Parshat Shemot

This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus, which deals with the slavery in Egypt and the redemption of the Jewish people that we celebrate on Pesach, the receiving of the Torah on Sinai, and concludes with the completion of the Tabernacle. Hashem chose Moshe Rabbeinu to lead the Jewish people, to take them out of Egypt, and to receive the Torah from Hashem and bring it and teach it to the people.  What made Moshe so special that Hashem chose him to lead His precious nation?

The Torah is replete with clues that reveal his special qualities that made him the perfect person for the job.

The Torah tells us that right from birth Moshe was a special baby.

ספר שמות פרק ב

(ב) וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלשָׁה יְרָחִים:

  1. The woman (Yocheved, Moshe’s mother) conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good and hid him for three months:

What is the meaning of “she saw that he was good?” Doesn’t every mother see her child as special and good?  Something extraordinary stood out about this child. Rashi explains that he lit up the whole room. The Midrash tells us that Moshe was born circumcised, showing him to be a very holy child destined for greatness who would escape Pharaoh’s evil decree to kill all Jewish baby boys.

Yocheved placed her son in a waterproof basket and set it down in the river.  When Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya went to bathe, she discovered the basket and immediately realized that it contained a Jewish baby whose mother put him there to escape Pharaoh’s harsh decree. She saw the child’s specialness and decided to save him and raise him in the palace. It was she who give the child the name Moshe, which means “I drew him from the water.” It is noteworthy that even though Moshe’s parents had given him a name, the name Moshe, which Bitya gave him, stuck. This is to recognize her and her kindness that she saved him from death.

Having been born with special qualities was no guarantee that Moshe would become the leader of the Jewish nation. He would have to earn his worthiness by making the right choices in the challenges that Hashem would present to him, challenges that would test his qualities as a leader.  Only after passing them would he be chosen.

Because Moshe was brilliant and very capable, Pharaoh put him in charge of his affairs. And even though Moshe had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace like Pharaoh’s son, Bitya had revealed to him that he was Jewish. So, at first, when Moshe saw his brothers suffering, he would help them under the guise of doing what was best for Pharaoh. But when Moshe was about 20 years old, he reached a point where he was not concerned with his cover, and he would now overtly help his brothers.

This is where the Torah begins the story about Moshe and his interaction with his Jewish brothers.


ספר שמות פרק ב

(יא) וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל משֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם

  1. It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens;

Rashi quotes the Midrash, which says:

רש”י על שמות פרק ב פסוק יא

(ב”ר) נתן עיניו ולבו להיות מיצר עליהם:

“Moshe gave his eyes and heart to feel their pain.”

During one such excursion Moshe found the Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew to death., Moshe, could not bear the injustice of the Egyptian beating a Jew. After looking around, he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. Moshe had to act, even though doing so could jeopardize his life.

The next day, he chanced upon two Jewish men who were quarreling, one having raised hand to strike his fellow. Moshe exclaimed to the evil one, “Why would you strike your fellow?”

The man responded, “Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?”

When word got back to Pharaoh that Moshe had killed an Egyptian taskmaster, Pharaoh became incensed and wanted to kill Moshe. Pharaoh’s stargazers had been telling him all along that Moshe would be his nemesis, but he had no reason to believe them until now. Now, Pharaoh wanted him dead.

Quickly realizing the repercussions of his act, Moshe fled to Midyan, where he camped next to a well. There Moshe encountered his third episode of injustice.

Yitro’s seven daughters (he had no sons) came early to the well to water their sheep. When they filled the troughs with water, the other shepherds came with their flocks, chased the girls away and gave the water to their sheep. Once again, Moshe, unable to bear the injustice. He intervened on their behalf, saved them from the shepherds, and gave their sheep to drink.

These incidents give us a clear picture of a person with a very strong sense of justice and concern for the wronged party. We also see a person of action who is prepared to do what is right even at the risk of his own safety. These are surely leadership qualities.

The Midrash discloses another test that Hashem gave Moshe.

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת שמות

ואף משה לא בחנו הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא בצאן, אמרו רבותינו כשהיה מרע”ה רועה צאנו של יתרו במדבר ברח ממנו גדי ורץ אחריו עד שהגיע לחסית כיון שהגיע לחסית נזדמנה לו בריכה של מים ועמד הגדי לשתות, כיון שהגיע משה אצלו אמר אני לא הייתי יודע שרץ היית מפני צמא עיף אתה הרכיבו על כתיפו והיה מהלך, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יש לך רחמים לנהוג צאנו של בשר ודם כך חייך אתה תרעה צאני ישראל, הוי ומשה היה רועה.

Hashem tested Moshe with sheep. When Moshe was tending to Yitro’s sheep in the desert, one ran away. Moshe chased it until it reached Chasit, (a certain place) where it found a brook of water and took a drink. When Moshe caught up to it, he said, “I didn’t know you were running because you were thirsty! You are probably tired.” Moshe put the sheep on his shoulders and carried it back. At this point Hashem said, “You have mercy on the sheep, therefore, you will shepherd My flock, the Jewish nation.”

This Midrash suggests that the deciding factor in choosing Moshe was his mercy on the sheep. What about his display of mercy to the underdog in the first three examples that the Torah showed us?

Our Sages find in this an important insight: A person’s heroic actions do not necessarily indicate his true level.  Many factors could inspire someone to act out of character or exceed his normal level of compassion and mercy, but they do not accurately reflect his true essence. He may   behave this way solely because of the current situation; but, absent the factor that particularly inspired him, he may very well be a cold and heartless person. It is through the seemingly small actions that we do naturally without much thought or great effort that truly indicate who we really are. What we do naturally and privately, is an outgrowth of who we really are. This is why the test of the sheep constituted the real test.

We find this same concept in the nick-names that the Torah gave to Yocheved and Miriam, the midwives in Egypt. Pharaoh instructed them to kill all male babies born to the Jewish women. Not only did they risk their lives by not killing the children, they actually helped them live! The Torah calls them Shifra and Puah. The Midrash tells us that Shifra is a reference to Yocheved, who beautified the child, and Puah is a reference to Miriam who would “poo” and make noises to the child to stop it from crying. Once again, in their small, seemingly insignificant actions the Torah found their greatness. This was where one could see their true essence, not in the heroic act of saving the children, which could have been the product of a fleeting moment of inspiration.

After Moshe passed the test of the sheep and Hashem “had His man,” Hashem appeared to him in the burning bush, where we find another test.

Moshe observed a perplexing phenomenon. On the one hand the bush was burning, but, on the other hand, it was not consumed by the fire. How could this be? Moshe said to himself, “I must check this amazing sight out! Why isn’t the bush being consumed?”

The next verse says:

ספר שמות פרק ג

(ד) וַיַּרְא יְדֹוָד כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה משֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי:

  1. Hashem saw that he turned aside to see; and God called out to him from amid the bush and said, “Moses, Moses,” and he replied, “Here I am!”:

It was only after Hashem saw that Moshe turned to investigate the unusual phenomenon that He called to him. Had Moshe looked at the bush and said, “Hey! Look at that! That’s weird!” and continued walking, in spite of all his qualifications he would not have been the leader of the Jewish people.

Our Sages say that many people saw the burning bush, but that none of them sought to learn a lesson from what they saw. They marveled at it but kept on going. Only Moshe, upon seeing this unusual sight, said to himself, “What’s the lesson? What can I learn from this? I must investigate.” This had to be an attribute of the leader of the Jewish people. Even though he had so many other appropriate qualities, if he was not a growing person, someone who would apply the lessons of life to himself, he could not be the right one for the job.

Moshe passed all the tests with flying colors and Hashem had His man. Hashem told Moshe that He heard the people’s cries and suffering in Egypt, that the time had come to end the slavery and take them out, and that He had chosen him for the task.  One would think that Moshe would jump at the offer. He, single handedly, could end the suffering of millions of people in one moment. “Not so fast,” said Moshe. “What’s with my brother Aharon? He has been the leader of the people until now; am I going to usurp his position? It will kill him! That I cannot do!” Moshe argue with Hashem for a full week until Hashem assured Moshe that Aharon would experience no distress from Moshe’s position. On the contrary, “he will rejoice with your ascent to greatness.”  Only after Hashem said this to Moshe did he agreed to take the job.

Parshat Shemot Part 2

Harav Eliezer Man Schach, of blessed memory (1899-2001) poses two penetrating questions on Moshe’s behavior.

  • So many people are suffering in slavery, and Moshe was concerned about hurting the feelings of one person, Aharon? It would seem a small price to pay for the freedom of all the suffering slaves! What was Moshe’s thinking? Hold back progress because someone’s feelings may get hurt? You can’t allow one person to stand in the way of the progress of the masses. Aharon will get over it!
  • Hashem was telling Moshe to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. Wouldn’t He have taken Aharon’s feelings into consideration before suggesting this to Moshe? And if Hashem had decided that it was worth it to hurt Aharon’s feelings to take the Jewish people out of Egypt, who was Moshe to argue with Him?

There are two very important lessons to be learned here, explains Harav Shach זצ”ל .

  • The great importance of not insulting or hurting another’s feelings. Although we would not have so perceived it, in Moshe’s mind Aharon’s feelings trumped the freeing of the Jewish people from slavery. Only Moshe’s super sensitivity to the feelings of others gave him the ability to make this decision.
  • There is a rule that Hashem gave about the Torah: לא בשמים היא – The Torah is no longer in heaven. This means that once Hashem gave the Torah to us, it is no longer under Hashem’s control in heaven. Rather, it is ours to execute as we understand it, even if it does not concur, so to speak, with Hashem’s thinking.  This is why Hashem was bound to Moshe’s thinking and could not override it.

Once again Moshe demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities both in his sensitivity to the feelings of Aharon and in his steadfast will to do what he felt was right even when Hashem Himself argued with him.

Moshe had yet one more outstanding attribute, which Hashem told us about in the Torah.

The verse says in Numbers 12:3:

ספר במדבר פרק יב

(ג) וְהָאִישׁ משֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:

  1. Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth:

This is quite a remarkable statement! Hashem, Who knows our innermost thoughts and feelings, said this about Moshe. Humility is a very desirable quality for a leader; because   then, ego is not involved in the decision process, and he can be completely objective and make the correct choices for his constituents. Indeed, in the course of his leadership, Moshe put the Jewish people’s needs before his own many times. His humility allowed him to be a selfless leader.

The attribute of humility is also what made Moshe the perfect intermediary to bring the Torah to the Jewish people. Since he had no ego and was not interested in asserting himself in anything that Hashem taught him, Hashem was assured that the Torah would be transmitted faithfully as it was given without alteration.

In summary, the list of qualities that made Moshe most suitable to be the leader of the Jewish nation is quite impressive.

They are:

  • A strong sense of justice
  • The conviction to act
  • Care for the needs of others, even a lamb
  • Always learning and growing
  • Extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others
  • Confidence in his decisions
  • Strength to stand behind his decision
  • Humility

Which of the above is most important? Moshe himself articulated his leadership philosophy when he conveyed to Hashem the description of the person who should replace him.

Moshe said to Hashem in Numbers 27:16:


(2) ספר במדבר פרק כז

(טז) יִפְקֹד יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה

  1. “May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly:

What is the meaning of the words “G-d of the spirits of all flesh”?

Rashi explains:

רש”י על במדבר פרק כז פסוק טז

אלקי הרוחות – למה נאמר אמר לפניו רבש”ע גלוי וידוע לפניך דעתו של כל אחד ואחד ואינן דומין זה לזה מנה עליהם מנהיג שיהא סובל כל אחד ואחד לפי דעתו:

Moshe said to Hashem, “Master of the Universe, You know the mind of every person and how they differ from one another. Appoint a leader who will be able to cater to the needs of each individual. “

Moshe felt that his most important calling was to cater to the needs of each individual according to that person’s way of thinking. This was the test of the lamb. Moshe brought all his stellar qualities together for one purpose, to help each person in his flock.

Each of us is a leader in one way or another whether as the head of a household or group of friends. We would be wise to learn from the greatest leader of all times, Moshe.

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