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Stirring Compassion

A little over 400 years have passed since the conclusion of Genesis. The memory of Joseph, his family, and in particular all of the great things Joseph did for Egypt, are no longer read in Egypt’s history books. The new rulers only see how numerous the Israelites have become.

So they enslave and oppress the Jewish people. Pharaoh decrees that all first born sons of the Israelites must be killed. In one of the first acts of civil disobedience, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, ignore Pharaoh’s law and thwart his plan. Pharaoh then declares that every Jewish boy shall be drowned in the Nile.

In an effort to save the newborn Moses, his mother and sister place him in a basket in the Nile. Thus begins one of the more interesting chapters in the Torah. It is punctuated by several acts of compassion. The first instance is surprisingly that of Pharaoh’s daughter, an unnamed woman who notices the baby boy. “She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’” (Exodus 2)

Remarkably she knows that the baby is a Hebrew yet she still reaches out to the endangered child, thus disobeying her father (perhaps she is a teenager, Rabbi Bar Yohai suggests). She appoints a Hebrew woman to nurse and care for the child. Unbeknownst to her, this woman is Moses’ mother, who is also unnamed. Pharaoh’s daughter names the child Moses, a common Egyptian name.

Moses is raised as an Egyptian, but his awareness of the suffering of others grows. (Does he learn compassion from his foster mother?) In three instances Moses rushes to the defense of others. In the first and most familiar instance, Moses witnesses an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. In a fit of rage (righteous indignation?), he kills the Egyptian and saves the Hebrew.

Later Moses sees two Hebrew slaves fighting with each other and intervenes, saying, “Why do you strike your fellow?” Rather than offer thanks, one of the Hebrews turns on Moses and says, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Upon hearing this Moses becomes frightened and flees from Egypt. He finds himself in Midian and of course by the well where he rescues the priest’s seven daughters from some ill-tempered shepherds. Moses then single handedly waters their flock.

It is only after this final rescue and the accumulation of these compassionate acts that God takes notice of the Israelites’ suffering. Have these deeds awakened God’s compassion? “The Israelites were groaning under their bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”

I wonder. What took God so long? Why did God wait over 400 years to rescue the Jewish people? I continue to wonder. What takes God so long? What takes God so long to notice our pain and to respond to our suffering?

Throughout history we have waited for God to send the messiah to heal all wounds and address the world’s troubles. Maimonides writes: “Even though the messiah delays, I will continue to wait. Ani maamin, I believe.”

There are many rabbinic legends about the messiah. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi asks: “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responds: “Go ask him yourself. He can be found sitting at the gates of Rome, caring for the lepers, changing their bandages one at a time.” The messiah is that person who reaches out to others in compassion.

Perhaps God is waiting for us to reach out to others in compassion.

Ponder this. History does not record Pharaoh’s daughter’s name. She was certainly famous in Egypt. Everyone in Egypt knew her name and admired her fame and riches, yet history instead remembers her for reaching out to Moses. History remembers her compassion.

And so the Jewish people’s history begins with the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh looking away from all of her riches and indulgences and instead with compassionate eyes, looking toward a baby crying in anguish. It is those eyes that sparked God’s remembrances. It is Moses’ deeds that stirred God’s heart. It is their compassion that awakened God’s sympathy.

We never know which act of compassion will stir God.