Not An Instinct, but a Method
It takes a long time, but Moses did eventually grow up.
As a young man, before the Holy One charged him with leading the Israelites to freedom, he took his own steps toward making justice manifest in the world.
He acted three times before the encounter at the Burning Bush which we read about in this week’s parsha, and each time, he intervened to save someone powerless suffering abuse at the hands of someone mighty.
When Moses first left Pharaoh’s house he saw an Egyptian unjustly beating a Hebrew and killed the aggressor to save the victim. The very next day, he rescued another innocent Hebrew, this time from an evil Hebrew who was preparing to assault him. In a third instinctive act of justice, Moses rescued the daughters of Reuel, whom other sheep herders had chased away from a well.
Moses was a man with courage and a strong sense of justice, and he was prepared to right the wrongs which the strong were perpetrating on the weak. For a God who demands that the wretched and the needy be saved from the hand of the wicked, Moses looked like a promising ally.
But while Moses had an instinct for justice, he didn't yet have a method. His behavior was powerful and inspiring, and also impulsive, occasionally violent and ultimately inadequate. There was a whole Egyptian system which allowed the innocent to be beaten, but Moses didn't address that – he simply acted on rash impulse. He didn't investigate what led the two men to quarrel, but simply imposed his own solution as lord and judge over them. And he did nothing to ensure that the daughters of Reuel would be able to return to the well in peace the next day. Moses was a momentary hero, so fixated on the injustice in front of him that he could not see deeper, into what caused the injustice.
While Moses could only see the wrongs which were immediately in front of him, the Holy One taught Moses how to see the structures that caused these seemingly random events. These were structures that needed to be changed if justice was to be realized in a sustainable way and not merely wished for in some far off utopia. God taught Moses to take his outrage at the world as it is and to imagine what the world could be in the moment after this one and then to work effectively to make that dream a reality.
From the time the Holy One commands Moses to go to Pharaoh onward, the focus is on educating Moses toward effective change. God didn't harden Pharaoh’s heart ten times in order to bring the Israelites out of Egypt; God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again and again so that Moses, and everyone who learned from his life, would know that working to change the world can be frustrating and demands awesome persistence and discipline. Moses made a name for himself with his outbursts of passion, but he didn't make a difference until he had a plan and he stuck to it.
Thousands of years later, we know Moses as a heroic and visionary leader. But at the beginning, he was rash and impulsive. By making Moses march off to Pharaoh again and again and again, the Master of the Universe taught him that only way for humans to effect any real change in the world is through incredibly difficult work. It’s easy to imagine that Moses found his calling frustrating, discouraging and even demeaning. But God didn’t put Moses in this role to make him feel good about himself; God put him in this role to teach him how to make a difference.
For those of us who don’t merely hope for justice, but pursue it, the lesson is the same – our efforts to ensure the coming world is a just world are most effective when they are persistent. We shouldn't call our Congressional representatives only occasionally – we should have their phone numbers in speed dial, and we should call them every day the news outrages us or makes us cry, and ask them what they are doing to fix the injustices that surround us. We shouldn't give tzedakah occasionally, but regularly, as part of a religious practice of making justice manifest in the world. We should invest in organizations like Truah, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and American Jewish World Service that are systemically advancing values of justice. Moses’ intentions and passion for justice were wonderful, but alone, they weren't enough. Neither are ours. In a world where injustice is systemic, so must be our response.
Rabbi Brent gave a version of this talk at the state capitol in Albany last year as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.