Shemot 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemot

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Shmot (Ex. 1:1-6:1)


The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives refuse to obey, and the baby Moshe is hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in a burning Bush, and receives instructions to go back to Egypt. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.


“Now Moshe was tending the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. ” (Exodus 3:1)


Moshe has been away from his people in Egypt for a while, and it’s time for him to return. God meets Moshe out in the wilderness, in the form of the famous burning bush, while Moshe is tending the flocks of his father in law.


One ancient midrash finds significance in Moshe’s profession as a shepherd:

    The Holy One tested Moshe by means of the flock, as our sages have explained: when Moshe was tending Yitro’s flock out in the desert, a lamb ran off, and Moshe followed it, until it found shelter under a rock. There it found water and stopped to drink. When Moshe approached the lamb, he said: “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be tired.” So he put the lamb on his shoulder and walked back with it. The Holy One then said: because you showed such compassion tending the flock of another person, as you live, you shall become the shepherd of Israel, the flock that is Mine. Thus it is written: “Now Moshe was tending the flock. . . ” (Midrash Shmot Rabbah, 2:2; adapted from Braude translation.)

There are several levels to this midrash. The first is merely that it “solves” the problem of the apparently superfluous mention of what Moshe was doing when he encountered God’s Presence in the burning bush. The ancient rabbis assumed that every word of the Torah had something to teach us, and so if the Torah teaches that Moshe was a shepherd, we might learn that he had to demonstrate his compassion for animals before he was found worthy to become a leader of people.

Thus we also learn that all sentient beings deserve compassion; Judaism calls this principle tza’ar balei chayim, or “the pain of living creatures,” and has traditionally taught that it is just as wrong to cause unnecessary pain to animals as it would be to cause unjustified pain to a human being. Furthermore, the midrash teaches that compassion must be a primary trait of Jewish leaders; in this text, it is not Moshe’s charisma or bravery or physical strength that qualified him to become the leader of Israel, but his empathy, his tenderness.

Finally, I think this midrash is about integrity, in its deepest sense, the sense of all parts of a person’s personality coming together in a whole. When looking for a leader for the enslaved Israelites, God seems to want a person who will act out of his core values, somebody who has compassion “hardwired” into his being. This, to me, is the significance of looking for a little animal way out in the desert: nobody else was there, nobody else could have been impressed by this. Moshe treated a little lamb because that’s who he was (in this midrash), not because he wanted to curry favor from any individual or group.

The psychologist Erich Fromm taught that that what we call love not an emotion, per se, but is an “orientation of character” that we either have towards all things or we don’t really have at all:

    Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one “object” of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of his fellow men, his love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism. . . If I truly love one person I love all persons, I love the world, I love life. If I can say to somebody else, “I love you,” I must be able to say, “I love in you everybody, I love through you the world, I love in you also myself.” [He goes on to say there are different contexts for love, such as erotic love, parental love, and so on.] (The Art of Loving, p. 42.)

I would compare Fromm’s teaching to the image of Moshe tending the lost lamb out in the desert; we might say that because Moshe truly demonstrated that he had an “orientation of character” of love and compassion, God could entrust him with the guidance of the people. Thus we are challenged: are we the same person when “out in the wilderness” as when we are in front of our friends and family? Do we treat everybody the same way, or reserve our love and compassion for a select few?

There’s no doubt that achieving this level of moral and spiritual integrity is a long and hard task; looking at our text, we might also be reminded that this is the work that brings us to the place of God’s Presence.

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