The world is our kin: lessons from Moshe about being an upstander
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. (Exodus 2:11)
I always imagined that Moshe didn’t know, growing up, that he was an Israelite. He grew up in Pharaoh’s household as though he were a grandchild of Pharaoh. Surely Pharaoh didn’t know the baby’s origins — he wouldn’t have let his daughter adopt a Hebrew baby when he’d just ordered them all drowned, right?
Along with that, I’ve imagined a dramatic moment when Moshe discovers that he wasn’t originally part of the ruling family. A moment when Moshe learns that he was born into a slave household rather than the royal one. But Torah here calls the Hebrew his kinsman. In this moment, it seems that he knows.
Two enticing possibilities flow from that. One is that Pharaoh’s daughter told him, in secret, where he came from and who he really is. Maybe he’s always known that he is secretly part of his nation’s most oppressed people, rescued only by miracle, and that his destiny would be to help his people go free.
Or maybe he grew up as an Egyptian royal kid, having no idea that he was different from the rest of his adoptive family… and when he saw the overseer mistreating the slave, he knew in his bones that the man being oppressed was his kin, because all human beings are kin, and mistreatment is never right.
The commentator known as Ramban says that someone told Moshe he was a Hebrew, so he went out to the fields to see what kind of life his kinsmen lived. The commentator known as the Sforno says he was moved to strike the overseer because of a feeling of brotherliness — he felt that the slave was his kin.
This year I’m moved by the idea that maybe Moshe didn’t know his origins. Because in that case, his choice to be an “upstander” — to step in and protect someone powerless who was being harmed — was based not in a sense of loyalty to “his own,” but in the sense that oppression is wrong, period.
Maybe I’m drawn to that interpretation because I want us to be like that Moshe. I want us to open our eyes to unethical behavior and oppression and abuse of power. I want us to step up and say: that’s wrong. The world shouldn’t be like that. As a human being, it’s my job to protect the vulnerable from harm.
Earlier this week, my son attended an assembly at his elementary school about systemic racism. He came home deeply upset, having learned about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Three hundred were killed. Ten thousand became homeless. It’s a horrific story of white people slaughtering black people.
My son wanted to know, how could human beings treat other human beings like that? He was shocked and angry and full of grief. I know that his surprise at the horrific viciousness of racism is a sign of his privilege. Through no merit of his own, he’s been able to grow up mostly oblivious to racism.
My job now is to help him grow into awareness that we who have privilege are obligated to use our power to help those who don’t have it. Because oppression is wrong. Which Moshe knew. And he knew in his bones that the man being beaten was his kin; Torah calls him “kinsman” twice to make that point.
Now, I don’t recommend Moshe’s methods here. (Killing the overseer: not the way to go.) But Moshe’s apparently immediate knowledge that this person who was experiencing systemic oppression is his family, and that therefore he has an obligation to act — that’s Torah’s role model for us this week.
Who experiences systemic oppression in our world? I’m not talking about individual acts of mistreatment, but about the systems and structures that give some people an inherent advantage and others an inherent disadvantage. Oppression expressed in the practice of social and political institutions.
[Harvest answers from the room]
Here are some of my answers: Immigrants. Refugees. People of color: at increased risk of unfair sentencing, and of being shot by police because of unconscious bias. Trans people: at increased risk of suicide because of prejudice and mistreatment. Women. Non-Christians. Those who live in poverty.
And, of course, one can be many of these things at once. This week I see Moshe’s choice to stand up against the oppression of that Hebrew slave as Torah’s lesson for us. Our world contains systems of oppression too, no less than the Mitzrayim ruled over by this Pharaoh who didn’t remember Joseph.
Those who are oppressed are our kin, and it’s our job to stand up for them as we are able, as Moshe stood up for his kin in the field. Not necessarily because we see ourselves in their faces, though maybe we do. But because oppression is wrong, and Jewish tradition calls us to pursue justice with all that we are.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)