that we have a greater obligation to help those who are closer to us than those who are more distant. This is certainly the position of the Torah that mandates action when directly confronted with someone in need – giving to the poor person who asks, saving the person drowning in the river – and that trumps our obligations to our own family, our own community and our own people over those to whom we are less related, less connected.
If we share a bond with someone, that not only motivates us to act, it also creates a greater moral obligation to do so. Moshe understood this. He went out not to save the world, but to see his brothers, his people. He would not become a world leader; he would become the leader of the Children of Israel.
But to be a leader it is not enough to have the desire, to feel the connection and the pull. To be a leader also requires courage, the ability to do what must be done regardless of personal risk. “And he looked this way and that and saw that there was no man and he smote the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” (3:12). What does the Torah mean when it says that he saw no man? The simple explanation is that no other Egyptian was present, and he thought that he would not be risking his life by smiting the Egyptian. There can be a thin line between courage and foolhardiness, and there certainly is no need to expose oneself to unnecessary risk. But there is another possible reading of this verse, a reading hinted at in the famous mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:5):
“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
Where was that place where there were no men, where no one prepared to act, to do what was right? It was here, where Moshe looked this way and that and so that “there was no man.” Moshe was the one who would be the man – would step forward, would do what needed to be done. That too requires courage, to not let other people’s actions or inactions determine for us how we must act. To be driven not by external norms, but by an inner moral guide.
What, for Moshe, are the dictates of his inner moral drive? They are, very simply, a demand for justice and a refusal to tolerate injustice. The initial act of smiting the Egyptian could be understood to be simply a desire to protect his own people from an outside aggressor. But clearly there was more to it than that. For on the next day, he defends one Hebrew from an unjust beating from another Hebrew. To get between two Jews who are fighting could only be done by someone who is committed to the cause of justice, in total disregard to their own self-interest. For while protecting one’s people from outside oppression will win one the respect and gratitude of one’s people, defending one Jew against another will undoubtedly earn one criticism, attack, and opprobrium. And, such indeed was what happened to Moshe, to the point that he had to run away from his own people, and run to a foreign land, where he encounters the daughters of Yitro. And it is in this third encounter that we see how far his commitment to justice extends. For when Yitro’s daughters are mistreated by the shepherds, Moshe once again rises up and defends them. Moshe’s commitment to this principle is so great that he is driven to defend anyone who is oppressed, be that person from his own people, or be that person a total stranger and foreigner.
Moshe is then, in some sense, a universalist: he cares for all people and cannot tolerate anyone being the victim of injustice. But he is also a particularist. His deepest obligations lie towards his own people. If it weren’t for this, he would never have become the leader of the Jewish People. “An Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds,” (2:19) is the report of the daughters of Yitro. There was nothing in these actions or in the way he presented himself that made him recognizable as a Hebrew. In that act, he may just as well have been an Egyptian man committed to the universal principle of justice. But this was not how Moshe began his career, nor was it how he would end it.
Moshe first set on this path out of concern for his brothers, his own people, and that is what puts him back on that path now. “And Moshe went back to Yitro, his father-in-law, and he said, let me go, please, and return to my brothers in Egypt and see if they are still living…” (4:18). He once again connected with his responsibility to his fellow Jews, to go out to where his brothers were, and to see in their plight and in their suffering. He went back to be, first and foremost, their defender, their protector, their leader. But he was not just any leader, but a leader who stood for something. It was in his fusing of a commitment to his people with a demand for justice, for what is right, and with the courage to step forward and to act, that Moshe achieved greatness, and thus had greatness thrust upon him.