In last week’s Parshat Yitro, the Torah recounts Am Yisrael’s response to what they saw and heard at Har Sinai: “And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off… And the people stood afar off; but Moshe drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Shemot 20:15, 18)
The description of Moshe “drawing near” while the nation (twice mentioned) “stood afar off” reminds us of another scene 80 years earlier—namely, the salvation of Moshe in his first months of life. Moshe was laid by the reeds of the river, “and his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him” (Shemot 2:4). In addition to the textual similarities, the allusion is sharpened as the situations are quite similar: Both Miriam and Am Yisrael stood from afar motivated by fear; Miriam, apprehensive regarding Pharaoh’s decree, and Am Yisrael fearful of Divine revelation. In both cases, Moshe remained alone to confront the source of fear, and in both cases, Moshe’s encounter with “higher authorities” edified his personality and prepared him for political and religious leadership.
Miriam witnessed the compassion displayed by Bat-Pharaoh who drew Moshe from the water and raised him as her son. The Torah immediately thereafter teaches us of Moshe’s adolescent years wherein he went to see the oppression of his brethren Hebrew slaves: “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together; and he said to him that did the wrong: ‘Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?’” (2:11–13)
How strikingly similar this scene is to the initial mitzvot commanded in Parshat Mishpatim, following the description of Am Yisrael standing from afar as they watched Moshe enveloped by the cloud of God! The parsha of statutes begins with the laws of the Hebrew slave and female maidservant (21:1–11) immediately followed by “He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death” (v. 12) and “When men quarrel and one strikes the other with stone or fist…” (v. 18)
Perhaps the Torah is teaching us how Moshe, already as a young man, was worthy of transmitting the Divine words of the Torah as he lived them in a microcosmic manner even prior to Har Sinai! He acted on the moral statutes commanded in Mishpatim—he smote the Egyptian who was fatally striking a Hebrew slave, and chastised his brethren for quarreling one with the other. But then Moshe had to flee for his subjective and personal moral standards were contrary to the Egyptian rule and culture. In this week’s parsha, as those same moral statutes are commanded through Divine revelation to the entire nation of Yisrael, Moshe does not retreat. On the contrary, he “draws near” prepared to teach and lead us “to the place that I have made ready.” (23:20)
This week’s parsha corroborates Moshe’s personal moral imperative as Divine law. Moreover, it “redeems” Am Yisrael as “a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”; A nation that witnessed revelation and is implored to display sensitivity to all human life—beginning with slaves—not based on natural law but Divine law, is transformed from a nation of slaves to a nation of Godly emissaries.
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is educational director of World Mizrachi and the director of the Mizrachi-TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program. She is a member of Mizrachi’s Speakers Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).