Preparing for our seder this year, a thought struck me as I recalled the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What if Moses wasn’t supposed to run away to Midian? And how much more suffering was there because he did?
The Verse Where It Happened
Imagine: a person in a position of power becomes aware of an injustice, decides it must be corrected, acts rashly, and then… leaves. Then, they remain away for a long time. This does not seem to be a story of triumph that stirs us to action when read this way.
Moreover, Exodus 2:24 tells us that God heard the Israelites moaning after all this and “remembered” the covenant. Of course, God being omniscient and omnipresent, God never truly forgot or was unaware of the suffering of the Israelites. Perhaps instead God was present throughout in subtle ways and was inspiring others to action.
Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed the Pharoah’s direct command to kill the baby boys. Miriam hid her brother among the reeds, and Nefertiti drew him out and raised him as her own son. Through these acts of resistance, they put Moses in a place of power, and there he would perhaps have the authority to ease the suffering of his people.
The Story of the Fight
But when their suffering becomes clear to him, what is the first thing he does?
וַיִּ֤פֶן כֹּה֙ וָכֹ֔ה וַיַּ֖רְא כִּ֣י אֵ֣ין אִ֑ישׁ וַיַּךְ֙ אֶת־הַמִּצְרִ֔י וַֽיִּטְמְנֵ֖הוּ בַּחֽוֹל׃
He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:12)
Moses first checks if anyone else is around. Moses may be checking to make sure he can act without being seen. Another interpretation says that he was first looking to see if someone else would act first so he wouldn’t have to.
Either way, Moses is clearly the most reluctant of heroes at this point. Only when he sees that there’s either no one to see him or no one else to help does he act. In this respect, his act is a cowardly one, and only helps this one slave this one time.
What’d He Miss?
What would have been preferable? From his seat of power, perhaps Moses could have acted for the good of all the Israelites. Instead, he acted out brashly and then fled. We are told this is because he feared the consequences of his action.
As we read before, “a long time after that” God knew that the Israelites were still suffering, “groaning under the bondage.” Closely reading the text in Exodus 3:2-4, we see that first an angel was sent to appear in a burning bush rather than God appearing in the bush at first.
Only after Moses turned to look at the bush and marvel at it did God then call out from it (Exodus 3:5-7) admonishing Moses to remove his sandals, and telling him in no uncertain terms that God has been watching and aware of the suffering. When addressed thus, Moses was afraid and hid his face, much as Adam and Eve hid because they were afraid and had done wrong (Genesis 3:10).
The burning bush is then a moment of admonishment for Moses. Like the bush, he burned with need for action, but he was not fully consumed by it. As God spoke through the bush, the first words were to call his name not once but twice. Like a parent using a child’s full name, this may signify displeasure. Moses’ response, “הִנֵּֽנִי” or “here I am” appears only rarely in the Torah, often when replying to being called by God. In this case, though, perhaps it also emphasizes the “here” part, as in Midian and not Egypt. Moses may realize he was not where he was supposed to be and where the hard work of others had placed him.
God then told him that, even here in Midian, he is on sacred ground. He had not escaped his role as a liberator of the Israelites, but rather it followed him. Now, however, he must do so as a simple shepherd without the power or authority of a prince of Egypt. Perhaps had he acted before, the plagues would not have been necessary. Perhaps the suffering of not only the slaves but also the Egyptians could have been avoided. Is this, then, why God admonishes the angels from singing, saying:
The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to say songs? (Megillah 10b:26)
Meet Me In Time
Is it the case that much of the suffering we read about in our haggadot could have been avoided? Would Pharoah’s heart have been so hard against a prince of Egypt as it was against a shepherd?
I wonder, then, if the burning bush moment is a moment of scolding Moses for not acting as he could at the appropriate time. God became aware that the Israelites were still slaves after their appointed time of redemption. Had Moses acted according to the design and plan prepared for him by so many others, they may already have been free.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Retells The Story
In the modern day, we may have much to learn from this. When we become aware of injustice, we must not act thoughtlessly nor flee the responsibility of that moment. It is upon us to do all we can within our power to set the world to rights as soon as we know it must be done.
Suffering does not cease because we knock down one antagonist. Rather we must strike down the systems that support the oppression and injustice itself. While we may not realize it, we hold power to effect this change if we use it in time.