The book of Shemot tells the story of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt and the beginning of their liberation. The Midrash points out that the Jewish people have sunk to the penultimate level of impurity, a nation that had strayed from the path of their forefathers. According to the Midrash, even circumcision had been abandoned, which is why Moshe had to force it upon them prior to the exodus. Yet there was still room for help. Certain aspects of tradition did remain in tact. The rabbis inform us that the Jews retained distinct names dress and language.
It is fascinating to note that Moshe Rabbeinu himself seems to be deficient in these very three areas: His name, his dress and his language.
The Torah stipulates that Pharaoh’s daughter gave Moshe his Egyptian name “For from the water I drew him out” (Shemot 2: 10). The saviour of the Jewish community, one that was careful to retain its Hebrew names, has an Egyptian name.
It is implicit that Moshe was deficient in Jewish clothing. When it was revealed to Pharaoh that Moshe had killed an Egyptian, Moshe was forced to escape and make his way to Midyan where he is described as an Ish Mitzri – an Egyptian man. What was it about Moshe that made him appear Egyptian? The Rabbis point out that his clothes were Egyptian but he was a Hebrew. Fascinatingly, Moshe not only lacks a Jewish name but he also lacks Jewish dress, hardly a candidate for redeeming the Jewish people.
It seems that Moshe lacked even a third credential for redemption – language. Whilst the Jewish people preserved Hebrew as their mother tongue despite their long years in exile, in contrast, Moshe declares, “I am not an eloquent man; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” He also declares that he has “uncircumcised lips”. It seems that Moshe is deficient in this most important trait. Why would Moshe be chosen to redeem the Jewish people when he is lacking in the very three traits that made them still deserving?
The answer lies in the Torah verses themselves. After leaving Egypt we are told, “Moshe was the shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock.” It is worthwhile noting that Yosef at the beginning of Egyptian exile informed his brothers that they should not publicly declare their occupation, “for every shepherd is considered an abomination in Egypt.” Moshe Rabbeinu is the ultimate redeemer as he is able to reject Egyptian culture. Moshe the shepherd shows his affiliation with his Jewish brothers and his absolute rejection of Egyptian values. This is the power that allows him to fight for the disenfranchised slaves and lead the people to the receiving of the Torah.
It seems the Torah is emphasizing the deficiencies of Moshe because they were needed for the absolute redemption of the Jewish people. Moshe with his Egyptian name, dress code and language, with his aristocratic upbringing, has shown that Egyptian culture can be and should be completely rejected. Similarly, there is a very powerful message to the Egyptian foe. A prince of the Pharaoh dynasty, perhaps even heir to the throne, a man in the public spotlight has defected and has shown that Egyptian culture is bankrupt of any meaning.
There is a message for each and every one of us. We should never underestimate the value and importance of each and every one of our fellow Jews. It is easy for us to alienate those who seen to wear different clothes, speak a different language and have foreign names. Our parasha teaches us that form these humble beginnings redemption arises.