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  • Rabbi Pam

Moses Had Common Sense

Updated: Sep 7, 2023


by Rabbi Pam for Parshat Shemot - December 29, 2018 at Congregation B'nai Emunah

There is a book called, Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman. In the book, Friedman postulates that there were several strands of text that were woven together to create the Bible. In other words, according to Friedman, no one person wrote the Bible. Rather, numerous authors wrote it and the writings of those authors were woven together to produce the text we have today.

The Bible is called Tanach. Tanach is an abbreviation. “T” or tav stands for Torah. “N” or nun stands for Nevi’im. “C” or “K” stands for Ketuvim. Torah means teaching. Nevi’im means Prophets. Ketuvim means Writings. According to Richard Friedman, the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings are a compilation of many authors.

For me, it does not matter whether Moses wrote the Torah or whether God wrote the Torah or whether several authors each wrote part of the Torah. I also do not think it matters whether there was a man named Moses whose mother placed him in a basket among the reeds along the river. What matters to me is that these stories can teach us about morality, but only if we are willing to listen.

One of the things that happens when people study Torah together is that people argue and if a certain person’s view is not accepted, that person walks away from the table and does not come back because why should I sit at someone’s table if they are saying things with which I disagree?

Even more compelling is the argument, why should I study a book that has caused so much torture? Why did the Nazis burn Jewish books? Why did the Romans forbid the study of Torah? What is the power of these teachings of Torah, Prophets and Writings that causes them to be part of the Bible and that frightens anti-Semites?

We will never be able to answer that question, or at least, we will never be able to answer it satisfactorily in order to stop the cycle. There will always be anti-Semitism and the silver lining of this sad and tragic reality is that because there will always be anti-Semitism, there will always be Judaism. Perhaps our children will not be so Jewish, but perhaps our grandchildren or our greatgrandchildren will return to Judaism.

The question for me, with which I am wrestling this morning is what can we learn from Moses. In this week’s Torah portion, there arose a king in Egypt who forced the Israelites into slavery. The Israelites were required to do different kinds of work involving mortar and bricks and they were also required to do different types of work out in the field.

After enslaving the Israelites, the Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill the boy babies and keep the girls alive. The midwives did not do what they were told, so Pharaoh told all his people, “Every boy that is born, you shall throw into the river, but let every girl live.”

Moses’s mother covered a wicker basket with butamen and pitch. She put her baby in the basket and placed the basket in the reeds along the river. Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river, she saw the basket and she surmised that the baby was a Hebrew. Pharaoh’s daughter hired the baby’s mother to nurse the baby until he was weened and then she adopted the baby and named him Moses.

Moses grew up in the house of Pharaoh as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. When Moses was a young man, he killed a taskmaster who was beating a slave and because of that, the Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses, so Moses ran away. Years later, Moses married a woman named Tzipporah. He had become a shepherd and he was tending the flocks of his father-in-law when he saw a burning bush. The bush was burning, but it was not being consumed by the flames, so Moses went to check out the bush and that is when he heard the voice that said, “take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.”

The voice told Moses, “I have heard the cries of the slaves. I will come down and free this people from the Egyptians and bring them to a good landing flowing with milk and honey.” Then the voice told Moses, “Go and I will send you to Pharaoh and you will take my people, the Children of Israel out of Egypt.”

Ok, so we know that the voice is the voice of God. But what if we do not believe in God? If we do not believe in God, the story still has something to teach us, because the voice is still speaking and we hear it sometimes when a light goes off in our minds and we get a good idea and we start to run with it. Some of us believe that our good ideas are given to us by God. But some say that our good ideas are given to us by our own inner conscience.

Whoever the voice was, that voice caused Moses to say no. Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

Then the voice answered and said, “I will be you, Moses, and my being with you will be your sign that it was I who sent you.”

Then Moses said, “when I come to Israelites and I say to the Israelites that you sent me, and they ask what is the name of the One who sent me, what shall I say?” God answered, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.” I will become who I will become. Tell them, “I will become” has sent you.

From this story, we learn that Moses was reluctant to go to Egypt to free the slaves. But, in fact, there is a midrash, an interpretation, given by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichiv, who says that Moses was not hesitant to do God’s bidding. Moses was not hesitant to free the Israelites from slavery. What Moses was hesitant about, is that he knew right away as soon as he heard the assignment, that helping the Israelites to leave slavery would be good for the Israelites and bad for the Egyptians.

According to Reb Levi Yitzhak, Moses was not willing to cause bad things to happen to the Egyptians. Once God said, “Wait. You do not have to go alone. I will be with you,” Moses immediately began asking the practical questions about what would happen when he went to speak with his own people, the Israelites. It was only after God said that God would be with Moses that Moses felt up to the task.

What was the context in which Moses had the capacity, the morality, the foresight to realize that he did not want to be the cause of evil against the Egyptians? We remove drops of wine or juice from our cup while reciting the plagues during the Passover Seder in order to remember the suffering of the Egyptians. We also recite Hallel on Passover. As we know, Hallel is comprised of a series of psalms of praise that we recite on all the festivals, including Rosh Hodesh, the new moon. However, on the last six days of Passover, we only recite half Hallel, Hatzi Hallel in order to diminish our joy because of the suffering of the Egyptians both during the plagues and also at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.

It is Moses who gave us these teachings. Regardless of whether there was a Moses, there was an architype and that architype woke up the divine voice to the reality that a moral person should not go and cause harm just because he hears voice.

If we read the Torah in chronological order from start to finish, this week’s Torah portion was given before we were told to keep Shabbat. There was no Shabbat at the

burning bush. We had also not yet been told to keep kosher.[1]

We had not received the laws about not murdering and not committing incest. Before those laws were even given, Moses already knew right from wrong. He knew that he could not go to Egypt and free the slaves as the voice of his own conscience had told him to do. He could not go unless that voice was going to go with him, because he knew that human beings were going to need to evolve to the point of having dual alliances, of loving both sides, both peoples in times of war and challenge.

Moses had a connection to the Egyptian people because his adoptive mother was Egyptian. According to the mystics, Eve mourned the loss of her son Abel. When Cain killed Abel, Eve carried in her soul the longing to save her son. According to the mystics, the daughter of Pharaoh was an incarnation of Eve. In saving the baby in the basket, the daughter of Pharaoh also saved the Israelites from slavery because she enabled Moses to have dual loyalties, both to the Israelites who were the people of his birth, and to the Egyptians who were the people of his adoptive family.

In saving the baby in the basket, the soul of Eve in the form of the daughter of Pharaoh also saved our people and taught us morality. Deeper than all of the laws of the Torah is the law of common sense, the law of knowing right from wrong, the law of love, v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, loving our neighbor as our ourselves. Not just loving our favorites or our own, but loving everyone in the whole wide world.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] If we read the Torah in order from start to finish, at the time of the story of the burning bush, only 3 of the 613 mitzvot had been given. These include, (1) “Be fruitful and multiply.” Parshat Bereishit (the Torah Portion called Genesis) in the Book of Genesis 1:28. (2) “Circumcise every male.” Parshat Lech Lecha in the Book of Genesis 17:10. And (3) “Do not eat the muscle/tendon of the thigh vein upon the hollow of the thigh.” Parshat Vayishlach in the Book of Genesis 32:33. The forbidding of eating the thigh muscle is because the being who wrestled with Jacob wrenched Jacob’s thigh muscle at the hip socket. It was that being who gave Jacob the name Israel. As Jews, we are known as B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.


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