An Emotional Drama

This week's reading is full of mystery and drama.

Contact Editor
Rabbi Nachman Kahana,

Rabbi Nachman Kahana
Rabbi Nachman Kahana
אתר האינטרנט של הרב

At the heart of our Torah reading is one of the most emotionally charged human dramas in history, before which the greatest plays of Shakespeare pale.

The story of the child with the Hebrew name Tuvia (or Avigdor), who later became the Egyptian called Moses.

The following are only a few of the mysteries hidden in the Torah reading.

The Torah relates that Moses went out one day "to his brothers and he saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew of his brothers." Moses is so reviled by the scene that he kills the Egyptian.

1) Why was Moses so shocked at the beating of a Jewish slave? Did he not know that millions of Jews were being beaten daily ?

2) If indeed the conduct of the Egyptian taskmaster justified his being punished, why did Moses not bring the matter before his adopted father, the Pharaoh? Why did he prefer to run away?

3) Of all people in the land of Midian, how is it that Moses finds himself "by chance" in the house of Yitro?

4) At the scene of the mysterious burning bush, for a period of seven days, Moses rejects Hashem’s command that he return to Egypt. How does one argue with the Creator for even an instant, much less a whole week?

5) How does Moses enter the palace — and attain an audience with Pharaoh — seemingly at will? And when he orders Pharaoh to free millions of slaves, why does Pharaoh tolerate Moses at all? Why does he not give the order to rid himself of this man?

6) At the first meeting with Pharaoh which transpired before the first plague, a full year before the death of the birth born Egyptians, Moses already warns Pharaoh that his own "bechor" (first born) will "die." But Pharaoh had no bechor, his only child was his daughter Batya (Bitya)?

I suggest the following but with reserve and apology if I am wrong.

We meet Moses for the first time as a infant, the next time he appears in the Torah as an adult with the Egyptian name Moses.

As a member of the royal family, being the adopted son of Batya, he was certainly well versed in Egyptian culture. He undoubtedly completed the officer’s training course at "West Point" and he was the honored guest at the cocktail parties given by the movers and shakers of Egyptian society.

Don’t believe that Amram and Yocheved had visitation rights with the young Moses, and at these opportunities his true father taught him Yiddishkeit. Moses was culturally an Egyptian. He was the beloved "son" of Pharaoh, and as the Midrash tells us, Pharaoh would often hold him on his lap. Pharaoh, his daughter, and many of the older courtiers (and probably Moses himself), were aware of Moses’s background — he was a Hebrew who was adopted by the childless Batya.

With this in mind Pharaoh, who very much loved the clever and handsome Moses, was anxious to eradicate every semblance of Moses’s past from the boys’s consciousness, and certainly anxious to hide from him the intolerable servitude of the Hebrew people. The way to do this was to distance Moses from life’s realities. And as Rashi comments, Pharaoh appointed Moses "al beito" — "over his palace," whereby Moses would remain far from matters of the realm, having to concentrate on the complex affairs of the royal court.

One day, the Torah relates, Moses ventures out to see the hinterland. He perceives a scene which was totally unexpected — the mass oppression of the Jewish people as the basis of the Egyptian economy. He is overwhelmed when he sees a taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. Moses’s sense of outrage arouses him to punish the oppressor.

Moses is distraught — not because he killed the man, but rather, he was traumatized at the knowledge that Pharaoh, the man he loved as a father, is capable of this inhuman treatment to a people who did only good for the Egyptian nation. It is like waking up one day to find out that one’s father was the commandant of the Auschwitz extermination camp.

Moses could confront Pharaoh with the fact that he is now aware of the secret which was being held back from him. But to do so would be to accuse the man whom Moses loved so much of heinous crimes; Pharaoh, who saved Moses from death and provided him with the life of a prince. Moses saw only one way out — to run away. Because to fulfill his moral obligation of standing up to Pharaoh and the entire Egyptian leadership was too awesome a task.

Moses arrives at the home of Yitro. Who was Yitro? The Talmud (Tractate Sota) tells us that Pharaoh had three advisors: Yitro, Bil’am and Ei’yov. When Pharaoh brought up the matter of enslaving the Jews, Bil’am agreed, Ei’yov gave no opinion and Yitro RAN AWAY.

Hashem plans it that Moses, the RUNAWAY from his responsibilities, finds himself in the home of the original runaway, Yitro. During the cold winter nights of Midian, while sitting around the fire, Moses looks at Yitro and thinks to himself: if Yitro had not escaped his moral responsibilities, and had he rejected outright the proposal to enslave the Jews, there would have been no slavery. And Yitro, who knew Moses as a child, looks at Moses and thinks that Moses is the only person in the kingdom who can influence Pharaoh, but Moses ran away!

One day, Moses is tending the sheep at Mount Horev, and sees a wondrous sight — a burning bush which is not consumed. He draws closer and hears a voice. But it is not the voice of Hashem. It is the influence of this holy place which arouses Moses’s conscience. For seven days Moses’s conscience paralyzes him at that spot. To return and confront Pharaoh with the fact that he is a despot, or to let time run its course? At the end of seven days Moses resolves his conflict and decides to return and help his Jewish family. At this point Hashem appears to Moses, but only after Moses’s internal decision was to do the right thing.

Moses returns to Egypt and to the palace; to the place of his childhood and to his beloved "mother" Batya, and to Pharaoh whom he dearly loves.

I picture the scene as follows: Moses arrives at the palace gates, after being away (according to one opinion) for forty years. He requests of the guard to allow him entrance to the palace, to speak with Pharaoh. The sentry asks him if he has an appointment? Moses says he does not, but requests the sentry to inform Pharaoh that "Moses" is here. The sentry goes inside to Pharaoh’s personal secretary telling him that a certain "Moses" wants to see Pharaoh. The secretary probably answered that without a previous appointment no one can see Pharaoh. The sentry tells the secretary that the strange-looking man said to tell Pharaoh that "Moses" wishes an audience. The private secretary goes into the throne room and tells Pharaoh that a certain "Moses" wishes an audience. Pharaoh jumps up and calls out to Batya to come immediately. "Moses is back!" Moses comes in. Pharaoh looks at Moses and asks, "Where have you been all this time? Look. Your mother Batya who saved your life, look at her eyes which have not stopped crying out of longing for you." Then Pharaoh says to Moses, "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Moses looks at Pharaoh and at his beloved Batya, and with tears in his eyes calls out to Pharaoh "sh’lach et ami" — "let my people go!" Pharaoh descends from his throne and says, "Moses, WE are your people!" Moses answers, "The Israelite slaves are my people." And Moses continues, "And if you do not send out the Jews, then Hashem will kill your first born son." But since Pharaoh has no son, Moses was telling Pharaoh that if does not free the Jews then he, Moses, will no longer feel as a son to Pharaoh. Pharaoh cannot bear this threat from his beloved Moses, but he also cannot free the slaves.

I cannot prove that this is in fact what transpired, but it must have been very similar. For it must have been Pharaoh’s love towards Moses which prevented the former from killing the man who would overturn the entire national order. And it had to be a person like Moses, who was intimately associated with Pharaoh, who could come before the royal court and not be overwhelmed by the grandeur of the ambience.

The emotional scenes between Moses and Pharaoh end in a very surprising way. Chazal say that all the Egyptian army was destroyed at the crossing of Yam Suf except for one person who was saved — Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh is saved by Hashem in deference to Moses’s love for the man who so much loved Moses.

Now, Moses’s mission was to bring Pharaoh down to his knees, and agree to free the Jewish nation. But how can Moses, who is eternally grateful to Pharaoh and Batya for everything they did for him, bring suffering to those he loved and respected so much?

Hashem has to cause a change of heart in Moses regarding Pharaoh and all of the ministers and courtiers he knows so well. Moses has to come from the heights of love to the heights of enmity and hostility. Hashem succeeds in bringing this about by sending Moses to Pharaoh to plead for his people. But when Pharaoh refuses and indeed commands that the yoke of servitude be made heavier, Moses sees the man for what he really is. Moses is now in the mindset to bring punishment upon Pharaoh.

If going into the 80th year of the cruel and relentless period of our slavery in Egypt, a periodical would have published the following prediction, what would a rational person conclude?

"A major member of the royal court will soon reveal himself to be a Jew, and will lead the Jewish slaves to freedom".

The reader would conclude that the writer was trying to draw the readers’ attention.

If the article continued, "This individual will bring about ten plagues in one year which will cause havoc with the Egyptian economy, cause great physical pain to all the Egyptians and bring the Angel of Death to every Egyptian family".

The rational reader would conclude that the writer was delusional.

If the article continued: "Pharaoh will be forced to free the Jewish slaves taking with them all the Egyptian wealth; however 80% of the Jews, numbering millions of people, will refuse to follow their great leader, choosing to remain in Egypt, and will die during the plague of darkness."

The rational reader would now conclude that the writer was guilty of drug abuse.

And if the article continued: "The newly freed Jewish people will experience a spiritual revelation resulting in their being designated the Creator’s chosen nation. And after one year of sojourn in the desert, they will be commanded by God to enter the holy land; however out of fear of the resident Canaanites they will refuse and the entire male generation of 600 thousand men will die".

At this point the rational reader will conclude that the writer who suggested that 80% of the nation will refuse to leave Egypt and die, and another 600 thousand will refuse Hashem’s directive to enter the Land and will die, is not delusional nor is he under the influence of drugs - he is simply an anti-Semite searching out the iniquities of the Jewish people.

If in the year 1900, a periodical would have published the following predictions, what would a rational Jew think?

"After 2000 years of prayer that Hashem restore His people to their land, a grass roots movement will begin to arouse the Jewish people to return home, but will encounter opposition from many illustrious religious leaders."

The reader would conclude that the writer was merely trying to draw attention, because rabbis would be the first to lead the people in returning to the holy land.

If the article continued: "In forty years, the enlightened German together with many willing Christians and Moslems will construct extermination camps where over 7 million Jews (present estimate of historians) will be shot, gassed and burned to death".

The reader would conclude that the writer was delusional, because: 1- the enlightened peoples of Europe could never do such things, 2- by that time the Jews of Europe would already have followed their rabbis to Israel

If the article continued: "After the murders, two thirds of the worlds nations will join in an organization called the United Nations and vote for the establishment of an independent Jewish State. However, a great number of religious Jews will choose not to return to the holy land, but will continue to pray that Hashem bring them home.

At this point, the reader would conclude that the writer is suffering from drug abuse, because if the world’s nations would ever vote for a Jewish State it would be the obvious "hand" of Hashem.

And if the article continued: "There will be very vocal religious groups in the galut which will side with the worst of the Jewish State’s enemies, such as Iran which has stated publicly that they will erase the Jewish State. And there will be large numbers of religious people in the State who will prefer to go to jail or worse rather than serve in the IDF."

Now the reader would conclude that the writer, who suggested that observant Jews will refuse to leave the Diaspora, and some would aid our enemies, and others would deny the great mitzva of defending the holy land, is not delusional nor under the influence of drugs - he is simply an anti-Semite. Because the first to join in the defense of Israel would be the religious in the spirit of King David.

However, truth is stranger than fiction, and nothing is more difficult than relating the conduct of certain "dati" (religious) groups and cults with the ideals of classic Judaism.

Love of fellow Jew. Love of the land and willingness to defend our sovereignty against all enemies. And the presentation of Torah and mitzvot in a manner that draws the "pintele Yid", bit of Jew in the soul,  into the golden circle of G-d’s chosen people.

Many Jews are suffering from amnesia; forgetting who we are, who our ancestors were, from where we have come and where we are supposed to be.

Rabbi Nachman Kahana is an Orthodox Rabbinic Scholar, Rav of Chazon Yechezkel Synagogue – Young Israel of the Old City of Jerusalem, Founder and Director of Center for Kohanim and Author of the 14-volume Mei Menuchot series on Tosefot (covering 135 chapters of the Talmud) and With All Your Might