His Brother’s Keeper

His Brother’s Keeper

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:35 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 6:2­9:35
Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25­29:21
Havdalah: 5:39 p.m. 

What makes Moses, Moses? He is certainly the consummate prophet, the man of God whose code of law commands us to this very day. He took a bedraggled people from slavery into freedom. However, the central characteristic of Moses was his love of the Jewish people.

When he witnesses an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, he kills the Egyptian. Moses was a prince of Egypt, yet Moses risks it all for one of his “brothers.” Ordinarily, revolutionary careers begin with selfless acts and it would be logical to assume that someone who put his life on the line for the Hebrews would be a hero at home, among his own people. Moses experiences the exact opposite. The following day, when he chances upon two Israelites fighting and tries to stop it, their response is cynical. “Who made you our judge? Do you want to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” [Exodus 2:14]. In an instant, Moses realizes that his killing of the Egyptian is public knowledge and so Pharaoh’s palace is no longer open to him.

Moses becomes a refugee, escaping into the desert. There, he can live out his years as one more person who tried to make a difference, failed, and left the stage of history. But God appears to him from within the flames of a burning bush, urging him to become the redeemer of his people. Moses demurs, fearing that as a stutterer he could never convince Pharaoh. It is precisely because he loves the Jewish people so much that he wants the best candidate to present their case. Only when God says that his brother Aaron will become his mouthpiece does Moses’ resistance cease … for the moment.

When Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, the result is utter failure. Instead of relenting, Pharaoh tightens the screws, and now the Israelite slaves are ordered to gather the straw for the bricks they must bake in the hot sun.

Vaera, opens with the verse, “God spoke to Moses, and said to him, I am the Lord…” [Ex. 6:2]. The Chatam Sofer notes in his work Torat Moshe an interesting use of language in this verse. It relates directly to three verses earlier when Moses’ response to Pharaoh’s increased tyranny was a pointed rebuttal to God, “Lord, why do you do evil to this people?” [Ex. 5:22]. Instead of being angered by such strong language, God is pleased with Moses’ willingness to confront Him. Better to speak tough with God than to speak out against the Jewish people.

The English translation of the opening verse of Vaera does not completely capture the significance to which the Chatam Sofer alerts us. In the Torah, the first use of God is rendered Elohim, signifying the powerful or judging aspect of God, while the next use of God, translated Lord, is in fact God’s four­letter [Yud­Hey­Vuv­Hey] name, signifying God’s merciful, compassionate nature. Similarly, the first “speak” in Hebrew is “va’yedaber,” which is a harsher form of speaking, while the second “speak” is the Hebrew word “va’yomer,” a softer, gentler form of speaking.

Even after Moses was rejected by his own people and forced to live in Midian, Moses forgives the Israelites. Moses is the leader God wants for this new nation because he is ready for anything the Israelites may throw at him. He has no illusions about the people he will lead. He has experienced their ingratitude and sensed their independence. He can sympathize with Ben­Gurion’s comment to Truman: “You may be president of 140 million citizens, but I am the prime minister of 600,000 prime ministers.”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the great chasidic master, was banished from two rabbinic posts because of his chasidic sympathies. His students wondered what he would do next and he answered that he would seek a third position. But why? For the honor, he answered. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was not being ironic — he was very serious. He explained that leading a Jewish town was always an honor for a rabbi, even if the people did not honor you in return. Apparently, he learned this from Moses.

Moses’ outreach towards his hapless and enslaved people and his willingness to assume a leadership role only if it is together with his brother Aaron makes him the archetypal brother, the towering figure of the Book of Exodus, and a sharp contrast to the “brotherly hatred” within the Book of Genesis. It is not easy to love one’s brothers, but a true leader is someone who can feel connected to every other Jew. Siblings have the potential to love each other unconditionally, even when that love is repaid with a curse. That love was Moses’ greatest gift and his most impressive legacy.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat. 


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