A fundamental struggle of the Jewish people, and truthfully, of all ethnically and religiously distinct peoples, is striking a balance between parochialism and universalism — taking care of our own versus taking care of everybody, regardless of who they are.
Of course, it makes sense to take care of our own first — to see our brothers and sisters across the world that say the same prayers and pray to the same God and feel an obligation to help them in times of need. And, of course, that does not absolve us in any way for being compassionate and caring for all humans when we are in a position to be helpful and compassionate.
This tension comes into high relief in this week’s parsha of Shemot — Exodus. The Israelites have grown into a large people, living in a land not their own and finding themselves under the thumb of a tyrant who not only enslaves them all, but eventually resorts to infanticide to try and control their numbers.
Israel emerges as a nation unto itself, but that emergence occurs in a foreign land — the first real Jewish nation emerges in exile. That first Jewish nation also begins to understand itself through interactions with the Egyptian nation. We learn who we are by being in relation to another nation, and not just on our own in isolation. These lessons are learned one interaction at a time, from Egyptian to Israelite, and Israelite to Egyptian.
We see it four times in this parsha.
In the first instance, Pharaoh declares that all the Hebrew firstborn males should be killed. But the women responsible for carrying out the decree, the midwives to the Hebrews, refuse to do it. They take on great personal risk to defy a tyrant on behalf of a group of foreigners — out of compassion, and because it is the right thing to do. It is important to note that the ethnic identity of the midwives is somewhat unclear — the Torah calls them “Hebrew midwives,” but might mean “midwives to Hebrews.” The famous 15th-century commentator Abarbanel (and I) think it means they were Egyptians.
The second occurrence of universal compassion is when Pharaoh’s daughter draws the Hebrew infant from the water and calls him Moses. Again, why would a royal princess feel the need to raise an orphan, a foreigner, a discarded child that was literally refuse of the river? She knows Moses is an Israelite. She could have certainly turned a blind eye and said, “This child is not of my people — this baby is not my problem.” But she did the right thing for a person from a completely different ethnic clan out of pure sympathy and love.
The third time is when the royal prince Moses goes out to see the state of his empire, and witnesses a taskmaster beating an Israelite. Moses steps in to protect the Israelite, and in doing so, kills the taskmaster. It is unclear at this moment whether Moses knows that he is a Hebrew — the Torah doesn’t have an instance of Moses being addressed as a Hebrew until God speaks to him at the burning bush — but I prefer to see this as a moment, again, of a person doing the right thing for a foreigner at great personal risk for themself.
And finally, Moses flees Egypt for the Land of Midian, where he finds Tzipporah and her sisters at the well, being harassed by shepherds. Moses takes on great personal risk and drives off the shepherds. It is not the safe thing to do, or the self-interested thing to do; it is the right thing to do. But just as non-Israelites saved him, here we find Moses stepping in to save non-Israelites.
The Torah’s message in Shemot is abundantly clear: yes, you should take care of your own. But the entire story of Moses’ redemption is filled with peoples of different backgrounds — Israelites, Midians, and Egyptians — looking out for each other. Moses learns those lessons and returns the favor when given the chance to stand up for others who do not look like him or speak his language.
Our tradition hardwires the idea of universal compassion into the story of our specific national salvation and redemption, and we are expected to continue that tradition. From the Central Americans who risk their lives to escape poverty and violence, to local Pittsburghers who struggle to pay the heating bill throughout the winter, we are expected to take care of our neighbors, whether they look like us or not. As the descendants of Moses and as the recipients of generations of kindness and salvation in exile, we are expected to extend universal compassion to those around us who are experiencing hardship, and to do it without regard for our own personal self-interest. pjc
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is rabbi at Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, Pennsylvania. He lives in Pittsburgh.