Moshe, the humblest man who was ever on the face of this earth, the man who consistently pleaded with Hashem to spare the Jewish nation from his wrath, emerges this week for the very first time.
First impressions are almost always last impressions, so I wondered what are Moshe’s first actions? Surely they would typify his future distinction.
Open a Chumash and explore the young lad who is found on the Nile, spends his youth in Pharaoh’s palace, and finally “goes out amongst his brothers.” He sees an Egyptian smiting a Jew and then, in a non-speaking role (at least without speaking to any human), he kills him. That is Moshe’s foray in communal activism.
His first words seem diametrically opposed to his ensuing persona. The next day, Moshe “went out and behold, two Hebrew men were fighting.” He immediately chastised the wicked one, “Why would you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). His admonition provokes an angry response from the quarrelers. “Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?” (ibid. v. 4). Moshe’s hallmark compassion and concern seems to be overshadowed by his forceful admonition. Is that the first impression the Torah wants us to have of Moshe?
In his youth, Reb Zorach Braverman, who later was known as a brilliant Jerusalem scholar, once travelled from Eishishok to Vilna, Lithuania. Sitting next to him was an elderly Jew with whom he began to converse. Reb Zorach commented to the old man that it was sad that in a city as large as Vilna there was no organized Torah youth group.
The old man became agitated. In a tear-stained voice he responded, “Whom do you expect to organize these groups, “he asked incredulously, ” the communal leaders who are destroying Judaism in Vilna? They do nothing to promote Torah values!”
The man went on to condemn a group of parnasim who had assumed control of the community affairs and constantly overruled the Rabbinical authorities in every aspect of communal life as it related to observance of Jewish law. Reb Zorach became incensed. Who was this man to deride a group of community elders? He responded vociferously. “Excuse me,” he interrupted,” but I think you should study the new sefer (book) that was just published. It is called Chofetz Chaim and deals specifically with the laws of slander and gossip. It details all the transgressions listed in the Torah for gossip as such! In fact, I have it here with me.”
The old man asked to see the book. He took it and immediately opened it to a section which specified the rare instance it was a mitzvah to speak out against a group of people, in the case when they act defiantly against rabbinic authority.
Reb Zorach remained quiet and silently took back the book. The trip ended and the old man and Reb Zorach went their ways in Vilna. It only took a day until Reb Zorach found out that he was seated next to none other than the Chofetz Chaim himself.
Of course, Moshe was the compassionate advocate for Klal Yisrael. But the Torah chooses to define his leadership in a clear and unambiguous manner in strong and controversial encounters. His first act was to kill an Egyptian who was smiting a Jew, and his second was to chastise two Jews who were fighting so strongly that they threatened to report his former act to the Egyptian authorities. After the Torah establishes an ability to reprove and even rebuke sin, only then does it tell us of Moshe’s compassion in protecting the daughters of Yisro, in tending sheep by running after a tiny lamb who lost its way in the scorching dessert.
Often I hear quotes, “if Rav Moshe were alive today,” or “if the Chofetz Chaim were alive today,” followed by a notion that these beloved, departed, sages, with their celebrated love and compassion for all Jews, would surely ascribe to unmitigated love and acceptance of anyone’s notion of Judaism as an acceptable alternative.
It’s just not true. Great leaders and Torah visionaries do have tremendous love for all Jews, but they do not compromise on Torah law or on Torah values. They are vociferous advocates of right versus wrong. Though one minute they may be chasing lost sheep, running after a small child who dropped a small coin, or translating a letter for an indigent immigrant, they would not hesitate to strike the Egyptian and chastise their fellow Jew who raised his hand against another, physically or spiritually. What truly makes a great man is not only knowing how and when to hold them, but also knowing how and when to scold them.
Dedicated in memory of David Kramer by Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Kramer
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.