In a poetic retelling of the exodus from Egypt Abraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1164) described Moses as the envoy (tzir) of God (tzur) who saved His flock (tzon) for Egypt (tzar). But Moses’ mission did not end at the crossing of the Red Sea. Throughout the desert period, the Israelites continued to need an envoy to mediate their relationship with God. In his book Moses: Envoy Of God, Envoy Of His People (translated by Perry Zamek) Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein traces the relationship between Moses and Israel from beginning to end. Today’s drasha is based on Lichtenstein’s book with some of my own additions, but to figure what is his and what is mine, you’ll need to read the book.
Two month ago we read about the young Moses who went out to his brethren and people, was horrified by the site, struck a blow, killed and fled. It is usually thought that he fled for fear of the authorities but Lichtenstein adds that he left Egypt because he was discouraged by the Israelites’ unwillingness to rise up against oppression or accept him as their leader.
In Midian, he continues to act on behalf of the weak and comes to the aid of the shepherdesses, which leads to his first meeting with his future farther-in-law, Jethro. He marries, finds a job and settles down as a shepherd. Alone in the desert, he develops his inner life. Years pass.
At the burning bush God calls to Moses and demands that he return to his people and public life. Just as God Himself “comes down” to the people, Moses must go back to Egypt and take on responsibility. Moses hesitates but it was impossible to refuse. At the bush, God promises Moses that once he has taken the people out of Egypt, he will again serve God on that very mountain.
God kept his promise. According to tradition, that mountain was Mt. Sinai, not only the site where the Torah was given but also the mountain in our parasha where Moses begs for the life of the people and also experience the vision of God’s goodness passing before him.
If, for the Israelites, the sin of the Golden Calf was an extreme failure, for Moses it was his greatest hour. After the crisis, Moses rose to even greater heights and merits a unique spiritual experience that leaves his face shining with a divine light. Is there a relationship between these two events? Was Moses’ spiritual elevation the result of his actions following the crisis of the Golden Calf?
According to Lichtenstein, the answer is yes. The supreme dedication that he showed toward the Israelites leads to his reward. The youth who abandoned his brothers and turned his back on them because he was fed up with their apathy and passivity, now risks his life for them. He refuses the Divine offer to become the father of a new people, after the God destroys the stubborn Israelites. With his self-sacrifice, Moses earns a private revelation. But not immediately.
First, he takes action to end the people’s passivity and teach them to take responsibility, so they can manage without him and won’t ever need another golden calf. He moves the tent of meeting out of the camp. When it was in the midst of the camp, Moses could see and hear much of what was going on and intervene very easily. Now, they will have to manage by themselves. If people need him, they know where to find him, but it will take an effort. Moses risks weakening or even severing his connection to the people but there is no choice.
The Kotzker Rebbe taught: Even though a maidservant at the Sea had a vision greater than that of the prophet Ezekiel, she remained a maidservant. Passive vision is not enough. Acquiring Torah takes effort.
Only after Moses takes steps to ensure the physical and religious survival of the people, does he again ascend the mountain, hide in the crevice and see God’s glory.
Moses learned that serving God begins with serving His people. Public responsibility is an inseparable part of the religious experience. This was true for Moses and it is true for us. We are not Moses and we don’t need to take the Israelites out of Egypt, but there is no shortage of tasks, suited to each person and his or her particular skills. We just need to identify the opportunity and say, “Here I am.”