When my son was learning to walk, I remember learning an important lesson about love. He would let go of the couch, take a few steps, and fall. I was amazed to feel an incredible pain in my own head when he would fall and bump his own. And that’s love in its purest form—when the connection you feel to someone else is so deep, you can actually feel what the other feels.
Parashat Sh’mot introduces us to the most extraordinary leader our people has ever known, a leader seemingly chosen by God and reluctant for the task. In Exodus 3:11, after God has asked him to go to Pharaoh in Egypt, Moses asks: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” Seems like a good question. I think the preceding episodes in the text bear out the answer to Moses’s question.
The text begins with an incomprehensibly horrible decree from a new Pharaoh, “who did not know Joseph” (1:8). The Pharaoh decrees in 1:22, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile . . .” A woman from the tribe of Levi (who we later learn is named Jochebed) gives birth to a son. When she sees him, she is overwhelmed with love for him. While the text is typically translated to mean, “she saw how beautiful he was,” the text says literally, “she saw that he was good.” Just as God saw the goodness and holiness in the creation of the world, so does Jochebed see the goodness and holiness radiating from her son (See Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a). But when she realized she could hide him no longer, she prepared a wicker basket, an ark to save him, caulked with bitumen and pitch, and placed the baby in the basket, thus abiding by the decree. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby, and she too is filled with compassion for him, and decides to adopt him as her own.
So Moses, whose life has been saved by these two acts of love, grows up and goes out to see the plight of his people. Seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, Moses himself is overwhelmed with compassion for the plight of the slave, and kills the taskmaster. The next day, when he witnesses two Israelites fighting, his heart again begins to ache, and he steps in to intervene. When he discovers that “the matter is known” (2:14) he runs away to Midian; there, his compassion drives him again. Seven daughters of Reuel, whom the text later calls Jethro, come to a well to water their flocks, but shepherds drive them off. Moses rises to their defense and himself cares for their flocks.
In each of these instances, Moses feels a pull on his heartstrings. Each time that Moses witnesses injustice or suffering, he not only feels the pain, but also feels compelled to act. Just as his birth mother and adopted mother felt compelled to act from their heart, so does Moses, when he witnesses pain and injustice, feel compelled to respond to his own.
So when Moses and God meet at the Burning Bush, God shares with Moses why he is the one to partner with God for the task of redeeming the Israelites. In Exodus 3:7, God explains, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes I am mindful of their sufferings.” In just one verse, God expresses to Moses in three separate ways that God feels the suffering of the Israelites. And again in verse 9, God shares the same sentiment two more times: “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them.”
Five separate times, God shares with Moses that God is moved by the suffering of the Israelites. Why the repetition? It’s as if God is saying to Moses, we have something in common: you were moved by suffering and injustice, and felt compelled to act; I too am moved by suffering and injustice, and feel compelled to act.
So when Moses asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” the answer is clear. But God’s answer means something even more powerful. God answers, “I will be with you.” Moses was drawn by love to connect to the plight of his people, to be with them. To be with them means more than simply to be near to them. To be with them means to be one with them. To be with them means that their pain is his pain, their anguish his anguish, and thus their redemption will ultimately be his redemption too. And God’s message, “I will be with you,” means that just as Moses and his people are one, so too will God and Moses be one.
The message we learn from these first chapters of Exodus is simple and sublime. The key to our redemption, to our freedom is to open our hearts to each other in love and compassion. Like Moses we are asked not simply to witness suffering and injustice, but to feel it so deeply that we are compelled to act. For when we open our hearts up to each other, to so deeply feel what the other feels that we are truly one with each other, then we will have unlocked the door to be free to be one with God as well.
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.