Rabbi Chaim Possick
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
In Parshat Shmot, we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu’s character. Moshe Rabbeinu is selected to be Hashem’s emissary and the leader who will lead Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. Yet, the Torah does not tell us why he was chosen for this role. Indeed, the Torah suffices with three stories about him: his birth and infancy, his intervention in the fights between the Ivri and the Egyptian and between the two feuding Ivriim, and a brief account of his sojourn in Yitro’s house.
In contrast, many Midrashim attempt to fill in the blanks about the man who was chosen for such a lofty role. These Midrashim take the form of stories which reveal the various facets of Moshe’s personality during the eighty years which preceded the Burning Bush. In this article, we shall examine one particular Midrash, which focuses on a specific characteristic.
The Midrash (Shmot Rabah 1) cites R’ Elazar, the son of R’ Yosi HaGlili:
“‘And he saw their burdens’ (Shmot 2:11) – [Moshe] saw a child bearing an adult’s load and an adult bearing a child’s load; and a woman bearing a man’s load and a man bearing a woman’s load; and a youth bearing an old man’s load and an old man bearing a youth’s load. And he would ignore his princely status and go and ease their burdens and act as if he was helping Paroh. HaKadosh Baruch Hu said, ‘You ignored your own affairs and went to observe Yisrael’s suffering and treated them like the leader of your brothers. I will ignore the Elyonim and the Tachtonim, and I will speak to you.’ Thus, it is written, ‘Hashem saw that he had turned aside to see.’ (Shmot 3:4) HaKadosh Baruch Hu saw that Moshe had turned away from his own affairs to see their burdens. Hence, ‘God called to him from within the bush.’ (Ibid)”
Moshe, the Egyptian prince, goes out to observe his enslaved brothers’ suffering. He leaves his palace and sees how Paroh’s officers are oppressing the Jewish slaves. Specifically, he notices that the Egyptian overseers have switched the loads; they gave heavy loads to the children and light loads to the grownups. When he sees this, Moshe switches the loads back.
At first glance, it would appear that Moshe’s assistance only benefited the children. After all, now the adults have to carry heavy loads. However, this was the precise nature of Moshe’s leadership test. The Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:34) explains:
“You must also know that the Torah does not reflect the exception, and the commandment is not in accordance with the minority. Rather, every opinion, trait, or useful deed that one wants to acquire are intended for matters based on the majority and do not reflect the thing which seldom occurs or the damage which harms one person because of this ruling and the Torah’s direction. Because the Torah is a Divine Commandment…”
The Rambam declares that in reality, no law can be good for everyone. Inevitably, there will always be exceptions who are hurt by the law. Moreover, this principle applies to every law – including the Torah’s laws.
Moshe Rabbeinu was appointed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu to be the one to transmit and teach the Torah to Bnei Yisrael. According to the Midrash, HaKadosh Baruch Hu sees that Moshe does not try to make everyone happy, because he knows that is impossible. Instead, Moshe seeks justice, even if that means that a few individuals will be negatively affected. For example, in our case, those who benefited from the Egyptian decree will be disappointed, but that decree was clearly unjust.
Thus, the most important leadership quality is justice. A leader does not necessarily have to worry that each and every person will enjoy the most favorable conditions. Rather, a leader must be concerned with the public good, while taking each individual’s welfare into consideration.