Sermon – We can be heroes (like Moses)
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 6 January 2018
In the section of Torah that we read this morning, God finally persuades Moses to take on the task of liberating the Israelites from Egypt.
But why him?
What is it that God sees in this reluctant, insecure young man? Why this man, raised in privilege but lacking in confidence, inadequate of speech, far from a hero – a man who doesn’t need, or, indeed, want to take on the task.
Narratively, of course, he has no choice.
We, the readers, know this.
We know – he does not yet – that in our portion Moses is meeting his destiny.
Like most mythical heroes, Moses has an origin story that has led him to this point. In fact, he has a pretty classical mythical origin story. Placed in a river, exposed to the elements, but miraculously saved by an unexpected source. Every element is a classical myth trope –exposed to the elements, sometimes in an act of infanticide (think Romulus and Remus), sometimes in an act of protection (Perseus, for example, or the Hindu hero Karna); humble origins, but raised in the house of the great (or sometimes, as in the case of Karna – or, indeed Heracles – the opposite).
Moses’ story is most similar to that of Sargon of Akkad, first ruler of the Akkadian Empire in the middle of the third millennium BCE. His birth legend, contemporaneous in origin with that of Moses, is of a secret birth (though in his case to a high priestess), placed in a river in a basket of rushes, rescued by someone from the royal household, in his case by Akki, the king’s drawer of water.
So, we the reader, unlike Moses know what is to come.
But destiny itself cannot be enough. In those classical stories our heroes show themselves through acts of special strength or bravery. So what of Moses? How is he worthy?
The biblical text tells us nothing of Moses childhood, it skips from his rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, to “some time after, when he had grown up”. Though both the Rabbis and Dreamworks imaginatively fill in the gaps, the bible gives us no evidence of a special nature in childhood.
But when he reaches early adulthood, the bible tells us two stories so that we know what kind of man he is.
The first is when he goes out among the Israelites, sees their labours, and steps in to protect one of them from a beating. And then, having been forced to flee into the land of Midian, he sees the seven daughters of the Priest of Midian being driven off from the watering hole by shepherds and, Exodus tells us, “Moses rose to their defence, and he watered their flock” – which is how he comes to live in the house of Jethro and to be married to the eldest of those daughters, Zipporah.
These two short stories – barely ten verses between them – are our introduction to Moses the adult, and they explain everything we need to know about who he is, the values that he represents, why he is chosen, why he is the hero.
Here is an Egyptian prince who chooses to encounter the world, to go out to see the reality of what is happening around him. He chooses not to stay cocooned in the palace, but to encounter the world, and then chooses to be an actor in it. And he does so at risk to himself – his own position, his own safety is threatened, and yet he intervenes, choosing to involve himself to protect vulnerable strangers.
It is this that makes Moses’ call not just his destiny, but his right. Moses represents what Rabbi Donniel Hartman calls ‘the religious ethic of non-indifference’.
That is why he is chosen, why he is the hero of his story.
It is a quality also found in the character of Abraham. And both Abraham and Moses will express their non-indifference even in intervening against God – Abraham at Sodom, and Moses to save the Israelites after the building of the Golden Calf at Sinai.
This fundamental Jewish ideal represented by Moses explains his calling.
And it is there in our tradition’s expectations of us, too. Jewish law contains an expectation of intervention to save others when they are in danger – based on the Levitical command, ‘do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour’; it contains an expectation that we will get involved – intervene when we encounter a situation where we can help – ‘you shall not see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray and remain indifferent’, Deuteronomy states.
From Abraham, though Moses, to us, there is an expectation that we will be troubled by what happens around us. That like them we will not dwell in comfort, not hide in the palace, but will go out into the world. “At a time when the community is suffering”, the Talmud instructs us “no one should say ‘I will go home, and eat and drink, and be at peace with myself’”.
We have a responsibility that extends beyond ourselves, that requires our intervention. As Jews we are not permitted to observe injustice, transgression, without action. As the Talmud puts it –
“Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of their household and does not, is punished for the transgressions of their household…
Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.”
So why is Moses the hero of this story?
In part, this is his destiny. He is destined to save his people – exposed to the elements, rescued by an Egyptian princess. It reads like a classical myth. And it is one.
But it is more than that. It is also a statement of values – an expression of what it takes to be, for want of a better word, a Jewish hero; of who we should be.
Why Moses? As Hartman puts it, “he is quintessentially a person who takes responsibility for the protection and well-being of others”.
And while none of us may have mythical origin stories, none of us were exposed to the elements, rescued like a hero of old, we can all be someone who takes responsibility for others. We can all be heroes.