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David: Before heroes become heroes, they are just like us. How did Peter Parker become Spiderman, the hero that we know and love? Without that back story, we wouldn’t know that “with great power comes great responsibility,” and we wouldn’t know the wrongs Spiderman decides to right. Origin stories show us who the hero really is as a person, where their power comes from, and in learning about their origin, we may even be able to find a bit of ourselves in them.
Immanuel: When we think of the Exodus story, we think of slavery, of the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, the 10 plagues which Rabbi Fohrman has already dealt with beautifully. But this week, we want to focus on Moses, who’s introduced in our parsha --- after all, he becomes the greatest Israelite leader of all time. But, we aren’t going to look at Moses’ leadership. We want to look at his origin story. Who was Moses before God appointed him as leader? How did Moses become Moses?
David: Join us as we explore how Moses became… Moses-- this week on the Parsha Experiment.
David: Hi, I’m David.
Immauel: and I’m Immanuel.
David: And welcome to The Parsha Experiment. Before we jump into the background of our beloved hero, let’s pull up our 20-second parsha recap.
A new pharaoh rises, he enslaved the Israelites and declares genocide by drowning male babies
Moses is born and is saved by the daughter of pharaoh, who raises him as a son
Moses kills an Egyptian guard, when Pharaoh finds out, Moses runs away
He winds up in Midian, where he starts a family
God appears to him from a burning bush and charges him with freeing the Israelites
Moses and Aaron visit Pharaoh, and Pharaoh makes things worse for the Israelites
David: Before receiving the torah -- before the splitting of the sea-- ushering in 10 plagues-- and even before confronting Pharoah -- in Parshat Shmot we meet Moses the man. Let’s take a look at Moses’s first heroic act, the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster - perhaps this is his origin story.
Immanuel: One day, Moses, prince of Egypt, steps outside the palace -- וירא בסבלותם, he sees the suffering of the Israelites. וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו --- he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite. He looks around -- וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ, he sees that no one was there, and in a moment of zeal, he kills the Egyptian.
David: Totally suitable origin story, right? Moses sees oppression and realizes that he can’t just watch people suffer, he must act. But this can’t be it, because we need to know why he couldn’t just stand back and watch, why he had to step in and help. Throughout this story, the word וירא, and he saw -- appears over and over again, begging us to recognize its importance. Moses saw oppression, he saw the Egyptian beating the Israelite, he saw that no one was watching.
Immanuel: The Torah can’t just be telling us that Moses saw the oppression - everyone saw it, it was in their faces... the Torah is telling us that Moses noticed it. Think about how Moses grew up-- a prince, wealthy and privileged. There was no reason for him to identify with the suffering of an Israelite slave. Yet, despite all this, Moses noticed the suffering of an Israelite. He decided that they were worthy of empathy. With everything to lose and nothing to gain, Moses risks it all to alleviate the suffering of just one person.
David: This ability to see suffering and take action runs through the other Moses stories. He sees two Israelites fighting, and confronts them. He sees Jethro’s daughters being harassed, and saves them. This runs so deep in Moses, that he names his first son Gershom -- גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה for I was a stranger in a strange land. Really? A stranger??? He was a prince...the opposite of stranger. But Moses is able to step outside of that identity, and identify with the other side, with those who are suffering, even if it means shedding all the privileges of princehood, and losing his Egyptian citizenship.
Immanuel: Now you might be thinking “great, we figured out why Moses became a leader, he couldn’t stand to see the suffering of others...וירא...he notices and he acts” but you would be missing a big piece of the Moses puzzle. If we trace the word וירא forward in time to the burning bush, it tells us something integral to his origin story. What’s so amazing about this story is not that God speaks to Moses through the bush -- it’s what happens right before.
David: It’s a normal day like any other and Moses is walking around, herding his sheep, when he happens upon a burning bush. You might think that in the next verse, God speaks to Moses… but He doesn’t. Something happens first: וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה, אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל - Moses sees that the bush is engulfed in flames, and yet, it isn’t consumed. There’s that word again - וירא - Moses saw. He notices it. And God likes that... וַיַּרְא יְהוָה, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, - God sees that Moses stopped to look… and He calls to Moses from amid the bush. It seems that the reason God chooses Moses is because Moses stops to look.
Immanuel: It seems like anyone would’ve seen the burning bush, But God sees something special in Moses and this may be it: Fires are pretty common in a desert. But, whatever’s on fire eventually gets consumed. You’d have to look at the bush for a few moments...really look at it--- before you realize that it’s out of the ordinary. Moses asks, ”מַדּוּעַ, לֹא-יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה” - why isnt it being consumed? And that’s what God sees in Moses. Anyone could see the bush, but not everyone would notice that something miraculous was happening.
David: Isn’t that what empathy is? The ability to look at someone else and to really see what’s there? A bush that burns and isn’t consumed? That’s not ordinary. A human being is treated as a beast of burden - that’s not normal. Empathy is about seeing things as they truly are--not as they might first appear.
Immanuel: So, we could just call it here - that’s our origin story, empathy. But something’s still missing. What makes origin stories great is not just learning who Peter Parker was before he was Spiderman, but how did he go from regular-guy to super-hero? We’ve learned about what made Moses great before he became a leader. But we still haven’t figured out how he got there. How did Moses go from regular-guy to super leader?
David: We just followed וירא forward in time, now let’s shift our gears into reverse, and trace the word וירא back in time. There’s another hero in this story… an unlikely hero who often gets relegated to being a peripheral character, an Egyptian! And not just any Egyptian--- but someone from the very family that enslaved the Israelites to begin with. The daughter of Pharaoh-- Bat Paroh.
Immanuel: After Moses is born, his mother puts him in a basket in the Nile, hoping to save him from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree. Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe in the Nile. וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף - and she sees a basket floating in the reeds. וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ - she sends her handmaiden to get it.
David: When she opens the basket, she sees a crying child, וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו--- she has mercy on him. וַתֹּאמֶר, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה - and she says “this is Hebrew child.” -- Look at the irony that the text is highlighting here. Who is Bat Paroh? The princess of Egypt. She knows immediately that she’s holding a child whom her own father decreed should be drowned in that very river. And yet, she shows him compassion. וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן - he becomes like a son to her.
Immanuel: An Israelite saved by the daughter of the enemy-- all because she’s able to step outside of her circumstance and notice the suffering of others. Look again at that verse: וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה - There’s that word again. She sees the basket. And when she does, she takes action - in whatever small way she can, she alleviates a bit of the suffering.
David: Well...that sounds familiar! A royal who steps outside of their circumstance and notices suffering… and takes action to stop it? That’s Moses! We tend to look at the story of Moses killing the Egyptian as a moment in which Moses realizes that he is really an Israelite himself, but it doesn’t seem like that that’s what the text is really suggesting. This is not an epiphany moment for Moses. He’s not suddenly realizing that he is an Israelite and then kills the Egyptian oppressor. What is stirring inside of Moses is not his Israelite identity at all, rather, it's his Egyptian identity. He is his adopted mother’s son. Bat Paroh herself could not stand to see suffering, even at the hands of an a people she is not supposed to care about, a people she was supposed to kill. Moses sees the Israelite being struck and he can not handle this suffering, not on a religious count, but on a moral one.
Immanuel: Though Moshe’s biological DNA is his mother Yocheved’s, his spiritual, moral, and leadership DNA is made of the leadership model of Bat Paroh, noticing the suffering of those around you and taking action. Bat Paroh, the enemy’s daughter --- the true unsung hero of Moses’ origin story.
David: Interestingly, Paroh’s daughter names her baby “Moses” כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ - because he was drawn from the water. At first glance, this seems like a weirdly descriptive name, but it’s really so much more than that. What Bat Paroh does for Moses, he does for the Israelite nation. He notices their suffering-- takes action to save them. The name Moses is not just descriptive of how he was discovered, it describes his destiny, drawing others to safety. How ironic that the way he saves his nation is the same way he was saved, drawing them from the water, guiding them through the Red Sea. Like any good origin story, Moses’ is riddled with hardship and culminates in helping those in need. Who was Moses the man? He was his adopted mother’s son, a man who sees things that others don’t. A man who possesses empathy, who can’t stand by and watch others suffer. A man of action. We see that Moses realizes his destiny when he kills the Egyptian taskmaster, but it was ingrained in him from the very beginning. He raised to be a leader. We will see throughout the book of Shmot that Moses lives up to his beginning as a man of action, continuing to perform miracles and show empathy, standing up for his people even when they sin. Join us on the Parsha Experiment as we venture through the book of Exodus and journey to nationhood.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
13. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
14. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
15. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
16. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
20. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
21. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
23. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
24. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
27. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
28. The Parsha Experiment - Acharei Mot: How Do Yom Kippur Rituals Save Us From Sins?
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
49. The Parsha Experiment - Nitzavim: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses II
50. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeilech: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah
51. The Parsha Experiment - Ha'azinu-V'Zot Habracha: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah - Part 2
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