Parshat Shemot–How did Moses become Moses?

Moses at the burning bush

Shemot (2:11) (Robert Alter, trans.)
And it happened at that time that Moses grew and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens.

Midrash Rabbah Shemot (1:27)
“When Moses was grown up” – and does not everyone grow up? Rather, this tells you that he grew up [in a manner] unlike [anyone else in] the whole world. … The Holy One Blessed is He said: You left aside your business and went to see the sorrow of Israel, and acted toward them as brothers act. I will leave aside the upper and the lower [i.e. ignore the distinction between Heaven and Earth] and talk to you.

and looked at their burdens: He directed his eyes and heart to be distressed over them. [from Exod Rabbh 1:27]

Alter of Kelm (Simcha Zissel Zvi)
because Moses set his eyes to focus on and feel the pain of the Jewish people, God acted in kind and also saw their suffering and He ultimately redeemed them.

Rabbi Wolbe, based on these texts, writes that Moses was expressing a key middah — nesiah b’ol chaveiro [bearing the burden of the other, empathy-in-action]. This middah involves feeling another’s pain and then acting with that person to help relieve that pain. The middah involves more than merely recognizing another’s pain, it requires internalizing that pain, feeling it as your own, and doing something about it. Moses’ actions reflect a sensitivity to others’ pain and an intolerance of injustice.

The tradition is teaching about a three-fold process: seeing, internalizing, and acting. Why is “internalizing” the other’s pain important for acting to relieve that pain? How do you understand what “directing your heart” means?

The Midrash and the Alter of Kelm say that a human’s reaction to others’ pain somehow invokes a reaction by God to intervene – leaving aside the boundary between upper and lower. This notion is a startling theological idea. What are the implications about our personal responsibilities to respond to injustice? What does this idea do to the excuse that “I’m too insignificant to have any impact.” Do you buy it?

Shemot (3:1)
And Moses was herding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, priest of Midian, and he drove the flock into the wilderness [free pastureland in other translations] and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb.

after the free pastureland: to distance himself from [the possibility of] theft, so that they [the flocks] would not pasture in other’s fields.

Midrash Rabbah Shemot
God does not give greatness to a person before testing him with a small matter. Only after this, does He raise him to greatness.

Two of the greatest men in the world were tested by God with a small matter. when they were found trustworthy in this, He raised them to greatness.

He tested David with sheep and he led them into the desert in order to prevent them from trespassing on other people’s property …

And so with Moshe: “He led the sheep into the desert” to avoid trespass. And God took him to shepherd His people Israel, as the verse says, “You led Your people like sheep by the hand of Moshe and Aharon.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
A person’s true character – his true madrega – is revealed, rather, in the little things to which he may attach no special importance at the time. … A person’s true character is revealed by his attitude to he smallest things. … The little act, which no one knows about and which flowed imperceptibly from his inmost heart, show[s] his true madrega.

Why do small acts reveal our character? What might this suggest about how we can improve our character?

Shemot (2:23)
And it happened when a long time had passed that the king of Egypt died, and the Israelites groaned from the bondage and cried out, and their pleas from the bondage went up to God. And God heard their moaning …”

Ramban-Nachmanides (Miqra’ot Gedolot, Michael Carasik)
A long time after that Literally, “during those many days.” … Our Sages explain that the text calls them “many,’ because it was a painful time that seemed interminable. … But in my opinion, the “many days” are the period in which Moses was on the run from the Pharaoh.

Rabbi Wolbe
…Moshe didn’t become Moshe Rabbeinu overnight. It took eighty years of work to perfect himself and achieve the greatness that he attained. This is an idea which holds true regarding all spiritual acquisitions. There are no crash courses and no Cliff notes that can catapult you to perfection. Thus, no real character improvement happens in the blink of an eye. Rather, it takes months and years of slow and deliberate work to improve and polish our middos until they glisten like diamonds.

At first glance, this reality appears to be quite depressing. Who likes beginning projects that are expected to take years of continual effort before achieving the desired results? However, in reality, this piece of information should be very energizing. How many times have people tried rectifying their middos or radically changing the way they do things – without success? They failed because they were looking for the shortcut toward perfection. Awareness that one didn’t find the shortcut because there is no shortcut is in truth a breath of fresh air. This knowledge allows one to work on his middos at a slow pace, which not only doesn’t weigh down on a person, but also ultimately leads to true change. As we all know from the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady is the way to the finish line.

For Rabbi Wolbe, the idea that real change takes decades is liberating — it lifts the anxiety that we must suddenly transform ourselves. Do you find it liberating or depressing that real change takes a long time? The Mussar model is to make small changes in small things. Yet many of Moses’ acts required courage and large jumps (for example, his exile from Egypt). Is possible to reconcile these two ideas?