He Saw Their Burdens
After completing the Book of the Fathers, the Book of the beginnings (Bereishit), we now begin the second book of the Torah, the Book of Shmot (Exodus), the book of the sons. The Jewish nation is formed and tempered in the crucible of the Egyptian slavery. Parallel to the birth of the Nation, we are told of the birth of the leader, "Moses, Our Teacher." Let us get an insight into this monumental personality of all time. Let us look at Rashi on the following verse.
"And it came to pass in those days when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers and he saw their burdens and he saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew man, one of his brothers."
He saw their burdens - RASHI: He set his eyes and heart to share in their distress.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi adds a dimension to what the Torah says. The Torah says Moses saw their burdens; Rashi says he "shared in their distress," meaning he empathized with their distress.
This certainly is an admirable trait in Moses. The Midrash, as we will see later, is even more emphatic as to Moses' emotional commitment to his brothers.
But we should ask a question of Rashi.
A Question: How does Rashi know this? What in the verse leads him to this conclusion?
Hint: You must notice a subtlety in the Hebrew.
WHAT IS BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: The Hebrew phrase, "he saw their burdens," is "Vayar B'sivlotam." But the more correct Hebrew for this would be "Vayar et sivlotam" - where "their burdens" is the direct object of his seeing. But the Torah's words are "Vayar B'sivlotam" which is a subtle change that means, "he saw into their sufferings." Meaning, he identified with their sufferings.
How does Rashi's comment make use of this subtle nuance?
An Answer: Rashi's words "he set his eyes and heart to share etc." means he not only saw, visually, their plight; he also "saw" emotionally (his heart), he personally felt their suffering. He wasn't just an objective bystander; he was a subjective partner in their sufferings.
Rashi's source is the Midrash Rabbah. Let us look at the full quote from that Midrash and see what it teaches us about the man, Moses. The Midrash says:
"What does 'and he saw' mean? It means he saw their burdens and he cried and said: 'Woe unto you (People of Israel)! Would that I could die for you. For there is no harsher work than working with cement.' And Moses would bend his shoulder and help each and every one of them."
WHAT IS THE MIDRASH SAYING?
The Midrash graphically shows how emotionally distraught Moses was when he saw the suffering of his brothers. He cried! But not only was he distraught, he also personally involved himself in the dirty work, helping the individual Jew.
THE TRAIT OF A LEADER
Here we have a fine picture of the future leader. Highly sensitive to the pain of others, deeply empathic, benevolent and actively involved - these features characterized Moses. The Torah leaves no room for doubt as to why this man was chosen for this historic and awesome task. Before Moses is chosen by God, the Torah relates three incidents regarding Moses getting involved with the suffering of others: (1) The struggle between Jew and non-Jew (Egyptian) (Exodus 2:11), (2) the fight between Jew and Jew (Exodus 2:13), and (3) the quarrel between non-Jew (Yisro's daughters) and non-Jew (the Midianite shepherds) (Exodus 17). These depict Moses' unqualified, unlimited and non-discriminatory appreciation for the pain of others. It also shows his proactive involvement in redeeming them from their suffering.
The distinctive moral trait of a leader in Israel.