Dedicated by Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov in memory of aunt Olga (Schwartz) Tabak, who passed away last week, 11 Tevet at the age of 92: Bracha bas Moshe

Essay Parshas Shemos
The US President Who Slept Through His Presidency
Why Our First and Greatest Leader Never Ate Schmaltz Herring

It Takes a Village

It is one of the great questions about the genesis of Jewish history. Why did Providence have it that our first and greatest leader be raised among non-Jews, and even worse, in the home of their archenemy, Pharaoh?

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the old saying goes. No man is an island. We all grow up within a community and are molded by our environment. Nurture, not only nature, craft our identities. We all recall from childhood the “strange uncle,” the “eccentric aunt,” the “insane neighbor,” “the saintly grandmother,” “the stingy owner of the candy store,” “the stern teacher,” “the angry bakery owner,” each of whom left impressions on our psyche and affected our way of dealing with the world around us.

It certainly “takes a village to raise a Jewish child.” Judaism is a family and community faith. We all have the memories of Passover with our parents, grandparents, and the extended family. We recall the “humorous Rabbi,” the “impatient gabbai,” “the beloved shamash,” “the sweet bubby,” “the hypocritical teacher,” “the brilliant mentor,” who conferred upon us our own interpretation of Jewish identity, for good or for better. As we grow up among Jews, we absorb the culture, the heritage, the faith, the world-outlook, the sigh and the laugh of our people. Never underestimate the power of schmaltz herring and chicken soup: It is how generations of grandmothers have passed on their love and wisdom to generations that came after them.

Yet the first Jewish leader, who molded us into a people, our greatest prophet and teacher, the transmitter of Torah, grew up without Jewish parents, without a Jewish family, without a Jewish environment, without a community of Jews, completely absorbed in a non-Jewish culture and environment.

What is even stranger is that he grew up in the palace of Pharaoh, the monarch of the superpower of the time, the tyrant who has been systematically exterminating the Jewish people. Imagine, Moses—the great redeemer and teacher of Israel—essentially grew up in the home of a Stalin, or a Hitler! Why?

We know the technicalities of the story. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, went to bathe in the Nile River and found a little baby floating in a basket on the Nile. She retrieved the basket, rescued the child, and took him in as a son. G-d’s imagination is “fertile.” He could have arranged for another Egyptian, not Pharaoh’s daughter, to take in the child.[1] Or, better yet, that somehow Moses would remain among his family and his people, absorbing the energy and ideology of the Jewish people?

The US President

You all recall the controversy around the status of President Obama, triggered by President Donald Trump. The American Constitution places certain restrictions on those who may be eligible to the Office of the President of the United States. These eligibility requirements can be found in Article two, Section one, Paragraph five of the constitution, which reads as follows: 

"No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

There is logic to this law. To serve as an adequate leader, you need to be a “home grown potato.” You need to have been raised “among the people, by the people, from the people,” so that you can truly understand “the people.” To be sure, some of the great Jewish scholars and leaders were converts: Shmaya and Avtalyon, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Akiva, Onkelus the Translator (whose Aramaic translation of Torah is printed in virtually every edition of the Hebrew Bible), and many more—yet, at least the father and progenitor of all Jewish leaders should have received some hands-on experience from Jews.

Dr. Sigmund Freud’s final book was entitled Moses and Monotheism. It was published in 1939, by which time Freud had taken refuge in Britain. He, too, was perturbed by the above question and thus reached the absurd conclusion that Moses was not Jewish. He was the son of Pharaoh's daughter; he really was a prince of Egypt.

So we are back to our original question: Why?

The Question of Ibn Ezra

The question has been raised by one of the most important Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain. He was a sage, philosopher, physician, astronomer, astrologist, poet, linguist, and mathematician.[2] He wrote a commentary on the Torah that is studied to this very day.

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra was born in Tudela, Spain, but spent most of his life wandering from one country to another, always restless, always seeking knowledge, writing his books, teaching students, and always living in great poverty, depending on people's patronage. In one of his personal poems he ironically says that at his nativity the stars changes their natural course to bring him misfortune, so much so that if he decided to sell candles the sun would never set, and if he decided to sell burial shrouds, no one would ever die.

Let us turn to Ibn Ezra’s prolific pen:[3]

.ומחשבות ה' עמקו, ומי יוכל לעמוד בסודו, ולו לבד נתכנו עלילות

G-d’s thoughts are deep and mysterious, who can grasp His secret. Only He comprehends His schemes.

You just got Judaism 101. The first answer Jews always give is: We don’t understand. We don’t get it. Why did Moses have to grow up in the bosom of Pharaoh? Answer: I don’t know. So the Lord desired.

But, of course, we never stop there. Ibn Eztra goes on to give two powerful speculations why G-d desired this pattern.

Keep the Distance

Answer #1:[4]

.ועוד דבר אחר, כי אלו היה גדל בין אחיו ויכירוהו מנעוריו, לא היו יראים ממנו, כי יחשבוהו כאחד מהם

The first answer is a somewhat satirical comment about Jewish culture, and it holds true to this very day. Had Moses grown up among Jews, he would have never garnered the respect and awe he needed in order to lead them to redemption and mold them into greatness.

Had Moses been raised in the Yeshiva and in the community, there would have always been the guys in the back of the synagogue who would come up to him after his speech, pat him on his back, and say “Hey Mosheleh, we miss the days when you plays football with us outside? When did you become so serious?”

And when he would come down from Sinai with the Divine Torah, there would always be an old grandmother, who would say to him: “I remember you as a baby in your crib. Oy very, you did not stop crying, but you were so cute. You endless sobs made your mother miserable, she wanted to kill you. Today, you’re such a big shot. But I must tell you, you are still so cute…”

And there would always be the wise guys from the “kiddush club” who would react to any serious sermon he gave: “Moses? Come take a drink.”

You know the anecdote: When President Dwight Eisenhower met with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the American president said: “It is very hard to be the president of 170 million people.” Ben-Gurion responded: “It’s harder to be the prime minister of 2 million prime ministers.”

When you grow up with people from childhood, it is hard for them to truly submit to your authority, even if you deserve it. “You can’t be a prophet in your own town,” is the ancient expression.[5] There is always someone who remembers how he used to change your diapers and will make sure to remind you of it.

So Providence has Moses growing up among non-Jews. No Jew ever saw him run around in the yard of shul playing baseball and eating potato chips; no one ever saw him getting a spanking or taking extra ice cream at the kiddush; no one ever babysat for him. The distance was necessary for Moses to become who he needed to become.

A Majestic Attitude

Answer #2:

Now, Ibn Ezra gives a second explanation:

אולי סבב ה' זה שיגדל משה בבית המלכות להיות נפשו על מדרגה העליונה בדרך הלימוד והרגילות, ולא תהיה שפלה ורגילה להיות בבית עבדים. הלא תראה, שהרג המצרי בעבור שהוא עשה חמס. והושיע בנות מדין מהרועים, בעבור שהיו עושים חמס להשקות צאנן מהמים שדלו

Perhaps G-d caused Moses to grow up in the home of royalty, so that his soul would be accustomed to a higher sense of learning and behavior, and he would not feel lowly and accustomed to a house of slavery. You see that he killed an Egyptian who did a criminal act [beating an innocent Hebrew to death], and he saved the Midyanite girls from the criminal shepherds who were irrigating their own flock from the water the girls have drawn.

The curse of the Egyptian exile consisted not only of the physical slave labor and the horrible oppression of the Hebrews. It also inculcated within the Hebrews an exile-like mentality. Many of them learned to see their misery as an inherent reality. When you are abused as a slave for so many years, you sometimes become accustomed to the darkness and cease to sense the extraordinary degradation of your situation.

Two Jewish men in Tsarist Russia were being led out to a firing squad: one, a humble tailor, the other a wild anarchist. As the Tsarist officer in charge of the firing squad tried to put a blindfold on the condemned anarchist, the young Jew fought back. He would face death unblinkingly, he said bravely. Alarmed, his fellow Jew interceded: "Please, don't make trouble!"

This is why the redeemer of Israel needed to grow up in the Egyptian palace, not among his own people. Had Moses grown up among the Hebrew slaves, he too would have suffered from a slave-paradigm, lacking the courage to fight injustice and devoid of the ability to mold an enslaved tribe into a great people with a vision of transforming the world. He would not find within himself the strength to dream of liberty and confront the greatest tyrant of the time with a message of liberty. Because he grew up in a royal ambiance, free of physical and psychological shackles, did Moses have a clear sense of the horrific injustice and feel the power to fight it. He was raised in an atmosphere of broadness, of endless possibilities. He felt like a prince, not a slave.

The Two Stories about Moses

Ibn Ezra proves this from the two stories the Torah shares about Moses before he was chosen to become a leader.

The opening story the Torah tells us of Moses as an active adult (besides his birth) is that went out to his brothers, saw an Egyptian beating a Jew. Moses killed the Egyptian and saved an innocent life.

Why was he the only one who stopped the Egyptian beating the Jew? Why did no one else kill the Egyptian? Because a slave often surrenders himself to his pitiful fate.

What is the subsequent story in the Torah about Moses? Due to his act of aggression, he is forced to escape to Midian. Once again he finds himself embroiled in yet another conflict. He witnesses the local shepherds bullying a group of girls who were first in line to draw water from a well. He immediately rises to their defense, driving off the offending shepherds.

Moses was a stranger who had just arrived in town. Who asked him to intervene? Who asked him to get involved? The answer is that someone who grew up in a house of royalty has the courage and the assertiveness to take charge and administer justice wherever it is called for. He had the mind set and the confidence not to allow bullies to bully innocent young woman.

Mototov the Follower

There was a time in the nineteen forties when Vyacheslav Molotov was Soviet foreign minister. He was a shrewd man and a hard bargainer but worked for Joseph Stalin, who was The Boss. He was once overheard talking to Stalin by trans-Atlantic telephone during the course of some very intricate negotiations with the West. He said, "Yes, Comrade Stalin," in quiet tones, then again, "Yes, Comrade Stalin, and then, after a considerable wait, "Certainly, Comrade Stalin. Suddenly he was galvanized into emotion. "No, Comrade Stalin," he barked, "No. That's, no. Definitely, no. A thousand times, no!"

After a while, he quieted and it was "Yes, Comrade Stalin," again. The reporter who overheard this was probably never so excited in his life. Clearly, Molotov was daring to oppose the dictator on at least one point, and it would surely be important to the West to know what that point might be.

The reporter approached Molotov and said as calmly as possible, Secretary Molotov, I could not help but hear you say at one point, "No, Comrade Stalin."

Molotov turned his cold eyes on the reporter and said, "What of it?"

"May I ask," said the reporter, cautiously, "What the subject under discussion was at that time?"

"You may," said Molotov. "Comrade Stalin asked me if there was anything which he had said with which I disagreed."

Are You a Slave?

This is true for each of our lives.

Many of us, after being subjected to dysfunctional conditions for a time, learn to somehow tolerate it and accept it as the innate condition of our lives. This can be worse than the condition itself, since it guarantees no way out.

We must cultivate in ourselves and in our loved ones the feeling of royalty. “The greatest tragedy,” said the Chassidic master Rabbi Aaron of Karlin, “is when the prince believes he is a peasant,” when you settle for less because you think you are destined to slavery. You don’t see yourself as a prince, as a child of G-d, and hence lack that feeling that you can rewrite your future and achieve your ultimate potential.

One Day of Sleep

You know the story of Senator David Rice Atchison.

When President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on the scheduled date of March 4, 1850 because it was a Sunday and the Christian Sabbath, he moved his inauguration to the next day.  This would leave the nation without a president for 24 hours, because Taylor’s predecessor, President James Polk, was leaving office as scheduled on Sunday at noon.

The rules of succession left Senator Atchison in line to be president for that one day.

Unfortunately, Senator Atchison, fond of food and drink, overdid things at the inauguration parties on Saturday night and into the wee hours of the next day, and left strict instructions not to be awakened at all on Sunday. By the time he woke up and emerged, it was Monday afternoon.

He had slept through his entire presidency. 

Is this not the story of some of our lives? We sleep through our presidency. We sleep through great possibilities, as we forget that each of our souls is infinite, a “fragment of the Divine.” Instead of living lives of greatness we settle for mediocrity. We forget that though not always great ourselves, we are connected to a greatness beyond ourselves. We are the sons and daughters of royalty, and we were given the gift to bring healing to G-d’s world.

We convince ourselves that we can’t be any kinder, or more compassionate, or less angry, or more understanding. We convince ourselves that our marriages are destined to fail and that the fighting in the house will endure. We think like slaves: what was yesterday will be tomorrow, and I am always a victim.

When you see yourself as a victim, you become a victim.

It is true for us as individuals and for Jews as a collective. The world is embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed with themselves; the world respects and admires Jews who respect themselves and their Judaism.

[1] This is how the Maharal states the question in Gevuros Hashem ch. 18

[2] Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1089 — 1164) was born in Toledo, Spain in 1089, and died on the 4th of Shevat (January 24) 1167, apparently in Calahorra. He was one of the most distinguished Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages.

[3] Ibn Ezra to Exodus 2:3

[4] Actually in the Ibn Ezra this is answer #2.

[5] Ahavas Olam By Rabi Shmuel Algazi; Abarbenel, in his commentary Zevach Pesach on the Haggadah Shel Pesach; Midrash Shmuel to Avos 3:11 (“Hamechalel es hakadashim”) in the name of “Chazal”; Commentary of Rabbi Yosef Yavvatz to Avos ibis; Responsa, Chasam Sofer Coshen Mishpat section 22: “Chazal said that ein navei leero” (Fascinating: He brings this as source for an actual halacha, that we choose a rabbi who comes from a different city.) He also states this in his Responsa, ibid. section 196. We did not as of yet find an ancient source in “Chazal” for this statement. See here for a longer discussion and many more sources: http://forum.otzar.org/viewtopic.php?t=23144

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Class Summary:
President Obama was blasted by President Trump over suspicions that he is not a “home grown potato.” It is one of the greatest questions of the Jewish narrative. Why did Providence have it that our first and greatest leader should be raised among non-Jews, and even worse, in the home of one of the greatest anti-Semites in history? Why did G-d want Moses to be deprived of a Jewish upbringing?
The Ibn Ezra grants us two answers which cut to heart of what it means to be a visionary and a leader.