How can one opt for leadership? One way to do it is by offering solutions to the collective’s problems. Moshe could have risen to a role of leadership by alleviating the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt. We cannot forget the reality of those times: “avadim hayinu leFar’oh beMitsrayim”, we were enslaved and under torment, and surely would have appreciated any kindness that could make a terrible situation more tolerable.
Moshe could have declared: “We are going to do away with 14-hour-days of toil”. “We will demand we work only 10 or 11 hours daily”. He could have argued that It would benefit the Hebrews as well as the Egyptians. No one can produce effectively in such a long and strenuous work day. In fewer hours, he could point out, the Hebrews will become more efficient and that would benefit their taskmasters.
“If we must go out to look for straw to elaborate the bricks, there will be less hours of production and the proposed structures will not be finished on time”, he would further argue.
The above could have been a basic political platform for Moshe. He was thereby, addressing the angst of the people. His suggestions would permit more time to cement family ties, let fathers bond with sons. He would have been acclaimed by all had he succeeded with these petitions before the paharaoh.
Moshe, however, chose a different path. He did not argue for a lighter work load and for more materials of construction. He was a disrupter. He just said: “Let’s get out of here”. Better framed in the familiar: “Let my people go”.
Moshe challenged the absolute authority of a pharaoh or anyone else. No human being had a right to impose a yoke upon someone else, he preached. No people could become the master or overlord of another people. All humans are created in the image of God. We are all equally free. We are all endowed with dignity.
As soon as our ancestors left Egypt they were faced with the waters of the Red Sea on one side and on the other side, the war chariots of the Egyptians in full pursuit to take them back. Pharaoh had previously argued: “Vehaya ki tikrena milchamah…”, in case of war, they may join our enemies and ascend from the land, escape. Obviously, the Egytians were not ready to do without the cheap labor, the slave labor provided by the Hebrews that actually was not cheap, it was for free. However, in a moment of anger and pain, seeing his own firstborn killed, the pharaoh felt he had enough and literally expelled the Hebrews from the land. On the morrow, after a sobering reflection, the Egyptian ruler realized he erred, in fact he had made a stupid economic decision. He rescinded from his former edict and lead his chariots in hot pursuit of his Hebrew slaves.
But God thought otherwise. He parted the waters of the Red Sea, permitted the Hebrews to escape, while drowning the Egyptians who were following behind thinking that the miracle included them as well.
The Hebrews came to Mara were they found the waters to be bitter. Another miracle was performed for them and the waters sweetened, making them drinkable. “Sham sam lo chok umishpat”: there, in Mara, laws and judgments were placed before them. Our rabbis speculate as to the nature of these laws and judgments. Their answer is that the Hebrews were instructed about Shabbat, social laws and the ritual of the Red Heifer, the Para Adumah. The previous were a set of disruptive instructions.
Through Shabbat they were taught that it is not a question whether the amount of daily hours for labor was fair or just, leaving time to be spent with family and friends. The Hebrews were told that there is an inherent right applicable to all, including servants. Humans and animals had a right to rest one day a week, without having to perform any tasks. Not only is this a right, it is an obligation. We thereby give testimony that God created the world. Because even the Almighty rested the seventh day of Creation, thereby teaching humanity a basic truth. Work is important. Man was placed in Gan Eden “leovda uleshomra”: to work and guard the Garden of Eden. Yet, man is also a spiritual being who has to rise above the rest of creation. Man needs a day to evaluate the road he travels and his accomplishments and failures. He needs to reflect upon this fact: “If through the study of God’s Torah and deeds of Chesed, am I getting closer to the Almighty? Are my deeds and thoughts elevating my spirit, so that I come nearer to the original source: The Creator that blew into my nostrils nishmat chayim?
Furthermore, man cannot be subjected to the whims of any other human being, including the capricious decisions of a ruler. Even kings must obey laws. They are not above the law, let alone be the law, as Luis XIV was to argue centuries later with the often quoted: “L’Etat c’est moi”. A Jewish King was a constitutional king. He was instructed to write an additional Torah that he was to carry with him at all times. It was a clear lesson: The King is not infallible, he is mortal. Only God’s Laws comprise the totality of truth, laws that including a King must live by.
When we go back to our initial quote: “avadim hayinu leFar’oh beMitsrayim”, we note from the wording of the text that we were the personal slaves of a man, the pharaoh. We were not the Egyptian’s’ slaves. Our Rabbis already pointed out that the edict that required to throw every baby boy to the Nile, included the Egyptian children as well. Apparently, the pharaoh’s astrologers had told him that a leader was about to be born, and he did not have any misgivings about killing innocent Egyptian children as well. Such was the power of a despot, whose will had to be obeyed, without reservation. Under such circumstances Moshe comes with a disruptive set of laws: “chok umishpat”, rules that apply to all men, the ruled and their rulers. “Heashir lo yarbe vehadal lo yam’it”: rich and poor are treated equally under the law. A judge dare not have one of the litigants stand while the other sits when in a court of law.
Kings and despots were surely not sympathetic to this new worldview. It meant a rejection of assumptions centuries old that had given cruel chieftains supposed supernatural legitimacy. A “no” to slavery and a “no” to absolute power, became a disruptive and very potent message.
As kings and autocrats were repressive, so were their gods who constantly solicited tribute and blind obedience. The “Parah Adumah” should be evaluated against this backdrop. The main function of the ashes of this animal was not to challenge our intelligence by formulating an apparent self contradictory process, because while the ashes serve to purify the impure, they make impure the Kohen that participated in its elaboration.
The function of the ashes of the “Parah Adumah” was not only to be a counterweight to impurity. Its basic function was “letaher”, to purify. In Egypt and in other idol worshipping nations, the gods were forever demanding total obedience. Bribes had to be offered to obtain their favors and good will.
Moshe, however, presents a different, nay a unique deity, a God that is not visible, Who has no needs that humans can satisfy. He cannot be bought or bribed. This God does not demand human sacrifices as Akedat Yitschak proclaimed to all. He demands that you love Him: “veahavta et HaShem Elokechah”, and “vaahevchah”, He will love you back.
The ashes of the Parah Adumah are meant not only to forgive and erase past misdeeds, they purify. They come not only “lechaper”, to atone, they come to “letaher”, to cleanse, to elevate you.
The God Moshe presents, loves the widow and the orphan, and protects them. Instructs to love the stranger, because “we were strangers in Egypt”. Even though we were enslaved, we were also fed and should not forget that. When famine struck the entire geographical area, the egyptians took us in and saved us from starvation. While Amalek is the archenemy of the Jewish people, the Egyptians are not portrayed as an evil that has to be eradicated forever. Even though they enslaved us, we also have a debt of gratitude, because they kept us alive. Yet, slavery is not compatible with human dignity and we should never return to Egypt. Egypt is the cult of the dead, we are inspired by life. While Egypt adores edifices and places, the pyramids, we sanctify time.
The dark period of enslavement was temporary, when viewed with the lens of history. Maybe even necessary, because suffering brings people together and allows them to understand, first hand, the lot of the downtrodden, empathize with the less fortunate who cry out for understanding and recognition. The pharaoh realized that the Hebrews were becoming an entity when he reasoned: “hine am Benei Yisrael…”, and became the first one to call the Hebrews a people, a nation. Exile and the future enslavement became the catalysts to forge a brotherhood and a commonality of purpose, a shared destiny, indispensable for nation building.
It is no wonder that the expression “zecher liTsiat Mitsrayim” is ubiquitous, present at every recitation of “Kiddush” and prayer on all holy days. This event, together with the giving of the Torah at Sinai, became the defining experiences that manifested the uniqueness of the Jewish people. So profound were these experiences that centuries of diaspora have not succeeded in weakening the resolve for survival notwithstanding hate and persecutions, rejection by the other monotheistic faiths. Unlike the Greeks and Romans of antiquity, the Philistines and Amalekites, the Jewish people was blessed with continuity and vitality to this very day, as wonderfully expressed by the modern Medinah, the State of Israel.