After many years of Jewish suffering under the heavy burden of Egyptian servitude, Hashem decides that the time has finally come to redeem His people. In order to do so He chooses Moshe to be His representative and to lead the people to freedom. Given the significance of this decision it is curious, therefore, that we are never told why Moshe – and not someone else – was selected for this important task. What had Moshe, with his Egyptian name and childhood spent in the palace of Pharaoh, done to deserve this appointment?
Perhaps an answer to this question can be found in the Torah’s very first description of Moshe, not as a passive baby, but as an adult and active party: “Va’yigdal Moshe,” Moshe grew up, “va’yeztei el echav va’yar be’sivlosam,” and he went out to his brothers and he saw their afflictions, “va’yar ish Mitzri makeh ish Ivri me’echav,” he saw an Egyptian task master beating his Jewish brother. After looking all around, “va’yar ki ein ish,” Moshe saw that there was no one else so he intervened and killed the Egyptian (Shemos 2:11-12). A careful reading of this event notes that these pesukim repeat the word “va’yar,” stressing what Moshe saw – and didn’t see – in the field.
The apparent focus on this word is confirmed when we examine Hashem’s initial statement to Moshe at the burning bush. When describing why He had decided to free the Jewish people Hashem relates that, “ra’oh ra’isi es ani ami asher be’Mitzrayim,” I have surely seen the affliction of My people in Egypt (3:7), and then again, “ve’gam ra’isi es ha-lachatz asher Mitzrayim lochatzim osam,” I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing them (3:9). Just like with Moshe, here too regarding Hashem, the Torah repeatedly mentions what was seen.
It seems clear that the Torah is linking Moshe and Hashem through this common terminology but it is not clear why, of all things, it is the sense of sight which connects them. Rashi explains that, in fact, what is being described was not Hashem’s ability to see but rather, “samti lev le’hisbonen u-leda’as es mach’ovav ve’lo he’elamti einai,” that He truly empathized with and felt the pain of the Jewish people. In other words, it is an emotional form of sight which is being stressed.
Regarding the Torah’s description of Moshe, here too Rashi explains that the focus is not on the physical sense of seeing, but rather, “nasan einav ve’libo lihiyis meitzar aleihem,” that Moshe truly connected with and was concerned about what was happening to his brothers. It’s actually remarkable that, when one considers Moshe’s privileged and protected background, he was able to nevertheless empathize with an experience so different from his own.
Perhaps it is this shared characteristic that led Hashem to choose Moshe to carry out the mission of redemption. Hashem was looking for a leader who shared His “vision” and in Moshe He found someone who was able to see not just with his eyes but with his heart as well.
Certainly this is a lesson for all of us to heed. Not just seeing – as opposed to averting our gaze – but empathizing with the pain of others is a basic characteristic of mentchlichkeit.
There is one additional point that should be added, and that is that in both of these instances the feeling of empathy is followed by action. When Moshe saw what the Egyptain task master was doing he immediately acted to defend his fellow Jew and when Hashem felt the burden and pain of the Jewish people He started the process redemption. Seeing and feeling are important – but even better is when they lead to action.
At the end of Birkat Ha-Mazon we recite the verse, “na’ar hayisi gam zakanti ve’lo ra’isi tzaddik ne’ezav,” I have been a young lad and I have aged and I have never seen a righteous person forsaken (Tehillim 37:25). The simple translation of this statement is quite difficult to understand; after all, it doesn’t seem to be true. Are there really no tzaddikim who are suffering? Is there really no injustice in the world?
I once read a beautiful explanation of this verse in the name Rabbi Leo Jung which actually corresponds to the idea we mentioned above. R. Jung suggested that the word “ra’isi” needs to be understood along the same lines as it was understood by Rashi in our parsha. Just as Moshe and Hashem “saw” in the sense that they felt the pain of others and then acted to ameliorate that pain, so too we can understand this statement. Dovid Ha-Melech declares that there was never a time – “ve’lo ra’isi” – that he saw injustice and didn’t act upon it. On the contrary, whatever pain he may have witnessed he tried to help and he tried to do something about.
Not coincidentally, this is the same word that Esther used when she asked Achashverosh to save the Jews of Persia (Megillas Esther 8:6): “eichecha u-chal ve’raisi,” how can I see the pain of my brothers and sisters and not do anything about it.
This was the lesson of Moshe’s selection and this has been the legacy of Jewish leadership ever since. From Moshe to Dovid to Esther, the lesson is consistent and powerful. A Jew, and especially a leader, cannot be apathetic. If we see suffering we must feel the pain of others and we must do whatever we can to help.
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