Having finished Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, with the ominous words, “placed in
a coffin in Egypt”, we open the next book, Shemot, or Exodus, not surprised that
we are a people in need of redemption. In quick fashion we are told that the 70
descendants of Jacob who were in Egypt have since multiplied and increased
greatly, that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph (or the rest of Jacob’s family), and he oppressed the Children of Israel with harsh labor, followed by the intent to kill all newborn males. While the story of the Exodus from Egypt is the foundational story for our people, one that nearly all Jews (and many others as well) know, because the Haggadah which recasts the story as we tell it at Pesach to focus on God, it is interesting to look at God’s partner and the other main character of Torah, Moshe, whom we meet this week.
According to tradition, Moshe is the greatest prophet who ever lived, and indeed, the remainder of the Torah revolves around the relationship and communication between God and Moshe. That communication begins in Chapter 3 of this parashah, at the famous seen of the burning bush, where, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a blazing fire out of a bush. Moshe gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moshe said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moshe! Moshe!’ And he answered, ‘Here I am.” (Exodus 3:2-4).
Before Moshe has this first experience with God, he has had other experiences in
his life, and these the Torah presents in short order: 1) Through the agency of heroic women (his sister Miriam, mother Yocheved, the two midwives Shifrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter), his life, among other newborn males has been spared; 2) Having grown up in the privilege and power of Pharaoh’s household, he “saw the suffering of his kinfolk and saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew; 3) He intervenes to save the Hebrew’s life, and the next day also intervenes in a confrontation when one Hebrew is beating another; 4) He flees to Midian, where heresies to the defense of women who are harassed and threatened by male shepherds, protecting them and watering their flock. The few stories we hear of Moshe in the Torah have the clear intent of portraying a man who both sees injustice and acts to correct it. It is only then Moshe is called by God.
Most of us would flee like Jonah from God’s presence, but not so Moshe, who like Avraham before him responds, “I am here” when called upon. While daunted by the mission to be the agent of redemption, Moshe nonetheless takes up the obligation. The story that follows will show him fully human and not a god, but a human being who serves God through the service of humanity. This first story of redemption in human history points to all others: redemption will not happen through some supernatural event, but only when human beings take the time to notice the extraordinary creation of which we are part and that not all share equally in its bounty because of our own selfish, unjust behavior. Redemption will come when we choose to right the wrong, having the vision of Moshe and the courage to say as well, “Here I am.”