Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
The other day while visiting my parents, I overheard my mom on a call. The woman on the other end of the phone had helped my parents with home decorating in the past, and they had called to ask her advice about an old couch. But within moments I heard my mom exclaiming, “Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry. When will you be in Boston for chemo?”
The woman had recently been diagnosed with stage four cancer, and my mother, who hadn’t spoken to her in years, was now making plans to sit with her during treatments.
I was moved by my mother’s instinctual drive to be with this woman at one of life’s hardest moments, to choose to sit in a hospital room when she could have been anywhere else.
On another scale, it reminded me of the large color reports I get in the mail about Doctors Without Borders, an astounding international NGO that sends health care workers into the places around the world in desperate need. No one wants to travel there. The people living there would do better if they could get out. Yet there are the doctors and nurses, signing up to go. It reminds me of, among others, Hannah Senesh and her comrades, who left the land of Israel to fly back into occupied Europe and be part of the resistance against the Nazis, and of chaplains who work in prisons. Why are we sometimes willing, even driven, to go into places no one wants to be, in order to help?
This question takes us into a close reading of Exodus 4:18, and an easily overlooked interaction in this week’s packed Torah portion, Shemot.
Moses, convinced that he must be the one to lead the people out of Egypt, takes a moment to check in at home first: “Moses went, and returned to Yitro his father-in-law and said to him, ‘Let me please go and return to my brothers who are in Egypt to see if they are still alive.’ And Yitro said, ‘Go in peace.’” (Exodus 4:18)
Why does the text say Moses both went, and returned to Yitro? Where did he go? And what is really happening in this interaction between father-in- law and son-in- law? Rabbinic tradition offers several interpretations; my favorite is this:
“The son of Rabbi Hiyya the Great said: Scripture says: ‘And Moses went…’ Where did he go? He went to get his wife and sons. Yitro then said to Moses, ‘Where are you taking them [my daughter and grandsons]?’ Moses said to him, ‘To Egypt.’ Yitro responded, ‘They who are in Egypt are trying to get out, and you would take them [my daughter and grandsons] there?’ Moses said, ‘In the future they [the Israelites] will leave [Egypt] to stand at Mount Sinai and hear the mouth of the Holy Blessed One say ‘I am the Lord your God.’ And shouldn’t my children hear God like them [the Israelites in Egypt]!?’ Immediately Yitro answered, ‘Go in peace – Go in peace, enter in peace, and come in peace.’” (Shemot Rabbah 4:4)
So Moses went to get his wife and sons, and then returned with them to Yitro. The use of two verbs in the verse, according to this midrash, comes to teach us that he is planning to take his family with him to Egypt. Yitro therefore has to decide not only whether to release Moses from his agreement to stay in Midian (Exodus 2:21), but whether to allow his daughter and grandsons to go on a presumably dangerous journey into an oppressive empire. I can hear Yitro exclaiming with the protective zeal of a father, “What? Take my family to that place? Are you crazy? Everyone who is there is trying desperately to leave!”
Moses could have simply said, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep them safe.” But he doesn’t. Instead the midrash makes a remarkable move. “My family has to go down into the depths of oppression,” Moses seems to be saying, “if we want to be part of the redemption and revelation to come. We have to leave our comfort zone if we want to someday make it to Sinai.”
It isn’t surprising that Yitro, who is a priest of Midian and a wise elder, “gets it”. The midrash specifies that Yitro gives his blessing immediately once he understands Moses’ reasoning. And Yitro does not only say “Go in peace,” but “Go in peace, enter in peace, and come in peace.” One way to read this is: “Leave Midian in peace, enter Egypt in peace, and come to Sinai in peace. May all the steps of the journey from oppression to liberation be for the sake of peace.”
One of the most essential religious teachings throughout the world is that in helping others, in leaning in close where there is suffering and need, we find our own redemption. This midrash takes it a step further and suggests that revelation, the moment at Sinai, is also dependent on our leaning in and going into the suffering. You want the glory and the thunder? You want revelation and grace? You want the intimacy with God? Then come into the darkness and accompany the people out. Get out of your comfort zone and be part of that journey, that movement – or you’ll miss the moment at the mountain.
In a time of great unknown and fear in our country, may we all have the courage to go toward Egypt with Moses. May we tolerate and even revel in being in the mess together, and in standing up for justice and freedom even if we ourselves are relatively comfortable. In choosing to sit at the hospital bedside, to go to the rally, to have the hard conversation, we take the steps that will lead us to stand at the foot of the mountain, together.
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Brookline, MA. She serves on the leadership team of the Mass Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action (MAICCA) and recently started ClergyClimateAction.org, a website to organize religious leaders to do nonviolent civil disobedience for climate justice.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.