And Moses Went Out to His Brothers...

Dr. Robert Wexler

Lou and Irma Colen Distinguished Service Lecturer in Bible & President Emeritus

Dr. Robert Wexler served for 26 years as president of American Jewish University (AJU) in Los Angeles. During that time, he established the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, built the Shapiro Synagogue, the Ostrow Academic Library, and the Sperber Jewish Community Library and oversaw the acquisition of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. Dr. Wexler has taught at Princeton University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages. He received his B.A., M.A. and PhD degrees from UCLA and his MBA degree from Baruch College (CUNY).  He also received an M.A. in Jewish Studies and was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Currently, Dr. Wexler serves as the Colen Distinguished Service Professor at AJU and as an organizational consultant to a variety of non-profit organizations in the Jewish community.

posted on April 15, 2022

The Torah provides very little detail about the early life of Moses. In the first ten verses of Exodus, chapter 2, we quickly learn that he was born to Hebrew parents, was saved from death by the ingenuity and courage of his mother and sister, and was adopted by the daughter of Pharoah who raised him as her son.

Then, in the very next verse we read, “Sometime after that, when Moses grew up, he went out to his brothers and witnessed their sufferings…” (Exodus 2:11). Despite his royal upbringing, Moses was aware of his origins, but we are not told why he felt impelled to seek out his people. Most certainly he could have lived out his life in luxury as an Egyptian nobleman, yet he chose a path that bound him to the fate of a nation of slaves.

Commenting on the words “…Moses grew up,” the sages of the Midrash ask why we need that information. After all, everyone grows up. Their answer: “He grew up in a manner, unlike the whole world.” Moses “grew up” to be a great personage in the house of Pharoah, but had he been like most people, he might well have forgotten or at least pretended to forget, his humble origins. Had he been like most people, he would have ensured his own prosperity by avoiding his enslaved brethren and ignoring their concerns and their sufferings.

A life-altering moment for Moses came when he witnessed an Egyptian thrashing a Hebrew slave, “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that, saw no one about, and he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12) By inserting the somewhat superfluous words “one of his kinsmen,” the text signals that Moses had retained his sense of identity as a Hebrew. Perhaps acting on instinct, Moses killed the offending Egyptian, and in doing so, began a 40-year journey of leadership that ended at the very threshold of the Promised Land.

On examination, Moses’ spontaneous act of heroism, may well have been less courageous than it initially appears. After all, before defending the Hebrew slave, Moses first “turned this way and that [and] saw no one about.” A more literal translation would be “he turned this way and that and saw there was no man.” Despite the efforts of rabbinic tradition to provide a positive spin on Moses’ actions, his behavior does appear to be that of a man who was only prepared to act once he assured himself that there would be no witnesses and, therefore, no repercussions.

Some have suggested that Moses was not concerned about witnesses but rather leapt into action once he realized that “there was no man,” that is, there was no one else around to intervene. Still, this interpretation implies that Moses would have preferred someone else to do the job.

Moses’ initial reluctance to act does not disqualify him as a hero. The path to heroism, even if indirect, is less important than the heroic act itself. Furthermore, as Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm points out, most people of the world, including some very good people, tend to share the sorrow of others for only a brief period—an insight that has not lost its potency even in the 21st century. But Moses never abandoned the pursuit of justice, nor did he ever forsake the welfare of his people. Not only did he come through for the Hebrew slave he rescued, but he went on to lead his oft-contentious people for the remainder of his life.

Moses, the hero of the Passover story, is essentially left out of the Haggadah. The usual explanation is that the Haggadah de-emphasized the role played by Moses to ensure that we give exclusive credit for our liberation to God alone. We are reminded that the Divine takes precedence over the human.  Nevertheless, we can still sense the dominant presence of Moses on every page of the Haggadah as we undertake our annual, vicarious journey from enslavement to redemption.

Larger-than-life heroes cannot serve as role models. Flawed heroes, like Moses, who are conflicted, who sometimes hesitate to act, who experience frustration and even complain aloud about their lot in life are accessible heroes. They signal that the duty to confront injustice, to sustain compassion and to champion the oppressed is not alone the obligation of the natural-born hero but rather a realizable proposition for any among us.