Justice Is the New Counter-Culture

Shemot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 4, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

The book of Genesis ends on an Egyptian note: after his death, Joseph was embalmed and placed in a coffin to await burial in the land that God had promised his ancestors. Embalming is quintessentially Egyptian, one of a panoply of practices designed to obscure the reality of death. The whole religious tenor of Genesis bristles at the very idea; human life is but an extension of the earth: “For dust you are,” God tells a fallen Adam, “and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).” To facilitate this merger, Jews in Israel are still buried without benefit of a coffin.

The book of Exodus, however, is not about any vision of an afterlife that might soften human suffering. The subject is rather to remodel society along lines that will minimize the amount of suffering inflicted by one human being on another. The focus is exclusively this-worldly; the foe is not death but injustice. The link between the first two books of the Torah is the role God assigns early on to the descendants of Abraham, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right (Genesis 18:19).” It is only the formation of a polity based on justice and righteousness that will make Israel a universal blessing and Abraham “the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4).”

For the first time, our parasha, shifting from family chronicle to national history, explicitly enunciates the concept of Israel as a chosen people. God instructs a still ambivalent Moses to confront Pharaoh: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My firstborn. I have said to you, Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son (Exodus 4:23).” As Genesis had made abundantly clear, the status of first-born is not a matter of birth but merit. Israel, a late-comer into the family of nations, is singled out by God to create a counter-culture, the very antithesis of ancient Egypt, to advance the dream of a world at peace, though the future would often show high purpose to be fraught more with risk and self-denial than with privilege.

The man called to sculpt this nation for its task already has God’s moral law inscribed in his heart. To do what is right and good comes naturally to Moses. The sight of injustice stirs him to protest, instantaneously and decisively. He is, indeed, the first of the founders of ancient Israel to be wholly admirable, a figure without flaws, of heroic proportions, yet human.

According to the midrash, no leader is appointed by God untested. Small acts often reveal if one commands the qualities for future greatness. The biographical fragments preserved by the Torah of Moses’s early life add up to the portrait of a moral giant. As a young man, Moses leaves the grounds of the royal palace to observe first hand the suffering of his people. What prompts this extraordinary display of brotherhood? Unlike the Pharaoh, who conveniently erased from memory what Egypt owed to Joseph, Moses must have retained an inkling about his origins, that but for a miracle the Nile would also have been his watery grave, as it was for all the other male Israelite children of his cohort. Neither distance nor privilege could estrange him completely from the cry of the oppressed.

And when he confronts the hopeless horror of slavery, his instincts run riot. Unpremeditated, he slays an Egyptian taskmaster brutalizing a cowering Israelite. He even rebukes one Israelite beating another, only to learn that his murder is known and that he must flee for his life. But his compassion for the afflicted and unfortunate accompanies him. At a well in the land of Midian, he rises on the spur of the moment to protect the daughters of Jethro, who are total strangers to him, from a gang of male shepherds unwilling to wait their turn. Moses obviously has the strength and courage to accommodate his moral impulse. God has found the man to upend a well-entrenched tyrant, redeem a nation inured to slavery and change the course of human history.

When the call comes, Moses is ready, if reluctant. Word has reached him in Midian that the Pharaoh in whose household he grew up and who has placed a bounty on his head is dead, creating a window of opportunity. There is nothing implausible about the account of the burning bush, if we imagine it unfolding inside Moses. Endowed with an Egyptian head and Israelite heart, he sensed his destiny. But could an outsider gain the confidence of the slaves he sought to free? Could his halting words rout Pharaoh’s warriors? Did the vision of a new moral order stand any chance of overturning the harsh reality of the one in power? God’s persistent intervention gave Moses the faith to offset his fears.

Though Moses did emerge victorious from this struggle of national wills and political philosophies, Judaism venerates him primarily as prophet and not political leader. Only on the rarest of occasions did ancient Israel ever approximate his ideal of social justice. Moses and his prophetic heirs remained fearless social critics, anti-establishment voices denouncing the perversion of power and the corruption of religion. The destiny of humanity was to complete God’s creation in the realm of history by anchoring human conduct in divine morality. Or in the immortal words of Jeremiah: 

Thus said the Lord: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; Let not the strong man glory in his strength; Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Lord act with kindness, Justice and equity in the world; For in these do I delight (9:22-23).

The precarious function of the prophet was to make sure that this glorious sensibility would never disappear from Israel’s consciousness.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Sh’mot are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.