As we have made it to the third cycle of the triennial reading of the parsha, we skip past some of the most exciting material of this week’s portion - the story of the enslavement, the birth of Moses, the saving of our savior in a basket, his growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, his killing the taskmaster and fleeing to Midian, meeting Tzipporah, meeting the burning bush, meeting God, and receiving instructions to go to Egypt and free his people. We start in the sixth aliyah, where the Torah jumps in with a strange line before Moses departs for Egypt. The text tells us:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְיָן לֵךְ שֻׁב מִצְרָיִם כִּי־מֵתוּ כּל־הָאֲנָשִׁים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֶת־נַפְשֶׁךָ׃
The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”
That’s a strange final line to motivate Moshe to get on his way, and one of the hassidic commentators, Rabbi Zeev Wolf Landau of Strikov, a student of both Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and the Chiddushei HaRim, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter of Ger, notes its strangeness.
He says this:
And this is puzzling: the Kadosh Baruch Hu - Holy One Blessed Be - in God’s glory and by Godself sent him to Pharaoh. So why should he be afraid of some random haters amongst the people?
Rabbi Zeev of Strikov of course answers his own question:
Rather, was afraid that they would prevent the redemption on account of lashon hara and slander. And all of Moshe’s soul and very existence was dedicated to the redemption of the Jewish people.
I resonate with this comment a lot. On some level, the meaning of this teaching is essentially about the things that dissuade us from the holy task. We all have things we are meant to do - and yet we are afraid to do because we are afraid of what others will think or say. Rabbi Zeev believes that Moshe was afraid to return to Mitzrayim, to Egypt, because folks would crowd around upon his arrival and say ‘oh, that’s Pharaoh’s adopted kid, the murderer, the Hebrew, the foundling, the refugee in Midian, the black sheep’. So God gives him a little pep talk to motivate to go - the haters are all gone. Go and do the thing - complete the sacred mission.
In the Strikover rebbe’s understanding, even Moshe Rabbeinu, whose soul was 110% dedicated to redeeming the Israelites, could be stopped by the fear of what other people think. We are encouraged here to understand that the Torah demands us to stand in our truth - that it is deeply important to remember what we are doing here and to not be afraid to push past the haters and the slanderers to be the deliverers. We are at our worst when we prevaricate and worry excessively about what others will think or say. We are at our best when we focus on the most important task at any given moment in our lives - not the email or pleasing the boss or the office politics or the latest covid policy changes - but the higher calling and the bigger picture.
On a more practical level, there’s a bit of wisdom here for all of us to help filter out the regular noise generated by society at large - the news, facebook, twitter, and perhaps some of our friends and family that are less than ennobled of heart and mind. Rabbi Zeev Wolf uses the words “random haters back in Egypt” - in Hebrew, איזה שונאי מפשוטי העם . Interestingly, it isn’t clear whether he means random haters amongst the Egyptians, with whom Moses grew up, or amongst the Jews. There is a midrash that the haters here are Dathan and Aviram, two grumbling Jews that don’t actually die, but rather their outsized reputations die, thus permitting Moses to return. Nevertheless, we are all surrounded by voices in society of negativity and doom. Nothing is ever good enough; the sky is always falling; no amount of effort can change things. Sometimes, that voice is coming from ourselves. Random haters amongst the people who seek to dissuade us from our dedication to redemption.
To some degree, this text also might be encouraging us that the sacred mission requires us to tell it like it is and not worry so much that our language might ruffle a few feathers in fulfilling a mitzvah. And that’s generally my way in the world - I’m a little too honest and a little too blunt for some folks tastes. To that, the Torah brings the verse that precedes the one I read above, and another hassidic commentary to unpack it.
In Exodus 4:18 we learn:
וַיֵּלֶךְ מֹשֶׁה וַיָּשׁב אֶל־יֶתֶר חֹתְנוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֵלְכָה נָּא וְאָשׁוּבָה אֶל־אַחַי אֲשֶׁר־בְּמִצְרַיִם וְאֶרְאֶה הַעוֹדָם חַיִּים וַיֹּאמֶר יִתְרוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה לֵךְ לְשָׁלוֹם׃
Moses went back to his father-in-law Jether and said to him, “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.”
To that verse the great Mussar rabbi, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Altar of Slabodka, said the following
Why is Moshe stopping off to ask his father-in-law for a thing that God had commanded him to do explicitly? Thus we know that were it not for the fact that Moses was capable of this virtue of receiving from his father-in-law good tidings, he would never have been suitable to be the leader of the people.
So, to remind you of the plain meaning of the text - Moses just came down from an encounter with God Godself, which consumes a big chunk of the text of this week’s parsha, from chapter 3 verse 1 to chapter 4 verse 17. And rather than set out upon Divine command for Egypt with a head of steam, the first thing he does is ask his father in laws permission. And the Altar of Slabodka’s explanation is essentially - there’s a wrong way and a right way to do things, and this is the right way. To act with humility, forbearance, and patience, and to pick your words wisely. He receives a command from God, and yet he asks permission from his non-Jewish father in law. Because although he is literally a man on a mission, he is also a man of deep sensitivity. And Reb Nosson Tzvi explains that even more so, had he not been a man of great sensitivity and humility, God would have never asked him to be the leader of the Jews into redemption.
We must act boldly. We must be authentic. We must not fear how individuals will speak ill of us when we attempt to create a holy life and an improved world. But we must also be obedient and filled with lovingkindness in our actions - so muchso that if God told us to do something we might reply ‘yes absolutely. Just let me check with my wife first.’
We must act in the world for it’s improvement and redemption for Torah’s sake, nevermind the haters. And when we act in the world, let our boldness be tempered by humility and lovingkindness.