Can we all be like Moses, righteous at the right time


Exodus 1:1–6:1

Isaiah 27:6–28:13, 29:22–29:23

Moses holds a role in the Jewish faith unlike any other biblical character. The concluding paragraph of the Torah tells us that never again in the history of Israel did a prophet rise up like Moses. Only Moses knew God face- to-face and displayed such strength, faith and honesty.

We first meet the adult Moses in Shemot, the first Torah portion in the Book of Exodus. It is in Shemot, 20th-century Zionist Achad Ha’am pointed out, that we see Moses make decisive choices in a variety of situations. Although Chapter 2 has just seven verses, these verses confirm his role as an uncompromising man of justice and action. Once recognized, the fast-paced progression of scenes that unfold in these seven verses can be seen as intentionally crafting our impression of Moses.

In the first encounter, Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Although the description of the story is terse, Moses was so outraged by the sight that he struck down the Egyptian. That Moses would feel compelled to intervene when the victim is a powerless slave and a kinsman seems natural. The Hebrew text doesn’t make clear whether Moses killed the Egyptian deliberately or not, but the rabbis concluded that the homicide kept Moses from entering Canaan.

The second episode involves two Israelite combatants. Although the situation was not as obvious as the beating of a slave, Moses could not hold back from speaking to the offender. Moses felt he had a stake in making peace in the Israelite community. When the offender wonders if Moses will kill him, like the Egyptian, Moses fears Pharaoh’s wrath and flees to the desert.

In the desert, Moses comes across shepherds abusing Tzipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. Here, the role Moses should play is even less clear. He has no direct ties to either party and prudence might dictate that an Israelite who recently killed an Egyptian should not get involved. But this is precisely where we see Moses coming into his own as Moshe Rabbeinu, our most exalted prophet.

In each progressive scenario in these seven verses, it is less obvious that Moses should intervene. But a true prophet cannot tolerate injustice in any situation.

 Michaelangelo was so inspired by such strength of character that he crafted his iconic statue of Moses —flowing hair, tense arms holding tablets and firm jaw — to reflect that unflinching demeanor. Some say the moment captured by the statue is when Moses came down the mountain and saw the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. It was in the next instant that Moses threw the tablets to the ground in anger and disgust.

It was precisely this acute understanding of justice and incredible integrity that made Moses the right man at a crucial time. In order for the Israelites to come together as a people, they needed a leader who would hold them to a higher moral standard.

The rabbis came up with the aphorism “yikov ha’din et ha’har” — let justice pierce the mountain — to describe Moses’ moral integrity and toughness. As we see clearly in Shemot, Moses does not shy away from moral confrontations or go around them. Rather, he meets them head-on — he goes through the mountain. This is in direct contrast to Aaron, his brother, who enables the building of the Golden Calf. Aaron is described as an “ohev shalom v’rodef shalom,” a lover of peace and pursuer of peace. Aaron accommodates and placates.

The world is filled with both types of people, and we need both. There are times for the peace-makers, who can bring opposing sides together. And there are times for those who hold us to a higher moral standard, who help us find the strength to do what is right.

Maimonides wrote that every person has the potential to be as righteous as Moses. May we all bring our own moral strength to bear as we strive to perfect our world.

Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at [email protected]