For many of us, it is so hard to make it through a day, a week or a month, given the burdens we face in our concurrent medical, economic, partisan and racial pandemics. It might be hard to complete a task, distinguish one day from the next, bear the challenge of physical isolation, make another meal or watch another news program. It is so difficult to go through these times.
From our 21st-century perch, we can look back thousands of years to seek some Jewish wisdom on how to make it through. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we learn of Moses’ observation of our people’s burdens: “And when Moses went out to look upon his brothers, he saw their burdens” (Exodus 2:11). There is such a difference between the lives we lead and the lives of the generations that came before us. We make our way through our burdens on sofas, with computers and with the help of the sciences while they made their way through in dirt huts, working in straw and clay and under the whip of the taskmaster.
Despite the differences, there is something deep down in human nature that allows us to learn from Moses’ reaction.
The 10th-century Midrash Rabbah asks and answers, “How did he feel when he looked upon them? As he looked at their burden, he wept, saying, ‘Woe is me for your servitude. Would that I could die for you!’” When our people — when our neighbors — are struggling, there are times when we wish that we could take on their burden and live their fate in their place. “Since no work is more strenuous that that of handling clay,” the midrash continues, “Moses used to shoulder the burden and help each worker.”
Even though Moses was altruistic, it would have been impossible for him to carry the burdens of so many by himself. As he learned later in life from his father-in-law, Moses began to delegate. According to Rabbi Eleazar, the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean, “Moses saw heavy burdens put upon small people, and light ones on small people; men’s burdens on women, and women’s burdens on men; the burden an older person could carry placed on a youth, and the burden of a youth upon an older person. So Moses would from time to time step away from his retinue and rearrange the burdens, pretending that he was really trying to be of help to Pharaoh.”
As it was in Moses’ day, so it is on ours. So many around us, around the country and around the world, have successfully rearranged the burdens. Look at our educators who, when safe, bring our children together for as normal as possible educational experiences. Look at our organizations that have retooled to provide food for the elderly. Look at our healthcare professionals and auxiliary workers who put themselves in the path of the virus to save lives. Look at our neighbors who take to the streets and social media to remind us of our moral responsibilities as we fight for equity. Look at our new frontline workers in the markets, stores and restaurants who help us meet our vital needs. Each one, every one, another Moses moving the burdens so that our neighbors can make it through.
And so the midrash concludes, “The Holy One said, ‘You left your own concerns and went to look compassionately at the distress of Israel, behaving like a brother to them. So, I, too, will leave those on high and those below, and speak only with you.’”
May the Moseses of our day have the same insight. May each one of us find the Moses within as we lift the burdens of our neighbors and perhaps be rewarded with the privilege of standing at our own burning bush. PJC
Rabbi Ron Symons is the founding director of the JCC’s Center for Loving Kindness and Civic Engagement. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.