Shabbat Parashat Shemot| 5765
Social Justice Starts (and Ends) at Home
Much has been said and written about Moshe’s concern for the welfare of the downtrodden as an important element toward his choice as the leader of Bnei Yisrael, sent by Hashem to liberate them from slavery. It is important to note not only the fact that he came time and again to the rescue of others but also the progression in the profile of each act.
The Chatam Sofer alludes to the progression of Moshe’s activities. First, he defended one of his brethren from a foreign oppressor. Once he felt as a full-fledged member of Bnei Yisrael (as the pasuk mentions, despite his upbringing as a member of the Egyptian aristocracy), he was reacting to a relatively clear cut injustice. Next, he stepped in where one Jew was attacking another. Here, the oppressed was no closer to him than the attacker. But he still had an interest, and perhaps a double interest, in stopping the altercation. Firstly, one of his clan was about to be hurt. Secondly, the pasuk implies that he was as troubled by the deteriorated moral level of the offender as he was by the prospect of the potential victim’s getting injured. Finally, Moshe took on a band of foreign shepherds who were causing problems to a group of foreign girls. Here, he seemingly did not have any personal reasons to take a stand, yet he did.
According to this presentation, it appears that the highest act of righteousness was that in which he saved the Midianite girls. If so, we should expect that Moshe would go on to a career of human rights activism, saving poor and lowly citizens and nations from their oppressors all over the world. Yet, we don’t find Moshe becoming a universalistic savior. Rather, his acts of leadership and pursuit of justice were reserved for the members of his own people. So why is there a need to stress his progression toward concern for people unrelated to him?
It is a greater mitzva, in certain respects, to do charity at home. Indeed, halacha requires that one should give priority to charity given to relatives and neighbors before people who are distant (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:3). On the other hand, if one is kind only to those close to him, it is a possible sign that he is not really a kind person. Rather, he desires that things should be good for him, and he sees those who surround him as an extension of himself. Although it is right for someone to fight off the attackers of those close to him, not everybody who does so is altruistic. Some may just be hateful people who enjoy joining a fight against outsiders.
Moshe’s instinct to defend his fellow Jew was a sign of love for his fellow Jew, not hatred of Egyptians. He was able to demonstrate that point and train himself by continuing to care for his fellow man in situations that weren’t “us against them.” He demonstrated it further by getting involved in fights that had nothing to do with him. Then it was clear that Moshe would be a leader who would stand up for his whole flock, irrespective of tribal or political affiliation. Hashem then instructed him to take the sterling, personal qualities he had honed and apply them at home, in service of his own nation.
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