This week we read the opening five chapters of the book of Exodus. The parashah is lengthy, fast moving and eventful: it covers the early history of the slavery of the people of Israel in Egypt and the first stories of Moses, culminating in his apparently ill-fated encounter with the Egyptian pharaoh. Well-known and much loved passages – the infant Moses in the bulrushes and Moses’ vision of God at the burning bush – are part of our reading for this week.
One of the themes of the parashah is engagement with the afflicted – those who are suffering persecution at the hands of the state or being violated or bullied in the course of their everyday lives. Such interventions demand great courage and even self-sacrifice to help those with whom we might have little in common and probably do not know personally.
Those who choose this path are following in the way of God, as we learn at the end of the second chapter of Exodus: “And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died and the people of Israel were exhausted by their labours, and they cried out … and their cry went up to God. And God heard their groans … and God saw, and God knew.” ‘Knowing’ in the Biblical sense is not only cognitive: it implies imagination, understanding and empathy.
The most extraordinary example of this form of altruism is the response of Pharaoh’s daughter, when she finds the baby Moses in the bulrushes of the Nile, where he had been hidden to save him from the murderous consequences of her father’s orders.
Pharaoh’s daughter does not ignore the basket among the reeds or pretend that she has not seen it. She sends one of the young women to fetch it and she opens it, sees the baby and makes quite clear to all her companions that she knows that the child is a child of the Hebrews whom her father had decreed must be put to death. She then quite openly and again in front of all her companions makes arrangements to pay one of the Hebrew women to be a nursemaid for the child. Finally, she names the child Moses, “because I drew him out of the water”, making no attempt to hide the child’s origins.
Not only did Pharaoh’s daughter save Moses, but she made a very public stand against her father’s decree at great risk to herself, and her action would have encouraged others to disobey the decree of an absolute monarch who was clearly a man of great cruelty and ruthlessness. It was certainly an act of great and courageous humanity but it was also an act of resistance that put her in great danger.
Moses, too, intervened to save one of the Hebrew slaves from an Egyptian who was beating him, and he intervened again when he saw one of the Hebrew slaves being abused by another in the course of a heated argument. Moses was more circumspect than the woman who had saved his life, and apparently with good reason: in 2:15 we read very tersely that Pharaoh heard about the matter of the Egyptian and he sought to kill Moses, and Moses had to flee into the wilderness, to save his own life.
Moses arrives in Midian and once again he intervenes forcibly, this time on behalf of the daughter of a local priest who had been prevented from watering their father’s flock by a group of shepherds who had driven them away. This seems to have been a regular occurrence – the women would have to wait until the shepherds had finished their own watering, but this time Moses intervened and rescued them.
However, in the light of all this, Moses’ response at the burning bush is at first sight unexpected. God tells Moses about the suffering of the people of Israel in Egypt: “I know their pain. And I am come down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians … “ (3:7-8). The passage concludes with a request for Moses’ help: “Come now, therefore, and I will send you unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people … out of Egypt” (3:10).
Moses responds with great reluctance: “And Moses said unto God, ‘Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh and that I should bring forth the people of Israel from Egypt?” There follows a lengthy exchange in which Moses raises a series of problems and God addresses them; by the end of the exchange Moses has clearly agreed to undertake the task, albeit that he does not say so explicitly.
The early Moses does not say “Who am I?” and responds very quickly indeed to the demands of the situations that he faces. One can certainly suggest that Moses is now far older and that what is being asked of him is hugely demanding and very different from what he had faced previously, but that does not quite explain the opening “Who am I?”, “Mi anochi?”
It is possible that Moses was responding to the implications of the very terse Divine request in 3:10 that seemed to be saying that Moses would have the honour of being God’s emissary, and he alone would bring forth the people from Egypt. The Moses who had spent so much of his life in the wilderness was very different from the Egyptian aristocrat that he was in the early stories. He had no interest in honour and was aware of his own limitations, and that all ultimately was dependent on Divine intervention. Only when he was assured of this did he agree to do as God had requested of him. One recalls Moses’ humility and self effacement when one reads the opening of the Ten Commandments: “I (Anochi) am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” is almost an answer to Moses’ “Mi anochi?”, and in the Passover Haggada, the retelling of the Exodus narrative that Jews recite on Passover, Moses is rarely mentioned and the great emphasis is on God’s presence and intervention. This would not have been seen by Moses as a slight – as the Jewish Sabbath morning liturgy has it, “Moses rejoices in his portion, for You called him Your faithful servant.”