Raising children in the 1990’s and early 2000, meant that “Prince of Egypt” played repeatedly on our little then TV-VCR. Aside from its grand success in our home, the film went on to gross over $218 million worldwide in theaters, which made it the most successful non-Disney animated feature at the time. The song, “Deliver Us”, sung by the late Ofra Haza, was translated to 17 languages and (the song) “When You Believe” won Best Original Song at the 1999 Academy Awards. The creators of the film took the liberty to offer a modern midrash to the ancient story, and yet, they didn’t do without insight into the sources.
A couple of scenes are especially interesting to me: Moses goes out to see his brothers, but having grown up in the palace, how does he know who are his brothers? The film suggests the his mother and sister sang him the same song he hears in the Hebrew quarters which somehow strikes a cord within him. Another scene is when Moses sees the Egyptian hitting a Hebrew man. The Torah tells us: “ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול” – “and he turned this way and that, and when he saw that there was no “menאch” nearby, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12). The translation, if surprising, is mine, trying to stick closely to the Hebrew – “ein ish”. Most translations prefer a variation on “there was no one around”. The problem is that as we hear a couple of verses later, there were people around, and the act of “ducking” the Egyptian in the sand, was seen and known. So what can be the meaning of “וירא כי אין איש” – “there was no one”?
In Pirkei Avot (Saying of the Fathers) 2:5, we’re told, במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש –
“where there is no “ish”, strive to be one”. Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century, explains that the root for ish – often translated as “man” or “human”, comes from one who can withstand, exist, possibly one who is a yeshut, a self sustaining entity, true to his (her) essence, a good, decent person at heart, and as such – what in Yiddish we‘d call a mentch. Hirsch further says that while it is good for one to stay away from authority positions as they have a tendency to corrupt, at the same time, if there is no one else to do the job, being falsely humble and avoiding one’s calling is not only wrong, but a crime.
Moses models the challenging balance between the two: in no way is he running after honors; in fact, much later, we’ll hear that he is the humblest of all humans, but he is no “pushover” either, and when the time comes, as is foreshadowed here, will be able to be that ish, and stand up to the great Pharaoh, the whole complaining people, Korach and his band and much more.
A moment of over humility for Moses is the lengthy list of excuses he submits when he and G-d put together a magic show for all to see: what if they don’t believe me? what if I can’t speak? what if…? Moses sounds like any one of us before an unknown, scary meetup. What is it that comforts Moses and helps him settle his anxiety?
“הלוא אהרון אחיך הלוי ידעתי כי דבר ידבר הוא וגם הנה הוא יוצא לקראתך וראך ושמח בליבו” – “Behold, Aaron, your brother, the Levite, I know that he will gladly speak (for you, and) behold! He is coming out towards you; he will see you and be joyous in his heart” (Exodus 4:14).
This is the first time in the Torah that the root “samach”, joyous, appears. We just completed a whole book of great tragedies between siblings: murder, banishment, theft, threats, rape, slavery and more. For the first time here, siblings work well together towards a common goal, each contributing his best abilities. Rashi says on this “joyous in his heart” here, is why later Aaron was worthy of the jewels of the priestly breastplate later (חושן (המשפט, which would be placed on the high priest’s chest, on his heart. Maybe Moses was worried that Aaron would be jealous that his younger brother was again a “favorite”, not only by their father, but by G-d Himself, receiving the direct message from the Divine; that Aaron would be offended that greatness was taken from him; that he would smile on the outside, but maintain animosity in his heart. G-d thus reassures Moses that Aaron is coming, and that when he’ll see Moses, he’ll be truly joyous in his heart. This change in brotherly relationship might be a key prerequisite to start the upcoming redemption. Later, in an unusual move, the two of them will be the ones in charge of the first communal commandment (Exodus 12:1-2). Of course, we’ll still need G-d’s amazing wonders and miracles; then again, He can do that anytime. But that true smile from one’s heart to another, davka away from home and when the chips are down – is up to us.
Earlier in the week, I was honored to be one of the speakers at the JOFA conference, along with 1200 participants from around the globe, coinciding with this week’s Torah portion, when women are our nation’s heroes and saviors (the midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, and more). On the forefront of modern orthodoxy, discussion about women’s roles is lively and often heated. What will we look like? More on that in the future…