Just verses into the opening of the second book of the Torah, Shemot, the unsuspecting Bible reader is shaken from a blissful reverie in which Jews are the most celebrated citizens in the ancient world. From here on, the reader is forced to observe their rapid plummet into the dark and degrading abyss of slavery.

A dramatic regime-change has taken place in ancient Egypt, suddenly ushering the Jewish people into an era of bitter persecution. Devastation and despair are palpable in the text:

The Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with crushing labor. And they embittered their lives with hard work … [and the King of Egypt decreed], “When you assist the Hebrew women at childbirth, and you see on the birth-stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death.”1

The narrative is one of paralysis and helplessness, and yet there are glimmers of hope.

Courage is Born

Nelson Mandela once said: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Impossible is a word that comes to mind when describing the new reality facing the Hebrews in Egypt. Our sages relate that not a single slave had ever been able to escape from Egypt, so well protected were its borders. And yet, at the end of this narrative, an entire nation of slaves would march out of Egypt’s gates to freedom.

But for the impossible to become possible, many things had to happen—not least of which was the spreading of the infectious human virtue we call courage.

If the story of the Exodus teaches us anything about courage it is that courage isn't something you are born with, but grow into. As Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Another important thing we learn from the Exodus story is that courage is contagious.

What follows are the stories of a few individuals who infected others with their courage, inspiring those around them to reach greatness.

According to our sages, Yocheved, the mother of Moses, was the brave midwife who dared to defy the decree of Pharaoh to kill all newborn Jewish males: “The midwives, however, feared G‑d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.”2

There you have it. The first act of rebellion.

The second portrait of courage is Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter. The Talmud recounts the following tale:

Moses' father, Amram, was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river,” he said: “In vain do we labor.” He went and divorced his wife. All the Israelites thereupon arose and divorced their wives.

Said his daughter to him: “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh decreed only against the males; you have decreed against the males and females. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not; in your case, it will certainly be fulfilled.” So Amram went and remarried his wife; and they all arose and took back their wives.3

Inspired by her mother’s sacrifice to preserve life, Miriam courageously instigated a risky Jewish baby-boom. One woman’s courage spread to another woman, and subsequently to many more.

Amram, too, demonstrated great courage. His decision to risk having more children was not merely a personal one, but affected the entire nation he led.

It was into this family that a child was born who would one day complete the job his mother had begun. But we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves . . .

Months after little Moses was born, he was placed in a reed basket at the Nile River’s edge in order to evade the genocidal authorities. A remarkable act of courage followed.

Pharoah’s daughter, Batya, who was out bathing at the time, discovered the basket with Moses in it. Quite possibly inspired by the parents of this newborn, who risked bringing a child into such a dangerous world, Batya decided to raise the child as her own, in defiance of her father’s decree and at great personal risk.

Given the collective courage that forms the background of Moses’ birth, it comes as no surprise that he came to display so much of this rare human commodity himself.

Moses’ adult life is described by the Torah in three vivid scenes:

Scene 1:

Moses encounters “an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man.”4 Instead of ignoring the abuse of the “useless” and “dispensable” slave at the hands of a government representative, Moses intervenes—one gets the sense almost impulsively—and, in an act that would nearly cost him his life, kills the Egyptian taskmaster.

Scene 2:

Moses encounters two Hebrew slaves embroiled in a dispute, and instead of seeing their conflict as someone else’s problem, he attempts to mediate between the two men.5

Scene 3:

Moses arrives in Midian after escaping capital punishment in Egypt, and heads to the local well to get his bearings. As a refugee in a new country and culture, one would expect Moses to try to adjust to the local politics. In reality, he does anything but:

Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks. But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks.6

These girls are considered second class citizens; the shepherds are the town heroes. But Moses doesn’t care.

Who are the girls Moses saves (one of whom, Tziporah, would later become his wife)? Why are they social outcasts?

Jethro was at first a priest to idolatrous worship; but when he saw that there was no truth in it, he summoned his townsmen and said: “Hitherto I ministered unto you, but now I have become old; choose another priest.” And he returned unto them all the insignia of his priesthood. Whereupon they excommunicated him, that no man be in his company, or work for him or tend his flock; he asked the shepherds to look after his flock, but they refused, and he had to employ his daughters.7

Moses fit right into this courageous family. He and his father-in-law were both willing to sacrifice comfort for conviction and social acceptance for truth.

No sooner did Moses settle down when he was presented with his greatest test of courage. G‑d tasked Moses with returning to the lion’s den that was Egypt and challenging the mighty Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go. After some reservation, Moses assumed the role of redeemer, and set off with his family on this monumental mission.

And here the Torah describes another act of courage, this time performed by Moses’ wife who outsmarted an angel of death bent on taking Moses’s life. The Talmud relates that an angel disguised as a snake swallowed Moses up to his waist, at which point Tziporah understood that Moses should not have delayed circumcising their son. So she immediately picked up a sharp stone and performed the circumcision herself.8

Journeying onward through the desert, Moses and his family encountered Moses’ brother Aaron, a man of great moral courage who warmly embraced Moses, supportive of his younger brother who would take his place as the Jewish leader.

When they arrived in Egypt, the Hebrews were inspired by Moses and Aaron’s courageous mission to speak truth to power, and the downtrodden Hebrews lifted their eyes heavenward for the first time in centuries, exhibiting one of the greatest feats of human courage: the ability to believe in the impossible.

The final show of courage in this narrative is described in the closing verses of Parshat Shemot:

The officers of the children of Israel whom Pharaoh's taskmasters had appointed over them were beaten, saying, “Why have you not completed your quota to make bricks like the day before yesterday, neither yesterday nor today?”9

Rashi comments:

The officers were Israelites, and they had pity on their fellows, [and did] not press them. They would turn the bricks over to the taskmasters, who were Egyptians, and when something was missing from the [required] amount, they [the Egyptians] would flog them [the officers] because they did not press the workers.10

There you have it: It was contracted by a mother, who transmitted it to her daughter, who infected her father, who spread it to an Egyptian princess, and passed it on to his son, who shared it with his father-in-law and wife, and then with his brother, and then with an entire people; the highly potent and contagious courage-epidemic started by a humble act of rebellion spread quickly, touching everyone in its wake, and ultimately bringing change to an entire world.