Parashat Shemot begins the book of “exile and redemption” of the people of Israel. Even though the fate of the Jews in general is at a cross-road, it is not easy to distinguish between this and the special personality of Moses, the leader and redeemer. How is the character of a person like this built? How are we able to determine any central points in his personal development?
We meet the “grown up adult” Moses when he goes out to his people, the Hebrew slaves, and he sees their suffering. He cannot restrain himself, nor remain silent, when he sees an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, and he reacts by killing the Egyptian.
Because of this event, Moses is forced to flee Egypt. He goes to Midian, where he encounters some shepherds who drive away the daughters of Yitro and he resolves to save the daughters, even caring for their sheep.
The courage and the firm stand shown by Moses against injustice is nothing less than remarkable. He is an individual against many, and is a stranger up against the locals. It is as if he experiences an internal awakening of the “good” within him when faced by the existence of evil.
This awakening, according to the Rambam, is the first level of “prophecy”, and is a form of meeting between a person’s inner awareness and a divine inspiration that gives the awareness of its strength and power.
The Torah continues; “Moses was grazing the sheep of Yitro … he guided the sheep far into the wilderness, and he arrived at the Mountain of God.”. Why does Moses guide the sheep “far into the wilderness”? Our rabbis see in this phrase a desire for Moses to distance himself from theft and wrongdoing, so that the flocks would not graze in the fields of other people. In addition to this recollection, there is a Midrash, which tells of Moses arriving in the desert by following a young lamb that was separated from the flock and so it became lost. Moses ran after it to save it.
Both of these explanations follow on directly from what has already been alluded to in the Torah, namely that prophecy is only “awarded” to someone whose moral and personal attributes are complete.
It seems that these challenges that Moses faced were God’s way of determining if Moses was worthy of the difficult and challenging tasks that lay ahead. God saw Moses’ selfless nature, and was satisfied with his commitment.
There is another landmark occasion in this week’s parasha that further helps to define Moses’s mission and presence. The burning bush, to which Moses was exposed when he arrived in the desert, also has a pivotal role to play in the process of Moses being chosen as a leader and a prophet. From the story of the burning bush onwards, we find a progression in Moses’ attitude and a development in his reverence for God. In this week’s parasha, Moses is described as a man who, according to the Torah; “was afraid to gaze towards God”, and he therefore hides his face when God is revealed to him.
Later on in the Torah, we are told of a Moses that stood facing God and was not afraid to seriously argue with God, regarding being divinely chosen to take the people out of Egypt.
What we find is that Moses goes on the mission both as a man obliged to go, and also as a man who, at the end of the day, chooses to go. We learn that it is okay to fear God, yet we are required to look at our development in attitude towards God, religion, and humanity.
This parasha shows us is that we are constantly being tested, not just by God, but also by our fellow human beings, and by ourselves. What may seem like an irrelevant task or occurrence, should be seen as an opportunity for us to act in a responsible and accountable manner, and to lead by example.
It is with this level of knowledge and understanding that we should approach the challenges and tasks that await us, and let us reflect on the path that Moses chose and the courage that he showed, and let us walk in the ways of the just and righteous.