By Rabbi Danny Wolfe
It’s that time of year again, when thousands of Americans make our “New Year’s Resolutions.” For many of us, New Years is a golden opportunity for a fresh start. When we can break out of our old bad habits from the previous year and begin anew. A lot of us will begin a new diet regimen. Others among us might work on our anger issue, or trying to improve our patience. These are all very worthwhile goals. However, inasmuch as Parshas Shemos falls out right around New Year’s I think we can also work on a certain area that I believe is a prevalent theme in the Parsha: the acquisition of “Holy Chutzpah.”
The Talmud tells us that after Pharaoh made the evil decree of killing all of the male firstborns, Amram, Moshe’s father divorced Yocheved, Moshe’s mother. The thought process was that if having children would produce certain death for the boys, it was not worth it to have children, and therefore they would need to split up. After Amram and Yocheved split, Miriam, their daughter, spoke up, and told her father that he was worse than Pharaoh, because while Pharaoh’s decree was only against boys, by separating from his wife, Amram, and many men who followed his lead, would not have boys, nor girls. Amram eventually agreed to his daughter’s complaint, and ultimately remarried his wife. From this union, came Moshe, the eventual leader of the Jewish people who lead us out of Egypt. Thus, Miriam’s ‘chutzpah’ in questioning her holy father, produced tremendous fruits.
Towards the beginning of the Parsha, the Torah tells us how the Jewish midwives Shifra and Puah (who are Yocheved and Miriam) were commanded by Pharaoh to kill the newborn boys, and to spare the newborn girls. The Torah then says, “But the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, and they caused the boys to live.” We see from here that these heroines defied Pharaoh for the sake of what they knew to be just. Their “chutzpah” in defying the king saved countless lives.
While Moshe was raised as a prince, his Jewish brethren did not share such a fortunate lot; they were suffering as they performed grueling daily backbreaking labor. The Torah then tells us that “Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” This verse tells us how Moshe observed a terrible injustice taking place, and how he exacted justice from the Egyptian.
Finally, only a few verses later, we read, how when Moshe flees Egypt and goes to Midian, he observes another injustice. Yisro, the priest of Midian had seven daughters who were watering their sheep. Some male shepherds came and gave them problems, taking their water. At this point, “Moses got up, and saved them, and watered their sheep.” The Ramban explains that Moshe was outraged at this injustice, since Yisro’s daughters had drawn the water, no one had a right to take it away from them.
We see from these early episodes of this weeks Parsha one unmistakable theme that perhaps is a key to leadership: When we observe an injustice, as did Miriam and Moshe, we have an imperative to react and respond in a strong manner, with a bit of chutzpah. When Miriam (who would go on to be a fabulous leader in her own right) observed the injustice of her father’s separation from his mother, she spoke up. It did not bother her that her father was an extremely righteous individual, who knew exactly what he was doing. She perceived an injustice, spoke up authoritatively, and ultimately the man who would redeem the Jewish people was born. When Yocheved and Miriam were ordered to kill the male children, it did not matter that the powerful King had commanded them to do that; they perceived an injustice and ignored his command. When Nazi war criminals tell us that they were “just following orders” we realize that is not an excuse. There is a higher Authority that we are accountable to, as we learn from these righteous women, Yocheved and Miriam. When Moshe saw a Jewish man being humiliated and abused, it did not matter that he would be risking his life, and jeopardizing his life of luxury. He ran to the poor man’s defense. And finally, when he saw these women being taken advantage of by the shephards, he had no hesitation whatsoever in ‘butting into their business,’ rushing to their defense.
The Jewish people are called an “Or Lagoyim,” or a “Light unto the nations.” We are the leaders of humanity, and as such, just like Moshe and Miriam taught us, when we see an injustice, we do not sit idly by. If our boss or coworker is being slandered in the coffee room, it is our sacred duty to defend them. If a friend or colleague is being bullied, it is upon us to speak up on their behalf. When headlines in Time Magazine or the New York Times equate Palestinian terrorists to Jews murdered on their way home from week, we must vociferously raise our voices in disgust. And while we remember that ultimately whether or not our opposition to injustice bears fruits and produces change is not up to us, but up to the Almighty. But, to paraphrase the Mishnah Pirkei Avos, “It is not our job to complete the job, but we are obligated to give it our best shot.” Usually it is most appropriate to stay out of other people’s business. However, when we do see an injustice, perhaps we should resolve, this New Years, to utilize some of that “Holy Chutzpah” that we learn from our holy forbearers, and to speak up on behalf of what is truly just.
Rabbi Wolfe is the Young Professionals Division (JEWPRO) Coordinator at The Jewish Experience.