By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
After recounting the life stories of the avos and the arrival of Yaakov and his family to Mitzrayim, Seder Shemos introduces us to the first leader of the Jewish people, the man who would represent them to their oppressor, Paroh, and subsequently lead them from slavery.
Moshe Rabbeinu was born to Yocheved, and Amrom, who is identified as “ish m’bais Levi,” a man from the house of Levi. The Torah tells us that his mother was commanded by Paroh to kill all male Jewish infants. She didn’t obey, and ensured that the children would live, but the Torah tells us nothing about his father other than that he was from shevet Levi.
The infant Moshe was found by Paroh’s daughter, who adopted him and raised him in the royal palace. He grew up estranged from his family and people, but when he became older, he was told that he was of Jewish lineage (Ramban, Shemos 2:11). He ventured out of the palace compound to meet his brethren and saw how they were oppressed in servitude. It was too much for him to bear, and when he saw a Mitzri beat a Jew, he neutralized him.
His inbred middos, as a son of Yocheved, and his obligation of responsibility as an heir to shevet Levi led him to undertake an act that caused him to flee into exile. With that, his royal life came to a quick halt and he ended up as a fugitive tending to sheep in a foreign land.
His concern, compassion, responsibility and bravery alone did not qualify him as the leader of the Jewish people. It was something else. His introduction to leadership came in a dramatic encounter.
As he was leading the sheep to pasture on Har Chorev, he noticed a burning bush. No big deal, but there was something different about this fire. It was like the flames in a fake fireplace. The branches didn’t get consumed and the fire did not go out – yet, it was a real fire and a real bush.
There was something supernatural going on. There was a relevance and power to the bush. Moshe felt that there was a lesson there for him and he got closer to investigate what was going on. He perceived a latent sanctity to the sparks.
Hashem called out to him from the bush and told him that he was standing on holy ground. Hashem directed Moshe to return to Mitzrayim and lead His people to freedom in the Promised Land.
What was it that caused Hashem to appoint Moshe leader of the Jewish people?
Moshe saw the bush aflame and recognized holiness. Although he was in a desert, in a foreign land, far from where he was brought up and with nothing on the horizon, he was searching for kedusha wherever he went. When he came upon this spot, he froze in place. Perhaps he had come across the kedusha he was searching for. In the darkness of a strange land, in midst of the vacuity of a desert, he found it.
This is what identified him as the person who can lead the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov from the quagmire of Mitzrayim. As we exist in golus, the ability to differentiate fact from fiction and holy from vile is paramount. The need to constantly be on the lookout for kedusha and learn from daily encounters is what keeps us on the path to redemption.
Throughout our history, our leaders have been able to perceive holiness where others saw emptiness. They saw holy sparks where others saw darkness and evil, and they found glory in a lowly bush with no chance for growth. They saw holiness in simple people and potential in desolate areas. When all saw churban, they saw a flourishing future.
The Jewish leader is not only the one who shows concern for others and displays compassion and a sense of responsibility. He is the one who searches for greatness and holiness wherever he is.
We have seen it in our day. The roshei yeshiva of Telz found themselves in America during the war and ignored their personal suffering. Despite the state of Yiddishkeit in this country, they resolved to plant the flag of Torah in Cleveland. Rav Aharon Kotler dedicated his life to inculcating the drive for Torah lishmah that he had led in Lithuania before six million Jews were murdered. The Satmar Rebbe came here with very little and, together with the other survivors, set about rebuilding.
The story is told that shortly after the Satmar Rebbe’s arrival in New York City, an Americanized Jew saw him in his regalia and said loudly, “I’m afraid that this man is going to destroy what we have here.” The rebbe responded to him, “I haven’t done it yet, but I plan to.”
And he did. American Jewry was never the same.
Where others saw rapid assimilation and desolation, the Moshe Rabbeinus of that generation saw potential and a land rife with opportunity for Torah and avodas Hashem, the way it was back home.
When Moshe returned to Mitzrayim and told the Jewish people that he had been sent by Hashem to lead them out of slavery to the Promised Land, they refused to accept his message of hope. The Torah tells us, “Velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah,” the people were too suppressed by their servitude and oppression to be able to accept the message that change was in the offing.
Try to picture the scene. Moshe was invigorated after experiencing the revelation of the Creator. He couldn’t wait to share the news with the enslaved people that their freedom was imminent. Yet, when he returned to Miztrayim and told the people, “Higia zeman geulaschem – The time of your redemption has arrived,” nobody was interested. They didn’t listen: “Velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah.”
They were not able to listen to his message of redemption. They were incapable of hearing the words that would have transformed everything for them. They failed to digest the message promising hope for a better tomorrow.
They were too overwhelmed with the present to think about the future. They looked around them and everything was bleak. All they saw was misery. All they felt was tyranny. They couldn’t fathom that it could change.
Like every posuk in the Torah, this posuk is recorded for posterity to instruct and guide us. The words and their lessons remain relevant for eternity. Their inability to think about a better tomorrow is relevant to us in our day.
An elderly man arrived at a yeshiva for baalei teshuvah. He said that he regretted the life he led and wanted to join the yeshiva and study Torah. He said he had a story. This was his story.
His father was killed in the Holocaust, while he and his mother survived. They made their way to Tel Aviv after the war and settled there. After the horrors she suffered, his mother gave up religion, but she could not afford to care for her young son, so she sent him to an orphanage near Tel Aviv, where he would be fed, educated, and cared for.
One day, she decided to visit her son in the orphanage. To her utter horror and shock, she discovered that it was a religious institution. Without asking any questions, she packed his few things and brought him to the one-room hovel she called home. She was done with religion, and from that day onward, so was her son.
The orphanage was founded by the Ponovezher Rov, who would regularly visit. When he saw that the boy was missing, he hurried to Tel Aviv and knocked on the door of the woman’s home. The woman allowed him to enter, but nothing he said was able to overcome her stubborn refusal to be reacquainted with religion. She had seen too much, she had suffered too much, and she could not hear one good word about it. He pleaded, but to no avail.
Finally, unable to go on, he asked for a chair. He sat down and began weeping. He cried and cried for ten minutes. Finally, he got up, said goodbye, and left.
The man said that the story took place in 1950, and as the boy aged, grew up, married, and lived his life, he could not forget those tears. He never did anything about it, but they were there in the recesses of his conscience. Then, one day, he had enough and decided to take the plunge to Torah.
“And that is why I am here,” he said to the school’s administrator. “Please take me in.”
The Ponovezher Rov was one of those in every generation who possess the neshomah of Moshe. Where others lost all hope, he saw potential for growth. Where others saw darkness, he saw light.
That boy had a spark. Every boy has a spark. Even a poor boy orphaned by the Holocaust and brought up by a woman who lost almost everything cannot be written off eternally.
That was how Moshe looked at the world and his brothers and sisters, and that was why he was chosen. That is how our leaders throughout the centuries, from Moshe to Rabi Akiva, to all the builders of Torah, down to those in our generation who forsake their physical needs and comforts and construct edifices of Torah and chesed, have viewed things.
We need to follow their example and be open to their positive messages. In fact, Torah Jews live in a state of anticipation, always awaiting the news of Moshiach’s arrival. We should have a sense of expectancy, appreciating that current events are preparing the world for geulah. When we see implausible things happening, we should be hearing the whispers of Moshiach.
Life presents its share of problems and difficulties. Not everything appears to go right, and at times we are let down by people we trusted. Financial difficulties are at the root of much depression and sadness. Relationships don’t always pan out the way we expected and it’s hard to see the silver lining. Our children don’t get accepted to the school we wanted for them, and when that happens, we become dispirited.
Some days it rains, some days it snows, and the sun doesn’t always shine. Some days it’s hot and some days it’s cold. And some days it’s even cold in places we escape to in search of warmth. But that is the way Hashem made the world, for without rain, nothing would grow, and with too much rain, nothing could grow. We enjoy warm weather, but the world needs a cooling period as well, and as we grow, we learn that day follows night and heat follows cold.
Behind the clouds, the sun shines, though its rays are concealed. We need to see beyond the clouds and appreciate that at all times, the sun is providing light and heat, even when we don’t see it.
Torah affects us and allows us to appreciate the prevalent good. Studying Torah makes us optimistic, energetic, and positive.
When learning this week’s parsha, let us resolve to ensure that the posuk of “Velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah” does not describe us. When productive people of faith and vision appeal to us to assist them in their missions to help improve our nation’s plight, to grow Torah, to assist others and engage in activities to bring Moshiach, let us be among those who are broad enough to support them.
Let us resolve that no matter the news of the day, we appreciate the good we have and the potential for better things and better times. No matter what besets us, let us not lose our faith that the pain is temporary and in the near future we will be blessed and content.
Let us always be on the lookout for Eliyohu Hanovi, who will soon be mevaser lonu besoros tovos yeshuos venechamos.