Most of us have already seen this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. It’s taken right out of the epic film The Ten Commandments that we all grew up watching over Passover. Oh wait, it’s the other way around. This week’s portion is the opening of the book of Exodus. In it, we learn about Pharaoh being the epitome of a jackass, killing babies and enslaving the Jews. We also learn about Moses’ upbringing and battle with an Egyptian slave master, before closing with the burning bush and Moses confronting Pharaoh for the first time. The parsha ends with an epic cliffhanger: God says, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a mighty hand he will send [the Israelites] out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land,” and then… Does God keep God’s promises? You’ll have to wait until week to find out.
What I find most compelling in this parsha, something that I believe Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt captures perfectly, is the fact that Moses was indeed a Prince of Egypt. A good portion of his upbringing was in the house of Pharaoh, and he grew up to be a man of power in Egypt. Yet, this member of Pharaoh’s house turns out to be the greatest leader of the children of Israel. Last night during Torah study, I learned that it is taught that Pharaoh’s daughter, whom legends name Batya, was actually at the Nile in order to pray. Even though Moses was raised in the home of a self-proclaimed god-king, with idolatrous mystics as his teachers, it was Batya’s influence that kept Moses on the straight and narrow. Still, having one positive parental figure, (or two if you count his mother) in an environment filled with evil seems like it might not be enough to keep Moses from wrong—and it wasn’t. Moses wasn’t just raised the right way, I believe he had to actively turn from doing wrong to earn his place as our greatest leader. Moses’ journey epitomizes a central theme of this Torah portion, that of turning, turning away from our pasts toward something new.
Incidentally, the first example of this isn’t with Moses, but with the tyrant himself, Pharaoh. Rashi, the most authoritative of Medieval commentators, makes a very interesting point early on. Shemot began with the listing of Jacob’s children, stating that each one died. Then it moves onto Pharaoh’s actions, not mentioning at all that the Pharaoh of Joseph’s time died. Rashi takes this to mean that this is the same Pharaoh who was previously so generous to the Hebrews. I like to imagine that Pharaoh was just a kid in Joseph’s time, like an Egyptian King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. If this is true, what we see here is a turning away from what is right to do what is wrong. What causes this? The best explanation I can think of is that power corrupts, and Joseph, with his wise taxation skills, definitely gave Pharaoh plenty of power. It’s important to notice how Moses is the foil to Pharaoh. Moses was in a position of power, he had everything he could want, yet he threw it all away to protect a slave. Moses didn’t necessarily turn at that point, but it’s the beginning of his change. Just as Pharaoh’s treatment of his servants, like arbitrarily beheading a baker, was an early signifier of his future complete corruption, Moses’ behavior towards the slaves is an early sign of his future holiness.
So we can see how Moses’ turn isn’t necessarily immediate, since there is evidence of his goodness early on. However, there is one moment in particular that shines as the tipping point of Moses’ morality. This moment was when Moses literally turned to see the burning bush. With a little help from Rashi, we see Moses turned away from whatever he was doing in order to approach the bush. Before the turn, he was tending sheep and taking care of his wealth while ignoring the genocidal crimes occurring in his homeland. After the turn, he experienced prophecy, forcing him to leave to go free an entire nation from the yoke of another. That’s quite a sudden turnaround.
Moses gives us all a little hope. He shows, by example, how even those who seem lost are capable of changing. Moses went from being a prince of the oppressive materialistic Egyptians to the savior of an entire nation. Forgive me for getting a bit spiritual and religious here, but I believe that the portion is teaching us here that the key to turning our lives around is through building a relationship with God. Moses’ experience with the burning bush was not just the start of his being a leader to the Hebrews, it was also the start of his relationship with God.
Whenever we’re told we need to change, often our thoughts are “Yeah, sure that’d be nice, but it’s easier said than done.” God knows this, and God doesn’t deny that it’s difficult, but does give us clues in this portion as to how we can build that divine relationship and change. Moses’ vision of the burning bush, his first prophetic experience, was a meditative one. The turning of Moses toward the flame represented his reaching out to connect to the Divine during meditation. Just as God’s voice didn’t come to Moses until he began to turn, so too connection with the Divine doesn’t come until we try. Whatever we do or don’t experience in the end may be hard to grapple with, just as Moses wanted to back out of what God commanded him through the burning bush. But after arguing with God, Moses came out a better person in the end. If we really turn toward God—toward reaching out to God, toward arguing with God, toward praying to God, turning, in other words, toward a real relationship with God, in the end, we, too can come out of it as transformed people, confident in our ability to take down the Pharaohs in our own lives.
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David Gutbezahl is a recent graduate of Ramapo College.