Given the title of this letter, we shall begin our discussion with the following question: How does our tradition understand the term “growing up”? I would like to suggest that an answer can be found in the following words regarding the “growing up” of Moshe Rebbenu – Moses, our Teacher:
“It happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren, and he saw their burdens” (Exodus 2:11).
It does not state that when Moshe grew up, the following events happened:
1. He got his “chariot license.”
2. Pharaoh appointed him to a major position.
3. He got married.
Instead, the verse states that when Moshe grew up, he “went out to his brethren” – he left the palace of Pharaoh and went out to his oppressed brethren, the suffering Children of Israel. The verse is therefore revealing that a person who grows up is a person who has the ability to care about others and reach out to them.
It also states, “He saw their burdens.” The classical biblical commentator, Rashi, explains these words in the following manner:
“He focused his eyes and heart to be distressed over them.” (based on Midrash Rabbah)
Moshe was distressed over them; in other words, when he reached out to them, he was also able to empathize with their suffering in his heart. A person who is truly “grown up” is a person who can empathize with others. This mature person’s sense of self therefore includes others.
Our classical prayers help us to grow up – to become human beings who care for others with both love and empathy. As we shall discuss, these prayers arouse our concern for the entire Community of Israel; moreover, they also inspire us to extend our concern to all human beings and to all creatures.
In this regard, Moshe can serve as a model, for the Torah describes how Moshe began his social activism by demonstrating concern for his own people, as it is written: “He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren” (Ibid). He later demonstrated concern for the plight of some Midianite women who were being oppressed by a group of shepherds (Exodus 2:16,17); moreover, the Midrash teaches that at the next stage of his exile in Midian, he demonstrated tender concern for a thirsty lamb who had wandered away from the flock (Exodus Rabbah 2:2).
As Moshe demonstrated, we begin with our own people, and just as Moshe felt the pain of his people, so should we. In this spirit, we chant the following prayer on Monday and Thursday mornings, after the reading of the Torah:
“As for our brethren, the entire House of Israel, who still remain in distress and captivity, whether they be on the sea or on dry land – may the Omnipresent One have compassion on them and lead them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily, and soon – and let us say: Amen.”
“Now, speedily and soon” – We pray that The Omnipresent One will redeem them; if not now, then speedily, or at least in the not-too-distant future. (Commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The following is a summary of the midrashic commentary on Exodus 2:11, which describes the concern and empathy of Moshe:
He looked upon their burdens and wept, saying: “Woe is me for you; would that I could die for you.” There is no labor more strenuous than that of handling clay, and he used to shoulder the burdens and help each one – pretending all the time to be helping Pharaoh. Hashem then said to him: “You have put aside your business and have gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; well, I will also leave those on high and below and speak with you.” This speaking took place at the burning bush. (Exodus Rabbah 1:27)
2. Although we are to empathize with the suffering of others, we need to remember the following Torah teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“Yet be on your guard against letting empathy degenerate into a hypersensitivity which identifies itself with the sufferers to such an extent that it retains no composure or power or strength to help. Such excess is fatal to the performance of duty to which empathy calls you. Rather accustom yourself at an early age to give practical help to suffering of every kind.” (Horeb, chap. 17)