Shemot – The Eyes of the Heart
Baby Moses, rescued from the basket in the Nile River, grew up under Pharaoh’s nose and under Egyptian influence. Accounts differ on how he knew of his ancestry. Hollywood would have us believe that a garment he had been wrapped in as a baby gave away the secret. More likely his mother, who was engaged by the Pharaoh’s daughter to nurse him until he was weaned, communicated his identity to him during those early years. In any event, as an adult Moses knew his identity. The verse tells us that Moses toured the country and was moved by the plight of his brethren.
“And it was in those days and Moses grew up and he went out to his brethren and he saw their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man from his brothers.” (Exodus 2:11)
Rashi cites the Midrash on the phrase “and he saw their burdens,” explaining that Moses empathized with them. He placed his eyes and heart to be troubled over them. He did not merely view with his eyes, it was not enough for him to be aware of their plight, he saw with his heart, he related to them with emotion. The Mahara”l in his volume Gur Aryeh remarks that Moses would have seen the Hebrews toiling away many times, as by now he was already an adult. What was different this time was his decided connection to their suffering.
Moses was very different from the average Jew slaving in the heat to make bricks. Moses was wealthy, educated and refined. His place was in the upper crust of Egyptian nobility. The Midrash notes that Moses was placed in command of Pharaoh’s estate. How could he relate to lowly slaves? What connection could exist between the Hebrews and Moses?
The scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz writes in his commentary the Shela”h that Moses came from lineage in which connection to the tribe was embedded. Levi, the great grandfather of Moses, had three sons, and he named them Gershon, Kehat and Merari. These names, explains the Shela”h were carefully chosen by Levi to reflect his concern that his descendant should remain connected to the family and their heritage. Gershon was not a common name and is not found elsewhere in Tanach. (It is fairly common today, thanks to Levi’s innovation). The first syllable of the name, Ger, means ‘stranger.’ Shom, the second syllable means ‘there.’ Anticipating that his descendants would be strangers in a place far from their ancestral home Levi named his first son with the vision of counteracting the effects of exile.
The name of his second son Kehat is similar to the word Keheh, meaning ‘dim’ or ‘blunt,’ from the phrase in the four sons of the Haggada ‘blunt the teeth of the wicked son.’ This also relates the the suffering and blunting of spirit caused by the enslavement. The third son was named Merari, from the word maror, meaning ‘bitter,’ also referring to the enslavement. The descendants of Jacob were now decades into the enslavement, but Moses was even more exiled than they were. They were still together, working shoulder to shoulder and living in their communities. Moses, however, was entirely outside of his ancestral circle.
We often read or hear about tragedies that have affected our brethren, in Israel or elsewhere in the Diaspora. It is unfortunately very common and these notices surely cause us momentary distress. We see their burden and suffering, we become aware of it with our eyes, filing it away in our memory bank. But to be truly connected to our people we need to see these with our hearts. We need to have more than passing empathy before moving on with our day.
This quality that Moses demonstrated was key to his subsequent leadership. A similar expression of his concern appears shortly thereafter in the Torah when Moses encountered the burning bush while herding sheep for his father-in-law. Moses saw the bush engulfed in flames but the bush was not being consumed by the fire. “And Moses said ‘I shall turn aside and see this great sight, why will the bush not burn?'” (Exodus 3:3) Moses took the time to investigate, to understand what was happening. Most people would take out their phones for a selfie with the bush, post it to social media and forget about it. Moses was moved to see and feel. This quality set him apart from others. giving him the empathy he needed to relate to his people. He could see their burdens.