A man of justice

Empathy is a powerful driving force, and ultimately is of great value in charitable actions and results. However, there is another potential catalyst to be seen when viewing those who are oppressed and in need of aid.

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 00:26

Judaism בלעדיהם לא היינו שורדים
בלעדיהם לא היינו שורדים

When Moshe first enters Egyptian society, as presented in the Torah portion of Shemot, his first exploit is to strike down the Egyptian oppressor and save the Jewish slave from his torture. Moshe flees to Midian, and the scene changes to the daughters of the priest of Midian gathered by a well. The story plays out as follows (Shemot 2:16-17) :

“Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks. But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them [vayoshian] and watered their flocks.”

Moshe certainly appears magnanimous. The daughters then return home (ibid 18-19):

“They came to their father Reuel, and he said, "Why have you come so quickly today?" They replied, "An Egyptian man [ish mitzri] rescued [hitzil] us from the hand[s] of the shepherds, and he also drew [water] for us and watered the flocks."”

It is interesting to note that Moshe is not named by the daughters. He is identified as ish mitztri.

Yitro (the common understanding of their father) seems horrified (ibid 20):

“He said to his daughters, "So where is he? Why have you left the man [ish]? Invite him, and let him eat bread."”

Indeed, it seems quite troubling that Moshe was not invited. Where was the hakarat hatov, the recognition of the good and the gratitude? We also see that Yitro refers now to Moshe as ish, rather than ish mitzri. Why the change?

Moshe then joins the family for the meal (ibid 21):

“Moses consented to stay with the man, and he gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses”

The idea of Moshe “consenting” is also an odd method of describing joining the family for a meal. 

As noted above, there are a number of issues that require clarification. However, there is a subtle change in language that is confusing. The daughters of Yitro refer to Moshe’s action as being saved, or hatzala. Yet the Torah describes it as salvation, or yeshua. Why the two different descriptions of saving the women? 

Finally, there is a Midrash that offers a severe rebuke of Moshe. The daughters identify Moshe to their father as ish mitztri. He should have been identified as ish ivri, an individual from the land of the Ivrim. The reference here is to the Land of Israel, where the patriarchs and matriarchs resided. Yosef, when addressing the Sar Mashkim while in prison, describes himself as being from the land of the Ivrim. For this detail, Yosef’s bones were to be buried in Israel. However, since Moshe failed to allow himself to be presented as from the land of Ivrim, he is punished by not having his bones buried in Israel.

This is an extremely harsh critique of Moshe. Not only is it severe, we know much later on in the narrative that Moshe never enters into the Land of Israel for a the incident with the rock. How do we make sense of this Midrash?

The key to understanding this episode lies in the different views of Moshe’s actions. When Moshe enters the scene in Midian, it is clear the women were being harassed. In such a situation, it is normal to first identify with the suffering of those being oppressed. The catalyst for assisting then emerges from a simple equation: if the observer were in the role of being oppressed, being rescued would be exactly what the person would desire. Who would not want to be helped in such a situation? Thus, through identifying with the person’s suffering, the desire to help emerges. 

One should not think that aiding someone through such a causal chain is problematic. Empathy is a powerful driving force, and ultimately is of great value in charitable actions and results. However, there is another potential catalyst when viewing those who are oppressed and in need of aid. When an injustice occurs, the very presence of such a perversion of principles becomes that which drives the individual to act. The observer sees a distortion, now moved to act; identifying with the person’s suffering is not part of the process. Such an individual does not necessarily lack empathy; rather, the person is purely motivated by the tenets of justice alone. 

The episode with Yitro’s daughters brings to light these two viewpoints and the uniqueness of Moshe. In their view, Moshe identified with their plight, and acted accordingly. He saved them, and act of hatzala, the empathetic approach to assistance. The Torah, though, describes Moshe’s action as that of yeshua, an act of salvation. The idea of salvation is normally linked to Divine action. R Yehuda HaLevi, in the Kuzari, notes that while humans identify with suffering and then act, God acts like a judge. The Divine response reflects pure justice. Moshe possessed this view, seeing the plight of the oppressed as a problem in and of itself. His actions were then guided by a desire to right the wrong.

We can now understand a bit more about the confusion with Yitro in the behavior of his daughters. It is possible there was never a formal introduction between Moshe and the daughters. Moshe sought no personal attachment to his actions, no potential ego gratification. It was unimportant who he was, and he sought to keep it that way. Being invited over and offered praise and gratitude was something he had no interest in, as it would tie his individuality to the action. The daughters did not exhibit a flaw; instead, Moshe excused himself from the scene. 

Yitro sensed this ideal in Moshe. He understood that this person was special, possessing a view that set him apart from everyone else. He respected this unique trait, acknowledging his anonymity, removing any description of Moshe other than “man”. Understanding Yitro valued Moshe’s outlook on the world, rather than wanting to merely heap praise on Moshe, led Moshe to “consent” to join Yitro and his family. 

All this places Moshe on a pedestal. And yet the Sages critique Moshe for not mentioning his origins. Why was this so important? Yitro’s understanding of the uniqueness of Moshe came at a price. Moshe was unique in contrast to the culture of Egypt, a society led by a megalomaniac Pharaoh and steeped in idolatry. Moshe, in this view, was the best of the Egyptians. In this instance, Moshe should have sensed an opportunity to teach Yitro and his daughters how his outlook was part of an ideological system, put in place by the patriarchs and matriarchs. The name of the land reflected the ideological stamp placed by his forefathers. As an individual, Moshe’s actions were to be emulated. As a representative of the monotheistic view, obliged to spread the ideas of God to the world, he did not take the necessary step forward. This perceived dissociation from the Jewish outlook would appear to be the target of the rebuke by the Sages.

Notwithstanding this misstep by Moshe, we see an incredibly powerful ideal exhibited by the future leader of the Jewish people. Moshe’s first engaging with the outside world involves his killing of an Egyptian. Yet, in that instance, the story could easily have been one of Moshe siding with his people over the Egyptians. Had the roles been reversed, one might conclude Moshe would never have acted. In the story of the daughters of Yitro, we see Moshe’s view of injustice consecrated in the Torah, a reflection both on the previous and present incidents.

To be motivated purely by what is right and wrong is a trait reflecting the actions of the Divine. Moshe is now ready to take the next step.