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... Joseph died, and all his brothers and that entire generation. The Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong ... and the land became filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." (Exodus 1:6-8)
These verses reveal the seeds of anti-Semitism. The Tribal Patriarchs, the zeides - the entire generation who kept the nation anchored to their faith – died. At the same time, the Jewish people increased, multiplied in great numbers, spread out all over Egypt, and became part of the Egyptian culture. And with that acculturation, we encounter the beginnings of anti-Semitism.
There is a new Pharaoh, "who did not know Joseph." But how can that be? Would the president of the United States claim that he does not know who preceded him in the White House? Our Sages explain that Pharaoh did not want to know Joseph. He did not want to acknowledge that Joseph literally saved Egypt from doom. Nor did he wish to recognize the contributions of the Jewish people. We see this very same pattern of anti-Semitism throughout our history.
Our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, has often related that many assimilated Jews in Europe had proudly averred that they were Germans, Hungarians, etc., and Jews not at all. These Jews were totally shattered emotionally and spiritually when they discovered that, despite their loyalty, contributions, and sacrifices for their respective countries, they were overnight labeled "Jews, enemies of mankind," and were marked for extermination. Yes, there was a new king in Europe who did not know Joseph. Millennia have passed and nothing has changed; we, the Jewish people, have yet to comprehend that anti-Semitism is rooted in assimilation and that there is only one place where we can find shelter: It is within our God-given Torah way of life.
In Parashas Shemos, we meet for the very first time the greatest prophet who ever walked on Planet Earth, the man who actually spoke to God face to face – Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses, our Rabbi, our Teacher. Moses was brilliant, strong, handsome, and powerful, yet it was not for any of these reasons that he was chosen to be a leader.
What rendered Moses great? What are the qualities that enable a man to transcend himself and become a spiritual giant?
It is written, "... vayigdal Moshe – Moses grew up and went out to his [enslaved] brethren and observed their burdens...."1 Moses not only saw his people's pain, but he felt it, and he not only felt it, but he strove to do something about it, as we see further in the verses.
Raised in the palace of Pharaoh, Moses was a royal prince in the mightiest empire in the world. He could have shut his eyes and remained indifferent to the anguished cries of his brethren, but he chose to give up the opulence of the palace, the power of his royal position, to commiserate with his oppressed brethren in the slave camps. He took on their torment; he wept for them, he prayed for them, he fought for them, and as a child he had even convinced Pharaoh to allow them to rest one day in seven. Thus, Moses enabled the Jewish people in Egypt to observe Shabbos, and to this very day, every Shabbos, we recall his gift in the Amidah (the Shemoneh Esrei) of Shacharis (the morning prayer service) when we declare, "Yismach Moshe ... Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion." And keep in mind that at this point in his life, he had not been charged with a mission. No Divine voice had yet summoned him. He did what he did out of the goodness, the purity of his own soul, and herein is to be found his greatness.
The pain and the love that Moses felt for his fellow Jews remained forever etched on his heart. When he was forced to flee from Egypt and his first son was born in Midian, Moses called him "Gershom," which reminded him that he too was sojourning in a strange land, just as his brethren were. And at the burning bush, God spoke about the suffering of his brethren, who were engulfed in the fires of Egypt, but who, despite their torment, were not consumed and remained Jews.
The Midrash relates that, prior to commissioning Moses with his mission, God gave him yet one more test. While Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, in the desert, a little lamb ran away. Concerned for his charge, Moses went in search of it. After a while, he found the animal drinking at a brook. "My poor little lamb," Moses said, reaching out for it. "I didn't know you were thirsty; forgive me. You must be weary." And with that, he picked up the lamb, placed it on his shoulders, and carried it back to the flock.
Then a Heavenly voice was heard: "This is the man who is worthy of shepherding My people." And so, Moses became the "Ro'eh Ne'eman – the loyal shepherd of Israel."
One need not be a rabbi or rebbetzin; one need not major in psychology, nor need one take a special course in leadership to be a loyal shepherd. One need only feel love toward those whom one guides, be concerned for their welfare, and dedicate oneself to them. With understanding and empathy, and guided always by God's laws, one will be able to lead one's family in the path of righteousness.
The Torah testifies that no other person even came close to the greatness of Moses in his perception of God's prophecy. While we cannot possibly fully comprehend his majesty, we will try to note some of the great abilities that made him unique. Perhaps one way to do so is to contrast his life to that of Noah.
Initially, the Torah describes Moses in very modest terms. The daughters of Jethro even refer to him as "an Egyptian man."2 On the other hand, Noah is described in glowing terms as a tzaddik, "a perfectly righteous man."3 At the end of their lives, however, their roles are reversed. Moses is called "the servant of God,"4 and Noah is called "the man of the earth."5 What was it that led to the spiritual ascent of Moses and the spiritual descent of Noah?
Yes, Noah built the Ark as God had commanded, but he never put his life on the line to save others. He did not plead with God to save his generation. In contrast, when the survival of the Jewish people was in jeopardy following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with God to forgive the people or "erase my name from Your Book." The Torah teaches that we measure our success not by what we achieve for ourselves, but rather, by how we impact on our fellow man and the extent through which we become a blessing to others. This does not mean that we should neglect ourselves or our own needs, but rather, that we should expand ourselves to include others and make their concerns our own.
The average person may better relate to this concept through the oneness he feels with his immediate family, but if he can extend this oneness, this love, to encompass a larger circle, his own soul will expand and he will emerge stronger and better for the experience. Moses came by this love naturally; it was in his genes. His mother, Jochebed, and his sister, Miriam, were the midwives of the Jewish community who courageously defied Pharaoh's decree and saved the babies. And more: they lovingly cared for every infant as if it were their own.
To Moses, every soul was dear and precious. He cared for and worried about each and every person in his flock. Awed by the greatness of Moses, we can endeavor to emulate him in some measure and bond with our brothers, feel their pain, rejoice in their joy, and extend chesed to them.
Were we to be told that, during the Holocaust, Hitler's daughter decided to convert to Judaism, we would dismiss the idea out of hand. It simply wouldn't be credible. So how can we explain the phenomenon of Bitya's desire to convert? After all, her father was the "Hitler" of his generation, attempting to destroy the Jewish nation even before it became a reality.
The Kabbalah teaches that Bitya was a gilgul (reincarnation) of Eve, the first woman. In the Garden of Eden, Eve stretched out her hand to take the forbidden fruit,6 thereby extinguishing the light of the world – the law of God. Centuries later, she is reborn to perform a tikun (rectification) of her misdeed, so she stretches out her hand again, this time to rescue the basket that contains the light of the world: Moses, who would ascend Sinai, give us the Torah, and restore God's light.
We have no way of knowing whether we lived in an earlier life or what failings we may have been guilty of perpetrating. But one thing we can know with certainty: Whatever tests or challenges come our way, we must rise to the occasion and reach beyond ourselves to pass them. It is God Who is Master of the world, and He places tests and challenges in our paths so that we may fulfill our true purpose and mission in life. So, when confronted by challenges, let us never feel overwhelmed or paralyzed. Hashem would never test us with a mission which we are not capable of fulfilling.