By Jane E. Herman
Several times in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), Moses, destined to be among history’s greatest leaders, displays what the Reverend Adam Hamilton, the broadminded senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, described as “a deep and courageous compassion for the marginalized and the oppressed.” Reverend Hamilton shared these words in his sermon at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service on the occasion of Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
Indeed, in Moses’ first appearance as an adult, it is compassion for his own people, slaves in Egypt, that prompts him to strike and kill an Egyptian taskmaster:
“[W]hen Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:11-12)
The next day, seeing two Hebrew slaves fighting, he again displays kindheartedness, this time toward the trampled one, asking the other: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). In this encounter, he learns that his deed of the previous day is known, and he flees to Midian.
Having barely arrived there, he watered the flocks of Jethro after shepherds chased the latter’s daughters from the troughs (Exodus 2:17). Moses remains in Midian, marries Zipporah, one of Jethro’s daughters and for a time, lives the life of a shepherd.
In the Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2, we again see Moses display uninhibited compassion, this time toward an animal. Tending his flock, he followed a kid that ran from the group. When the lamb stopped at a pond in a shady spot to drink, Moses said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty,” before carrying the weary lamb back to the others. In response to Moses’ action, God said: “You are compassionate in tending to flocks belonging to humans. I swear you will similarly shepherd my flock Israel.”
When Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush, the Eternal tells him:
“I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings…. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.” (Exodus 3:7, 9)
God, echoing the midrash and perhaps, too, the compassionate behavior the Eternal repeatedly sees Moses exhibit, concludes by telling the shepherd, “I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)
As Jewish tradition teaches, it is incumbent upon us to partner with God to repair our fractured world. The notion that God seeks out humanity, writes Abraham Joshua Heschel in “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism,” “signifies not a quality inherent in the people but a relationship between the people and God.” In this parashah, we see such a relationship between Moses and God (and also the tensions between them) clearly, but we see even more. God, in observing Moses’ repeated acts of compassion, seems to twist the idea of “b’tzelem Elohim” (in the image of the Divine) by acting “b’tzelem Moshe” (in the image of Moses), the Eternal’s partner, to begin alleviating the oppression and cruelty so long inflicted upon the Children of Israel—and to make them all God’s own.
In this new secular year, may we strengthen our acquaintance with the Holy One and together with the Eternal, continue (or perhaps inaugurate) our own efforts to infuse compassion for those on the edges into even one small corner of our blighted world.