- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
Thoughts on Torah Portion Shemot 2023
Our names give us a stable reference for others, but we, the persons behind the names, know that we live lives of ever-changing senses of self. Our hopes and aspirations, our sorrows and our failures, our losing the way and our finding the road all shift the shape of our inner lives. You might for years tell the story of your life one way, and then the story wears out. You might discover that your story contains facts, but little truth. We have to retell our story. Maybe something happened. Maybe life happened.
Several chapters of our stories will begin with the words, “I was not prepared for what happened next.” The turn of events might create loss, sorrow or confusion. The turn of events might produce deepened purpose and resilience. We are never fully prepared for the turns in the roads that take us away from that which we are running, and that take us toward that for which we are searching.
Take Moses, for example. We are told in our Torah portion (in one long sentence) that Moses grew up, went out to his brethren, saw their suffering, and saw an Egyptian man (ish Mitzri) striking a Hebrew man (ish Ivri). We are not told that Moses investigated the matter, to find out what might have caused the Egyptian man to strike a Hebrew man. Maybe the Hebrew man hit the Egyptian man first. We typically assume that the Egyptian was a taskmaster, but the text does not say that. Maybe he was just some Egyptian guy.
We can look long and hard at the story, and at the Midrashic depths of the story, to understand what Moses did once he saw the Egyptian man beating the Hebrew man. The facts as presented in the Torah, however, are sparse and rather horrifying. Moses looked around, saw that no one was watching, and then he beat the Egyptian man and hid the body (we assume he beat him to death).
When he buried that body, he buried a former self. He was no longer, internally, an Egyptian. He had changed sides. Whatever the killing was about, it was partly because the man was an Egyptian. Even though Moses had hoped to get away with the crime, we assume he was changed forever. He had killed someone, someone who maybe did not deserve to die. Moses had done something, it seems, from an inner identity, a terrible deed nonetheless.
We have all buried former selves, especially the former self that thought it knew who we were, what we would do, how things would turn out. We bury former selves who had the temerity to believe how things ought to turn out. Then reality can hit us upside the head like a brick. Maybe even a brick of our own making. Maybe we even had to find the straw to make that brick.
When Moses went out to meet and greet his people, he couldn’t have imagined he’d return home with blood on his hands. He went out the next day, to return to the scene of the crime. He took with him, apparently, his sense of self as a ruler. New person, new people, same status. When he went out the next day, he saw two men fighting. He said to the wicked one, “Why would you strike your fellow?” The Hebrew man, characteristically, it turns out, answered a question with a question. “Who made you a dignitary, a ruler, and judge over us? Are you going to murder me like you murdered the Egyptian?” Moses becomes fearful and says to himself, “Apparently, the matter is known.”
The jig was up. It seems that the man whom Moses had saved from the Egyptian had told everyone about the incident, including where the body was buried. We now see the man whom Moses had saved in a new light. Maybe the Hebrew man whom Moses had saved was a troublemaker as well as a gossip. Maybe the Egyptian man whom Moses had beaten to death was beating the Hebrew man for good reason. Maybe the Egyptian man yesterday was no worse than the wicked Hebrew man who was beating his fellow Hebrew today.
Pharaoh finds out and seeks to kill Moses. Moses heads for the hills (of Midian).
Earlier that week, the biggest decision in Moses’s life might have been whether to order the tilapia or the mullet at the Nile Bar and Grill. Now he had to decide which road to take to evade an Egyptian posse. One rash, thoughtless act, and everything is changed forever. I can’t imagine even Moses being prepared for that. His name was still Moses, but he wasn’t the former Moses anymore.
How does he tell himself his story while hightailing it out of Egypt, or for the next 40 years, for that matter? How often does he go over those two days, over and over again, asking himself: “Who was I that I could do that? What was I before I did that? Did I know that I was the kind of man who could do such a thing?” He did the crime and now he would have plenty of unstructured time to think about it.
Look in your past. Most of our offenses are petty, but some are egregious. Did you know how petty you could be, or how destructive you could be, the day before? How do you account for your offenses? We all know this: you can’t bury the wayward self. The matter is known. We have roads before us, the roads of denial or the roads of transformation.
Subsequent events tell us that Moses took the road of transformation.
All of this is recorded in the yet to be written “Journal of Moses’s Recriminations and Rebirth.”