The parshah of Shemot is the story of a galut - of the exile and enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt, which our sages regard as the father and prototype of all subsequent exiles and persecutions of the Jewish people. It is also the story of the making of the quintessential Jewish leader, Moses.
Everything the Torah tells us about Moses is a lesson in Jewish leadership. We are told that Moses' mother, Jocheved, was born "between the boundary walls" of Egypt when Jacob's family first arrived there. This, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, means that Jocheved belongs neither to the "old generation" born in the Holy Land, to whom galut will always be a foreign and unknowable world; nor is she of the generation born in Egypt, to whom the state of exile is a most natural and obvious fact of life. Rather, she straddles both these worlds, meaning that she has intimate knowledge of the circumstance of galut as well as the transcendent vision to supersede it. So Jocheved is the woman in whose womb could be formed, and under whose tutelage could develop, the one who could redeem the Children of Israel from their exile.
The circumstances of Moses' birth are a lesson in the selflessness demanded of the leader. Jocheved and Amram had separated when Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Hebrew males be cast in the Nile. Their eldest daughter, Miriam, rebuked them: "Your decree is worse than Pharaoh's: Pharaoh decreed to annihilate the males, and your action shall spell the end of all Jewish children." Amram and Jocheved realized that, as leaders whose actions will be emulated by others, they had to rise above the personal danger and anguish involved in fathering Jewish children in these terrible times. The result of their remarriage was the birth of Moses.
Infancy and Childhood
When Moses is born, the "house was filled with light" attesting to his future as the enlightener of humanity. But right away this light has to be hidden, for he, as all Hebrew newborn males, lives in perpetual fear of discovery by Pharaoh's baby killers. Then he is placed in the Nile, precariously protected only by a reed basket, sharing, if only in potential, the fate of his fellow babes cast into its waters.
Here we have a further lesson in leadership: the leader cannot appear from "above," but must share the fate of his people. This was the lesson which G‑d Himself conveyed by first appearing to Moses in a thornbush: "I am with them in their affliction."
But Moses' placement in the Nile was not only a demonstration of empathy with the plight of Israel: it was also the first stage of their salvation. Our sages tell us that Pharaoh ordered all Hebrew male babies to be cast into the Nile because his astrologers told him that the savior of Israel will meet his end by water (this prediction was fulfilled many years later when Moses was prevented from entering the Holy Land because of the "Waters of Strife"). On the day that Moses was placed in the Nile, Pharaoh's astrologers informed him that the one destined to redeem the people of Israel has already been cast into the water, and the decree was revoked. As a three-month-old infant, seemingly a passive participant in the events surrounding him, Moses was already fulfilling his role as a savior of his people.
Thanks to Miriam's ingenious ploy, Moses is nursed and raised by his own mother in his early childhood. But then he is brought to Pharaoh's palace to be raised as a member of the royal family. Moses must be both Hebrew slave and Egyptian prince. To lead his people, he must share their fate; to defeat the forces that enslave them, he must infiltrate the citadel of Egyptian royalty. He must "come to Pharaoh" (Exodus 10:1) and gain intimate knowledge of the essence of his power and vitality.
Defender of Israel
The first of Moses' actions to be explicitly recounted by the Torah delineate two central tasks of the leader: to defend his people from external threat, and to safeguard their internal integrity.
On the day that Moses attains adulthood, he "goes out to his brothers" and "sees their affliction" - his years in Pharaoh's palace have not inured him against affinity with this tribe of Hebrew slaves and sensitivity to their plight. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew to death. He is compelled to act, sacrificing, with this single action, his privileged life as a member of the ruling class and binding his fate to that of his brethren.
The very next day Moses acts again, this time to intervene in a quarrel between two Jews. Seeing two of his brethren in conflict, he suddenly comprehends that the source of their enslavement is not the power of Egypt, but their own internal disunity, and that the key to their redemption lies in fostering a sense of mutual interdependency and responsibility among the members of the fledgling nation of Israel.
From these two demonstrations of leadership one would expect Moses to proceed directly to his ordained role as leader of Israel. But first he had to become a shepherd.
The Faithful Shepherd
For the role of a leader in Israel is not only to defend, redeem, preach and govern, but, also and primarily, to nurture. Moses is the savior of Israel and their teacher and legislator, but also their raaya meheimna - their "faithful shepherd" and "shepherd of faith" - meaning that he is the provider of their needs, both materially and spiritually, feeding their bodies with manna and feeding their souls with faith.
So Moses is driven from Egypt to faraway Midian to become a shepherd of Jethro's sheep. The Midrash relates how another shepherd, David, learned the art of leadership by caring for his father's flocks: he would have the small kids graze first on the tender tips of grass before allowing the older sheep and goats to feed on the middle portion of the stalks, and only afterwards releasing the strong, young rams to devour the tough roots. A leader cannot simply point the way and a teacher cannot simply teach; he must "shepherd" his flock, supplying to each guidance and knowledge in a manner that can be absorbed and digested by its recipient.
The Midrash also tells how, one day, a kid ran away from the flock under Moses' care. Moses chased after it, until it came to a spring and began to drink. When Moses reached the kid he cried: "Oh, I did not know that you were thirsty!" He cradled the runaway kid in his arms and carried it to the flock. Said the Almighty: "You are merciful in tending sheep - you will tend My flock, the people of Israel."
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that in addition to demonstrating Moses' compassion, the incident holds another important lesson: Moses realized that the kid did not run away from the flock out of malice or wickedness - it was merely thirsty. By the same token, when a Jew alienates himself from his people, G‑d forbid, it is only because he is thirsty. His soul thirsts for meaning in life, but the waters of Torah have eluded him. So he wanders about in foreign domains, seeking to quench his thirst.
When Moses understood this, he was able to become a leader of Israel. Only a shepherd who hastens not to judge the runaway kid, who is sensitive to the causes of its desertion, can mercifully lift it into his arms and bring it back home.
The Ultimate Sacrifice
After many years of leadership in the making, the stage is set. He was a Hebrew baby cast into the Nile, an infant at Jocheved's breast, a young Egyptian prince, a fearless defender of his people, an equally fearless campaigner for Jewish unity, a shepherd in the wilderness. Then G‑d revealed Himself to him in a burning bush to say: I have seen the affliction of My people, I have heard their cries, I know their sorrows. I'm sending you to redeem them. Go, take them out of Egypt, and bring them to Mount Sinai for their election as My chosen people.
Most amazingly, Moses refuses to go.
He doesn't just refuse - for seven days and seven nights he argues with G‑d, presenting every conceivable excuse to decline his commission, until "G‑d's anger burned against Moses."
First came the excuse of humility: "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?"
G‑d ends all debate along those lines with the words: "I will be with you." Can even "the humblest man on the face of the earth" plead unworthiness after that?
But I don't know Your essence, says Moses. How can I present myself as a messenger when I can't explain the nature of the One who sent me?
So G‑d tells him who He is.
They won't believe me when I say that G‑d sent me.
G‑d rebukes Moses for slandering His people. Yes, they will believe you. Whatever else you say about them (and there's lots to say), they are believers. But if you're not convinced of their faith, here's a few magic tricks you can perform.
Moses' excuses are running out. He tries: But I have a speech impairment. A leader needs to give speeches, you know.
G‑d's answer is so obvious it hardly needs repeating.
So Moses finally just cries: O please, my G‑d, don't send me. "Send by the hand of him whom You shall send."
Why, indeed, is Moses acting so strangely? His brothers and sisters are languishing under the taskmaster's whip; Pharaoh is bathing in the blood of Jewish children. The moment for which the Children of Israel have hoped and prayed for four generations has finally come: G‑d has appeared in a burning bush to say, "I am sending you to redeem My people." Why does Moses refuse? Out of humility? Because he's not a good speaker?
Our sages interpret the words, "Send by the hand of him whom You shall send," to mean: send by the hand of him whom You shall send in the end of days, Moshiach (the Messiah), the final redeemer of Israel.
The Chassidic masters explain that Moses knew that he would not merit to bring Israel into the Holy Land and thereby achieve the ultimate redemption of his people. He knew that Israel would again be exiled, would again suffer the physical and spiritual afflictions of galut (if Moses himself would have brought the Children of Israel into the Holy Land and built the Holy Temple, they would never have been exiled again and the Temple would never have been destroyed, since "all Moses' deeds are eternal"). So Moses refused to go. If the time for Israel's redemption has come, he pleaded with G‑d, send the one through whom You will effect the complete and eternal redemption. For seven days and nights Moses contested G‑d's script for history, prepared to incur G‑d's wrath upon himself for the sake of Israel.
(This extreme form of self-sacrifice, in which a man like Moses jeopardizes his very relationship with G‑d for the sake of his people, was to characterize Moses' leadership throughout his life. When the people of Israel sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses said to G‑d: "Now, if You will forgive their sin--; and if You will not, blot me out of the Book which You have written.")
Nor did Moses ever accept the decree of galut. After assuming, by force of the divine command, the mission to take Israel out of Egypt, he embarked on a lifelong struggle to make this the final and ultimate redemption. To the very last day of his life, Moses pleaded with G‑d to allow him to lead his people into the Holy Land; to his very last day he braved G‑d's anger in his endeavor to eliminate all further galut from Jewish history. In Moses' own words: "I beseeched G‑d... Please, let me cross over and see the good land across the Jordan, the good mountain [Jerusalem] and the Levanon [the Holy Temple]. And G‑d grew angry with me for your sakes... and He said to Me: Enough! Speak no more to Me of this matter..." (Deuteronomy 4:23-26).
Says the Lubavitcher Rebbe: G‑d said "Enough!" but Moses was not silenced. For Moses' challenge of the divine plan did not end with his passing from physical life. The Zohar tells us that every Jewish soul has at its core a spark of Moses' soul. So every Jew who storms the gates of heaven clamoring for redemption continues Moses' struggle against the decree of galut.